Humanitarian futures (part 2) - "the crisis of humanitarianism"

The global humanitarian enterprise could lose touch with the needs of its beneficiaries because of political and security priorities, especially the “war on terror”, according to a new report.

[Read the first part of this two-part series]

This can be seen directly in the effect of the “war on terror” on humanitarian responses in Afghanistan and Iraq and in a spill over effect in Africa, according to Humanitarian Agenda 2015 (HA2015), produced by an interdisciplinary team from the Feinstein International Center (FIC) of Tufts University in the USA.

“The findings highlight a crisis of humanitarianism in the post 9/11 world,” it said. “International action aimed at assisting and protecting the most vulnerable is, for the most part, inextricably linked to a northern security and political agenda. . . The so-called global war on terror distorts humanitarian principles and undercuts humanitarian effectiveness.”

This distortion, the report argues, further exacerbates a top-down approach in which aid agencies pay more attention to the agendas of so-called “northern” donors than the needs of beneficiary communities in the south.

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“There seems to be lots of talk about accountability for beneficiaries and listening to the voice of communities,” the report’s main author, Antonio Donini, told IRIN in a telephone interview from Geneva. “But there’s still a major disconnect between what is provided and what the local peoples’ aspirations are. The northern agencies need to listen more and preach less.”

The findings are based on 12 case studies from Afghanistan, Burundi, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Iraq, Liberia, Nepal, northern Uganda, the occupied Palestinian territory, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Sudan, and the team consulted donor governments such as Norway, UN agencies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

A connection between operations against terrorism in Afghanistan and assistance to Africa might seem tenuous, but the report says that while the war on terror is tangential to the humanitarian crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), aid levels there are arguably affected. “If (al-Qaeda leader Osama) bin Laden was situated in eastern DRC, it would receive a lot more resources,” it quotes one NGO as saying.

“We haven’t been innovative enough”

Donini said that when humanitarian work in Afghanistan that had been separate from the political component was merged together under an integrated UN mission, the Taliban started attacking aid workers, while organisations that were perceived as more independent were less targeted. The report drew similar linkages in Iraq.

“We haven’t been innovative enough, we haven’t been creative enough in looking for ways of working more independently in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. I’m not saying it’s easy,” he said. “One of the possible solutions is to try to engage with communities and present yourselves as more neutral and impartial than the way we’re presenting ourselves now.”


Photo: IRCS
Iraqi Red Cresent Society staff hand out supplies to displaced families in Babil Province. Some specialists say the war on terror is distorting humanitarian principles

One group which has done just that is the US-based non-profit Central Asian Institute which is working independently in building schools in Afghan communities, with local villagers providing land and labour and hence having a personal stake. So far these schools have not been targeted by the Taliban or others, including when an anti-American mob rampaged through the village of Baharak recently.

Paul O'Brien, director of the Aid Effectiveness Team of the NGO Oxfam America, which has been working with the FIC team, agreed with the findings. He himself spent five years in Afghanistan. “The voice of beneficiaries in humanitarian response is under threat. It’s always been under threat. That’s more so now in a post 9/11 world,” he told IRIN.

Humanitarian aid versus global security agendas

“It’s partly because humanitarian action and development are increasingly seen as essential instruments of global security agendas. When you’re trying to use humanitarian or development tools to achieve different goals from simply meeting needs on the ground, you don’t need to listen to what those needs are as effectively, because you’re driven by an entirely different set of purposes,” said O'Brien.


Photo: Manoocher Deghati/IRIN
A man deeps bread in tea for lunch in a coffee shop in the old city of Kabul. Specialists say the voices of beneficiaries are not being heard


He gave as an example the ironic case of provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs), international military forces taking on development and humanitarian activities around Afghanistan, although NGOs were telling them that what the Afghans on the ground wanted from them was not "development" but protection against warlords and drug gangs.

“The war on terror has complicated our work, there’s no question,” Michael Rewald, vice-president for Global Support and Partnership of CARE USA, a leading NGO, told IRIN. “We see it as a very dangerous precedent when the military seems to be becoming very much more involved in humanitarian response, and that makes our job a lot harder; people are pushed together and that puts our staff in danger.”

He noted, however, that military forces did a good job after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, but that was very short term, and they clearly came in as a military. “The more protracted situations such as Afghanistan - that’s where the blurring of the lines may come,” he said.

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