The majority of those receiving humanitarian assistance world-wide are Muslim. This simple fact has remained insufficiently examined, although its significance is evident and growing (Hyder, 1997). Evident, because recipients of aid cannot be treated as an undifferentiated mass; and growing because of the West’s strained relationship with the Muslim world.
Until recently there was no compelling reason to reach out to Muslims over and above the current levels of assistance and concern being extended to them by the humanitarian community (the UN’s operational agencies, the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and the international NGOs). The Muslim world seemed too disunited, weak or poor to actively participate in the international humanitarian enterprise, either as donors or as partners. But the perception of that relationship has changed dramatically in the light of recent events.
The change became apparent with the Baghdad bombing of August 2003, which claimed the lives of Undersecretary-General Sergio Viera de Mello and twenty-one of his UN colleagues, an event that has been described as the UN’s 9/11. That tragedy demonstrated that while humanitarian assistance is needed more than ever, the assistance community is in danger of being perceived as too closely associated with the West, compromised in terms of its humanitarian credentials, and therefore in danger of offering a target to militant Islamic groups (Benthall, 2003; Donini, 2004).
The Critique of the West
The humanitarian community is caught up in the middle of an extreme dislike of the West, built on an elaborate critique of the latter’s moral and social failures, and the perceived dangers of associating with it. This critique, and the desire to return to a purer, more congenial society by rejecting everything the West stands for, has antecedents not only in recent Islamic thought but also in the philosophies of a series of writers, European, Arab and Asian alike, who have, over the years, lamented the passing of traditional values. Contemporary critics of Western culture or policies include Hindu fundamentalists, born-again Christians, Neo-Marxists, and anti-globalization activists. It is a mistake therefore to either underestimate the appeal of anti-Western sentiment, or to interpret it as a purely Islamic response. “Occidentalism”, as some authors have termed it, is certainly distinguished by a deeply-felt dislike of the West but it is not at all rooted in Islam, although most of its current exponents are Muslim (Buruma and Margalit, 2004). The view of the West as corrupt and dangerous is widespread in Islamist circles but the view that it should be violently attacked is not2 (Mamdani, 2002).
Does it matter that the majority of those receiving humanitarian assistance are Muslim? Strictly speaking, it should not; humanitarianism responds to needs, without regard to religious or other affiliations. At the same time, humanitarians, like doctors, should be aware of who their clients are, if only to ensure that their needs are well-understood and properly met: identity-blind should not mean identity-unaware. Also, the scale of the contact, involving over fifty million Muslims (as explained below), is significant. It has an impact on the host society, affecting social and economic relationships, and influencing national policy (Smith, 2006). From this perspective, it is certainly important to consider which societies and which groups are influenced by humanitarian action, and how. This line of reasoning suggests that there are meaningful issues for further examination, including the following:
First, who are the Muslim clients of international humanitarian assistance, and what do they want? Recipient concerns have not been a consistent area of interest for the assistance agencies and not sufficiently considered in most operations. An assessment is all the more necessary because there is in fact no single, homogenized Muslim view, nor an exclusive Muslim identity.
Second, are the hungry and the poor dangerous? How do they relate to the current preoccupation with terrorism? So far, the response by assistance agencies has been security-driven: The search for security has become a preoccupation without yielding clear and positive results. There is a tendency to see poverty and hunger as posing a direct security threat, a proposition which, if taken to its logical conclusion, would replace the obligation to help the needy with a necessity to placate the dangerous, thus transforming it into an issue at the centre of the West’s war on terror.
Third, to what extent does humanitarian activity succeed in establishing effective cultural and political contact? When assistance arrives in large quantities, accompanied by numerous foreign workers, the impact exceeds the original humanitarian intent. It is tempting, as a consequence, to extend the objectives of humanitarian action towards the achievement of political and social ends. Can it be used in this way, as an instrument of policy, or is it more effective when employed strictly as a global public good (to save lives and alleviate suffering)?
Fourth, how important is it as a resource transfer, given the much larger financial flows effected through worker remittances and Muslim charitable giving? Is the fact that most western assistance consists of food aid significant?
Fifth, what does humanitarian contact tell us about dealing with Muslims? How has the humanitarian enterprise dealt with the threat from Islamist extremists, and to what extent have we moved on since the events in Baghdad in August 2003? Leaving Iraq and Afghanistan aside as special cases, what is the experience since that time in such Muslim countries as Sudan, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, or Iran? Is humanitarianism in danger, or the excessively-westernized version of it? It seems as though, despite a rapidly evolving situation, we remain fixed in our interpretation of the intentions of militant Islamic groups.
The argument in this paper proceeds on two assumptions. First, that even if Islam were to be viewed in terms of a “clash of civilizations” (Huntington, 1993), it is still possible to allow for a common recognition of the place of humanitarianism in international relations, given that Islam subscribes to its basic tenets, including the rules of war, the position of non-combatants, asylum, refugees, and philanthropic giving. Second, that humanitarianism is conflict-tolerant, and it is immaterial whether we see the world in terms of conflict or cooperation: Humanitarianism is cross-culturally valid, and meant to bridge gaps. There is in fact a healthy assumption of universal acceptance and applicability (Slim, 2005). There will of course be new challenges from time to time: resurgent Islam might be one; pandemics might be another. The challenges might require adaptability but there is little to suggest that the values it upholds are not universally acceptable or that its functions cannot be adjusted to meet new problems. The five issues outlined above will be examined on the basis of these premises.
1. What do Muslim clients want?
The UN, and the humanitarian community in general, needs to know more about its beneficiary base, in terms of their numbers, their expectations, and their sensibilities. The number of countries with majority Muslim population where large-scale humanitarian operations and programs are under way at any given time is impressive. In a preliminary review of the work of the member-agencies comprising the Executive Committee of the UN Development Group (UNDP, UNICEF, WFP and UNFPA), as well as UNHCR and WHO, Muslims appear to predominate in all categories of assistance: emergency, development, and refugee operations. Humanitarian agencies do not keep records of recipients differentiated by religion. Given the sensitivities, the most uncontroversial method of calculation is to establish the number of recipients in Muslim countries, based on their membership of the OIC (Organization of Islamic Countries). According to WFP’s provisional calculations for 2005, some 49 percent or 47 million out of its total of 97 million beneficiaries hailed from OIC countries (WFP, 2007). Thus, even after allowing for overlapping clientele between WFP and other humanitarian agencies, direct recipients of humanitarian assistance have easily numbered over fifty million Muslims at any given time over the past five years (Hyder 2007). 2007). Of course not all recipients from OIC countries are Muslim; but that discrepancy is more than made up for by the existence of significant Muslim minorities in non-OIC states
Apart from the questions of who, where and how many, there is a need to know more about the expectations of recipients. At the start of an emergency operation, do we really know what they want? Later, do they know what has been made available? And at any time, do we reach a consensus on important issues concerning assistance? The predominant approach remains welfarist, that stops well short of assigning local communities an active role as agents of change in their own right: “..doing things, assessing priorities, scrutinizing values, formulating policies and carrying out programmes.” (Sen, 2005). Similarly, perceptions of local communities regarding what constitutes security differ significantly from those of assistance agencies, and include not only physical security but also a broader range of quality-of-life elements (Donini et al, 2005).
In sum, there has been little effort made to determine who the beneficiaries of international assistance are or what they want. If among them there exists a significant number of Muslims, as stated here, then this fact only leads to further complications, as there is no unified or monolithic Muslim world as such. Nor does a Muslim identity predominate, to the exclusion of other identities, allegiances and associations (Sen, 2006). Any commentary on present-day Islamic societies must take on board the fact that the Muslim world is at war with itself and any issue that involves dealings with the West is likely to produce a range of responses, from moderate and conciliatory to extreme and confrontational (El Fadl, 2006). If Muslim recipients of humanitarian assistance have anything in common it is their inheritance of poverty and turmoil. But does this imply that they are a potential threat?
