Taking a stand: solidarity and neutrality in humanitarian action
by December 2003

For most humanitarian organisations, the essential principles of humanitarian action are to be neutral, impartial and independent.  Good impartial and neutral humanitarian aid reduces suffering. It works. People survive, who might not have survived otherwise.  Neutral and impartial NGOs can operate and introduce resources in a conflict or war because they are expected to have no desire to win it. In extreme situations, warring parties may allow only these neutral NGOs to operate.

But neutrality can also imply disinterest, both to the reasons behind the suffering that humanitarians try to relieve, and to the implications of their work for the future.  Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) is independent, but it is not neutral and impartial; instead, its work is grounded in the idea of solidarity with the people it helps. NPA believes that, to respond properly, it is important to analyse the political and social factors behind suffering, and to understand the impact of assistance. It is important to see organisations as political and social actors: whoever controls and distributes resources in a society marked by scarcity, conflict, injustice or oppression plays a political role.  Choices about who to help, where to help and what to do to help will have an impact on society beyond direct project results.

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NPA’s work in Iraq

NPA has been working in the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq since 1995, beginning with rural reconstruction, rehabilitation and demining. In 2000, the agency reviewed its programme and realised that it needed to play a more high-profile and political role.  NPA did a political analysis of the situation of the Kurds in general, and in Iraq in particular, and established a political basis to guide its humanitarian work.  NPA clearly states its support for the Kurdish cause, and their democratic struggle to achieve rights as a people and to create democracy in Iraq.  This position was made known to all NPA partners and local authorities in the area, and it was probably also known to the regime in Baghdad.  By adopting this political basis, NPA was excluded from providing humanitarian assistance in any other part of Iraq as long as the regime was in power – it would not have been allowed to do so, and it would have been dangerous to try.

What has NPA achieved by so clearly politicising its work in Iraq? Has it made a difference?

Although relatively calm and well-organised, the Kurdish-controlled area of north Iraq was in a state of emergency after the Kurdish revolt against the Baghdad regime in 1991. No political solution had been agreed, and people did not have any confidence in the future.  The threat from Saddam was imminent.  Although under Kurdish rule important political reforms were introduced, the area was marked by political and economic isolation and a lack of resources, contact and exchange.

The first thing NPA achieved by clearly taking a position was to establish confidence and clarity. NPA’s agenda was clearly stated and could be discussed and challenged with political leaders, local staff, partners and other stakeholders. The basis was solidarity with the people in Iraqi Kurdistan. The vision was a free and democratic Iraq, where the Kurds enjoyed their rights as a people.  Everyone, the local team in particular, realised that NPA wanted to play a role that was different from most other humanitarian organisations, and wanted to contribute to political change.  But this also required time spent explaining that it was possible to be political, but still independent, with no affiliation to parties in the area, in Norway or anywhere else.

Characteristics of NPA’s work

Empowerment was a key word. This implied that NPA should aim to enhance popular participation and the democratisation of Kurdish society, strengthen respect for human rights and enable men and women to influence the national and international social, economic and political developments affecting their lives.  This implied an understanding both of the oppression faced by the Kurds and other opposition groups, and of the oppressive structures and traditions within Kurdish society itself, in particular the massive oppression of women.

In addition, it was agreed that NPA should actively advocate for the Kurdish cause and support the Kurds’ own advocacy efforts, helping groups and organisations in Kurdistan to establish cooperative links and networks both within Kurdistan and Iraq, and overseas.

Post-revolution changes

The Kurdish revolution in 1991 was not enough to establish a free and democratic society. What the Kurdish leaders had achieved, however, was to establish the framework within which civil society could emerge.  After 1991, it became possible for people in Kurdistan to organise themselves to advocate, lobby and conduct projects.  Civil society, businesses and the government no longer overlapped as they had under Baathist rule, where party membership was the only route to influence.  After 1991, some local organisations at least were independent from the dominant groups and local authorities.  Even some of the organisations affiliated to political parties dared to confront those parties and their leaders on important issues of concern.

NPA established cooperative relationships with partner organisations that had brave ideas. In cooperation with them, the agency was able to offer human rights training to police, security and intelligence service personnel, local administration officials were trained in democratic management, research on the situation of women was done and violence against women became a focus area.  Broad awareness-raising campaigns were conducted in rural areas, where social and economic rehabilitation projects were also carried out.  NPA supported free media and advocated for overall political change and improvement.

The Iraqi dilemma

When the war began in March, there were serious and widespread concerns about the consequences for the civilian population and the implications for the status of international law and the role of UN. In Europe and the Middle East, millions mobilised against the war.  This anti-war movement astonished the Kurdish-controlled north: people there understood the hostility to the US, but considered a war to be perhaps the only chance to end Saddam’s rule.  This was the Iraqi dilemma: to accept war and occupation for the sake of removing a terrible regime.

For many of the humanitarian organisations that started to work in Iraq after the war, the US occupation became a problem.  How could agencies relate to the occupying forces and their civilian authorities? How could they ensure coordination without being seen as an element of the occupying power? Was this a hostile occupation similar to Israel’s in the Palestinian territories, or was it ‘a friendly liberation of the Iraqi people’, as the US claimed?

The NPA had long stated that a free and democratic Iraq was one of its goals, and had worked closely with local partners to prepare the ground for a modern and free society in Kurdistan.  When Saddam was removed, the coalition started using the same kind of vocabulary, speaking of freedom, democracy and human rights. Suddenly, the humanitarian community saw such talk as suspicious, as if using these terms in Iraq signified collaboration with the military occupiers and a violation of the principles of humanitarianism.

Would NPA’s stated wish to play a political role and contribute to freedom and democracy in Iraq co-opt the agency to the occupying powers?  The answer is clearly no. Since NPA first developed its more politicised strategy for Iraqi Kurdistan, its approach has been bottom-up; in close cooperation with local staff and local groups, it has developed a strategy to encourage positive change and empower people to participate and work to influence their social and economic environment.  NPA is not a US ally. NPA tries to be an ally of the people of Iraq. A new and democratic Iraq is in the interests of the Iraqi people.

The question is not only what to do now, but how to do it. Change has been thrust on Iraq from above, and the much-needed de-Baathification of society will now take place.  But, just as in Kurdistan, removing the people at the top will not automatically make a difference unless this is followed by bottom-up processes where people themselves actively participate in developing their own society. Hopefully, Saddam’s removal will create enough space for civil society to grow and real de-Baathification to take place. But 35 years of totalitarian rule makes an impact on people.  De-Baathification is not only about removing those linked to the Baath party. All Iraqis must open their minds and dare to question authority.  Everybody must dare to let their employees and beneficiaries question their decisions. All public officials and security personnel must relearn how their job can be done. Everybody must dare to participate, and learn how to do it.

As a political humanitarian organisation, NPA sees a need to review and analyse the political and social environment in Iraq, to see if the social and political role it is playing is adequate and contributes to the overall aim of an empowered people within a democratic country where full rights are secured.  As a political organisation, NPA will always be challenged because of its political stand. It should be able to answer the difficult questions regarding the political and social impact of its work. The same should be demanded of all neutral actors.


Eva Bjørengis Secretary-General of Norwegian People’s Aid. NPA is the Norwegian labour movement’s humanitarian organisation. It works in 30 countries around the world, and has been in Iraq since 1995.


References and further reading

Hugo Slim, Humanitarianism with Borders? NGOs, Belligerent Military Forces and Humanitarian Action, paper for the ICVA conference ‘NGOs in a Changing World Order: Dilemmas and Challenges’, Geneva, 14 February 2003.

SCHR Position Paper on Humanitarian–Military Relations in the Provision of Humanitarian Assistance, available at www.itp.sssup.it/advancedreadings/humanitarian/steering_committee.pdf.

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