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Politically incorrect language: Real Victims

The use of the term victim to describe the people aid agencies seek to assist has rather gone out of vogue. In the 90’s in was viewed as politically incorrect. It had connotations of helplessness and dependency. We started to talk about beneficiaries or even clients, and on occasion partners.
But I would like to make a plea for us to worry less about our own feelings of correctness and more about reality. Researching a little paper on the food aid crisis recently set me off thinking about how and why people end up in crisis, and to be honest the term victim is the right one to use.
In many of the brutal conflicts agencies work in; think Iraq, Afghanistan, Darfur, N. Uganda, citizens are either victimized or are the innocent victims caught in the middle, particularly women and children.
As climate change tips marginal environments and livelihoods towards destitution, those who sufferer are not those who caused global warming, they are the victims of someone else’s actions.
The food price hikes we have seen across the global south, and the shift to supermarket food-selling which excludes local producers from the market, are driven by forces outside of the immediate control of those slipping into malnutrition.
The global panic around failing banks and insurance companies this week, which will result in smaller aid budgets and less loans available for Southern states and business, will reduce employment opportunities in the South and remittances from the north; more victims.
Victims can still be partners, or clients and beneficiaries. They can also be agitators, reformers and leaders, but that does not detract from the reality that they have been victimized.

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Africans strike back.

Sometimes you come across an initiative in the humanitarian world which hits you like a breath of fresh air. The New Partnership for African Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies is just such an initiative.
Second class partners
For decades Africa’s Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies have been the work-horse of the humanitarian world. In Sudan, Ethiopia, Malawi, Mozambique and many many other countries they provide the bulk of volunteers on the ground in times of conflict and disaster, whether working with the ICRC, the Federation or as partners with UN agencies and International NGOs. But to be brutally honest, for years Northern agencies “we” have not totally trusted our African partners “them”. The funds flow from Northern government to International NGO or Northern Red Cross Society then thence down to the Africans. Using a military analogy, Northern agencies are the officers and Africans the troops; occasionally the non-commissioned officers. Yet time and time again Africa’s Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies ran and delivered large and effective aid operations, for refugees in Malawi in the 90s, for flooding in Mozambique, for famine victims in Ethiopia and Sudan.
NEPARC was born out of this frustration; the frustration of always being seen as the junior partner, the second class citizen, not quite in the tent.
The accepted wisdom of the donors and Northern based agencies was that African Societies did not have the management and accounting systems to enable them to mange funds, programming and reporting directly, yet Northern agencies has spent decades running and funding innumerable trainings for these ground troops.
Striking back
In 2003 a small group of Red Cross and Red Crescent leaders in Africa, lead by Abbas Gullet, the newly appointed Secretary General of the Kenyan Red Cross, decided to challenged the received wisdom. Fed up of being treated as untrustworthy partners they formed a self help grouping to devise internationally recognized standards to which they would be held accountable, by themselves. Working with the Fritz Institute , KPMG-Kenya and SGS the big Swiss based international inspection outfit, they devised a set of bench-marking audits which SGS would carry out independently on the Societies would receive an audit report and a grading for their accountability, transparency, financial competence and financial sustainability. Societies are given a time span in which to come up to spec and if they do not, they are expelled from NEPARC.
But African societies are meeting the standards, and now want to go further. Their next move it to develop and use standards and audits for program impact (not process, not output, but true impact). Again these will be administered both by outside organizations and in a peer review system. (There is a good write up of this process in Forced Migration Review
The point of this little homily is that NEPARC has achieved in 5 year what decades of top down funding and training never achieved. Africa’s Red Cross Societies are asserting their right to be treated with dignity and as professional, equal partners. Of course things won’t change overnight and some societies won’t make the graded, but then I wonder how many of the country operations of the big international NGOs would?
The final hurdle still remains though, and that is for the traditional donors into the humanitarian system, the OECD states’ aid ministries, to fund the African Societies directly rather than via Northern based Societies and NGOs.

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Short term life saving or long term change?