2. In what way is hunger a threat to peace and security?
The general lack of knowledge about Islam and Muslim societies only serves to exaggerate western fears of a resurgent Islam. It is not surprising that security has emerged as a key issue, at the heart of the current humanitarian discourse. Therefore it is proposed to explore it further. Since a large proportion of humanitarian assistance is provided in the form of food (see Section 4 below), it seems appropriate to use food aid as a proxy for humanitarian assistance in order to explore the link between security and humanitarianism.
In a general sense, there is certainly a link between hunger and security: Crop failures have a major impact on a country’s economy, and on its perception of strategic self-sufficiency. A state may feel insecure if its strategic stocks of food run low; and drought could cause a people to move, with unpredictable consequences for the stability of the region as a whole.
Mainline economic analysis seems to concur. Jeffrey Sachs, for instance, observes that economic failure can lead to state failure. By not meeting basic needs of the people, failed states can become the seedbeds of violence and terror. Therefore, he argues, we must take the question of ending poverty, hunger and disease seriously (Sachs, 2005). The Report of the Secretary General’s Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change makes the same link between poverty, hunger and insecurity. Peace and security are more assured when poverty is removed. The Human Development Report makes the point that Countries with a per capita income of $600 are half as likely to experience civil war as countries with a per capita income of $250 (Human Development Report, 2005). Note a common feature of these analyses. They perceive a dangerous trend, not an imminent threat. They look at root causes and propose fundamental economic changes over time. Note also that there is no distinctive Islamist interpretation of the politics of food and hunger that takes a different view.
There are other observers who appear to suggest that a more direct link exists between hunger, violence, and security, posing an imminent threat. It will be argued here that this may be misleading. If this were the case, we would all be in trouble, since the world has 800 million hungry. For example, on 23 June 2005, President Obasanjo of Nigeria wrote an op-ed in the British newspaper, The Guardian, in which he stated that “a hungry person is an angry and dangerous person” (Obasanjo 2005). His comment was quoted with approval back and forth a week later by several participants at hearings at the UN Security Council on “Africa’s food crises as a threat to peace and security” (Security Council, 2005). The hearings were unusual in that the Security Council, exceptionally, abandoned its usual understanding that hunger was a social and economic issue (and therefore of interest to ECOSOC), to temporarily embrace the idea that it posed a threat to peace and security. The issue has not been raised again in that forum.
The UN’s experience with the hungry poor in Asia and Africa conveys a different impression. The majority of assistance from the World Food Programme (WFP, the UN agency for food assistance) goes to people whose sources of food have diminished catastrophically, causing them to suffer serious debilitation if not outright starvation. In that condition, they are hardly likely to agitate or take up arms. But it is not just debilitation that constrains them. In traditional societies, hunger and disease are borne with stoicism, perhaps because they are still regarded as providential visitations against which it is useless to struggle. Others, with modern sensibilities, might protest if they were short of food, but this is not the case with the rural poor, who bear their suffering with great fortitude, in silence and dignity. By contrast, bread riots do occur, but they are an urban phenomenon. In any case, the threat to order comes from a quite different source, the well-off educated elites (Zakaria, 2004). These troublemakers are not to be confused with the hungry poor.
There is nevertheless a temptation to link hunger with security (and to sharpen the argument by bringing in the Islamist dimension), especially given that political mobilization for hunger is an uphill task (de Waal), and humanitarian agencies are constantly under pressure for resources. But treating a hungry person as an angry person (or an angry Muslim) runs the risk of ignoring humanitarian principles and transforming in effect an obligation to help into a necessity to placate. The latter is a political goal; even the economists do not go that far. But assuming for a moment that humanitarian principles can be set aside in order to pursue political goals, how well would assistance serve as an instrument of policy? This question is taken up in the next section.
Finally, what about hunger as a threat to peace? Certainly war causes hunger, but does hunger lead to conflict? If this were the case, then preventing hunger would prevent conflict, and we would have stopped the conflict in Sudan (for example) long ago. War has other, deeper, and more political causes. The idea that wars and their outcomes may be affected by hunger has led to frequent attempts to manipulate the supply of food, with tragic results in terms of human suffering, but with little or no effect on the course and conduct of conflicts.
To summarize, poverty, hunger, peace and security are linked in many ways but it would be too simplistic to derive direct causal links between them. Removing poverty removes a long-term risk to political and economic stability. But this is different from stating that the poor are dangerous, or adopting that as a basis of action. The reason for assisting the poor and the vulnerable derives from humanitarian concerns, not security concerns. It is preferable to keep the two separate for the simple reason that humanitarian action is not a suitable agent of policy.
3. Humanitarian action as an instrument of policy
It is proposed to argue that humanitarian assistance is not a suitable instrument for promoting policy; that it has nevertheless become integrated with a more complex response to post-cold war crises; and that UN reform supports this trend, at a time when mutual trust between states is at low ebb.
There are at least four weaknesses inherent in the humanitarian instrument, that render it unsuited for use in pursuing political ends. First, the humanitarian instrument is usually slow to deploy: emergency resources are not readily available in times of need but have to be raised separately for each calamity, after the event. “The international response mechanism” (write Larry Minear and Ian Smillie) “is like operating a volunteer fire brigade – except that the volunteers have to acquire the fire trucks, the pumps and the water system before they can leave for the fire.” (Ian Smillie and Larry Minear, 2005). Second, the response system is limited in its effectiveness because the aid package is invariably unbalanced as between cash and food inputs, and between food, water and health inputs, so that what is eventually delivered is further reduced in effectiveness. A glance at the results of OCHA’s annual consolidated appeal for the major humanitarian crises confirms this point. Donor response to requirements for water, health inputs, or shelter rarely correspond to assessed needs, while food needs are more fully met. Third, the humanitarian instrument lacks follow-through: there are few examples of an international assistance programme moving forward smoothly from the emergency phase into rehabilitation and development. It saves lives but fails to restore livelihoods or rehabilitate economies. In other words, the system has not mastered transition. Fourth, the arrangements for humanitarian assistance do not proceed, as they are supposed to, in step with the arrangements for promoting human rights (Deng, 2002). As a consequence, the vulnerable are fed and housed better than they are protected, or their rights assured. Often the very act of rendering assistance lays them open to predatory attack, or reinforces the hand of their oppressors. Thus, the fact that it can have a wide-ranging impact does not qualify humanitarian assistance as a policy tool.
While unsuited for use to gain political ends, humanitarian assistance has moved inexorably into the centre of the post-cold war political arena. Joanna Macrae and others have shown how humanitarian assistance has become part of a more complex response to post-cold war crises (Macrae and Leader, 2000). Three broad trends have provided the momentum towards ‘integrated’ approaches to humanitarian crises:
- the redefinition of international security to mean not only military but also economic and environmental threats;
- the trend among western democracies toward “joined up” government, a policy of cross-departmental working in support of relief-to-development transitions, and conflict-prevention;
- the use of ODA as a policy instrument for peace-building, conflict prevention and resolution (Macrae, 2004).
In this view, humanitarian assistance is not simply an end in itself but a means to achieve other, more distant and uncertain goals. Relief is viewed as providing the basis for human security, for ensuring progress towards development, and eventually for conflict prevention.
