Yet another arrogant move? MSF's stance on its relationship with the rest of the international aid system

September 3, 2007
Eric Stobbaerts

In a recent position paper MSF posed itself the question “…. what will better serve the populations in need: will MSF’s independent approach be beneficial to the most vulnerable at the end of the line? Or on the contrary, …is it indeed the collective effort, which will better serve the vulnerable?”

We came to the conclusion that the best service for populations in need will come as a result of independence of action rather than participation in an integrated effort. Hence our decision in the past years to decline the invitation to join the IASC both at headquarters and field level, to withdraw from SCHR and not to join clusters, meanwhile keeping an open and bilateral channel of communication with all major aid actors. Just one more example of MSF isolationism and arrogance, or is this the only way of ensuring impartial provision of humanitarian assistance to populations at risk?

Many actors doing different things…

Over recent years we have witnessed a huge proliferation of organisations involved in crisis response that has eroded the capacity for efficient coordination, and further challenges an idealistic view of a homogeneous aid system.

Amongst this plethora of actors on the ground, there are many who believe that humanitarian action should go well beyond the basic humanitarian imperative of saving lives and operate on the basis that humanitarian action must take place as part of a larger framework for peace and development. In addition, many NGOs depend heavily upon institutional funds and are acting as service providers for donors, increasing the politicization of relief.

This has led to a dangerous confusion between political and humanitarian agendas especially in conflict situations.

Donors agendas not always compatible with humanitarian imperatives

Donors and multilateral institutions have attempted to improve the functioning, coordination, accountability and efficiency of the aid system, presenting increased coherence as the solution. This resulted in the integration of political, military, civil affairs and humanitarian agendas as the best option around a common and effective response.

A further step taken in this direction is the recent emergence of multilateral platforms where the UN, national governments, NGOs and RCRC movement gather under the leadership role of the Emergency Relief Coordinator and, at country level, under the Humanitarian Coordinator.

Beyond the UN, the model of integration seems to be the central doctrine for crisis management prevailing among the main donors and powerful states. It is now driving the international agenda.

The experiences of Sierra Leone in the 1990s, with the tacit abandonment of civilians living under RUF control, or more recently Darfur and Lebanon show the danger of working within a coordinated and politically-led governance system. This dynamic on the ground distracts the humanitarian actors and obliges them to look into what seems to be the wrong direction: a distanced view from simple and impartial operational priorities such as delivering care, digging latrines, and providing relief goods…

These experiences have demonstrated to MSF that, while the UN believes that the political and humanitarian agendas should sit as equal partners in the decision-making process, in practice this has led to the subordination of the humanitarian imperative. While efforts towards building states, peace and justice are laudable, they clearly do not always equate to an effective response to immediate needs. The natural tension which exists between short-term, life-saving activities and longer-term objectives of achieving peace and state-building, is jeopardized by efforts to integrate. Ironically this tension is at the essence of the humanitarian act.

Independence of action to safeguard humanitarian response

This assessment underlies MSF’s decision to withdraw from collective efforts in order to best serve populations in need according to humanitarian principles. Of course, there are challenges attached to this decision. A primary challenge is to avoid being misunderstood by the rest of the “humanitarian community” and thus perpetuating a stereotype of arrogance.

But more importantly, the main challenge is to not to confuse independence with isolation. There is still a desire to share and exchange, sometimes through attending platforms of coordination but also through bilateral relationships. And isolation contradicts the very essence of MSF, where “temoignage” remains a fundamental element of our daily work. A suivre..!


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