This is a transcript of the keynote address that was made on the basis of speaking notes, not a prepared text.
Thank you very much, it’s a pleasure to be here. I think it’s been an interesting day in which a number of issues have come up, but also a number of issues didn’t come up.
I’m going to start by saying something that may or may not go down well, but I was struck by how polite everybody is with everybody else and how, as Médecins du Monde said, there is “pruderie incroyable” (incredible carefulness) about raising some of the real issues. It is as if we are saying that the state of humanitarian action is good and all the players are above average.
Let me start with something that was not mentioned today. It is a law that was passed in the Afghan parliament a couple of days ago. The law says that all war lords – past, present, and future – will be covered by a blanket amnesty for what they may have done (and this includes Mullah Omar, by the way, it’s interesting how they wanted to be consensual in their approach to amnesty).
So you will say, “What does this have to do with coherence?” Well, I think that this is a major failure of the international community’s coherence agenda. If, after five years of peace building in Afghanistan, that is the result, then it means that we have all collectively failed in putting the issue of peace and justice on the agenda. But I would go further and say that perhaps one should look at the way in which the international community shaped itself to respond to the post-9/11 crisis in Afghanistan. The way it shaped itself, of course, was to establish a strong integrated mission in which the voices of those who wanted the issue of justice to be put high on the agenda – this is essentially the UN human rights, humanitarian folk and some of the NGOs – basically, these voices were stifled, because we were told at the time, “You can’t do anything that might rock the boat.” So now, by not rocking the boat then, we have a result where warlords are being rewarded and the processes of accountability and impunity in Afghanistan seem more remote than ever.
I think that one should look at the big picture issues, as well as the medium and small picture issues, and one of these big picture issues is the extent to which humanitarian action, because of the attempts, sometimes successful, to incorporate it in political designs, leads to outcomes that are not particularly useful, positive or that we would feel comfortable with.
I’m not naive and I’m perfectly well aware that humanitarian action always takes place in a very political context and that sometimes humanitarian action is political itself. I was very intrigued by something that Søren (Jessen-Petersen) said this morning; he said that the establishment of the DHA, the creation of the DHA, was the result of a move by the G7, not yet the G8, because they were worried about the conflict management ability of the international community after the crisis in Iraq in 1991. If that is true, then I think we have to look at the functions that humanitarian action performs in the context that the G7 looks at, which is the context of globalisation, the context of managing the borderlands, the context of securitising what is happening in areas in crisis, and perhaps, where humanitarian action functions as a tool that prevents crisis from spiralling out of control.
I think we have to understand better the hidden functions that sometimes humanitarian action performs in a globalised world. Mark Duffield has written a fascinating paper about how the globalised system uses savages to fight barbarians. He sees humanitarian action in this process, where the good savages are the people who are not yet incorporated in the globalised economy and the barbarians are the people like al-Qaeda and a few others who are actually fighting against Empire. So, basically, he puts humanitarian action in this context which is one of the struggle not for hearts and minds, but the struggle for markets and the struggle for the expansion of markets and control in areas that might spin out of control. So that is why the interface between humanitarian action in crisis and the globalised world is always a political interface.
In my paper there is a comment about the links between the humanitarian enterprise and governance. I point out that there are more and more intrinsic links, revolving door links, between senior people in government, senior people in private enterprise, and the humanitarian enterprise. So, it is not as if humanitarian action is something that is separate, that is neutral, impartial, and independent. It is something that is imbedded in the way in which global governance functions.
These are couple of the issues that did not come up in the debate today. One issue that did not come up very specifically is the differences in the levels, in the nature of the instrumentalisation of humanitarian action, depending on the nature of the crisis. If you look at our report, the Humanitarian Agenda 2015, we make the point there on the basis of the case studies that we did, that there seems to be a two-tier level of approach on this issue. On the one hand, in the lower level crises, humanitarian players are allowed to operate more or less according to the way in which they operated in the past. But in the crises that are part of the global war on terror (and that’s Afghanistan and Iraq of course, but also surprisingly Colombia – Colombia now sees itself as a key player in the global war on terror and uses this discourse to crack down on independent human rights and humanitarian groups, to negate any kind of access from the foreign NGOs to speak to the FARC), these contexts where the global war on terror is the defining factor are very different from places like the Central African Republic, where there is a serious crisis but it’s not manipulated (or there’s no attempt to manipulate it, or maybe I don’t see the attempts but they are there) in the same way.
Another issue that didn’t come up, or just came up marginally when someone mentioned competition for resources, is that the political economy of the humanitarian enterprise is one where, although we present the façade of unity sometimes, there are actually huge tensions inside, both between agencies, and between agencies and their donors, because of the scramble for resources that is the way to survival. There is a fascinating article by two American researchers, Ron and Cooley, called The NGO Scramble, where they look at the evolution of the NGO community over the past 20 years and conclude that NGOs have to act more and more like a government and act like a business. They act like a government because they replace government functions and social service functions in many situations, but they also have to act like a business because professionalisation, homogenisation, and institutionalisation is the way in which they have access to resources.