539w.jpg (Photo: UNICEF)
I was putting together a short note this week for a training session on humanitarian principles, and came across a couple of wonderful phrases on an ICRC website.
Referring to the principle of Humanity: Humanity is an “optimistic philosophy”: the refusal to despair of mankind. Humanitarian work is difficult. Its greatest enemies may well be neither weapons nor disaster, but selfishness, indifference and discouragement.
And then on Impartiality: Impartiality in its true sense requires that subjective distinctions be set aside as well. It demands that an effort be made to overcome all prejudices, to reject the influence of personal factors, whether conscious or unconscious, and to make decisions on the basis of facts alone, in order to act without bias towards or against anyone.
As I watched the tragedy of the flooding in the Irrawaddy data unfold and here the rhetoric on all sides for and against more robust action, it came home to me just how difficult, and how essential it is to understand and practice the core values of humanity and impartiality.
Of course we all abhor the Generals in Yangon and their regime. They are sucking their country dry of hope and wealth, personally enriching themselves as they and their army exist in a fantasy state of private accommodation, schools and shops, well above the law. You could almost imagine them, like Marie-Antoinette , suggesting the poor eat pasta if they cannot get rice, except of course, the Generals cannot claim ignorance of lack of complicity.
What is clear though is that the temptation to make political capital out of the crisis is not all on one side. Reading official Myanmar websites about the flooding is just tragic. They paint a picture of concerned leaders rolling up their sleeves and personally distributing relief with the benevolence of a medieval minor prince.
But there is political capital being made by others. Bernard Kouchner, Frances new(ish) foreign minister sounded good, and made France sound good, when he invoked the right to protection and suggested the time was right for some form of armed intervention to provide relief to the people of the delta. But as Gareth Evans., one of the architects of the Right to Protection doctrine has said. “The point about “the responsibility to protect” as it was originally conceived, and eventually embraced at the world summit … is that it is not about human security generally, or protecting people from the impact of natural disasters, or the ravages of HIV-Aids or anything of that kind. Rather [it] is about protecting vulnerable populations from “genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity”
In other words by invoking the R2P doctrine Kouchner devalues its usefulness in those extreme situations for which is was designed.
Likewise members of the European Parliament, in accusing the Burmese authorities of “a crime against humanity,” may be putting politics before people.
Their call to the U.N. Security Council to see if aid shipments to Myanmar “can be authorized even without the consent of the Burmese military junta” smacks more of seeking regime change than the neutral and impartial alleviation of suffering.
I am not arguing that regime change in Burma is not needed, it is. The Generals rule by force in a country that courageously voted them out of office and has since suffered the consequences of opposing such malevolent power. Whether the regime in changed now, or in six week or six months will make little difference to the future of Burma, but those six weeks have made a huge difference to the survival chances of tens of thousands of people in the delta.
We are back to that age old humanitarian dilemma, whether to seek the course most likely to alleviate suffering in the here and now, or to address root causes and seek political change in the hope of potentially alleviating a lot more suffering in the long run.
In the past few years, many states have faced the same choices over assistance to Darfur, balancing a more robust policy over aid delivery to Darfur against the cost of rocking the boat of the peace process in the south of Sudan.
This may be the stuff of foreign policy strategy, but it is so patently not the stuff of humanitarianism. We, the outsiders, simply do not have the moral right to trade off assistance now to save lives against possible longer term good.

