Humanitarian Action, Bucking the System, Trends Toward New Approach

Using mobile-phone-based cash transfers is becoming more common as a way to aid populations during a humanitarian crisis.  (World Food Programme/Philippines).

Does the fundamental construct of humanitarian action need to change from providing aid to facilitating people's access to help? The responses to the Syrian crisis and Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines point to three humanitarian trends heading in that direction: the changing role of governments beyond requesting international assistance; the increasing use of cash and technology, giving rise to the phenomenon of "enabled self-help"; and the increasing significance of parties whose core mandate, or interest, is not aid. These trends indicate that real improvement to humanitarian effectiveness cannot be achieved by relying on one dominant international system, or one that is organized primarily for aid distribution. 

From the battlefields of Solferino in 1859 onward, international humanitarian action has been about organized outside intervention. Over the years, the notion of "the humanitarian imperative", i.e., the obligation to provide humanitarian assistance, even overriding all other considerations, was developed as justification for this intervention. The post-Cold War era gave room to create a more organized "international humanitarian system." It envisioned a model of rich countries funding multilateral and international humanitarian organizations, coordinated by and with the UN, to distribute aid in poor and fragile states (to put it crudely). This can be referred to, for the sake of simplicity, as the “IASC system,” in reference to the centrality of the Inter-agency Standing Committee (IASC) in it.

In examining the crises in Syria and the Philippines, one can find key illustrations of how much the humanitarian landscape—and its relationship to this system—has evolved. 

With UN Withdrawal, Sierra Leone Takes Lead of Own Peacebuilding Process

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (left) marked the completion of UNIPSIL with ceremonies in Sierra Leone. He met with President Ernest Bai Koroma, right. (UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe)

The closing of the United Nations Integrated Peacebuilding Office in Sierra Leone (UNIPSIL) on March 31, 2014 was a celebrated milestone in the UN’s work in the small West African country. The UN took over from the Economic Community of West African States in 1999 as a result of the Lome Peace Agreement, and helped end a long civil war; 15 years later, the UN reports that Sierra Leone has shown remarkable achievements in the strengthening of institutions and in safeguarding stability and promoting democracy. 

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon used Sierra Leone as an example of one of the most successful post-conflict recovery, peacekeeping, and peacebuilding processes in recent years. UNIPSIL showed that steady engagement, assistance in the development of capacities, and engagement with local and national leadership can effectively support peacebuilding in a country. Thus, the withdrawal of the mission is an important indicator that the process is increasingly less in the hands of external actors and more in the hands of Sierra Leone nationals. And for that, there is still a lot of work to be done, as Sierra Leonean actors themselves recognize.

In a previous paper, Cedric de Coning, Leslie Connolly, and I presented some ideas on how external actors can support and contribute to resilience in peacebuilding processes. In that paper, we argued that the peacebuilding environment can be supported by stimulating the development of institutions that are sufficiently resilient, in a process that should be inherently led by national actors. And in this context, we stated that it is important to recognize that peacebuilding is often an irregular process; thus, external actors should identify ways in which to deal with the complexities of its non-linear nature.

In Crucial Afghan Election, Signs Democracy Is Taking Hold

Afghan men wait in line outside a polling station in Kabul to cast their ballots, April 5, 2014. (UN Photo/Fardin Waezi)

On April 13, just over a week after balloting took place in Afghanistan’s crucial 2014 presidential election, the Independent Election Commission released the first batch of preliminary results. Accounting for approximately ten percent of the vote, and covering 26 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, these results yielded at least three important conclusions. First, Afghans seemed to vote across ethnic lines far more than what was predicted. Second, Ashraf Ghani, who won only 3% of the vote in the 2009 election, is indeed a front-runner. He won 37.6% of the votes in the preliminary count, in second place behind Abdullah Abdullah, President Hamid Karzai’s main challenger in 2009, with 41.9%. Third, the candidate who was widely presumed to be backed by President Karzai, Zalmai Rassoul, earned only 9.8%, putting him in a distant third place. If no candidate receives 50% in the first round, a run-off between the two top vote-getters will be held.

Rassoul’s poor showing is revealing insofar as it suggests that the presidential palace either did not have the will or did not have the capacity to rig the vote. Given the widespread fraud that took place in 2009 to support President Karzai’s re-election, this dog that did not bark is an intriguing and important development. This is the first presidential election in which President Karzai can’t run. A peaceful handover of power from one democratically elected president to another has never occurred in Afghan history. The mostly positive reports from election day have brought that achievement one large step closer. 

While Seeking Stability, Yemen Builds Momentum Against Child Marriage

Sisters Nana (16 years old) and Zakia (20, at right) in the Abu Shouk camp for displaced people in Darfur, Sudan. Nana was married at 13, and Zakia at 17. (Albert González Farran/UNAMID)

In Iraq, a draft law tabled in the Parliament this week would legalize marriage for nine-year-old girls. In Jordan, Syrian refugees are increasingly pressing their daughters into early marriage—for the economic survival of the family, or with the belief that it might protect their daughters from sexual assault. In Yemen, child marriage captured the spotlight last September when an eight-year-old girl died from internal bleeding on the night of her wedding to a man five times her age. 

In the Middle East and beyond, girls in countries experiencing conflict, instability, or humanitarian crises are most vulnerable to early marriage. While families often perceive early marriage as a protective response in times of crises, its underlying drivers include poverty, weak legal frameworks, gender discrimination, and harmful traditional practices. 

Parents often fail to recognize the implications of an early marriage for their daughters, who are left vulnerable to domestic-based violence and often life-threatening adolescent labor. For society at large, the consequences extend far beyond the child’s physical insecurity: one of the strongest indicators of state security across the globe lies in a state’s treatment of its women and girls. Where women gain more political power and attempt to reverse structural inequalities that threaten their physical security, this could also improve peace and stability writ large.

Yemen, which is ranked as the poorest and most fragile state in the Arab region, could present an interesting case in this respect. Fifty-two percent of women are married before the age of 18 in Yemen, and 14 percent before the age of 15. Efforts to set the minimum age for marriage at 17 years were blocked by the Parliament in 2009. Hardline Islamic conservatives, whose influence grew significantly in Yemen over the past two decades, contended that setting a minimum age for marriage would be contrary to sharia law. At the same time, most child marriages in Yemen happen in rural areas with low literacy rates and high levels of poverty, where tradition and custom are often more powerful than the laws of the state.

But a shift in gender relations following the 2011 Yemeni uprising could have a profound effect on child marriage. Despite Yemen’s traditional conservatism, women led the Yemeni revolution alongside men, toppling the country’s 33-year-old authoritarian regime in a bid to reclaim their human rights. The level of women’s mobilization, participation in public demonstrations, and expression of independent political views was unprecedented. When the president publicly called women’s participation in the demonstrations “un-Islamic,” they continued to flock to the streets in the thousands. 

In some cases, this created a blend of old and new ideologies. For example, the Islamic conservative political party, al-Islah, called on their women supporters to join the public demonstrations, while women who joined agreed to respect tradition and sleep in separate sections of street tents throughout the uprising. 

One female member of the Islah party, Tawakkul Karman, won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for her struggle for women’s rights, democracy, and peace. Yemeni women rose to prominence on the international stage, and women’s political participation was increasingly viewed with respect. 

In light of their role in the uprising, women were also granted a role in the transitional process that followed. After the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) brokered a deal that saw the departure of Yemen's entrenched president Ali Abdullah Saleh, a 30-percent quota was set for women participants in the National Dialogue that would propose the tenets of a new Yemeni constitution. 

The dialogue lasted nearly a year, and women made up 22 percent of participants in practice. In its final report, the Rights and Freedoms Working Group, which was chaired by a woman and in which 45 percent of the delegates were women, proposed setting a minimum age for marriage at 18 years—a significant acknowledgement of the plight of girls forced into child marriage. 

While considerable efforts will still be required to now get this kind of legislation passed and to transform the landscape of child marriage in society, the shift in gender relations during the revolution and the opening up of the political process thereafter have allowed for this crucial first step. And over the past year, amid newfound political power for women, momentum has been building (reported also here and here).

For policymakers concerned with Yemen’s security, capitalizing on this momentum could also offer some relatively low-hanging fruit. Half of Yemen’s population lives on less than $2 a day, democracy will take a long time to build, and religious extremists are likely to remain in the picture for the foreseeable future. But if there’s any truth to the statistics, it’s not wealth, democracy, or religious identity that makes the strongest predictor of a society’s peacefulness—it’s how well women are treated. So where better a place to start than with girls?

Waleed Alhariri is a Research Assistant in the Middle East program at the International Peace Institute. Marie O’Reilly is associate editor at the International Peace Institute.

Dancing With the Word “Genocide”

A flower arrangement outside the Kigali Genocide Memorial Museum in Kigali, Rwanda.

Twenty years after the Rwandan genocide, and despite so many pledges from states, multilateral institutions, and nongovernmental organizations, there is no real sign the world would step in quicker and more determined if genocide were to happen today. To be clear on this, there has not—fortunately—been another genocide since Rwanda, if genocide is understood as targeting an identifiable group with the aim of destroying it, as defined by the international convention. There have been numerous conflicts, wars, and other instances of organized and/or political violence, and many of them have certainly been comparatively cruel, devastating, and deadly for victims, survivors, refugees, and even bystanders to some extent. But the Darfurs, Colombias, Congos, Sri Lankas, Yugoslavias, Afghanistans, and others have not had the very same surgical precision that genocide had in Rwanda. The last time genocide, as so defined, happened before that was most certainly the Holocaust. So, what are the implications?

First of all, it does not mean that these acts are less cruel if we do not label them “genocide.” Terminology helps us to develop an understanding of conflicts and their respective specificities, and this is particularly true in the case of Rwanda, where Hutu extremists killed at least 800,000 people in 100 days.

Second, there have been numerous incidents that seemed very similar to genocide in the past two decades—Srebrenica, Makobola, Bouaké, Bojaya, just to name a few. Darfur has been called genocide by activists for over ten years. Eastern Congo has been termed a counter-genocide by many. It is beyond debating that these horrific episodes of violence must have been as cruel and deadly for the human beings involved as the genocide in Rwanda. The same holds true for the ongoing conflict in the Central African Republic. But genocide is not a term that describes how the people exposed to such measures feel. It is a technical-judicial-political term that explains how action needs to be shaped in order to be classified as such within a framework of various legal definitions for circumstances of organized violence.

Key Global Events to Watch in April

At the start of every month, the Global Observatory posts a list of key upcoming meetings and events that have implications for global affairs.



Peace & Security

      • April 1: US-ASEAN Defense Forum, Honolulu
        US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel discusses Pacific regional issues with his counterparts from Indonesia, Singapore, Philippines, and other ASEAN countries at the first US-hosted US-ASEAN Defense Forum, an informal meeting of the defense ministers of 10 countries that make up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. However, Thailand’s defense minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, who is also the country’s prime minister, is not expected to attend due to ongoing domestic political uncertainty. This gathering happens at a time when tensions are growing in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, with a more assertive China in the Southeast Asian region. Although the US rebalance toward Asia goes well beyond the military dimension, hosting the US-ASEAN defense ministers' meeting on US soil reinforces the military angle of the US as a Pacific power. 
      • April 1–2: NATO meeting on Ukraine, Brussels
        Foreign ministers from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization meet at the military alliance’s headquarters to forge a response to the crisis in Ukraine on its eastern frontier. Items on the agenda include training for Ukrainian forces and a possible suspension of cooperation with Russia. With joint NATO military exercises planned, which are likely to bring US forces in proximity with their Russian counterparts in Crimea, tensions remain high.
      • April 7–9: P5+1 Resume Talks with Iran, Vienna
        Six world powers continue to negotiate with Iran over its nuclear program. Although a final deal is sought by July, negotiations will likely continue beyond then. In exchange for lifting sanctions, the six world powers want Tehran to downgrade many aspects of its civil nuclear program, with the US especially concerned about the Arak heavy water reactor. With American and Iranian conservatives drawing hard lines on Iran’s ability to produce weapons-grade uranium and Tehran’s autonomy, respectively, overcoming domestic resistance is one long-term obstacle. In the short term, though, some observers are waiting to see if tensions over the crisis in Ukraine affects the P5+1 diplomats’ ability to stand united on this historical agreement with Iran.
      • Mid-April: Arria-Formula Meeting on North Korea
        The UN Security Council meets sometime midmonth for an informal discussion on the Commission of Inquiry on North Korea, which has detailed various human rights abuses in the isolated nation. Although the Commission's report suggests North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un and others be referred to the International Criminal Court, China would almost certainly block any such Security Council action. However, further sanctions—including additional blacklisting of high-level military personnel—are a possibility.
      • April 29: Israel-Palestine Peace Accord Deadline
        April 29th marks the end of the current period of US-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, which began in July 2013. As the negotiation process hits another snag over prisoner release and mutual party mistrust, envoys and diplomats on all sides are engaged in last-minute negotiations to agree to a “framework” for future peace talks in order to extend the process beyond the April 29th deadline. 

