All posts by author

Avaaz in Syria: Humanitarianism under Fire

Posted by / 15th March 2012 / Categories: Opinion / Tags: , , / -

Neutrality is one of the humanitarian principles most likely to trigger interesting debates among humanitarian agencies, yet most of them prefer not to make much noise about the topic.

Neutrality means not to take side and position in any regard in any kind of conflict. It is very closely related to independence, i.e. not to act in support of political goals or actions of any party in the conflict. With impartiality, this means not to discriminate any person for belonging to any kind of group at the time of evaluating the human needs that have to be attended to first.

Almost all of the big humanitarian NGOs do not define themselves as neutral in their codes of conduct; they keep a rights based approach on the side of the oppressed. This position of defending those whose rights have been violated, and the carrying out of advocacy activities to stop such violations, is not compatible with a neutral attitude towards a conflict.

However, most of humanitarian agencies employ a public discourse calling for the respect of humanitarian principles. When these are enumerated, neutrality is included, along with independence, impartiality and humanity, even if they do not really adhere to the former. Some of the organizations are clear in articles,and explicitly state that they are not neutral.Others claim to be neutral while later making a mess of concepts like impartiality and finally ending with a poetic defence of the rights of the oppressed.

But in spite of what is written, all humanitarian agencies advocate operative neutrality in the field, claiming access solely to deliver aid to those in need. Of course, this claim in only truly valid for a few organizations like the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent (ICRC). In reality, most of the humanitarian agencies do not only provide assistance but also carry advocacy activities, such as social mobilization, denouncing issues in the media and lobbying to a lesser or larger extent.

The debate about neutrality is not new. Indeed, it triggered the founding of Doctors Without Borders (better known with the French acronym MSF) when a group of ICRC workers disagreed with the silence kept by this organization during the Biafra war (1967-1970). Yet Avaaz, with its current humanitarian assistance in Syria, has gone a little further in the debate humanitarianism vs neutrality. Perhaps it is defining the new pattern for the humanitarian aid and even for the international cooperation in general.

While carrying out advocacy work, humanitarian organizations are very careful in their public discourse in order to not hamper actual assistance. They balance what assistance and advocacy mean to the target population, and they decide where to put more weight depending on the circumstances.

On the other hand, Avaaz- an organization flagging the social mobilization through the cybernetic networks, and therefore using one of the most powerful advocacy tools available nowadays- not only denounces the abandon of the Syrian population, not only request to those actors with decision power to act, but also claims to be providing humanitarian aid through their networks in the area. If some years ago the term humanitarian action was born to include both the humanitarian aid and advocacy, perhaps Avaaz may own the “humanitarian activism” label.

It is not the first time Avaaz includes humanitarian assistance in their advocacy activities; they also did it in the case of getting and channelling funds to Buddhist monks in Myanmar when the authorities of that country forbade entry to humanitarian agencies after the Nargis hurricane in 2008. By then, however, Avaaz was not as popular as it is now, and Myanmar was not witnessing the kind conflict taking place currently in Syria.

Obviously it is not the first time activism networks, local or international, assist civilian populations that support one actor or who are trapped on one side of the conflict. But Avaaz is an international organization without any preliminary interest in the conflict; and it makes public all of its aid delivery in its global network. This network has millions of followers, and it labels this kind of help as humanitarian while requesting donations from the public to continue “smuggling” the aid into the conflict situation, with strong statements such as this one:

“Let’s be clear — as embassies close, medical agencies withdraw and journalists pull out, Avaaz has the only network that is both smuggling medical equipment and journalists in and images and information out. The UN has failed, but we can help peaceful democracy heroes like Danny loosen the dictator’s grip on their country. Watch Danny’s urgent appeal and chip in now so we can continue our Arab spring campaigning and support for citizen journalists — if enough of us donate now, we can get aid to the most besieged cities and towns before the next attack.”

Neutrality should be a principle ensuring the entry of humanitarian agencies in any conflict, but we can see that in practice this is not the case. This is the case even to the ICRC who signs up to that principle unambiguously. Perhaps this is the result of the vague neutrality played by many agencies. Or perhaps it is only that no one wants to welcome witnesses to the crimes.

Be that it may, neutrality, like the Responsibility to Protect as well, are not proving to be very useful. Maybe the only way right now to many organizations is clear non-neutrality and to adapt its operational methodology accordingly, supporting to the civil society groups considered right –by them- in each case. Perhaps, on the other hand, those being truly neutral, with all the consequences of the term, may take for granted universal access. Even if there are conflicts where it seems that not even the purest neutrality will take anything for granted.  facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

What is Civil Society?

Posted by / 5th February 2012 / Categories: Opinion / Tags: , / -

There seems to exists a general agreement that international development programmes must be based on the support of local organizations and frameworks in the countries and areas where the projects are implemented, rather than the direct work of the international agencies and NGOs. Most of international cooperation projects are carried out following this approach, giving an increasingly leading role to local actors. The main goal is to strengthen the local counterparts and their ownership of development actvities in order to ensure long-term sustainability.

Within this context, the term “civil society” is used continuously in forums and seminars. Bold statements abound about the work of this or that organization mainly supporting civil society in this or that country. But civil society is not homogenous, and therefore to announce overall support to civil society is too simplistic and hides an important question facing international organizations: Who is actually being supported?

In the case of structural support to governmental bodies, either local and regional or national, the answer is simple: governments are legitimate and recognized actors- regardless of whether they have been democratically elected or not. However, most NGOs – and also governmental agencies in some cases- prefer to work with civil society’s organizations for moral reasons. In fact, NGOs are civil society’s actors and therefore it is reasonable they look for cooperation with similar types of actors.

Yet civil society is heterogeneous and their organizations have several interests, frequently with multiple agendas and lack of coherence. The legitimacy of the local counterparts can not be extrapolated further than the one held by the members of those organizations. This in spite of those statements assuming that working with one organization of a country’s civil society means working with its overall civil society.

In addition, the problem at the time of choosing the “twin” organizations is increased according to the level of advocacy associated to the programme: in a project of, for example, improvement of irrigation techniques in an agricultural area, it is not that important whether this is done through the organization A or B. At least as long as both are impartial, fair and good managers in general. However, in a project also looking for improving the agriculture policies in an area, the question about who is supported gains greater significance.

In the case of advocacy projects the goal is not only the strengthening of local organizations, but also, and above all, to legitimise the political requests. Most foreign NGOs do not see themselves having enough legitimacy to influence the political agendas of another country or region. This is blatant hypocrisy, as by supporting one group or another- or defending one political position or another- they are already playing a role. International NGOs often argue they only give funds and technical support to civil society to fight for their goals. However, as stated above, civil society is not homogeneous, so this discourse is flawed in most of the cases.

Indeed, international NGOs cooperate frequently with the development of political agendas of those “theoretical local civil society representatives”. Besides it only being part of the story, to affirm simple support of civil society is mistaken. In most of the cases, at least, there is a collaborative aspect in the work. Obviously it is not about international political intrigue by the NGOs: political agendas of NGOs are basically about the rights to access to minimum social services for those in need. So, why are they so worried about demonstrating that they are not an actor in the political arena of other countries?

The answer can be focused on two aspects of the matter: on the one hand, the frequent neo-colonialism accusations about NGOs force them to simply support a homogeneous civil society; on the other hand, NGOs are afraid a more honest position may close doors to hampering its influence as well as putting at risk their own survival. And there are of course more reasons in each particular case that make international development organizations move on the edge of incoherent discourse in so many situations.

However, the biggest problem is not the danger of pretending; the main concern should be the fact of neglecting the question itself.  facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Refugees in Mozambique: Where is the International Community?

Posted by / 7th October 2011 / Categories: Analysis / Tags: , , , / -

These are not good times for millions of Ethiopians and Somalis. With an armed conflict lasting more than 20 years in the Horn of Africa, and with the famine sparked by the last drought, their situation has become unbearable. Many women, children and men have no more option than fleeing their countries looking for aid and a future.

It is unclear if aid can be found in greater or lesser quantity and quality in the overcrowded camps of Kenya and south Ethiopia. But what takes thousands of Ethiopians and Somalis far beyond their borders is the search for new destinations. The Republic of South Africa has been traditionally one of those favourite destinations, but in the last few months the route towards “El Dorado” includes a deadly trap at the border between Tanzania and Mozambique.

The League for Human Rights in Mozambique (LDH in Portuguese) has publically launched a report detailing the human rights violations of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants entering Mozambique nearby the border with Tanzania, the great majority of which arriving by sea.

Mozambique has traditionally been an entry point to South Africa, used by Ethiopians, Somalis and other nationalities. It is also home to thousands of refugees from the Great Lakes region. They found asylum in Mozambique since the middle of the 90s, when the latter started to recover from the civil war affecting the country after its independence in 1975. Mozambique is also signatory of the continental and international protocols and treaties protecting refugees. Its legislation takes a moderate stance towards migrants with an irregular administrative situation in the country. Lately, however, something has changed.

In the first half of 2011, according to the LDH report, about 8000 Somalis and Ethiopians entered Mozambique, overwhelming the country’s response capacity. Mozambique then called for support from international organizations. The great majority of these 8000 people, after receiving emergency aid, continued their way- probably towards the Republic of South Africa. This was the common practice during recent years, although never with such big numbers. Yet, during the last few months, no new Somalis or Ethiopians have passed through Mozambique anymore.

According to the LDH report, since May 2011, Somalis and Ethiopians are being detained and thrown out Mozambique by the authorities of this country without respecting the national and international protocols protecting refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. Moreover, the report details brutal police practices, forcing local fishermen to take the detainees to no-man’s land, where they are abandoned to their fate. Many of them have died because of the rising tide of the sea, being at the mercy of the wild animals, or of hunger and thirst. The report strongly denounces this situation in which men- making up the vast majority- but also women and children are being virtually assassinated by the Mozambican authorities.

UNCHR already denounced the irregularities in a press release on June 24th 2011, calling the Government of Mozambique to stop the detentions and the police’s brutality, and reminding their obligations as signatory of the refugees’ conventions. The Government of Mozambique replied nothing had changed in the national policy and promised to investigate the situation. Little credit was given to this answer: Mozambique has a strong central government whose orders are followed, and it is hard to imagine that the practices referred to are not following a new national and regional strategy. The Republic of South Africa is now putting significant pressure on its neighbouring countries to stop the migrants before reaching its large border. Besides, the shadow of suspicion about Somalis being pirates or terrorists adds more pressure from countries concerned about that particular kind of threat.

The LDH report reveals facts that cannot be ignored by Mozambican society and the international community. The migrations will continue to happen while Ethiopians and Somalis do not have access to a decent life. The weather conditions will be better for travelling by sea in a couple of months time. There will probably be a new wave of migrants testing once again the Government of Mozambique, and neither Mozambican society nor the international community should let a country- which had an exemplary track record with regards to refugees and migrants until a few months ago- continue acting outside of the law.  facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail