Principles in Practice

Humanitarian Principles in the Post 9/11 World

The humanitarian enterprise has seen massive growth and institutionalisation in the past decade but is it better equipped to resist the use and abuse of humanitarian action in the service of other agendas?

  • Principles are far too often sacrificed on the altar of politics or organisational expediency.

  • The humanitarian project is in more serious trouble than is widely understood or acknowledged.

Never have so many people and so much money been devoted to the provision of life saving assistance and protection of vulnerable survivors of conflict and disaster. One estimate puts the number of humanitarian aid workers at 250,000. As for the financial resources devoted to humanitarian action, “official” funds have hovered just above 15 billion US dollars annually in the last 3 years. This is only the exposed part of the humanitarian iceberg as the contributions of host governments, affected communities, diasporas, remittances, tithes and other religious contributions are not counted in the official donor statistics. It is unclear whether it is the official or the “grey” humanitarian system that contributes more to the well-being of those affected by crisis and conflict.

More efficient, but less principled?

Experience from recent crises tells us that the growth and institutionalisation of the humanitarian enterprise has not immunised it against instrumentalisation – in the sense that humanitarian efforts are often hijacked by political and security–centric agendas. Much effort has gone into improving the technical proficiency of the aid system through standards, co-ordination mechanisms, sectorial approaches, standing agreements, operating procedures and the like. These changes make humanitarian action more predictable, yet the clash between the pragmatism of realpolitik and the ethical values at the heart of the humanitarian message remain unresolved.

From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, we see a worrying disconnect between the functioning of a humanitarian establishment intent on reproducing and expanding itself and the daily reality of the physical and structural violence faced by those it purports to help. Principles are far too often sacrificed on the altar of politics or organisational expediency. Much lip service is paid to the perceptions of, and accountability to, the millions living in extremis. At the same time the system of large agencies and donors that sets the stage of the humanitarian theatre remains stubbornly self-referential. Structures, practices and reward structures tend to value growth, if not turf, over principle and effectiveness. Moreover, it remains inescapably northern and western both in reality and representation.

Systematic Instrumentalisation

The picture that emerges is a troubling and sobering one. “Instrumentalisation” is not a new phenomenon; the temptation to use humanitarian action for objectives that are all but humanitarian is well known to aid workers around the world. From Solferino to Syria, the intrusion of partisan politics, power and economics into the humanitarian endeavour has taken many forms, ranging from the relatively benign diversion of assistance by belligerents as a pre-condition for access, to the wholesale incorporation of humanitarian action into military or political adventures.

Adding to the influence of military and political concerns, the media has often amplified or distorted complex situations on the ground to catch the interest of the public. Aid agencies themselves have actively or passively fallen into the trap of utilising these misrepresented needs in order to justify their programs on the ground. And of course communities will take advantage of what is on offer or the sloppy programming of relief workers. Agencies are sometimes successful in countering blatant manipulation but the risk of being stage-managed or steam-rolled is always there. This challenge is likely to be a permanent feature of crisis and conflict in the foreseeable future. With the increasing centrality of the humanitarian enterprise to “world ordering” agendas, the risk has increased: instrumentalisation has tended to become systemic. These pathologies are more visible in high profile crises like Afghanistan or Iraq, where the international community has clearly taken sides with one set of belligerents, but in one way or another, they permeate the essence of humanitarianism.

Strained resources

Experience from recent crises confirms that the humanitarian enterprise is vulnerable to manipulation by powerful political forces far more than is widely understood. The fact that humanitarian principles are so systematically flouted raises fundamental questions regarding the nature of the humanitarian enterprise. While we can certainly applaud the technical improvements in the humanitarian machine, there is no cause for resting on our laurels.

Humanitarian practitioners are more extended and overmatched than most of us realise. If, as seems increasingly likely, living with disasters related to climate change, urbanisation and other man-made hazards becomes the new normal, the disproportion between the needs of affected groups and the assistance and protection that can actually be provided will continue to grow. Failing to address and reverse present trends will likely result in the demise of an international assistance and protection regime based on time-tested humanitarian principles.

A new world order

The humanitarian project is in more serious trouble than is widely understood or acknowledged. It is doubtful that the current love affair of western/northern states with humanitarian action will continue deep into the 21st century. This love affair is currently based on two notions: firstly, that humanitarian action is functional to the security interests of the countries that are its traditional benefactors and secondly, that the current political economy of humanitarian action will continue to be dominated by like-minded northern and western-driven values, behaviours and styles of management. Clearly, these assumptions no longer hold in a multi-polar world. The humanitarian enterprise, and its northern donors, must quickly come to grips with a new and rapidly changing reality in which a multiplicity of actors – state and non-state, private and public, local and global – will define the environment of action.

Humanitarianism, in its traditional frame and implementation, may well come to occupy a smaller place on the international scene relegated to crises with low political profile in which the strategic interests of the major powers are not perceived to be at play. The assistance and protection challenges of the Afghanistans, Somalias and Darfurs will continue to pose major challenges. Needs in such high-profile conflicts seem likely to be increasingly addressed if at all, by an array of non-traditional actors, including international military forces, private contractors, and non-state actors rather than by principled humanitarian agencies.

Back to basics

Over the past decade and a half, the humanitarian agenda has expanded to encompass activities such as advocacy, peace-building, post-conflict recovery and development. Some would say that it has drifted away from its traditional moorings. An evolution toward a more modest humanitarianism, delimited in scope, objectives, and actors, would not be an entirely negative development. It would reflect a realization that the current global trends and forces that generate crisis and vulnerability can be neither redirected nor significantly contained by humanitarian action itself. This does not mean that humanitarians – as citizens – are uncommitted to a more compassionate, just and secure world but rather a recognition that their first obligation as humanitarians is to be effective in saving and protecting lives that are in imminent danger.

Humanitarian action is about injecting a measure of humanity into situations that should not exist. Buffeted by strong crosswinds, the flickering light of humanitarianism continues to shine. It lights a narrow path strewn with obstacles and compromises. Holding the line of principle; working wherever the needs are most urgent and looking for opportunities to push back partisan agendas continues to be a fundamentally necessary and worthwhile activity despite, or perhaps because of, the challenges briefly discussed above. Instrumentalisation may well be embedded in the DNA of humanitarian action, but so is the impulse to protect endeavours that are fundamentally necessary and ethically worthwhile. The arrow of history does not travel in a straight line. Learning from the past is the best way to ensure that its arc tends toward more dignity and justice for the millions whose lives, dignity and protection are at risk.

Antonio Donini, Senior Researcher at the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University.

His recently published edited volume, The Golden Fleece. Manipulation and Independence in Humanitarian Action (Kumarian Press, November 2012), expands on the issues discussed in this short article.

First published in NRCs Magazine Perspective, November 2012