Eroding humanitarian principles: who's to blame?

August 7, 2008
Samir Elhawary, Humanitarian Policy Group at ODI

A recent article by members of the well known humanitarian agency Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) expressed serious concern at current UN humanitarian reforms that seek to enhance coordination among humanitarian agencies and establish more effective funding mechanisms for emergencies. It views these latest reforms as an attempt to further align political, military and aid objectives. This, they argue, blurs the lines between political and humanitarian action, fostering an environment that isn’t conducive to upholding the core humanitarian principles of independence, impartiality and neutrality. These principles are understood as vital to ensuring access to affected populations and the security of aid workers.

Reform of the institutional framework to enhance strategic coordination isn’t new, as the authors acknowledge. It’s part of a trend since the mid-1990s that seeks to achieve greater coherence among humanitarian, development, military, diplomatic and commercial interventions. This attempt to bridge aid and politics stems from the general acceptance among Western states – especially since 9/11 – that ineffective or failed states can no longer be ignored or simply provided with relief. The thinking is that instability creates fertile grounds for radicalisation which, in tern, poses severe threats to the liberal democratic world.

Afghanistan and Iraq are some of the most recent interventions that are symptomatic of this trend, and the places in which aid workers have expressed most concern over their ability to operate. In fact, in 2004 MSF pulled out of Afghanistan after several of its aid workers were killed. This would tend to reinforce concerns that greater coherence and the consequent blurring between political and humanitarian interventions are eroding humanitarian principles and hindering the ability of aid workers to save lives.

However, while the evidence suggests that there has been a loss of ‘humanitarian space’, two qualifications need to be made. Firstly, as emphasised recently by Laura Hammond, increasing attacks on aid workers are more likely to be due to the considerable benefits that can be gained by those who carry out the attacks – namely, massive publicity which can be used to promote a particular message – rather than because of any erosion of principles. Attacking aid workers can also be a way to send a powerful message in terms of showing military prowess and, in effect, become a strategy of war.

Secondly, apart from those organisations that espouse a relatively strict adherence to principles of independence and neutrality, some agencies have started to actively take sides, supporting what they perceive as ‘good’ political objectives in their advocacy campaigns; such as calling for intervention in Darfur. Others have pursued a development or social justice agenda that seeks to transform the societies they engage in through ‘conflict resolution’, ‘recovery’, ‘reconstruction’ and ‘peace-building’ interventions. In such a context, talk of neutrality makes little sense. There is a need to move away from the current tendency to solely blame the role of the ‘system’ and/or other political/military actors and emphasise the fact that it is often the agencies themselves that are the prime drivers in politicising aid.

These trends raise important questions with regard to the relevance of applying humanitarian principles in the current environment. Should agencies pull out, reject funds or suspend activities if they feel the principles are being overly compromised? Or is there a case for enhanced coherence between political and humanitarian objectives in order to support the long term welfare of these societies – and perhaps also their security in the shorter-term? Until such dilemmas are resolved we will continue to see a humanitarian enterprise that is deeply divided.


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