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Surviving Earthquakes

Earthquake lessons
The Chinese newspaper Nanfang Zhoumo recently asked me to pen some thoughts one what other countries and cities had learned from their earthquake response efforts. Since most of us do not read Mandarin, I thought it would be useful to republish the piece here.
Earthquakes occupy a special foreboding place in the family of disasters that afflict man. They are cataclysmic, they make no differentiation between rich and poor, political elite or worker, old or young. They also demonstrate that, despite the way our different countries have developed, the cultures and the histories of nations, people, when caught in such crises, behave in utterly similar ways.
The grief on the face of a mother in Sichuan province today, is no different from that of the mother in Bam, Iran in 2003, or Izmit, Turkey in 1999, Kobe, Japan in 1995, San Francisco in 1989 or Spitak in Armenia in 1988. In all these earthquakes we saw the heroism on local people digging through the night to help rescue trapped loved ones, and the dedication to duty of local officials who, despite loosing their own families, stayed in place to direct relief efforts. When all said and done, we have more that unites us than separates us.
Also, in these past decades we have learned much about how best to respond to earthquakes and, as importantly, what not to do. Here are some of the key lessons from previous earthquake relief and rehabilitation operations.
Search and Rescue
People do not survive long trapped in collapsed buildings, particularly those built of concrete. The basic rule is that 95% of all those who will be rescued alive will be rescued in the first 48 hours. After that, loss of blood, toxins released by damaged tissue and dehydration will have killed most trapped people. This means that search and rescue teams need to be on the ground within hours of the quake striking. International search and rescue teams may be great gestures of solidarity and shared concern but they have little chance of getting to the disaster site in time to do any real good.
Hospital services
Earthquakes place a massive rapid load on the emergency facilities of hospitals. Beds blood, surgery teams. In countries where the hospital service are centrally organized, either through the state or, in the case of Japan, through the Red Cross, coordinating the flow of casualties from the quakes sites to the various medical facilities and keeping track of who went where, is handled far quicker and more effectively than in privatized systems where each hospital operates independently.
After every recent major televised earthquake, local volunteers have poured into the quake area to help. These numbers are always high if the quake takes place during one of the university and school vacation times when students are quick to volunteer. States that have ready structures for organizing this flow of sympathy fare better than those where volunteers are not organized.
Water and Sanitation
People die fastest from dehydration and through infectious disease spread in unsanitary conditions. Getting a clean water supply up and running has always got to be the priority. Most well fed people can go quite a few days without food and although earthquake damage infrastructure and storage facilities for the most part they do not damage food production. Once transportation routes can be reopened, food can be brought in. But water normally comes to people’s houses and apartments in pipes, now damaged beyond use, so alternative systems of tankers, mobile tanks and water stations need to be installed.
Earthquakes are truly terrifying events. In the immediate days after the quake people need reassurance and a constant flow of information. Often panic can set in around rumors. Rumors that an epidemic has broken out, or that another earthquake is predicted or that the local dams are going to burst and flood the town. Authorities need to be more open and more rapid in sharing information than they normally would, in order to reassure the population.
Cell phone networks have proved invaluable for this, particularly the use of text message broadcasting. Text messages take up very little band width and can get through with little signal strength and to hones which are running low on power.
There is no such thing as temporary shelter! Experience after every major earthquake shows that where temporary housing is provided, much of it is still there and used years after the earthquake. In Kobe, Japan, authorities put up temporary housing in areas around the city and moved out people who had lost their homes. Three years later, people were still living in some of them. Those left in temporary housing tend to be those that have the hardest time coping. In the case of Japan, this was people who suffered from mental illness, and elderly people who had no immediate family to look after them. So temporary housing in the form of tents and mass accommodation in public buildings works in the short term. This should be replaced by housing which is meant to be permanent, not by some interim measure.
The second lesson, from all earthquakes is that people want to move back to their homes. They do not want to be relocated and do not want to see outsiders come in and redevelop their villages and communities. In some countries, planning authorities see the destruction of the earthquake as a chance to “wipe the slate clean”, to assume they can bulldoze the debris aside and take the opportunity to redevelop. Everywhere this has happened, those who suffered most in the earthquake have lost out. Where the affected community is deeply involved in the rebuilding process and gets to rebuild what they believe is right, the solution tends to be more durable and economically more sustainable in the long run.
Preparedness and mitigation
In the aftermath of every earthquake that has hit a rapidly developing city or town, it is found that local buildings and developers have cut corners and not built to the correct earthquake building codes. This is especially true for public buildings. A key lesson is that short term savings in construction costs lead to long term consequences in terms of loss of life, livelihoods and economic prosperity. In all cases authorities have needed to revise the way they police and administer building codes, usually becoming much stricter and introducing much harsher penalties for code violations.
At the household and social level, preparedness is often about behavior patterns. What history shows us is that in communities where earthquake preparedness and mitigation is practiced, losses are much lower. History also shows us that in communities where minor earthquakes are common, preparedness and mitigation is taken seriously but in communities where earthquakes are a risk but uncommon, preparedness and mitigation are easily forgotten. As an example, Tokyo suffers regularly from small tremors and earthquakes. Most people in Tokyo have earthquake insurance. Most people have bolted their furniture to the walls and their TVs to the tables, most people regular partake in earthquake evacuation drills. In Kobe, before the 1995 earthquake, very few people practiced these measures. Both are earthquake prone areas, but Kobe had not had a major earthquake in a generation.
Crises usually bring out the best in people. There is great suffering, but it is shared and the burden thus lessened. There are opportunities to rebuild to better standards, opportunities to retro-fit old buildings, particularly public buildings, to withstand the next shock, and opportunities to put in place preparedness measures to guard against future quakes. Where the authorities are invested in ensuring the safety and future of the population, the mistakes of the past can be learned from and a hopeful future created. Cities and people can live with earthquakes and can guard against them, but it takes long term investment, in infrastructure, research and people.

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Suffering is a profitable business

Some years ago when I first read Samantha Power’s book on genocide A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide I remember being so shocked, not just by the descriptions of appalling cruelty, apathy and duplicity but by the realization that many of the countries listed were ones I, as a humanitarian worker, had served in or worked with, and often during those periods of genocide. The shock was that I had been part of that history and at the time (apart from Rwanda) had not thought of the various “humanitarian crises” as theaters of genocide. Genocide was there and I was not cognizant of it.
That same uncomfortable shock came over me again when I read Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. From Iraq to New Orleans to the tsunami hit coasts of Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Thailand, Klein shows how the fear and disruption that accompanies the suffering of crisis has been cynically exploited to push through the privatization of national assets and the corporate grab for real estate, profitable service provision and the extraction of wealth from already poor communities. Klein is not alone in uncovering this phenomena.
Gunewardana and Shuller do much the same in their edited volume Capitalizing on Catastrophe: Neoliberal Strategies in Disaster Reduction showing how crisis has been used to push through unwelcome policies and changes in Haiti, Guatemala and other countries.
According to Greg Berger and Ben Wisner, in a paper circulated on the internet this week, “victims of last year’s massive flooding in Chiapas are being offered loans and grants by the Mexican government to resume their farming activities, but with a catch. They need to agree to stop growing corn and beans (their traditional crops) and replace them with African oil palm (Elaeis guineensis, native to West Africa), an important emerging source of biodiesel.” As they put it in the paper’s title, this is disaster capitalism moving into the blackmail business.
Earlier this week the New York times reported how fear around the present global crisis of food and fuel prices is being used to in Japan, Korea, the USA and some European countries to relax legislation allowing for more genetically modified crops to be planted.
The opportunism to profit, both financially and in terms of power grabs, from disaster is not new. When San Francisco was devastated in 1906 by earthquake and fire, the city rebuilt quickly, relaxing building and sanitation codes and grabbing land previously occupied by minority communities, but now viewed as prime real estimate. By the time of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915 the city was totally rebuilt, but for the city fathers and business sector, not the Chinese immigrant population for instance, most of who’s dead and displaced were simply not counted in the published statistics.
So the question is, now that these issues are out in the open, that they are being publicize in the popular press and not just the fringe media, will aid agencies, who bear witness to these economic crimes alongside human rights crimes, have the courage and competence to expose this dark side of disaster reconstruction?

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The Right to Eat: What Drives the Food Crisis?

The present flurry of activity around steeply rising world food prices exemplifies in many ways a critical failing in the way we collectively perceive modern crises.
Discussions in London yesterday and previously within aid agencies and even the FAO have treated the present crisis like an old style disaster, that is an abortion, a deviation from the norm, something which can be compensated for so we can all move on. Compensation means emergency aid to feed those who now find food just too expensive. This is needed, but…..
Such an analysis is utterly failing to connect the dots. It is an analysis of symptoms not causes. Alex De Waal, one of the sharpest analysts of famine and crisis in Africa talks of disasters not as abnormalities but of accelerations of underlying normal trends. If processes are in motion in society which expand the gap between rich and poor, disasters will drive these processes harder. If people’s rights are systematically violated in “normal” times, they will be more violated in times of crisis. Disasters and crises are accelerations of exploitative an exclusionary trends.
If we look afresh at the present food crisis, we should be focusing on three things all of which are to do with what we accept as the norm.
First global changes and complexity. The combination of rapidly expanding global trading systems, plus increased global communication connectivity, global speculative trading in grain by a very few corporations and climate change have connived to create this crisis. One of the things we are learning about the risk environment we are now in is that it is complex, in the formal sense of the word. Complexity theory tells us that such systems have a number of common attributes. One is positive feedback loops such that small changes in a system can become accelerated in an exponential fashion, well described by that famous climate change hockey-stick curve. Secondly, complex systems through up unexpected changes and events, which, and this is the important bit, are almost unpredictable until they are upon you. So we could not have predicted that this crisis would hit us now, but now that it has happened, we need to take a good hard look at the complex system that has produced it and identify how to stop it happening again.
Second, as Raj Patel shows in his new book Stuffed and Starved, we have allowed a world food system to develop in which a large number of food producers are connected to a large number of food consumers by an almost infinitesimally small number of middle traders. In his analysis of six combined major European countries, for instance, he shows how over 3 million producers connect to 160 million consumers via just 110 corporate buying desks. Food has become a globalized commodity, driven by the profit appetite of corporations and commodity trading markets. We have allowed a system vital to the survival of everyone to become dependent upon an increasable few corporate middle man. None of the present discussion over the food crisis seems to question whether this rush to globalize and grow the food trading system is right and ethical. Perhaps our future food security lies less in a global approach and more in one that seeks to link local producers closer to local consumers though many nodes not just a few?
Finally, food’s fundamental place in our lives as a human right seems to have been totally forgotten. Imagine if we traded freedom of speech or the right to vote in the same fashion, letting market forces dictate? There is a real fundamental problem with assuming that market forces can be made to drive processes which should seek to treat all people as being of equal value (which is the essence of human rights). Naomi Klein may go a bit over the top in her disaster capitalism analysis in Shock Doctrine, but the essential point is correct. The logic of neoliberalism runs counter to that of basic rights and without strong state intervention to control the aggressive instinct of the market, by definition, the rich will get richer, the poor poorer and those who do not have buying power will go hungry.
Ironically, even the founding father of all things free-market, Adam Smith, saw this and cautioned against a totally unfettered market.

