Syrian protesters in front of the Syrian embassy in Cairo Syrian protesters in front of the Syrian embassy in Cairo Photo credit: Maggie Osama (via flickr)
The humanitarian challenge in the Middle East
by Abdul Haq Amiri, OCHA ROMENACA September 2011

The popular uprisings sweeping through North Africa and the Middle East, from Tunisia in the west to Syria in the east, and the generally violent response to them from state authorities, are challenging humanitarian organisations and policymakers in new ways. These are not ‘classic’ humanitarian emergencies, which are often associated with hunger, epidemics, displacement and a desperate daily struggle for survival. These crises are happening mainly in middle-income countries, in urban settings with functioning basic social services, and affecting a cross-section of the population. These crises have not developed into large-scale humanitarian emergencies – at least not yet. But they do demand new ways of thinking and working.

A changing landscape

Events in Tunisia and Egypt constitute human rights crises triggered by these states’ heavy-handed responses to protest. The situation is similar in Bahrain, though that country has received much less international scrutiny and media attention. At the other end of the spectrum is the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Although this predates the current unrest and insecurity in the country, political upheaval and the recent escalation in associated violence have led to a dramatic deterioration in the humanitarian situation, with reduced access to people in need and the relocation of humanitarian workers. Already the poorest country in the Arab world, with more than half of its children chronically malnourished, Yemen is running out of water and fuel, food is increasingly scarce and the healthcare infrastructure is largely defunct. Meanwhile, the unresolved conflict in Libya is causing growing concern around the protection of civilians, internal and cross-border displacement, food security and economic collapse. Syria is another flashpoint. The situation there rapidly evolved from protest movements similar to the ones in Tunisia and Egypt and to a human rights crisis with increasing humanitarian consequences. Whilst the international protection framework in situations of civil unrest is not clear, a protection of civilians crisis is unfolding with over 1,500 civilian deaths, widespread arbitrary detentions, impeded access to basic services, displacement and impeded access to medical assistance for the injured. Over 20,000 Syrians have crossed into Turkey and Lebanon seeking protection, but the numbers have been decreasing.

The humanitarian response

Access restrictions on humanitarian agencies have prevented us from assessing needs in areas of concern. This lack of accurate information – especially for the most vulnerable groups such as children, the elderly, the sick and disabled and female-headed households – is an issue across the region. A common problem in these countries is that social unrest has resulted in the national security apparatus taking charge, overriding the normal entry points for international humanitarian responders and diminishing their operational space. An effective humanitarian response is built on independently assessing needs, responding to them in accordance with humanitarian principles and upholding International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and human rights law. But we do not have the needs assessments we require to respond, and IHL cannot always be invoked in situations of civil unrest. This is why, apart from Libya, where IHL clearly applies, humanitarians have had to use human rights advocacy as the main instrument for trying to increase the protection of civilians and gain humanitarian access.

Humanitarian and human rights agencies and organisations have been unusually outspoken about events in the region. Both the UN and NGOs have repeatedly condemned the excessive and indiscriminate use of force and other human rights violations, and have called for humanitarian access and the protection of civilians. Highlighting these issues in public complements the bilateral humanitarian advocacy that agencies regularly carry out. The impact of this is difficult to gauge. However, the League of Arab States (LAS) took the unprecedented step of supporting the UN-sanctioned and NATO-led military operation in Libya (with Qatar’s active military participation). The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) took a collective political stance and challenged Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s legitimacy to rule after international denunciation of the regime’s violent crackdown on protesters.

Where humanitarians have access they are providing relief, as is the case in Yemen, where the Consolidated Appeal is being revised to take the recent upheavals into account, and in Libya, which triggered a regional Flash Appeal for $409 million earlier in the year, mainly to provide assistance to the hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the country. Where access is lacking, as in Syria, organisations prepare, monitor the situation, advocate aggressively with the authorities for access and information and build partnerships for a potential response.

Many organisations are also thinking about the consequences in the medium term. There is an expectation that the uprisings will increase vulnerability for the poor and marginalised, and may result in ‘creeping crises’ that begin with generalised poverty and high vulnerability and then deteriorate into humanitarian emergencies and a need for relief. This is already happening in some countries, where uprisings have undermined the economy and strained basic services. Foreign investment has plummeted, revenues from tourism (for example in Egypt and Tunisia) have all but evaporated and domestic production has been hit.

As the crisis in the Arab world has unfolded, we have seen a proliferation of mainly national NGOs, providing a wide range of assistance including health, water, non-food items, food, shelter and sometimes cash. This has been especially evident in Tunisia and Egypt, in the response to the influx of people from Libya. However, these organisations often act in isolation from international humanitarian actors and coordination mechanisms. This is a challenge recognised both by national governments in countries affected by crisis and by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

A Western enterprise?

Particularly in the Middle East, the international humanitarian community and the UN are perceived as Western-dominated and as having little experience of operating in the Arab and Islamic world, where the tradition of humanitarianism is based on Islamic values of philanthropy, charitable giving (zakat) and kinship obligations. However, there is also a great deal of convergence. International humanitarian principles and approaches resonate with many local actors in the Islamic world, who believe that providing such assistance is a religious and moral obligation that should be met regardless of race, gender or faith.  This is reflected in the Code of Conduct for Muslim humanitarian organisations, developed with the support of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, the Turkish NGO IHH (the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief) and the Humanitarian Forum, for adoption by the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC).

Perceptions of Western domination should be taken seriously and countered in a respectful and self-critical manner. The majority of aid personnel come from the countries in which they work. They are also the most exposed: in 2009, 102 humanitarian workers were killed in the line of duty, 88 of whom were national staff. It is not a case of ‘us’ helping ‘them’, but rather people helping themselves. The role of the international humanitarian community in general, and OCHA in particular, is to support this work with the tools and services we have available to improve response coordination, disaster preparedness, fund-raising, advocacy, information management and a range of other services.

One fundamental challenge – and opportunity – for the UN and other ‘Western’ humanitarian organisations is how to strengthen and incorporate national non-governmental humanitarian actors in the Middle East into the international humanitarian response system. The past months have shown that, when state authority is being contested and governments and rulers are being overturned, we need these partners even more. In the UN system we are increasingly aware of the huge potential that civil society has for humanitarian action in the region. The spontaneous formation and mobilisation of small national organisations and individuals in Egypt and Tunisia is just one striking example. Creatively building more partnerships and enhancing coordination with these fellow humanitarians – whether in small local organisations or big international institutions – are key lessons from this year’s uprisings in the Arab Middle East. These organisations add enormous value to the humanitarian response as they are already on the ground and typically have better access to people in need.

To succeed in this, we should make an effort to meet these organisations on their own terms, listen attentively to their interpretation of humanitarian affairs and, importantly, speak their language. One recent example was a workshop in May hosted by the Qatar Red Crescent Society with facilitators from OCHA and the ICRC. Building on the lessons learned from this meeting in Qatar, a similar workshop was conducted for civil society in eastern Libya, led by the Qatar Red Crescent and Humanitarian Forum.

The objective of the May workshop was to build consensus among humanitarian organisations from the Gulf countries on key aspects of emergency response and disaster management, such as the protection of civilians, humanitarian access, preparedness and humanitarian coordination and financing. The workshop was conducted in Arabic, which resulted in excellent participation from all and a frank exchange of views. However, contentious issues arose. Some participants perceived the UN as bureaucratic and the Western-based international NGOs as having a hidden political agenda. Another potential point of disagreement was that, while there was broad consensus that assistance should be provided on the basis of need, actors from the region – many of whom lack exposure to international standards in this area, such as they are – felt that needs assessment made humanitarian responses slower and more costly. While efficiency and cost-effectiveness are important, identifying the genuinely needy and distributing aid according to humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence require time and resources. The NGOs involved in the workshop explicitly asked for more training on international coordination mechanisms, and were eager to participate in the Consolidated Appeal processes in the countries in which they work. But they also said that they felt left out and unwelcome, indicating that extra effort is needed to make the international humanitarian system more inclusive.

The League of Arab States (LAS) and the OIC have significant leverage and convening power with their member states in the Arab and Islamic worlds. Both institutions have recently entered the humanitarian arena in earnest, setting up departments dedicated to humanitarian activities. The OIC’s Islamic Conference Humanitarian Assistance Department (ICHAD) was established in 2008, and has been working with NGOs from the Muslim world to improve coordination and relief delivery in the region. The ICHAD acts as a link between NGOs from member states and international coordination mechanisms. Likewise, the LAS’ Health and Humanitarian Assistance Department has provided direct assistance to Libya. The UN is providing capacity-building to both the LAS and the OIC.

The way ahead

The uprisings in the Arab world require new ways of thinking and working, greater collaboration with NGOs and civil society from the region and support from regional organisations such as the OIC and LAS. This includes operational coordination, as well as steps to ensure that humanitarian experts in the region link up and form communities of practice to exchange information and mutual learning. To do this, key resources will need to be translated into Arabic. There is also a need for greater investment in understanding local contexts and cultures, and the ways in which humanitarian action is perceived and implemented by local actors. Advocacy on critical issues such as the protection of civilians and respect for humanitarian space would also be greatly enhanced through increased collaboration with local humanitarian organisations. Combined, such strengthened partnerships would significantly boost humanitarian capacity.

Abdul Haq Amiri is Head of the OCHA Regional Office for the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia (ROMENACA). The views in this article reflect those of the author and not necessarily of OCHA.