All posts tagged Humanitarian Action

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

Humanitarian Action and the Security Challenge

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

As Alfred Einstein noted, “not everything than can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted”. Paraphrasing Einstein, the humanitarian agencies today confront security challenges where not everything is what it appears to be and should be.

Over the past decade, we have been witnessing an increasing level of insecurity in the different contexts in which humanitarian agencies operate. Unfortunately killings, kidnappings and serious injuries are not something extraordinary; rather they have become a common occurrence. The year 2008 generated the highest number of attacks, killings and kidnappings against humanitarian workers. It marked the highest point of seriously wounded since the data started to be collected, with 276 victims in 165 separate security incidents (according to “Aid Worker Security Report 2011″, Humanitarian Outcome 2011).

Despite recent data showing a decline of security incidents from 2009, this should not lead to the wrong perception that security has increased and that humanitarian agencies are less vulnerable. Nothing could be further from reality. On the one hand, there is no unique and standardized definition of what constitutes a “security incident”, and not all agencies systematically record them. On the other hand, the contexts where humanitarian agencies operate today are more complex, less predictable and increasingly volatile, making their work more difficult.

There is a diversity of opinions on whether today’s contexts of operation of humanitarian agencies are new contexts or whether there has been an evolution of already existing trends. Without entering into this controversy, there is no doubt that today humanitarian agencies have to confront an increasingly insecure environment characterized by globalization, polarization and radicalization of the conflicts, and they have to deal with their immediate consequences.

In this environment, aid agencies and their personnel have become targets. Former symbols of unequivocal protection such the Red Cross now find themselves unable to guarantee it. Others, like the UN flag, have become, on occasions, the opposite of protection. What has changed or evolved today in these contexts?

1. A notorious increase of internal armed conflicts -in comparison to international conflicts- and their internationalization (such as Somalia or the DRC), with an increasing presence and mix of local and international groups guided by diverse motives and agendas (political, economical, religious, etc).

2. An increase in the number of non-state actors that are very difficult to identify, hardly structured and without clear chain of command. Their violence is stimulated by an easy and rapid access to communications, copy patterns and weapons.

3. Strategic alliances are established between the different non-state actors resulting in an increase of criminal actions that in most cases are camouflaged under political and “claimable” agendas.

4. An increased number of National States trying to advance their diverse interest and political agendas, often disguising an interventionist political discourse or its military strategy as humanitarian aid.

5. An increasing tendency towards the privatization of the humanitarian assistance, where the Humanitarian Imperative is not longer the reason of the action. Rather, it is discarded or even worse, despised.

6. A proliferation of NGOs that under this “generic” name agglutinate a large variety of organizations not necessarily respecting and sharing humanitarian principles.

7. NGOs are often perceived by armed groups and non-state actors as competitors for the control over local populations on whom they depend mostly for supplies, recruitment and the possibility to hide among them (i.e. refugee camps).

8. Neutrality, as a traditional “protection shield”, has been disappearing and today is no longer synonymous of security and protection as it was in the past. Humanitarian agencies and their staff are perceived as aligned to one side, supporting or helping one of the parties in conflict. Parallel to that they are perceived as importers of certain “western/foreign” values.

The immediate result is a deep and substantial erosion of the humanitarian space with the deterioration of the respect of the rules of the game and of the International Humanitarian Law. Or even worse, its absolute ignorance. Indeed, humanitarian agencies are perceived as antagonistic to the interests and objectives of the conflicting parties. Parallel to this, the perception of agencies as instruments of foreign interest, combined with the increasing multipolarity of powers in the international arena, is used by armed groups to legitimatize their attacks against the humanitarian workers. This shows that the attacks perpetrated against the aid agencies are not only motivated by “a wrong perception of them”, but also that they are deliberated and strategically organized. Indeed, the growth of the unstable and highly volatile environments, characterized by fragile or failed states with ethnic conflict and with the presence of terrorist and criminal groups, makes it more difficult for humanitarian agencies to work under basic security conditions. The level of relative stability and normality that the presence of humanitarian agencies bring to the context is perceived by those actors as a threat to their interest. These groups remain restricted to their area of operations without seeking international recognition. This focus on the local provides them with a “sense of impunity”, attacking and targeting humanitarian agencies.

At present, humanitarian agencies and their personnel are confronted with difficult challenges in environments which continuously metamorphose, making it fundamental to depoliticize humanitarian aid and re-establish the respect for the independence, impartiality and neutrality of humanitarian action. At the same time, it also becomes fundamental to guarantee the respect of International Humanitarian Law and with it the free and secure access to the beneficiaries. It is essential that the NGOs establish confidence in their local work, and that their actions are based purely on the Humanitarian Imperative. This will certainly help to reduce security risks.  facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail