The Future of Humanitarian Relief?


future of humanitarian relief.jpg
In an impulsive backlash against the warrants issued by the ICC this week, Sudanese President al-Bashir halted the work of 13 relief organizations operating in his country, leaving, “1.1 million people without food, 1.5 million without medical care and more than one million without drinking water.” (Reuters) Sudan is a failed state; the government is unable or unwilling to provide for the basic needs of its people. For many Sudanese the relief agencies are their only source of protection and provisions; millions of Sudanese are now in an extremely vulnerable state. Al-Bashir’s move is the latest in a long list of setbacks for non-governmental relief agencies. The last decade has also seen a drastic rise in attacks on aid workers as they find themselves in increasingly dangerous situations.
To carry out their relief mission, agencies must now deal with threatened authoritarian leaders, as in Sudan, or ideological battles, as in Afghanistan. In the post-9/11 world they are more often working in battlefields, amidst active fighting and conflict. Attacks on aid workers in Somalia and Afghanistan have become so prominent, agencies are pulling workers out of these areas. (NYT) Zimbabwe, Myanmar, and Somalia are just a few of the countries to ban or restrict the work of relief agencies in recent years. Rare is the autocrat who welcomes outside meddling–even in the form of humanitarian aid.
Foreign Aid workers are on the front lines in the global fight against famine, poverty, inequality, and disease. The world is a better place for the work of the Red Cross, Medecins sans Frontieres, Save the Children, and the thousands of other charities providing food, medicine, and education to those who would otherwise go without. Only a decade ago aid workers were relatively safe working in conflict-ridden areas, at the least, they weren’t specifically targeted for violence as is currently the case. Now an aid worker in Sudan, Somalia, or Afghanistan is almost as likely to be attacked as military personnel. The increasingly turbulent environments in which aid workers operate is creating an existential crisis for Relief agencies.
We live in a world of “constant conflict” and those seeking to deliver humanitarian relief must adjust their mission and mode of operation to reflect this. How will they move forward? Some agencies have responded by beefing up security by hiring private security contractors to protect their operations. This could result in an escalation of attacks on aid workers as the distinction between military and civilians working in the field disappears. Some agencies have withdrawn from conflict areas; an option which runs counter to their core mission: aiding the world’s most vulnerable citizens. This also leaves a significant void in the sphere of foreign aid.
Most likely this void would be filled by the UN, which has many more constraints on its operations than the private aid organizations, or worse, the military becomes the new face of relief work. AFRICOM, commonly referred to as the Peace Corp with guns, is a prime example of this. While AFRICOM may have its merits and supporters, there are strong objections (LAT) to this becoming the model moving forward. If teachers, doctors, and agriculture specialists are armed, the peaceful civilians-helping-civilians message of relief work will be compromised or lost altogether. According to the development network InterAction, “the military’s involvement in emergency relief, stabilization and reconstruction can be deeply problematic because of its security focus and lack of specialized expertise.”
The world, especially the developing world, needs private relief organizations to survive and thrive despite the political and violent attacks they are currently facing. They tend to be more nimble, timely, and have less political hang-ups than any other present alternative. It will be interesting to see how they adjust their operations without diluting their mission.
— Faith Smith


11 comments on “The Future of Humanitarian Relief?

  1. Thomas Van Dyke says:

    For relief of natural disasters, the UN and other NGO’s (e.g. ICRC, MSF, CARE etc.) do a great job. However when the disaster is not simply armed conflict but a crime against humanity or genocide then civilian aid agencies will be in jeopardy and are limited in what effect they can have on the situation. When one or both sides in a conflict are intentionally targeting the civilian population they will not be content to let an NGO come in and save the people they are trying to kill. Without security it is difficult to provide other components of relief.
    When the problem is famine you need to bring food. When the problem is disease you need to bring medicine. When the problem is bad guys with guns you need to bring good guys with guns.
    I have experience working with humanitarian relief efforts in Eastern Burma (Myanmar) – a place where the government is the problem and the UN, ICRC and even Doctors Without Borders will not operate. The Burma army has destroyed over 3300 villages since 1995. They have displaced over a million and killed tens of thousands. Under the current rules the UN and most interational NGOs must get the permission of the government to provide aid in their countries. When the UN and Red Cross asked permission to give aid to the ethnic minorities in Eastern Burma the goverment said no – end of story for international aid. Likewise today we have the absurdity of the international community begging al-Bashir to allow us to continue helping the victims of al-Bashir’s government and proxy forces.


  2. Christy Lynn Wilson says:

    Franklin Graham appeared on Al Jazeera TV Monday to continue his efforts to promote the stabilization of the current crisis in Sudan. On Al Jazeera’s Riz Kahn program, Rev. Graham urged President Barack Obama to immediately appoint a special envoy to Sudan. He also reiterated his appeal to Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to reinstate the 13 relief agencies that have recently been expelled from Sudan and to stop further expulsions.


