Department of Rural Development Studies
Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences
Box 7005
SE-750 07 Uppsala, Sweden

One of the underlying questions facing humanitarianism has always been that of how to avoid having ‘disasters’, of all kinds, develop into famines. According to de Waal (1997), the central features of successful famine prevention are the integrity of the civil service and the existence of a strong, visionary government. These are said to be the pillars of a political and social contract between vulnerable populations and the state. If one accepts this hypothesis, the question which would seem to follow is how we [1] might ‘get from here to there’ in supporting integrity and vision for reducing vulnerability in famine prone countries. The examples given by de Waal of successful famine prevention (India, Botswana, the liberation movements in Eritrea and Tigray) are of regimes that have founded their legitimacy on providing guarantees of famine prevention. Unfortunately, these examples give few clues as to how countries may nourish or recreate public service integrity and a political contract where the state lacks a history of accountability to its citizens, as is the case in most famine prone countries today. What is to be done where these pillars have either already crumbled or may have never been firmly established?

Many current academic analyses of collapsing states and humanitarian crises advise disengagement from public services (Duffield 1996, Macrae 1998, Bradbury 1998). Damage control, through minimalist inputs of food and medicine, is suggested as the best way to avoid feeding the flames of bad governance, violence and political opportunism, i.e., the factors that led to the famine in the first place. Public service institutions are said to be,’ at best totally dependent on a non-existent strong and visionary state. At worst they are part and parcel of the corrupt and inhumane structures that created the crisis and led to the collapse of governance. Advice on what not to do vis-à-vis these institutions provides little support for those of us trying to determine what we should do to encourage the (re)establishment of a sense of integrity and mission among the remaining civil servants. Slim (1998) has criticised the Northern discourse for assuming that humanitarianism is ‘our’ problem. Actors in the South are left out, as they cannot even pretend to assume a stance of pure neutrality. The current emphasis of the humanitarian discourse is a non-starter if we accept de Waal’s preconditions of successful famine prevention. The objective of this essay is to raise the question of how do we get from here to there. How might we understand and encourage national and local humanitarianism in light of these calls for disengaging from pariah states and vestigial public services?

The gist of much of the criticism of the so-called ‘humanitarian international’ is that we cause more harm than good by cooperating with evil power structures. The remedy is said to be minimalism. But is the medicine worse than the disease? Do we not run the danger of simultaneously de-legitimising those public servants who are struggling to retain their integrity? The separation of aid from local institutions is not a passive stance on the issue of public service integrity. It is a course of action that actively weakens government and local NGO services. If the only way for a nurse to get on with his or her work is to leave the public service and take a job assisting an expatriate agency, the humanitarian international has taken an active role in finishing off the remains of the social and political contract between service providers and their clients. When this happens, the construction of integrity and humanitarianism is shifted away from the state and other local service institutions.

It is often claimed that this course of action is necessary since the international NGOs cannot tell the difference between principled and parasitic local institutions due to their ignorance of the local politico-economic context. The warlords easily tap aid resources by manipulating the lofty development rhetoric of the humanitarian international. There is some truth in this critique of gullible NGOs. However, there are also usually many agencies which have worked in an area for a reasonably long period of time and which are in a good position to identify those public servants who have integrity and who can construct some form of political contract. Even if we have finally acknowledged that the NGO community has run out of magic bullets, this is no reason to stop efforts to foster and utilise the local knowledge that they do possess.

The reason usually given for throwing these babies out with the bath water is that the linear relief – development continuum has been proven not to respond to the tools of internationalised public welfare. Ample evidence exists to show that states are not reshouldering their traditional responsibilities to their citizenry after an emergency. Assumptions that relief aid merely fills a temporary gap in the grand march of development are no longer valid. Even if one accepts the critique of naïve developmentalism, however, this does not automatically imply that one must also buy the conclusion and recommendations for minimalism and disengagement. There is an array of actors in any so-called collapsed state who are involved with strategies scattered throughout the relief – development continuum. People (both bureaucrats and famine victims) are scrambling to survive at the same time as they are investing in future strategies. Can one not initiate strategic alliances with selected actors without basing plans on naïve assumptions about an across the board swing of the continuum?

Several current observers have severely criticised how developmentalist rhetoric and declarations that ‘the emergency is over’ have been used to justify a failure to address humanitarian needs (Bradbury 1998, Macrae 1998). Aid agencies have claimed that humanitarian assistance, in the form of free food distributions and health services, must be phased out even when there is ample evidence that a minimum of food security and resources to pay for basic services are not present. The criticism of this humanitarian triage is fully justified. But the conclusions that we should therefore avoid rehabilitation and development are not equally self-evident. Can we not draw attention to the humanitarian catastrophe engendered by such rhetoric without simultaneously throwing out valid efforts to facilitate self-reliance based on the strategies of public servants and their clients? Need we ignore the developmental efforts of Somali humanitarians just because people are starving and the warlords are still in power? Does it have to be one or the other? Perhaps some constructivist thinking is a way to start finding our way from here to there without simple, naïve, and linear developmentalism.

There are some signposts for such a strategy. Even concepts which have generally been dominated by a technocratic mind-set, such as food security (de Waal 1997), may be effectively approached from a constructivist, post-modernist position (Maxwell 1994) when the obvious complexity of the situation becomes overwhelming. De Waal’s writings have been instrumental in revealing how rural people combine metaphors and strategies in their dealings with famine. Bureaucrats do so as well (as de Waal has pointed out in his earlier work, 1989:226). They may actually be some of our best allies in revealing and documenting the fact that the continuum is not working according to plan. It is they who face and deal with destitute clients who are excluded when user charges are introduced for health services and whose children starve when food aid is withdrawn despite increasing malnutrition. They understand, as well as anyone, that the exaggerated “myth of dependency” (Bradbury 1998:6) has a massive humanitarian cost.

Duffield has been quoted as saying that NGOs use the term “complex emergency” when they don’t know what they are talking about (Keen & Ryle 1996). To put this statement in a more constructive light, perhaps a half-hearted acknowledgement that one does not know what one is talking about is a reasonably good start for a rethink. It would certainly be worse if the NGOs were as cocksure that they know what they are talking about in a complex emergency as many of their academic critics. Modesty is a prerequisite of any learning organisation (Roche 1996). Modesty is the basis of abandoning the technocratic developmentalism that takes for granted that everything will get back on course. Modesty is needed to start facing reality concerning the role of meagre aid inputs in ‘developing’ Angola, Somalia or Rwanda. Searching for the remnants of integrity in the civil service must begin with an acknowledgement that integrity is not simply the ‘natural state’ for public services. It will not appear when we send out an engineer with QIP funds to put a new roof on the clinic. Addo [2] (1996) has referred to this kind of naïve developmentalism as “foolhardy optimism”.

Addo also criticises the alternative dismissal of hopes for a new social contract, as exemplified by the minimalist school. He categorises this type of response as “debilitating disengagement”. The problem with the latter is that it is also susceptible to a tendency to fall into another technocratic mould, as it assumes all efforts to build new forms of public service lack structural preconditions for success. In looking beyond these two prevailing options, Addo’s third category is that of “creative pessimism”. It is a feeling that integrity is possible, and we should look for ways to get from here to there, but that we are nonetheless not quite sure what the structural preconditions of ’sustainable’ public service delivery might be. It is developmental relief, shorn of its former developmentalist pretensions of believing that everything will soon return to ’normal’.

It is in the realm of creative pessimism that most reflective NGOs find themselves struggling. They see that most of their local colleagues have integrity, and are pushing on (with a fair dose of angst) in helping what is left of the civil service to maintain and strengthen its integrity. NGO staff generally lack broad understanding of the complexity of the social, political and economic contexts in which these colleagues are struggling to protect their integrity. But the serious NGOs are at least generally aware enough of what is going on around them to choose the right partners. If the NGOs were not there creating some humanitarian space for potential local humanitarians, chances are good that these individuals would be out selling tomatoes in the market.

This is not to paint national and local public service institutions as angels. Most of the current discourse alternates between two stereotypical portrayals, either debilitating disengagement or foolhardy optimism. Either the civil service is the exemplification and vehicle for abuse of public power, or they are the cherished roots of national reconciliation, social capital and a new political contract. Some writers (de Waal in particular) alternate between these seemingly irreconcilable representations without exploring the vast grey areas of real-life institutions where officials, traditional authorities and political leaders display complex blends of humanitarian and self-serving motivations. Though black and white descriptions are useful for raising awareness of the broader dangers and opportunities in dealing with famine, neither of the two prevailing simplifications gives a basis for operational decision-making among real people, organisations and societies. When the research community attempts to apply their ideal types concerning the structures of catastrophe and democratic accountability, the creativity of field staff searching for windows of opportunity amid the ruins is easily forgotten or belittled.

Many critics of the humanitarian international (e.g., Keen 1994) claim that channelling aid through government ‘intermediaries’ rarely empowers those public servants interested in a political contract with their clients, but instead usually contributes to authoritarian and military power structures. There are many examples of this happening. Does this automatically mean we should just have expatriates run the show? Should we avoid the problem or solve it? The contempt shown for problem solving in the field is a non-starter, such as when de Waal criticises agencies for trying to create “a dynamic situation in which they are constantly searching for ‘improvements’ that will find the elusive magic formula for effective relief. The last option is simply the most sophisticated formula for self-deception” (1997:143). Few practitioners actually believe in magic formulas [3], but they do have to get on with trying to sort things out as best they can.

The central question is how do we get from here to there if the ’there’ is a personal, social and cultural construction, such as integrity, rather than a more macro level ’solution’ based on politico-economic structures. A number of observers, taking highly contrasting points of departure, have begun sketching methodological frameworks for improved creative pessimism based on personal, social and cultural constructions. Paul Richards (1996) provides some pointers for ’smart relief’ drawing heavily on a search for links between aid and cultural norms of integrity. At the other end of the spectrum, though he does not write specifically on humanitarianism, Robert Chambers has in his recent work (1995) emphasised the need to support individuals’ personal struggles to feel good about their work in a world of uncertainties. Also outside the humanitarian discourse, those looking at turbulent and extremely Machiavellian business environments have identified how dynamic sensemaking enables individuals to find integrity within the organisations in which they work. There may be relevance in applying these ideas in humanitarian contexts as well (Christoplos 1998), particularly given the increasing influence of these ideas on development thinking related to conflicts in natural resource management (Ramirez 1997). On a practical and pragmatic level, directly focused on real-life humanitarian practice, Mary B. Anderson (1996) has systematically collected evidence of good practice in creative pessimism. She and her colleagues in Local Capacities for Peace have documented how people have succeeded in sorting out ways to maintain integrity in the most difficult of circumstances. Their work has pointed to a set of methods that have an exciting potential for helping NGOs to help local public servants maintain integrity while minimising opportunities for those with more devious intentions. The work of Goodhand and Hulme (1997) may complement the Local Capacities for Peace studies in bringing out some relationships between these approaches and the theoretical debate about how to get from here to there in weak and collapsing states.

What all these observers share (and what the minimalist perspective lacks) is a belief in human agency. There is a faith that people can find some way of improving their situations even in the most vexing of situations. In contrast to structural determinism, ‘human agency’ directs our attention to the blend of goals, aspirations, power, connivance and organising capacities which actors combine in their own problem-solving, survival and development strategies (Long 1992). Belief that people can and should struggle to sort out the most depressing of situations is the basis for creative pessimism in humanitarian practice. Humanitarians (local and expatriate) have seen how they and their colleagues have been able to cobble together some net improvement in survival even in conditions where it seems impossible. Bumblebees can fly despite scientific evidence to the contrary. Just as rural people have found ways to survive in extraordinary circumstances, so have local bureaucrats and their international benefactors been able to maintain a modicum of integrity in the midst of war and crumbling social contracts. If one believes in human agency, there is hope for improving the performance of operational and intermediate NGOs together with their local counterparts. If not, the only option is to place all resources into the fight for structural change through political action, advocacy and human rights. Need we choose between structure and human agency, or can we try a variety of methods to get from here to there?

Slim (1998) calls attention to the perverse inward fixation of the humanitarian discourse. He points out the tendency to set boundaries between pure humanitarianism (a role that humanitarian agencies deem to be theirs alone) and the non-humanitarian rabble. Public servants are clearly relegated to the rabble in the minimalist worldview. No space is left for engaging the vestigial state in a broad view of the meaning of humanity. We are so concerned about whether or not the continuum is of use that we fail to realise that there are unaddressed humanitarian crises underway in places without wars or even natural disasters. People are starving and the interest and capacity of the state to do something about it are crumbling even in places that are only affected by ‘mere’ debt and globalisation. If we dare to ask ourselves what our humanitarian principles mean in such places, we cannot withdraw from engagement with both those who share and those who should share these principles. If humanitarianism is being forgotten in rehabilitation and development, this does not automatically mean that we should keep out the rehabilitators and developers. We should shove the humanitarian imperative in their faces and challenge them to act according to their professed aims. We should ask what they are doing in the aid business if human life and suffering are not their first priority. Ignoring the challenge of reinserting humanitarianism into any and all points on the continuum leaves us in a Malthusian vacuum. Rather than disengagement, a moral commitment to humanitarianism can and should replace our naïve faith in developmentalism.


1 Any essay such as this demands a definition of the ‘we’s’. In this case I refer to the humanitarian community and also, as will become apparent, those bureaucrats who are struggling to maintain a vestige of integrity and vision in their work.

2 Addo does not write about complex emergencies. He refers to what are commonly perceived of as development contexts. This makes his analysis particularly appropriate. After all, if the continuum is not functioning even without a complex emergency, what are the prospects in a collapsing state?

3 One could ask, however, whether de Waal’s idealised representation of the heroic structural solutions in Eritrea and Tigray could also be described as ‘magic formulas grounded in self-deception’.


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Anderson, Mary B., 1996, Do No Harm: Supporting Local Capacities for Peace Through Aid, Collaborative for Development Action, Cambridge

Bradbury, Mark, 1998, Normalising the Crisis in Africa, Journal of Humanitarian Assistance,, posted on 19 May, 1998

Chambers, Robert, 1995, The Primacy of the Personal, in Edwards, Michael & David Hulme (eds), Non-Governmental Organisations Performance and Accountability: Beyond the Magic Bullet, Earthscan, London

Christoplos, Ian, 1998, Humanitarianism and Local Service Institutions in Angola, Disasters, 22/1

De Waal, Alex, 1989, Famine That Kills, Clarendon Press, Oxford

De Waal, Alex, 1997, Famine Crimes, Politics and the Disaster Relief Industry in Africa, James Currey, Oxford

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Goodhand, John & David Hulme, 1997, NGOs and Peace Building in Complex Political Emergencies: An Introduction, NGOs and Complex Political Emergencies Working Paper Number 1, University of Manchester & INTRAC, Manchester

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Long, Norman, 1992, From Paradigm Lost to Paradigm Regained?, in Long, Norman & Ann Long (eds), Battlefields of Knowledge: The Interlocking of Theory and Practice in Social Research and Development, Routledge, London

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Maxwell, Simon, 1994, Food Security: A Post-modern Perspective, IDS Working Paper Number 9, IDS, Sussex

Ramirez, Ricardo, 1997, Participatory Learning and Communication Approaches for Managing Pluralism: Implications for Sustainable Forestry, Agriculture and Rural Development, paper presented at the FAO Workshop on Pluralism and Sustainable Forestry and Rural Development, December 9-12, 1997, Rome

Richards, Paul, 1996, Fighting for the Rainforest: War, Youth and Resources in Sierra Leone, James Currey, Oxford

Roche, Chris, 1994, Operationality in Turbulence: The Needs for Change, Development in Practice, 4/3

Slim, Hugo, 1998, Sharing a Universal Ethic: Spreading the Principle of Humanity Beyond Humanitarianism, paper presented at the ECHO/ODI Conference: Principled Aid in an Unprincipled World: Relief, War and Humanitarian Principles, April 7, 1998, London

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