The Evolving Humanitarianism
By Geoff Loane
Photo by CW02 Ed Bailey
In the short span of a generation, we have witnessed and been part of a dynamic change in the way we understand and respond to humanitarian needs. Humanitarian work has ascended from an effort to appease suffering to a global value, touted by all the international and national bodies as a bulwark of their foreign or interventionist policy. As such, humanitarianism intersects the critical international political, social and military agendas. The capacity and willingness of the world to intervene rapidly and effectively to protect and save lives bear little resemblance to the desperate efforts of yesteryears’ aid workers, as recently as the eighties, who were often white, well-intentioned and somewhat naïve as they attempted the impossible.
Twenty-four years ago last October, Save the Children Fund (UK) called on BBC reporter Michael Burke and the late Mohommad Amin to document the tragedy unfolding in Northern Ethiopia, where hundreds of thousands of people were facing starvation and died over a period spanning several years. Their television report, broadcast into the living rooms of the Western world, focused outside attention on humanitarian work at an unprecedented level. From that point, Bob Geldof, Bono and many others mobilized citizens outraged by needless deaths. In those early days, the fact that the starvation was generated in large part by civil conflict was poorly understood. Eight years later, starvation of similar depth was exposed when Jane Perlez of the New York Times, traveled to Baidoa, Somalia, to recount the tragedy of that country and the unnecessary deaths that followed. Then, in the early twenty-first century, images from Darfur compelled millions of concerned people to support a massive response to that crisis. Arguably, the humanitarian response to each of these crises has been increasingly more effective. The numbers of emergency-related deaths, while still unacceptably high, have decreased in the last two decades. We can appreciate that whilst achievement and some satisfaction are warranted, complacency is not. The level of humanitarian suffering is such that much work remains. The following paragraphs are based on the assumption that for us to respond to the needs today, we must closely examine the lessons learnt and the lessons still to be learned.
Reflections and Lessons Learned
Primarily, we have a better understanding of the collaborative nature of humanitarian work. Concern for the other begins at home with our neighbours, as community members themselves are by far the largest deliverers of humanitarian assistance; whether a house fire in Minneapolis or people fleeing their homes in Darfur, the first responder will be the person next door. This is now more widely recognized. Increasingly larger amounts of aid are provided to communities to assist their efforts in caring for their own. The response to Hurricane Katrina owes a great deal to the overwhelming response of people who traveled to the New Orleans region and became involved, providing hands-on support. One need only pause and reflect on the role of Albanian communities, under severe stress in hosting over a million Kosovars who fled across the border in the aftermath of NATO bombardment in 1999, to recognize the spontaneous opening of homes and hearths, no matter what the circumstances.
Secondly, in conflict-related emergencies, political and military actors consider the value of humanitarian interventions as an instrument, not only of life protection, but also of soft power. Political leaders and their armies need to be responsive to the needs of their civilian constituency, who, since time immemorial has leveraged important influence over its leadership. The care and protection of civilians remain a primary duty and function of all leaders, at local and international levels. The delivery of life-saving services is today considered a minimum standard that all communities globally deserve, and the solidarity it represents has become an important demonstration of our values. In as much as global expectations have risen as a result and demand a robust humanitarian response, care is needed to continue reinforcing the unambiguous message that humanitarian assistance is unconditional, no matter the political/military patronage associated with it.
The third and perhaps the most inspiring dimension to the delivery of humanitarian assistance relates to the ever-widening sense of ownership by stakeholders. Everyone has the right to be involved in humanitarian response, irrespective of where it takes place: the individual donor, our neighbors, colleagues and friends. Their ability to identify and give to a philanthropic agency, a country, or a program has been widely enhanced in recent years through the proliferation of agencies and access to information. Try Googling humanitarian assistance, or consider how, in the European Community, commitment to humanitarian values is reflected through the priority of humanitarian issues on the foreign policy agenda.
This ownership at state levels reaches beyond the political dimension. The role of the military has grown exponentially in supporting humanitarian operations. To be sure, this is not the traditional function of the military, but it brings a capacity and capability that aid agencies cannot begin to imagine. Outside armed conflict, this involvement poses fewer risks in exchange for enormous benefits. Their quick in and quick out response reaches tens of thou-sands of people rapidly when their needs are greatest. Additionally, the armed forces possess a range of technical skills in fields such as engineering and logistics that are critical in any humanitarian emergency. To be sure, the deployment of military forces will rightly generate questions linked with potential political interests of the state. Central to military engagement, as for any foreign intervention, are requirements of transparency, of respecting one’s host, and of basing a presence on the invitation of the concerned community within clearly defined parameters. One lesson learned in this area is that in the event of war, the mobilization of military resources will inevitably generate some conflicts of interest concerning the humanitarian identity of those providing assistance, be they military or civilian.
A further area has been the growth and diversity of the non-governmental humanitarian community. The rapid expansion of this group, both nationally and internationally, strengthens our efforts to achieve access and provide support. One of the qualities of this community is the fact that they not only live in and with communities who are suffering, but also ensure a voice for those communities in world capitals and where political decisions are made. Local and international Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) each have a specific mandate, and all aim to mobilize their constituencies to recognize and to respond actively in favor of those in need. The role of NGOs as conveners of resources and energy facilitates understanding of what being affected by disaster means, and provides an avenue for all of us to become involved. NGOs, primarily based on the work of volunteers, work within a mile of most of us every day.
Finally, let us discuss the power of information. Led by the print and television media and backed up by the growing power of the web, all of us have up-to-date information on all the world’s disasters at any given moment. Not only that, but we have come to expect continuous and accurately relayed information on precise details of casualties and the humanitarian response. Today, only minutes, not months, pass before famine and displacement are broadcast on our TV screens and analyzed in print media. Our tolerance for slow response has disappeared, and we expect the delivery of aid to happen within hours. Information technology and globalization have helped to hold us accountable to wider communities for identifying and responding to unfolding emergencies. The quality of that response, as we saw through the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, is closely scrutinized, which we hope will help support improved performance.
The Tough Questions
The lessons we have applied have resulted in more effective humanitarian responses, but priority areas of concern must still be addressed. This final section will examine some of those and pose critical questions. Above all, we need to consider how to absorb diverse actors working together. We are all fond and capable of working in our own environments, but how good are we at actually collaborating, listening to each other, and finding ways to learn from each other? I suspect that the humanitarian community, local populations, the military, and the media, to name but a few, all make remarkable assumptions about the other actors. Our humanitarian response and those we serve will be strengthened as a result of learning and accepting each other’s strengths and weaknesses. This requires prioritizing a dialogue with each other; a dialogue based on equal participation that assumes valuable lessons can be learned from everyone at the table, including recipients of our aid.
Following from this, should we not strive towards the acceptance of good practice standards in our industry? The SPHERE project has done a magnificent job in outlining some of those standards and the Red Cross Code of Conduct outlines the broad principles. What can we do to ensure that those who receive our support know what those standards are and what they can expect from us? Their needs remain the overall priority, and we owe them transparency as to what they can expect from our necessarily intrusive engagement. Linked with this is a clarification of the roles and responsibilities of those who adopt the role of the humanitarian. Has the term been opened up to encompass all who choose to use it? Do we have a differentiated definition of who can be a humanitarian and when? What about when we change roles from humanitarian to politician, or humanitarian to war fighter? Don’t we owe it to ourselves to probe the inconsistencies in the use of the term, if nothing else but for the sake of clarity? The word itself is a powerful and potentially dangerous tool, and needs to be used responsibly.
Challenges of Integration, Communication, and Values
Let us extend that line of thinking and examine several of the challenges that present themselves. A central issue in today’s emergencies is a consideration of an integrated approach, which combines political, military, social and economic activities. Undoubtedly, such approaches have, at face value, a much stronger chance of being effective as all interventions can be linked and reinforce each other. The challenge is essentially how to address situations where vulnerable groups are perceived to be identified with or supporting unfavoured political elements, and therefore, undeserving of an integrated aid response. Such is frequently the case, and humanitarian organizations will necessarily argue that civilians in need always deserve priority and unconditional support regardless of their political leadership. Not so, say others who fear that such interventions prop up or legitimize errant systems and thus reinforce conflicts. The debate will continue, but we need to ensure that regardless of the need for integration, vulnerable civilian populations and others are supported in the reception of aid. While this may be more challenging for humanitarian systems built within integrated systems, other groups that are independent in nature, such as the Red Cross and local NGOs, perform that function. Their access to communities in dire straits and under very difficult military and political regimes is legendary and deserving of support.
This requires, as a corollary, an acceptance of the shared space where we all operate. Humanitarian space, in the interests of those in need of humanitarian assistance, must be as open as possible. Whilst respecting respective roles, we need to reinforce and strengthen differing capacities. This means an acceptance of the roles of others, an understanding of the quality of those roles, and a definition of who does what. Clearly, each of the stakeholders has strengths and skills which, when mobilized, will benefit particularly affected communities. We need to plan for working together, yet separately, in order to achieve this. Based on needs, there will unfortunately always be more than enough room for all of us.
This leads to a further, evidently poorly managed process – that of communication. Agencies, governments, local people, and myriad others worry about the challenges generated by coordination in emergencies. There are those who cannot accept to be coordinated because of their requirement to act independently. There are those who feel the need to lead or who, by virtue of size and resources, simply lead by doing. There are those who invest heavily in both the process and substance of coordination, and there are as many opinions about coordination as there are actors. Everyone sees his or her own need in this process, and field staff inevitably recoil at the endless rounds of information sessions this involves. In the end, human beings demand direct contact amongst peers as a means of working together and because of that, no amount of technical tools or skills will compensate for face-to-face contact.
Let us now look at the aspects of objectives and values. Non-humanitarian actors such as states, who are nonetheless stakeholders in the delivery of humanitarian assistance, need to recognize and de-conflict their competing objectives. We realize that states and non-state actors validly claim to have both political and humanitarian objectives, some of which are in conflict. State and non-state leaders are responsible for both the security of their civilians under their leadership, and their health and well-being. These obligations require a range of policies and strategies, and acceptance of this duality, whilst difficult, is essential in order to support the effectiveness of all aid efforts. Clarity in this regard depends on a variety of elements, including a respect for standards, ethics, codes of conduct, and acceptance of different humanitarian values.
Leading the effort to protect some of the world’s most vulnerable and inaccessible groups remains, amongst others, in the hands of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Its role is widely recognized as being based on the independence and neutrality of humanitarian action. The risk it would run in compromising its security is always too high a price in negotiating access to prisons, opposition-controlled areas or non-governed regions of the world, if it is perceived as anything other than purely humanitarian. Thankfully, most humanitarian action does not require the confidence levels that the ICRC is able to build up slowly over years with armed groups. In wider terms, humanitarian action is often reduced to questions of capacity, infrastructure and resources, and therefore much easier to address than when working in active conflict zones where arms carriers are widespread, and may be disorganized and dangerous. As we respect communities and their suffering, we also must not compromise independent humanitarian actors through biased and partial delivery of services. The humanitarian challenge is reaching distant communities whose armed leadership is less concerned about their welfare and more concerned about protecting its interests.
Relatedly, the obligation to care for and shelter populations rests with host governments and authorities in place, and our efforts need to include a strong focus on responsibilizing them. How often do we consider that our aid delivery is the solution, thus relieving the authorities of the burden to look after their constituencies? Careful consideration needs to be paid to identify under what conditions local authorities will assume responsibility for their people. We are reminded of the major conclusion of the multi-donor Rwanda evaluation, following the 1994 genocide, which stated that humanitarian action can never be a substitute for political action. Humanitarian responses are most strongly influenced by those political decisions. This is not primarily a plea for good governance at national and global levels. It is a call for consideration of how to best support public service administration in being more responsive to emergencies, whilst providing direct aid to those in need.
As we move ahead and develop mechanisms, tools and skills adapted to humanitarian need, we are mindful of the requirement to reflect openly and critically on not justour performance, but on missed opportunities and on lessons learned in addressing problems. Today our responses are stronger, and we are more effective as a community. This owes a great deal to the elevation of the general principle of humanitarianism as a value, one with which we can all associate. No limit can be placed on ownership of this principle. In translating this principle to action, we need to accept and recognize the enormous diversity of our humanitarian responses and the strengths they represent. Above all, we must foremost hold our respect for the dignity of those in need and the privilege it is to serve.
Geoff Loane is Head of the Regional Delegation for United States and Canada of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). In this capacity he oversees ICRC visits to the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and is responsible for working relationships with the Governments of the United States and Canada. He also interfaces with the national Red Cross societies and serves as ICRC’s representative to the public at large in both countries. Mr. Loane has also worked in the Balkans and the Middle East, and spent more than a decade in the Horn of Africa during the major conflicts there. These include Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, and Rwanda. He has served as the Head of the Emergency Unit at ICRC headquarters in Geneva.
Mr. Loane has published books on the unintended consequences of humanitarian assistance and has conducted extensive field research in assistance operations. He was a senior scholar for the Conflict Prevention Network in Berlin where he prepared a number of research papers for the European Commission. He has organized and managed an emergency roster of personnel on behalf of the Irish government.
Mr. Loane is a graduate of the University of Dublin, Trinity College.
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