AID POLICY: The politics of humanitarian principle
BERLIN, 28 October 2011 (IRIN) - For decades aid agencies have been tackling
troubling ethical dilemmas about where to draw the line when negotiating
with armed forces when trying to deliver aid to vulnerable communities.
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) discusses some of the ethical dilemmas it has
faced over the past 40 years in Humanitarian Negotiations Revealed: The MSF
Experience, promoted at its annual <http://www.humanitaererkongress.de
Berlin Humanitarian Congress.
“Humanitarian actors often claim they are above politics but it is simply
not true,” said Fabrice Weissman, one of the co-authors of the book, which
will be officially launched at the end of November.
“We do still retain our central tenet, which is saving lives,” Weissman
added, but we also “seek to puncture a number of myths. We address the big
question of when should and shouldn’t MSF be willing to compromise?”
Contributors lay out a wide range of dilemmas, “seeking to analyze the
political transactions and balances of power and interests that allow aid
activities to move forward, but that are usually masked by the lofty
rhetoric of 'humanitarian principles'”.
The conclusions are often disturbing. “That fighting forces seek to take
advantage of aid groups is unavoidable,” Weissman said. “The fact is that
unless we provide them with benefits they have no reason to allow us to
operate in the areas they seek to control.”
As an example, he mentioned Taliban-held areas of Afghanistan. “The reality
there is that the Taliban are claiming responsibility for the goods and
services that humanitarian groups are providing, which allows the Taliban to
appear to the local populations as being effective governors.”
Another benefit fighting forces get from aid groups is money, exchanged for
services such as security. “On many occasions, MSF, like other
organizations, uses combatants to ensure the safety of its teams and
convoys,” said the author.
Bribes are also part of negotiations, says Rony Brauman, who heads the MSF
think-tank Centre de Réflexion Sur l’Action et Les Savoirs Humanitaires,
which encourages debate and critical reflection on humanitarian practices.
“The question is often not whether to pay them but how much to pay. It must
be thought of as an informal tax.”
Also, much of the salary paid to local staff can end up in the coffers of
fighting forces. Weismann cited Eritrea, which, during the conflict with
Ethiopia in 1998, demanded a 50 percent tax on wages paid by NGOs.
Other fighting groups simply loot aid organizations, and some even have the
gall to sell their spoils back to the aid group. “Corruption is an integral
part of the worlds in which we operate,” Weissman said.
Some aid organizations have policies to avoid corruption. In 2010,
Transparency International published Preventing Corruption in Humanitarian
Operations, which lays out what aid organizations should do when faced with
But for MSF, when the aim is to get the job done, corruption may be
unavoidable. “Our imperative must always be to save lives but we have
concluded that the means by which lives are saved cannot be a moral or
ethical issue, and that is a fact that aid groups have tended not to talk
about,” Weissman said.
When donors are combatants
The book is part of an MSF series associated with CRASH. A 2004 publication,
04/275/in-the-shadow-of-just-wars/> In the Shadow of "Just Wars", focused on
the problems MSF and other organizations had in conflict zones where Western
troops were on one side of a conflict while Western donors were funding aid
organizations that were supposed to be neutral.
That book includes examples from Iraq to Sierra Leone, where Western forces
used humanitarian rhetoric to win the hearts and minds of local populations
and often tried to use aid groups as part of these efforts.
The latest MSF publication goes further, discussing problems in places such
as Gaza where Western donors try to stop aid groups from working with Hamas,
which they consider a terrorist organization, but which is the sole
authority that aid groups have to cooperate with if they are to provide
counter-terrorism laws stipulate that providing support resources to
terrorists, even if not for terrorist purposes, could result in criminal
prosecution. The impact of these laws on humanitarian action has been
discussed in a just-released paper on Counter-terrorism and Humanitarian
Action by the
“Combatants are also human beings”
Giving humanitarian assistance directly to armed groups is another topic
tackled. “Combatants are also human beings and sometimes they need
humanitarian assistance more than civilians,” Weissman said. “When
combatants are wounded we no longer consider them combatants.”
Weissman says MSF does draw a line when armed forces use aid organizations
to harm civilians. An example he cited is the Democratic Republic of Congo,
after the genocide in Rwanda. In 1994, Hutus in Rwanda crossed the border en
masse, seeking refuge. At the time, MSF was trying to identify the location
of refugee populations around the country so aid organizations were better
able to coordinate aid to them. But Tutsi militias operating in DRC used
MSF’s information to seek out and attack the Hutu refugees.
The solution was that MSF stopped publicizing the information but he pointed
to other examples of forces using aid groups against civilians that were
In Sri Lanka in 2009, the government rounded up some 270,000 people it
suspected of supporting Tamil rebels and then gave aid groups the job of
providing the basic services. “We did not want to be supporting a vast
prison for an innocent civilian population which the state was unjustly
labelling criminals, but we were also concerned about what would happen to
the civilians if we didn’t assist them.”
A lot has been written in recent years about the ways humanitarian agencies
can inadvertently fuel injustice and conflict. The problem with the
conclusion of many of these publications, said Weissman, is that they call
on aid groups to “serve the cause of peace”. That often translated into NGOs
cooperating more closely with UN peacekeeping and international donors, he
said, which could undermine aid groups’ neutrality.
In the end, the criteria MSF uses to decide whether or not it should
continue a particular operation is simple: “We ask ourselves who benefits
most from our presence: the fighting forces or the civilians?”
------------[ Sent via the dehai-wn mailing list by dehai.org]--------------
Received on Fri Oct 28 2011 - 16:39:28 EDT