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Climate Change, Humanitarian Action and Complexity

There are two ways to view Climate Change one is via classic science which attempts to predict what climate change will do to weather patterns and from this river flows, sea level rise, ecologies and the like, and thence on to predict the effects on coastal urban areas, rain-fed agriculture etc. I.e. it is essentially a linear model.
Its strength lies in the power of evidence and logic, allowing us to say very certain things about specific changes. Its weaknesses are two fold.
First, rolling the model out at the geographical level most humanitarians work at, i.e. sub-country, requires an immense amount of calculation and, in many instances, the data needed to feed these calculations, has not yet been collected on the ground.
Second, in classical economics mode, the approach assumes “all other things being equal”, which of course, as we all know, they never are.
Thus, where we are asking the models to make predictions within the limits of their power and we ensure we do not over interpret them, and we understand their limitations, this approach is useful.
It tells us for instance that sea-level rise at a rate faster than we have previously witnessed in history, is a given. That this means greater susceptibility to urban coastal flooding, more frequent destructive storm surges and most sea water inundation of river deltas with consequent ecological changes and greater and more frequent river flood risk as flood waters back up inland of the higher sea levels.
It tells us that decreased and more seasonal rainfall will lead to less river flow and less ground water recharge in Africa, leading to a possible 75-250 million people across Africa facing water shortages by 2020
It predicts that increased rainfall and higher temperatures and atmospheric CO2 levels could allow for a 20% increase in crop yields in East and Southeast Asia,
And so on.
So, from this approach we can take away
1. Coastal flooding, particularly urban flooding is going to be more prevalent. We therefore need to promote more flood mitigation measures, changing in planning codes to move new development to higher ground and changes in taxation and insurance regimes to help families and businesses cope with the extra stress of more frequent flood losses.
2. In Africa, agro-pastoralist economies, all other things being equal, are going to be hard hit. Left unchecked, this will lead to more frequent seasons of food insecurity and thus to a greater propensity to tip into famine. If this happens over large contiguous areas, the present use of market mechanism to affect food availability, may cease to work and directly affecting food supply via food aid may once again become a prime response.
3. Outside of the narrow tropics, water stress, in terms of water available for human use, is going to increase particularly in urban areas, and quasi-urban environments like refugee camps. This in turn may drive more diarrheal and communicable diseases. In refugee and IDP camps, the present high water use for food gardens and animals will come under stress, directly affecting survival livelihoods.
There is a second way to view climate change which derives both from observation and theory: the observation that climate is not the only rapid global change going on, and the theory of complexity which says that complex systems and networks behave inherently differently from linear systems.
Complexity for climate change has a number of consequences. First, it recognizes that not only is the climate changing, with global and local consequences, but at the same time our global economy is rapidly changing, with global and local consequences. Our global communications ability, particularly through mobile phones, is also changing rapidly. Our investment in communal and social support structures, from health care to education and road networks, is rapidly decreasing in some countries and rapidly increasing in others, thus affecting the way we respond to crisis. High killing power small arms are becoming more globally available and affordable and feeding a more violent response to crisis.
Second, complexity allows us to look for interactions between these global change systems, some positive some less hopeful. Mobile phones are allowing grain traders in West Africa to better play the geographical and seasonal variation of grain production and market sales. The intelligent use of WTO regulations potentially always African countries with large cattle herds to increase the economic productively of pastoral systems. On the down side, climate change allows parasitic diseases to increase in range into new areas, which, when combined with cut backs in health services, turns an ecological phenomena into a health crisis.
Thirdly, complexity tells us that we cannot predict many of the changes that will happen. The spread of cell phone technology and the uses to which it is now being put, to move remittances, warn of attacks, smooth market fluctuations and create awareness of human rights violations, were totally unpredicted and unpredictable.
What we take away for this is:
1. It simply is not enough to try to predict what climate change will do, especially when trying to understand human systems. We need to look at globalization, communications, arms trade, social services and governance issues all at the same time. We are beginning to model this at local levels, particularly the connections between environmental stress and recourse to violence.
2. Some of this complexity can dampen down the more dire predictions of linear models. China’s growing economy made possible through globalization, will allow it to mitigate the worst effects of sea level rise on its coastal cities in a way we would not have predicted 20 years ago.
3. Positive feed back within complex systems will accentuate problems predicted in linear models. In Darfur and Northeast Uganda climate change is stressing the delicate agro-pastoral social and economic systems. Recourse to violence, fueled in part by easier access to small arms, is vastly accentuating the effects of these changes, causing pastoral economies to nose dive much more so that climate change alone would predict.
4. Complexity will produce unforeseen and unforeseeable changes. This suggests that social, political and economic systems need to adapt to be much more nimble, much more able to change mid course, much more able to reassess data, re plan and re work operations.

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Humanitarian Success!

All too often those in the humanitarian world see the cut half empty. Maybe it is as a result of working in a business that is about constant problem-solving, crises and distress. So last week, at the prompting of some of our students, I asked eight experienced long-time humanitarian workers what they saw as the successes of the past generation. Their answers are compiled below and they make hopeful reading. The legal framework of humanitarian work has improved, the assertion and recognition of people’s rights have improved. Humanitarian space is being negotiated more robustly and there is a greater understanding of the global and local context of emergency operations. The norms of the endeavor, standards, codes etc have become more effective. And finally there are many individual relief operations over the past generation which have made a significant difference to people’s lives.
So, here is the good news:
Improved aid structures
• The establishment in 1948 and the sustaining down to the present of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which provides urgently needed assistance and protection to Palestinians in the region.
• A global system – we have in the last 50 years gone global and do now provide a safety net anywhere in the world. For example, between 1919-1921 the Turkish genocide against the Armenians drove millions of people from their homes and to their deaths from starvation and disease. In 2003-2008, a similar pattern of violence in Darfur drove hundreds of thousands from their homes but not to their deaths because they were met by an international humanitarian safety net which kept them alive even if it did not stop the violence or end their displacement. In 1919, this safety net was simply not there nor internationally mandated.
• The ‘internationalisation’ of humanitarian aid workers: it is very striking to me that international humanitarian aid workers are now drawn from every continent and many different developing countries ie no longer the domain of the white expat – and that is real progress compared with only about 10 or 15 years ago

The promotion of people’s rights

• The agreement of the Additional Protocols of 1977 went a long way to updating the 1949 Geneva Conventions, making them relevant to civil conflicts, to civilian protection and to modern international warfare. Not perfect, too many haven’t signed up (the US…) and of course observance is patchy, but it was a hell of an achievement even to get states to agree the texts.
• Other international legal advances (1989 Convention on Rights of Child etc) also very significant
• Deng’s IDP Guiding Principles – though arguably contributed to over-fixation on IDPs, certainly put IDP rights on the map
• There is a growing sense of “right to relief” that was not present even 25 years ago. This is not a perfect right, but the expectation is now that those who confront an “emergency” can expect some sort of international response.
The creation of humanitarian space
• Humanitarian advocacy – a part of this system has been the development of powerful advocacy which has become almost routine now. Again, in earlier wars and disasters the dramatic SCF adverts after WW1 and the Holocaust film footage of Fredrich Born of ICRC and Karl Luntz (Swiss Consul) in Hungary were the exception not the norm.
• Sensitizing other sectors – as humanitarians we have also sensitized the military, the corporate sector and, of course, governments to the humanitarian agenda and changed their attitudes and sense of obligation to the cause.
• The negotiation and implementation of Operation Lifeline Sudan in 1989. UNICEF executive director James P. Grant persuaded the Sudan government and the Sudanese insurgents to allow the delivery of emergency assistance. Successful at its start, the arrangements ceased to be effective after about a year.
• Res 46/182 was a breakthrough. But OCHA has struggled to fulfil its role, not always through its own fault.

Better global and local contextual understanding

• There is growing attention to the “global dimensions” of problems (though not enough) – most evident in question of access to medicines and generics.
• The political analysis and policy thinking in the humanitarian aid sector in the last 10 to 15 years is impressive. We are much better politically informed at that level, linked into other important disciplines such as international relations, and we constantly challenge ourselves.
• Efforts early in the present decade, led by NGOs such as Partnership Africa Canada, to stem the flow of diamonds, proceeds from the sale of which had financed wars in West Africa, through international agreement on a licensing and monitoring process.
• The realization by people with dirty finger nails that they need to know more, much more, about the situation on the ground, the local scene, the pluses and minuses of various options (that is, if consequentialism is the dominant new SOP, and I think it is), then good intentions are clearly not enough. They never were, but now that realization is clearly stated.

Improved standards in the aid community

• The professionalisation of the sector – I know there are still loads of challenges here, but there has also been a lot of progress eg the number of humanitarian programmes, especially at university and Masters level; Sphere and the introduction of standards – I believe it has made a difference; I also believe that working in the humanitarian sector is now seen as more of a career option than ever before
• Agreement in the 1980s on a code promoting breast-feeding and governing the manufacture, advertising, and provision of infant formula to pregnant and lactating mothers.
• The Code of Conduct and Sphere were pretty good. Jury perhaps still out on extent to which they have led to significantly better outcomes (as with all the normative stuff), but has sharpened thinking about good practice and to some extent accountability
• Significant improvement in famine early warning systems (FEWS etc) and things like cyclone tracking. We still aren’t really acting on the former nearly well enough.
• There is growing “accountability,” and when done well it does mean that there is greater ability for those who are affected to have a voice. Not perfect. But better.
• A stream of emergency innovations – all these are good things which save lives today that did not exist 50 years ago:
ORS, Cold chains and EPI, Emergency reproductive health packs,
Emergency feeding (special foods, Oxfam biscuit, ration protocols etc), Emergency watsan, Emergency credit and grant-based microfinance, Gendered understandings of differentiated intervention in all of the above, Protection practice, still half-baked but emerging, Participation as a practice principle, Maybe, even the UN consolidated appeals….!
Specific operational successes
• The negotiation and conduct of emergency relief operations in Cambodia by the NGO Consortium for Cambodia at a time (1979 ff.) when, following the war in Vietnam, western governments sought to isolate the Phnom Penh authorities.
• Provision by the Reagan administration of food aid to Ethiopians starving under Mengistu regime during the famine of 1983-85. President Reagan reasoned that “A hungry child knows no politics.”
• Successful immunization by UNICEF during the period 1987-1990 of children in Lebanon during the country’s civil war. An education for peace program also connected Lebanese children with each other across the country’s many warring factions.
• The prompt and creative responses of local individual, civil society, and governmental groups to urgent humanitarian needs in Jordan in 1990-91 at the time of the exodus of Third Country nationals from Iraq following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1991. Local non-governmental groups, Red Cross societies, and the ICRC have also played a key role in Iraq following the 2003 U.S. invasion and subsequent occupation.
• Selected aspects of the local and international response to the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunamis of December 2004.
• Averting major humanitarian crises. WFP has prevented at least 2 major famines in Darfur since the conflict began, and their ability to get huge amounts of food into such a difficult area relatively fast is an unsung success story.

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Arms and the Man: The Role of the Military in Disaster and Humanitarian Response

I was at a conference last week in Washington looking, once again, at the role the (US) military sees for itself in disaster and humanitarian response.
It bought home to me just how muddled our thinking can be on this issue, because it is of course not an issue, but many issues.

Neutrality of a warring party?

When looking at humanitarian crises, there is the doctrinal issue of whether, and in what way, a humanitarian agency can associate with the military of a party to the conflict (or who are perceived as being party to the conflict) and retain any semblance of neutrality and general trust between the agency and the disparate populations it seeks to assist. An interesting sub-set of this occurred in Iraq in the months after the US invasion when the US was to all intents and purpose, an occupying power, which gave them certain obligations under the Geneva conventions, namely to look to the welfare of the occupied population.
The bottom line though is that close association with any military force in a conflict or post conflict environment jeopardizes an agency’s neutrality and close association with only one side’s force in the war, totally discredits the agency.
Patriotism, liberty and humanity
Then there is the debate, here in the States, between US based aid agencies and the military of their country on how they should associate overseas. The US NGO coalition, InterAciton has produced some useful guidelines on this. What strikes me though, as a non American, is how different this debate feels here from what it would in Europe or Africa. Despite all its flaws America is a nation driven by an ideology of personal freedom and betterment and by the notion that this ideology should be spread and available to all. Most Americans would subscribe to this basic political cause. Patriotism here also has its own flavor. In many European countries, patriotism is regarded with suspicion and confined to the flag waving far right. Here in the US it is central to building a nation out of other nation’s people. And then there is the relationship with the Military. In the US the military is far more omnipresent than in most liberal states. It is a part of being American, of being patriotic. It is a projection (as it should be) of American foreign policy, and as we have seen, that policy, as well as being pragmatic (protect the routes, markets and sources of a trading economy), is ideologically ingrained into the American psychic. So, for American agencies, staffed by patriotic Americans, to separate themselves from and even oppose an a-prori association with their military overseas is a far more gut wrenching decision than for aid agencies from other countries. It essentially requires agency staff to be schizophrenic freedom loving patriotic Americans in private and a neutral impartial humanitarians in public. Thus for US agencies to distance themselves from their country’s foreign projection is a far harder and more courageous step than it would be for French, British or Swedish agencies.
Hearts and Minds
Of course in all the above the implicit assumption is that the military is playing a supportive role, but increasingly it is the other way round. In Afghanistan and Iraq, through the PRTs and the US “Commander’s Emergency Response Program (CERP)”, the military is playing a leading role. According to OECD, between 2002 and 2005 USAID’s share of US overseas development assistance, which includes humanitarian aid, decreased from 50% to 39%, and the Department of Defenses’ increased from 6 to 22%. In this scenario the military are in the driving seat and humanitarian aid becomes just one more weapon in the arsenal. Hardy a good description of a neutral impartial action.
Lifting power
Fourthly we have the role of international military in natural disasters, a role where the military’s undoubted expertise in logistics and serious lifting power can make a real difference, as it did after the tsunami in Aceh. Of course there are issues of cost, secondary effects, mission creep and the like but, when applied under the Oslo Guidelines established by the UN, there is a here a legitimate and useful role of international military forces in disaster relief (note this is not the same as humanitarian).
Defending the homeland
Finally, and so often ignored, is the very real and growing role for military forces at home in disaster response. All the science tells us that global warning and climate change will bring more extreme hydro-meteorological events which will need to more disasters. If a military’s job is to defend the nation then this defense may become increasingly against natural, internal enemies; floods, land slides and the like. Already the Indian and Chinese armies as we have witnessed this week, play and big role in this. In the US, the military plays a major role in flood evacuation and the Army Corps of Engineers is primarily responsible to most of the US major flood protection infrastructure.
So, when you next attend a meeting on the role of the military in disaster response, unpack it and differentiate. That way we can make some headway, based on evidence and policy, rather than anecdote and ideology.

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Spin and reality in Iraq

This week we have been forcefully reminded how easy it is to forget reality and believe the spin. On Thursday IMF made optimistic noises about Iraq’s economy, pointing to rises in oil export figures and a 7% growth in the economy. US President Bush was in the region promoting the very real decrease in violence associated with the surge but suggesting that it was a sign of hope for the future.
The picture though from those NGOs and UN agencies who work inside Iraq is very different. Their assessment is of a country moving inexorably towards a failed state. One in which, for the people living there, the crisis is one of fear and violence, and increasingly criminal violence, leading to an inexorable decline in access to the most basic of supplies, services, and the very right to move beyond the confines of ones home.
The data on what is actually happening across Iraq is hopelessly inadequate. The truth is that we really do not have anything more than a rudimentary guess of how much people are suffering, where the worst suffering is and how it is evolving.
And what we do know often goes untold. There are many humanitarian agencies working in Iraq. A few international NGOs, more local NGOs, courageous local individuals, UN agencies and the Red Cross. Seasoned workers for instance say that, compared with the Balkans, there is not the blind hatred expressed between the ethnic groupings we have become familiar with. They tell of a yearning on the part of most youth people to enter the 21st century, to have access to the internet, to education to good jobs, music and films.
Someone needs to tell this story, with a rigorous and honest portrait of the suffering, with a balanced portrayal of Iraqis and Iraq society, a story to counter the spin of the military and oil interests, and in my view that someone can only be the UN. Granted the resources the world’s community has made available to the UN are a fraction of those available to the Iraqi government or its US partner. Granted the UN has so far been given precious little space, but knowledge and truth do not have to be expensive, yet the story told loudly could be a powerful force for hope in Iraq and if there is one thing Iraqis desperately need, it is hope

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