  3. kathleen G says:

    Democracy Now
    HRW’s Richard Dicker and Scholar, Mediator Alex de Waal Debate International Criminal Court Indictment of Sudanese President for Mass Killings in Darfur
    The International Criminal Court has indicted Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sudan’s Darfur region, the first time an arrest warrant has been issued for a sitting head of state. We host a discussion between Richard Dicker, director of Human Rights Watch’s International Justice Program, and Harvard scholar Alex de Waal, a former adviser to the African Union mediation team for the Darfur conflict and author of Darfur: A New History of a Long War. [includes rush transcript]


  4. KathleenG says:

    fidel (who ever you are) I basically agree with you about the reasons the U.S. gives humanitarian aid. Although I do believe that the intent of individual giving is often ignited in the deeper humanitarian side that I believe resides in each and every one of us. (some individuals have the security in their own living situations to cultivate this side of human nature). Others less fortunate who still cultivate that giving side of human nature are the true peacekeepers.
    But the reasons for humanitarian giving do not discount that there are brutal individuals like Al Bashir that need to be taken out. When people are
    being raped starved and murdered indiscriminately I am sure they do not care what the intentions of the nation helping happens to me. I would imagine they just want the brutality to come to a halt.
    U.S. less than 1%


  5. fidel castro ruz says:

    the reason why you feel that way is because you really do believe that interventions are done for purely humanitarian reasons and you overlook the imperial interests behind the reason …the humanitarian intervention in the balkans were done under the cover of more lies and the ones who suffered were the citizens of that nation, not you or any of us here in the west sitting comfortably in our dens reading and believing the lies told to us by the matrix.
    the incongruity of an aggressor returning to the scene of his crime as a purported peacemaker should be overwhelming. but it is not unheard of. it took only two years for javier solana, nato’s secretary-general in 1999, to visit belgrade as a diplomatic envoy, and two more for belgrade leaders to do his bidding as solana restructured yugoslavia. if people refuse to defend their own dignity, why should the empire bother believing they have any?
    the scotsman article “helpfully” informs us that robertson would have to deal with the “dispute” over some 200,000 serbs, which “serbia says fled kosovo during the conflict, and are now too frightened to return to the country. kosovo albanian officials put the figure at 70,000” (emphasis added).
    serbia says they fled? we all know “serbia” lies. So no such thing happened, verstehen? they are “too frightened” to return? must be because they are all hardened war criminals, murderers of albanian babies and rapists of innocent albanian women; let them suffer! besides, albanians claim the number is only 70,000. of course they would. this is the kind of “reporting” that has characterized imperial involvement in kosovo from the very beginning. kosovo’s occupation was based on lies, sustained by lies, and justified by lies.


  6. questions says:

    Random sad thoughts that must be entertained however unfortunately.
    I came across some argument a few years ago that war limitations like the Geneva Conventions make wars more likely simply because we never feel the full brunt of human brutality as long as we are conducting “genteel” wars. I don’t know that unregulated “market”-style wars are the answer, but we ought to be thinking way more broadly about the consequences of our actions.
    Following this, two things: does the presence of aid workers make brutal wars more likely because the aid workers ameliorate some of the effects of wars? Can a dictator think even less of “his” people because someone else is around to think more of them? By mildly staving off one kind of death, do we increase other kinds? For whom do the aid workers work — themselves and their consciences, or “evidence-based” policy?
    And second: the blind pursuit of justice-as-prosecution may be really foolhardy. What are the consequences of this pursuit, for whom are the charges leveled — for the consciences of people who want to DO SOMETHING, or for real justice? How many will starve in Sudan because of JUSTICE?
    I can’t say as I have any answers to these awful questions. I’m often a knee-jerk lefty in my desires for truth, justice and a decent way, but– unintended consequences, road to hell is paved with…. Justice is a whole lot more complicated than I would want it to be.


  7. Josh says:

    Fidel did you even read the article or just glance at the picture and begin your angry tirade? If you read it you’ll notice it’s a thoughtful, interesting article, and this website and I think the comments section would be better served if you kept your message on target…


  8. fidel castro ruz says:

    please quit selling (showcasing) the poor sacrificial american soldier giving gifts to the population that they are trying to subjugate as what america is actually doing overseas….
    they get sent in to do a mission which they are more than capable of doing if it needed to be done…unfortunately for them all that they tell them is a lie about their mission is a lie.
    the empire is busted and the citizens are going to pay the price in spades.
    tell the elites to leave washington and their positions of power before they completely destroy what we the founders of this great nation once started.


  9. fidel castro ruz says:
    fox began a drama in which each program was devoted to the american president’s torturer doing whatever had to be done to thwart a new threat to the american republic. the hero would apply one of the tortures pronounced legally ok for americans to use, until the terrorist, gasping or screaming, blurts out where the nuclear bomb has been planted.
    this turned out to be one of the most popular programs on the air. it seems that president bush himself watched. people in the torturing business joked that they got some good ideas from the program.
    what if 65 years ago in germany entertainment radio had broadcast a popular program in which ss and gestapo officers tortured american oss officers, or captured american or british airmen, to extract vital information from them at any cost? adolf hitler himself might have tuned in. he had decreed that allied commandos in military uniform should be treated as terrorists rather than as soldiers.


  10. Kathleen G says:

    John H…good points. We do not hear about the 5 million Iraqi refugees on our MSM. Hell very little in the so called progressive blogosphere.
    On Countdown, Rachel’s, Matthews is all economy economy economy. Just move along Americans. Most Americans are happy to do so
    I could actually support a military move to take Bashir out.


  11. JohnH says:

    This country “is a failed state; the government is unable or unwilling to provide for the basic needs of its people, leaving “1.1 million people without food, 1.5 million without medical care and more than one million without drinking water.”
    If it wasn’t clearly spelled out, I’d think Faith was talking about Iraq. Agreed that “the world, especially the developing world, needs private relief organizations.” And they need to start by acknowledging problems caused by the West and then make fixing them their No. 1 priority. By ignoring problems the West creates, relief agencies are likely to be viewed as little more than extensions of Western military power, letting Western governments evade their humanitarian obligations under the Geneva Conventions. Of course, working alongside Western pacification forces in Kosovo, Palestine and Afghanistan doesn’t help their image much either, particularly when their efforts don’t address the underlying cause of the problem.


Add your comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *