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New challenges to old ways

13-05-2013 Feature by ICRC

Why would anybody want to prevent you from helping them? The naively simple question expresses the perplexity felt by humanitarians, whose well-intentioned desire to assist and protect is often stymied by power politics, mistrust, misunderstanding and manipulation. They struggle to understand why the container of food parcels and bandages is perceived to be carrying heavy ideological baggage. This was the crucial issue under discussion at an event co-hosted with the Humantarian Policy Group at the Overseas Development Institute on 29 April 2013.

Stereotypically, the barrier to the aid convoy is the gunman with an AK-47 standing at a checkpoint. But impediments imposed by suspicious or hostile authorities are more likely to be bureaucratic, with visa formalities, import restrictions and residency criteria erecting often insurmountable obstacles for foreign organizations to overcome. On the other side, legal naivety, ignorance of the local culture, administrative bumbling and logistical failings from relief dispatchers exacerbate the problem, said participants in a debate in London on reaching those in need, sponsored by the ICRC and the Humanitarian Policy Group of the Overseas Development Institute.

Sara Pantuliano, head of the HPG, emphasized that there has been no golden age when humanitarian organizations were free to roam where they pleased, in response to perceived need. She questioned if the challenges facing humanitarian organizations in Afghanistan or Syria were more severe than those of the past, in Bosnia, Sudan or elsewhere.

However, the growth of the “aid industry” means many more organizations are now trying to negotiate their way into a hot spot, some of them prioritizing being present rather than being effective, under pressure from their donors or management.

 Wily governments can play the NGOs off against the international organizations, or the United Nations bodies, granting access to some on a limited basis and challenging the others to accept the same terms.

But where does the suspicion of humanitarian organizations come from? The traditional base for the larger organizations in Western countries leaves them vulnerable to charges of Western liberal bias, noted Marc DuBois, of Médecins Sans Frontières UK. NGOs are also more activist than before, using the media to shine a light on situations they deem unacceptable, and integrating a humanitarian protection agenda into their assistance work. “We (humanitarians) are asking to go inside countries whose governments will see us as an extension of the human rights community.” The era of enhanced suspicion of the West is also an era where a larger number of governments have developed the administrative capacity to control those on their turf. “You are no longer able to just show up and stick your projects where you like without telling the Ministry of Health,” noted DuBois.

Absorbing humanitarian activities into political and military missions is increasingly frequent, and inevitably leads to distrust of aid operations, said Brian Tisdall, head of policy at the ICRC. “Can you call yourself a humanitarian if you go into a country under the same chain of command as a military force that is conducting an offensive against a party to the conflict?” asked Tisdall.

In a globalized world, it is harder than in the past to ignore government orders and work without permission. Defying the rules might get you access in one place and in the short term. But it will be noted on the other side of the world by other governments who you are trying to convince you are trustworthy, noted DuBois. Even in Syria, where MSF is operating four medical facilities in opposition-held areas without official permission, the charity feels it has at least government forbearance for its activity, said DuBois.

Long-established organizations are likely to find themselves under competitive pressure from so-called non-traditional organizations, many from the Muslim world, who argue that cultural kinship and faith-based familiarity will get them to places denied to others. But panel members suggested the harsh realities of local politics in places like Somalia or Myanmar will prove daunting for them too.

Brian Tisdall of the ICRC reiterated that the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement has not found a better way over the 150 years it has been operating than to respond on the basis of neutrality and impartiality. “The common glue that defines humanitarian response is that you act in the name of humanity and you act in an impartial way.”

Photographs: © ICRC / A. Rumford