The tendency towards a more complex response has come at a time when international relationships are strained, and the international political climate is prone to foster suspicion rather than trust. The process has been led by the UN, whose own programme of reforms began a decade ago, in a different political climate. They include both theoretical and practical contributions. An Agenda for Peace introduced the concept of human security in 1992 (Boutros-Ghali, 1992). The UN’s long-running programme of reform of operational activities that began in 1997 includes practical measures to harmonize and simplify its own procedures, to reduce transaction costs for recipient countries, to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of aid, and to devise common assessment and programming frameworks that link relief to development (TCPR, 2005). In 2006, these moves intensified, with the decision to undertake a series of pilot exercises intended to establish a joint UN presence in eight countries, under one UN representative, with a common programme of work, a single ‘UN House’, and a unified budget (TCPR 2005, HLPC 2006).
Such measures presuppose a favourable external climate and mutual trust between donors and recipient countries. Under the present circumstances UN reform may be regarded with suspicion by some development partners, and perceived as a collection of schemes intended to reduce resource transfer, or to increase control over assistance, or simply as too intrusive. In any case, the significance of the changes in the global environment and their effect on the implementation of UN reforms requires further study. So far, the UN secretariat has tended to simply report on progress of the reforms within the strict terms of reference set for the reports by the General Assembly, while remaining silent on the profound changes that have occurred in the international environment, most notably the west’s deteriorating relationship with Islam. The results of such an inquiry might be useful for fine-tuning the reform process and for constructing appropriate strategies for the UN’s programme of assistance in countries and amongst societies where confidence in the donors’ intentions and the integrity of the UN’s programme is likely to come into question.
The experience of the WFP in North Korea substantiates these observations about the efficiency and effectiveness of humanitarianism as an instrument of policy. Having been invited by the government in 1995, at the height of the famine, WFP gradually established itself inside the country. By 1999, it was assisting over eight million people with food, that is, a third of the population, including all children under six. On that basis, the UN and its partners hoped to move forward into reconstruction and development, and to facilitate the introduction of the widely-anticipated economic reforms (Morton, 2007).
But political strains undid this trend. Failure to improve monitoring was cited by the US as a reason for reducing assistance; the Japanese stopped humanitarian assistance altogether after the abduction issue broke in mid-2002; the EU position on human rights in North Korea soured the latter’s relations with the Europeans. All parties were affected by the nuclear question. The model of constructive engagement, so carefully nurtured by the UN and its partners, had apparently reached its limits. At the end of 2005, WFP and its humanitarian partners were asked to leave. The lesson is clear: simply because its impact is substantial on society does not mean that humanitarian assistance is a suitable instrument of policy. In the end, by being perceived as too political, of being used excessively to serve political ends, humanitarian assistance jeopardised its main objective of saving lives and reducing suffering.
The question of an economic or social reform agenda as part of a programme of assistance is an issue about which Muslim recipients of aid are themselves frequently divided. Some groups, who could be labelled pro-western or progressive, welcome it, and even ask for it; others are exceedingly hostile. Where and how to find the golden mean is far from easy since Muslim societies are themselves not in agreement on many of the issues involved, including the impact of aid and western influences on Muslim societies generally, and specifically on such issues as women’s rights under Islam, the implementation of Muslim personal law, or the limits of tolerance.
To summarize: Humanitarian assistance is an end in itself, and, properly given, can enhance a donor’s “soft power”. The fact that it can have a wide-ranging impact does not qualify it as an effective policy tool at the best of times. To expect relief to provide the basis for human security, for ensuring progress towards development and conflict prevention at a time when international relationships are strained is unrealistic and likely to foster suspicion rather than build trust. One way out of this impasse would be to build confidence in the international humanitarian enterprise by widening its resource base.
4. Is it possible to widen the resource base?
Before considering the question of widening the resource base, it is necessary to clarify three points concerning respectively the composition of modern or western aid flows; the similarities and differences between Muslim and western conceptions of charity and assistance, and third, the contribution made by workers’ remittances during crises.
The international humanitarian enterprise, as presently constituted, is almost entirely dependent on western resources. Most of it consists of food, delivered in large part by a single agency, the World Food Programme. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA) compiles figures for global humanitarian assistance, based on its consolidated appeals procedure (CAPs). Its latest report states that of the $15.5 billion in commitments made by donors to CAP appeals between 2000 and 2005, the largest share – 55% (or $8.6 billion) was given as food. Priorities such as health ($781 million), education ($432 million), shelter and non-food items ($318 million) and water and sanitation ($299 million) are tiny in comparison, according to OCHA. In 2005, global emergency food aid reached a total of 5.2 million tonnes. This was a 23% increase on 2004 deliveries. Overwhelmingly, emergency food aid is delivered by WFP, which, despite the increased volume, also increased the share of deliveries that it managed to 75% in 2005 (OCHA 2007).
Apart from the usual western sources of aid, there are other, non-western aid flows. The most significant of these are Muslim sources of charity, and workers’ remittances.
Traditional Muslim concepts of charity (zakat, sadaqa and waqf) and the contemporary idea of humanitarian assistance are not identical. There is a very large literature on Islamic giving covering the concepts of zakat, sadaqa and waqf (Encyclopedia of Islam). Zakat is obligatory and payable only to Muslim beneficiaries who are specified in the Qur’an (Sura 9, verse 60), and whose status has been much discussed by Muslim jurists. Zakat therefore does not really qualify as being the equivalent of humanitarian aid in modern terms. Sadaqa, especially one particular kind designated as sadaqat al-tatawwu’ (alms of spontanaiety) is voluntary and can be given to Muslim and non-Muslim alike without further specification of their status or need. This type of sadaqa is therefore more akin to humanitarian aid in modern terms. Waqf does not come into the picture because it involves endowment of property and the establishment of foundations, and there is no evidence of wakf income from property endowments going as a voluntary contribution to international agencies.
There has been a great deal of discussion among jurists about how these terms, in particular zakat, should be treated in a modern context, and different Muslim countries have adopted different strategies. The interface between the Muslim concepts of sadaqa, zakat, waqf and humanitarian assistance remains largely unexplored.3 Whatever the points of difference, they seem to have little impact on humanitarian operations in Muslim countries. OIC members welcome humanitarian agencies to their meetings as observers, have passed helpful resolutions (for example expressing appreciation of UNHCR’s work), and in general have good relations with international humanitarian agencies, both as contributors and as recipients. Thus there seems to be broad agreement on the underlying purposes.
There are no reliable figures for philanthropic giving in Muslim communities. One source estimated them to be in the range of $250 billion and one trillion dollars annually (Alterman et al, 2005). This seems rather high. Some waqfs are indeed very rich, but most are inefficiently managed, usually by government bureaucrats. They are at varying stages of reform in different countries, from India to Libya, but nowhere seem to be organized along business lines. Apparently, neither the World Bank nor the UN Development Agencies have so far proposed a project designed to improve Waqf income.
There are more reliable figures for remittances sent home by workers. Preliminary studies by the World Bank have established that remittances come to more than all official aid budgets combined, exceeding $125 billion in 2004 (Maimbo et al, 2005). This makes remittances the second largest source of development finance, after foreign direct investments. Further, there is a strong correlation between remittances and poverty reduction. They appear to be a better instrument to address transient poverty, arising due to shocks. By going directly to households, they have an immediate impact on poverty (Maimbo et al, 2005), although their delivery may be disrupted during emergencies (Savage and Harvey, 2007). Thus the resource base could be read very differently by including transfers other than “aid” as we know it. It is a matter of methodology.
It is also a matter of how widely the humanitarian enterprise wants to cast its net. The resource base could also be enlarged by seeking closer interaction with the Muslim world. The Alterman study proposes that the US consider utilizing Islamic charitable organizations, and not confine itself to western NGOs as a channel of assistance (although if, as the study states, Muslims have 250 billion to one trillion dollars available through their own sources, it is not clear why they would be interested in the relatively modest sums the West could supply). It might also be useful to explore alternatives to interest-based financing, as Islamic economic principles shy away from lending on the basis of interest. Islamic financial institutions might be interested if, through partnership with western aid agencies, they became investors (Musharaka) rather than pure lenders, partners in development rather than speculators.
Muslim governments are also to blame for accepting the status quo and for not adopting a policy of increasing their influence on assistance agencies by taking a far more active role as donors, partners and suppliers of qualified staff (by subscribing for example to JPO schemes). In this way the Arab Gulf states who could do so much more have always treated UN agencies as western channels, and have provided only symbolic support to them. So it could be argued that action is required on the part of Muslim governments to develop a policy that makes assistance agencies and the humanitarian enterprise less western-dominated rather than simply accepting this as a fait accompli.
It is often overlooked that food is a major component in humanitarian operations. If the base is to be widened in terms of food also, it is necessary to find ways of bringing in the so-called non-traditional food donors. In September 2001, the Indian Government wrote to a number of least developed, food-deficit countries, offering them wheat free of charge, if they would bear the cost of transportation. The offer arose out of some fortunate circumstances. A series of bumper harvests had increased India’s strategic grain stocks well beyond requirements. The Government’s guarantee to farmers that it would support wheat prices had obliged it to purchase several million tons of wheat (Indian Embassy, 2001). There is no record available of how many takers the Government of India found for its generous offer. A little later, India donated a million tons of wheat to WFP for the Afghanistan program.
The Indian offer encountered a lukewarm reception. No procedures exist for facilitating such transactions. Obviously, without a transportation subsidy, the deal does not work. Nevertheless, the arithmetic is persuasive. There are four cost components in the transaction: purchase price of cereal, sea freight, transportation inside recipient country, and administrative costs of monitoring and supervision. Of these, the price of cereals is two-thirds of the total. Therefore, if the food is available gratis, then total cost falls dramatically.
The benefits are so obvious that it is tempting to ask why cash donors do not insist that WFP look for free cereal donation and use their cash for covering administration and transportation costs, not purchase. Discussions on this issue at WFP’s Executive Board have so far generated more heat than light. (WFP Executive Board, 2003).
In sum, there is a need for three things:
- revise the methodology for calculating humanitarian assistance to properly take account of the considerable non-western aid flows;
- explore the possibility of linking western and Muslim humanitarian and charitable organizations;
- facilitate giving by non-traditional food donors, such as India.
What will this accomplish? It will establish useful partnerships and correct the impression that the humanitarian enterprise is western in orientation. The gains will be appreciable in “soft power” terms: Humanitarian action will gain approval, attractiveness, and support (Nye, 2004). It will not by itself remove the risk of being attacked by extremists.
5. The threat to humanitarianism in 2007
In fact, what risk does militant Islam pose to humanitarian workers? Since the August 2003 bombing of the UN Compound in Baghdad, there has not been a rise in the level of attacks on the UN. There is no evidence of Islamic terrorist activity directed against humanitarian workers in Aceh, Indonesia, or of successful terrorist action in Darfur, Sudan. There are reports of the presence of extremist groups in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir (and elsewhere), but no reports of attacks on the humanitarian community. It seems therefore that the UN is not, or has not been, a primary target of Islamic extremists. But it could be attacked nevertheless as a secondary target, if it is too closely identified with the West, or if it happens to be operating where Islamic militants have chosen to make a stand against their enemies, the western imperialists. It may also be attacked if it acts too carelessly; after all, it has many local enemies in different parts of the world. Humanitarians and militant Islamists have different points of departure. Militant Islam views the world in global and ideological terms (Roy, 2005); the humanitarian view is local and secular. Humanitarians are not concerned with notions of the clash of civilizations; Islamists are. But while they tread different ideological ground, their paths may yet cross in the real world.
It is well-recognized by the UN and its international partners that security is the cost of doing business. Therefore, investments in training and the provision of security advice at country level continue to be made both centrally by UN Department of Safety and Security (DSS) and individually by the UN Funds, Programmes and Agencies. By January 2007, the UN had 210 security professionals in the field, managed by DSS, not including security professionals hired by the UN agencies or by the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DSS, 2007).
The UN system’s investment in security is generally considered to be in line with bilateral arrangements at field level. Nevertheless, it suffers from two major weaknesses. First, the composition of UN security staff is not sufficiently diverse to overcome unconscious cultural bias or inadvertent misperception. Second, it still suffers from some notable lapses in the coherence of its security management system at field level. When a peacekeeping mission is established side by side with the usual UN field presence (consisting of operations of the funds, programmes and agencies), it is not clear how responsibility for security will be harmonized between the two missions.
What risk does militant Islam pose to humanitarianism? Certainly, 9/11 magnified concerns, leading informed observers to make pessimistic forecasts. In 2002, Larry Minear actually added an epilogue to his recently-completed book, The Humanitarian Enterprise, in which he expressed himself as follows: “I fear for the future of the shared impulse to which organized humanitarian efforts attempt to give practical meaning. In my judgement, the humanitarian enterprise is living on borrowed time” (Minear, 2002).
In 2007, it appears that the “shared impulse” for humanitarianism has survived. In fact, there seems little danger of the abandonment of the humanitarian ideal. International support and funding continues, as demonstrated by the generous response to the Asian tsunami and the earthquake in Kashmir. The Muslim world also continues to give generously by all accounts but through different and largely unrecognized channels. To what extent that shared impulse includes non-traditional donors and Muslims is still not clear.
The argument in this paper rests on four characteristics of humanitarian assistance that are often overlooked: That its clients are preponderantly Muslim; its resources mainly food; that its implementation takes place in a resistant medium, and that the international humanitarian enterprise is overwhelmingly western in approach and style. All these characteristics influence the practice of humanitarianism. And yet there has been a tendency to treat humanitarianism in the abstract, without reference to the particular and challenging conditions in which it must function.
If the majority of its recipients are Muslim, then it calls for a closer examination of the risks and opportunities afforded by such a large-scale and beneficent encounter, keeping in mind that there is no unified or monolithic Muslim world as such. The question of an economic or social reform agenda as part of a programme of assistance is an issue about which Muslim recipients of aid are themselves frequently divided. If humanitarian assistance is delivered mainly in the form of food aid, then this raises a host of practical and procedural issues as noted earlier. If western sources of assistance are being stretched by the growing demand for humanitarian assistance, then it is time to more fully acknowledge non-western sources, such as worker remittances and Muslim charitable giving. If intractability or the chronic difficulty encountered in implementing assistance across national boundaries is fully acknowledged, then it would call for a re-examination of some facile assumptions, such as the workability of the rights-based approach, or the practical difficulties of simultaneously assisting and protecting those in need. In short, a situated evaluation of humanitarian action is required, taking properly into account how these realities, namely the makeup of its clientele, the characteristics of its resources, the high resistance to its implementation, and its western orientation impact on the everyday practice of international humanitarian assistance. Considered in these terms, it is clear that the risk to humanitarianism comes as much from its insufficiently-examined premises as from the threat of militant Islam.
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- Masood Hyder worked for the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) from 1984 to 2000. He was WFP Representative, Sudan, 2000-2002; UN Resident Coordinator and WFP Representative, North Korea, 2002-2004; and WFP Representative to the Bretton Woods Institutions, 2004-2006. [return]
- “militant Islamist circles” and similar labels used in this paper are intended to identify these groups — and not Islam – with violence. [return]
- The author is grateful to Dr Stefan Sperl of SOAS, University of London, for his helpful comments on this point. [return]
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