Citizens Circumvent Turkey's Bans on Social Media

Turkish graffiti says "let your bird sing" next to Google's DNS servers’ IP addresses, used to circumvent the government's Twitter ban. Image via @FindikKahve/Twitter.

There is an informal rule that the more one attempts to hide, remove, or censor information on the Internet, the more widely publicized that information becomes. We’ve seen this in a number of cases. Some have been serious, like the 2009 attempt by a multinational oil company to suppress The Guardian’s reporting of a toxic waste dump scandal, which resulted in the corporation’s name trending negatively on Twitter. Others have been humorous, such as the 2003 case of Barbara Streisand attempting to suppress photos of her mansion in Malibu, California, from a series of stock photographs of the Malibu coastline, which resulted in half a million additional visits to the website hosting the stock photos. This last incident is where the rule gets its name: the Streisand Effect.

The efforts by the Turkish government to shut down citizens’ access to Twitter offer a telling example of the national security implications of the Streisand Effect. On March 20th, the administration of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan banned the use of Twitter in the country. A week later, it banned YouTube too. This comes in the lead up to local and presidential elections taking place this year and amid a series of wiretap leaks that allegedly show corruption at the heart of the Erdoğan administration. 

Erdoğan has claimed that social media outlets are enabling shadowy actors to spread false information without fear of repercussions. In the case of Twitter, the prime minister went so far as to say that he would “eradicate” the site from the country. 

In actuality, Turks use of the social media service rose after the prime minister’s announcement about Twitter—by 138 percent. One analytics group counted 1.2 million tweets in the 24-hour period following the ban. 

Humanitarian Aid vs Resilience Debate Should Put Priorities in Context

Humanitarian workers from the Dominican Republic prepare to distribute food  after the earthquake in Haiti, January 19, 2010. (UN Photo/Marco Dormino)

A heated debate over whether humanitarian aid should also include building  longer-term resilience in communities was triggered in the blogosphere in February by Jonathan Whittall, Mit Philips, and Michiel Hofman from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). They argued that the resilience concept, as a bridge between humanitarian response and development aid, distracts humanitarian actors from short-term life-saving activities by focusing on supporting local and national systems to better face and recover from shocks over the longer term. 

Paul Harvey from Humanitarian Outcomes then rebuffed the argument, stating that, by being de facto involved in decades-long protracted emergencies, humanitarian actors have the responsibility to plan long term by building resilient systems and therefore avoid recurrent relapses into crises. This elicited reactions from Simon Levine from the Overseas Development Institute and Alyoscia D’Onofrio of the International Rescue Committee, as well as further arguments and counter-arguments by Paul Harvey and Jonathan Whittall.

Beyond the rhetoric, what is really at stake in this debate from MSF’s perspective is a worrying “decrease in the emergency capacity of so-called humanitarian organizations” in conflicts such as the Central African Republic or the Democratic Republic of the Congo—especially in areas under the control of nonstate armed groups— and that they correlate with the growing focus on resilience building. As Levine emphasized, “development is about choices a society makes on how to create and share out resources—so it’s always inherently political.” This makes development a “deliberate contradiction”—in MSF’s words—to humanitarian aid that should stay at arm's length from political controversies (thus preserving neutrality) in order to deliver aid wherever it is needed (in keeping with impartiality), including in al-Shabaab or Taliban areas. With its focus on building systems, the argument goes, the resilience concept facilitates the co-opting of humanitarian aid by political stakeholders—including Western donors’ statebuilding and stabilization agendas. 

Sign Up

Subscribe to the GO's weekly roundup email:

What to Watch in 2014

Key Global Events in October
A list of key upcoming meetings and events with implications for global affairs.

2013-multilateral-602014 Top 10 Issues to Watch in Peace & Security: The Global Arena
A list of ten key issues to watch that are likely to impact international peace and security in 2014, compiled by IPI's Francesco Mancini.