That is an issue that is relevant in terms of how NGOs can vie for resources that the UN controls and there was some discussion on CERF and the fact that NGOs don’t have access to CERF. One question in my mind is whether the current reform process in the UN is going to make it more difficult for NGOs to have more independent access to resources or is it going to facilitate this process.
On the issue of coherence, I should make a public confession that I was once a strong believer in coherence. I worked in Afghanistan at the time when we were advancing the so-called “strategic framework,” which was an attempt to give the humanitarian and human rights voice equal billing to the political voice in the management of crisis response. As I mentioned, it didn’t work particularly well after 9/11, so now I’m much more cautious. In our case studies we document some of the “pluses” and many more of the “minuses” of integrated missions, and I think that there is a need to continue to have research and hard evidence to document what is really happening, but because in the recent humanitarian history politics always tends to trump humanitarianism, I’m skeptical that the humanitarian players will actually be able to articulate a strong position within integrated missions. The risk there is that you are going to split the UN from the NGO community, because the UN has to abide by the orthodoxy of integrated missions, whereas NGOs at least have some more flexibility.
The point here is that the UN is a political organization and OCHA is part of a political organisation. It tries to articulate a humanitarian discourse, but it is still a discourse that is heavily influenced by what happens in the Security Council. You can ask the theoretical question that if the Security Council works on the basis of political compromises, whereas human rights and humanitarian action functions on the basis of absolutes, (which are derived from international humanitarian law, the Universal Declaration of human rights, etc.), do these two universes, do these two cultures fit together – the culture of the Security Council and the political affairs people in the UN, on the one hand, and the culture of the people that have broader, higher level values that guide their work, on the other?
That said, I think it’s important to say, and it was recognised today, that contexts are crucial and that generalising, as I’ve been doing up to now, is a not a particularly good recipe for effective humanitarian action. The coherence, the coordination and partnership issues, are very different depending on the nature of the crisis and they are also very different in terms of the time-line in which you are in the crisis.
In an open war situation I think it makes sense to separate, as much as possible, the humanitarian coordination functions, the humanitarian action functions, from the political functions, because clearly the temptation for one to use the other is very strong. In real post conflict situations, not like we did in Afghanistan when we assumed in November 2001 that the war was over, but where there is a clear understanding that there is an accord among the belligerents and that everybody more or less is on the same sheet, then I think it makes more sense for coherence to be implemented through structures including integrated missions. But I would argue that in hot-war situations, like in Iraq and Afghanistan today, you have to maintain maximum insulation and independence. How are you going to insulate humanitarian actors in Iraq today when the UN on the ground is bound by a resolution of the Security Council that basically says that the multi-national force will provide security for the UN?
I will just make one more point, it’s my point about “the virus.” If we look at the architecture of the humanitarian enterprise today and we imagine that suddenly there is a virus, a pandemic that kills us all, and that in two or three years from now the powers that be have to decide how to set up a new humanitarian enterprise: Would it look like very much like what we have today or would it be something very different? I don’t know. The French have this wonderful expression “pesanteurs sociologiques” (sociological weights): there are big pesanteurs sociologiques that make radical change in the system difficult. We can tinker around, we can improve the CERF, we can have a better functioning IASC, but the shape of the system is not, something that we could see as changing in the foreseeable future,. However, if you look at it from a blank sheet perspective, maybe there are some changes that you would want to make.
I’ll just mention one. On the issue of accreditation, certification, and professionalism, I think we have a major issue there. On the one hand, part of me says, “You don’t want plumbers to perform as brain surgeons,” you need some professionalism and some predictability in who does what in responding to crises. On the other hand, you don’t want to stifle the diversity. If you compare the level of agency that a mid-level humanitarian worker has now working in a sub-office in Sudan to what he or she had 15 or 20 years ago – when you had a telex that normally didn’t work, satellite phones hadn’t been invented yet, e-mail hadn’t even been thought about – you were on your own, you had much more independence of action, and you had to improvise and do your best, sometimes for better or for worse. Now, my impression is that when you are in a field office in the Sudan you get 25 emails from headquarters that are checking on your every move.
That is a major argument in favour of flexibility and less institutionalisation. But on the other hand, and here is the dilemma, I think that in certain hot-war situations like Iraq and Afghanistan, and a few others, probably Darfur, it is very important for humanitarian actors to be seen as humanitarian and to have a distinct profile; maybe different coloured vehicles – pink someone said they should be, rather than white or blue. Pink vehicles would represent independent humanitarian actors who are not multi-mandate folk, who are just doing ambulance-type saving lives activities. Of course the other coloured people and vehicles have an important role to play as crises continue and evolve, but there are some situations where saving lives, protecting lives, is a function that has to be reserved for a niche of agencies that can work according to a set of verifiable, and maybe certifiable, principles.
My last point is that many people have mentioned the issue of top-down versus bottom-up, and I think there is a huge problem of cultural sensitivity that needs to be addressed – we are still operating in a dominant, top-down humanitarian enterprise that it not attentive enough and doesn’t listen enough to what is coming from the bottom-up.
Thank you very much.
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