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.