Issue 20 - Article 21

The challenges to humanitarian action

April 3, 2002
Austen Davis

The challenges to humanitarian action depend in part on how you define humanitarian action. There is no single definition, and no one owns the concept. Humanitarian action is clearly to do with notions of ‘man’, and the value of humanity. If you define humanitarian action as mobilisation by human beings in response to the needless suffering of other human beings for the sake of a common humanity, then humanitarian action becomes a small and limited ideology. It must be action oriented; it must be non-coercive; it must be provided solely for the benefit of those we seek to assist. But in addition, humanitarian action must demonstrate an ethic of restraint. Humanitarian action cannot be subordinated to political interests, military rationales or even socially progressive moves towards peace and democracy. These are different ideologies and actions. Humanitarian action is smaller, more precise, self-limiting – but no less idealistic or important for that.

If humanitarian action is a small idea, it should be easily achieved through reaffirming the oneness and value of a shared humanity. The challenges that face humanitarian action are not in constantly renewing the ideology or vision to reflect changing times (communism, globalisation, or technological change, for instance). Rather, the challenges result from the dilemma that authorities with interests have to fund, allow for and encourage radical humanitarian action – even if action on behalf of ‘man’ seems to waste opportunities for the development of society, or even to act in contradiction to social interests.

The challenges that face humanitarian action therefore result from: the attempt to institutionalise the concepts and drives of humanitarian action; the fact that much human suffering is often intentionally created as a political act (so attempts to alleviate that suffering are contrary to the political interest); the corruption arising from the mobilisation of considerable resources in poor settings; and the co-opting of the ‘good’ act by politicians to bolster their legitimacy and popularity or shroud their lack of political action. People try to divert aid for military reasons, to help their side win or harm the other. People try to divert aid to get rich. People try to block aid to punish the enemy. People try to direct aid to reward those who support them, and show others that they should do the same. People try to control aid to show that they are a legitimate and caring authority, and that their actions are good and true and just.

The realism behind the ideology of humanitarian action is that if it is to be allowed, it must have very low political significance. It should not challenge authority by offering hopes of democracy, peace or freedom – because the form of peace or democracy or freedom is an intensely political question. It should be given to those who need it most, not those who will help the authorities most. In order to have the credibility to be allowed to work, it must be perceived as independent of any political agenda.

What are the challenges to humanitarian action?

The concepts underlying humanitarian action are universal and do not change over time. There is therefore no challenge to humanitarian concepts. The challenges and dilemmas come in implementation. This is why humanitarian action has to be small, precise, realistic and reactionary, as opposed to most ideological causes, which are utopian, broad and progressive. Humanitarian action is a moral philosophy rather than a political philosophy – it does not require political positioning. The main challenges to this ideal are as follows.

Anything that undermines a common understanding of humanity

Humanitarian action rests on a belief that there are shared needs for food, shelter and conditions for dignity (freedom from fear). If political forces polarise humanity and reduce this acceptance of an important commonality – if we have different standards, if we have lower tolerance and if we dehumanise others – then there is the possibility to commit great and inhumane acts. An appreciation of our common humanity involves a willingness to accept shared responsibilities for all human beings, even in the face of adversity and violent opposition. The theory of a ‘clash of civilisations’ purposefully creates ideas of racial or cultural separation and superiority. The conflict is no longer between competing social systems with opposing political and economic interests; it becomes a fight between different groups of people, where one civilisation must defeat another. There is no room for shared human responsibility in such a conflict (communism versus freedom, Islam versus Western secularism).

Anything that undermines public support for humanitarian action

If our giving public does not understand the reality of war and crisis, and only gives money to stop wars, create peace and develop justice and democracy, then they do not understand what we do, and the humanitarian mission becomes confused. Givers give to the wrong cause and become disappointed because peace, democracy or universal respect for human rights is not forthcoming. The support base for humanitarian action will evaporate.

Anything that mixes humanitarian action with other goods

Many different actions can be good or not so good, done well or badly. Humanitarian action is not an act of ‘doing good for people’. People with a political opinion that someone else’s society should be more equal, or their stupid war should stop, will see this as a humanitarian goal; but then the smallness and the realism of the humanitarian ideology becomes confused with other aspirations, and loses its power to do the small thing it can do. It becomes something you can have a position on. It becomes political rather than moral. Politics can be moral, but humanitarian action focuses on a morality beyond politics. You can be right wing or left wing, and still have a shared commitment to human dignity and the alleviation of acute suffering.

Anything that limits the capacity of humanity to accept and contribute to humanitarian action

If all of humanity were in acute crisis, there would be no humanitarian action. There must be some societies in relative comfort, so that they can empathise with the suffering of others and mobilise assistance. This implies that some societies need to be in relative peace and have spare resources, but it also implies a social ethos that they have a shared responsibility to do something for other societies in crisis. Humanitarian action cannot function under conditions of a global total war. But also, for example, the existence of Médecins Sans Frontières depends on the wealth and largesse of the Western public, and on the vocational commitment of the medical profession to social ends and equitable and ethical treatment. As society increasingly commercialises medicine, medical professionals are forced to focus on the professional requirements of their careers. Society has not structured the incentives in the medical profession to encourage, recognise and reward socially positive behaviour. This undermines the quality of service of the medical profession (including within humanitarian endeavours). We may have better technical intervention, but we have less care and less in-built resistance to decision-making that does not prioritise patients’ needs.

Anything that places institutional interests over the mission to assist those in need of help

The current popularity of humanitarian action has led to a proliferation of agencies, all of which claim to be humanitarian, and compete for money, media coverage and influence. This perverts the simple, precise requirement of humanitarian action – to remain fully committed to helping people in need. The public become confused, and governments try and define a coordination structure. Trying to create a single efficient machine out of the international ‘community’ of donor governments, UN agencies and NGOs – without recognising their considerable differences – and enforcing institutional behaviour and interests over personal moral commitment undermines the entire humanitarian endeavour.

Anything that reduces the capacity of humanitarian actors to see, understand and react to political co-optation

There is a debate around whether speaking out undermines the neutrality of humanitarian actors. Humanitarian actors are forced to speak out when political actors deny access or try and pervert simple, precise, impartial humanitarian action. Humanitarian actors are small players among large forces. We need to stand apart from governments, the military and corporate interests, not because they are bad but because they are interested. We need to interpret their betrayal of humanitarian responsibilities – not judge if they are good or bad – and counter these failings. Humanitarian actors do not have the sophistication, resources, force or alliances that these large actors have. We only have the obvious moral principle; popular support; access to the media to inform; and international humanitarian law. We must use what little we have to react to the forces trying to avoid or manipulate humanitarian responsibility.

Anything that reduces the sustained commitment to act

Humanitarianism is an action-oriented philosophy. If it is morally right to go and help, then you commit to act first and use the lessons of history to try and minimise the challenges to humanitarian action. Every individual will have a personal political opinion. If aid workers are unable to separate their political personality from their moral personality and see how humanitarian action needs to be distinct, then there is the danger of fatigue and loss of motivation. If people are inspired by a duty to preserve notions of humanity, then it is inspiring to go to Sudan in 1988 to feed starving children in a famine, and to return in 1993, and 1994, and 1996, and 1998. If a doctor believes in the redemptive power of healing and the human responsibility to offer such a possibility, then it is not a failing to operate on a boy in Chechnya in 1995, and on the same young man in 1999. If, on the other hand, the expectations are that we fail if the same person is injured twice, and we need to change our actions to make sure our patients are never starved or injured again, then we will lose the battle. Our patients do not have the choice to end the war, to prevent their children from starving, to prevent their spouse from stepping on a land mine. If we are motivated to reach out and do something for them, we do not have the choice to be motivated in 1992, and disillusioned in 2002.

Austen Davis is General Director of MSF-Holland.


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