Interview with Antonio Donini on Manipulation and Independence in Humanitarian Action

"Working in conflict has become the norm," said Antonio Donini, editor of the recent book The Golden Fleece: Manipulation and Independence in Humanitarian Action. "It used to be that humanitarian agencies worked mainly outside the context of conflict… but now, we see that in all situations, there is an attempt by aid agencies to be present, or desire to be present. And, of course, that means we're dealing more directly with belligerent forces, and sometimes with abusive authorities."

Mr. Donini, a senior researcher at the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University, said that humanitarian action used to be a small activity on the margins of crisis and conflict, but it has grown over the past 20 years to a $15 billion/year endeavour, resulting in more professionalism but also more institutionalism.

Mr. Donini said his book is about "the relationship between humanitarian action and politics, and how, in different contexts, many different actors may want to take advantage of the assistance that is being provided for their own goals. Asked about his phrase "manipulation is the DNA of all humanitarian action," he said, "In all contexts, there is this tension between the principles of neutrality, impartiality, independence, and, of course, humanity, which is the most important of all principles, and the reality, the realpolitik, on the ground. Humanitarians have to learn how to navigate between these shoals of politics and instrumentalization."

Mr. Donini detailed some of the challenges of working in Syria and Afghanistan. In one anecdote, he told of a friend in the Helmand province who was receiving messages from the Taliban that they were unhappy with his NGO project.

"He was invited to see the Taliban representatives, and he went to a house where he found two guys behind computers, so he said 'What are you guys doing?' and they said 'Oh, we're checking the budgets of the NGOs because we want to know where the money's coming from.'"

“So you can't fool the Taliban anymore, or other groups in other countries. People now have an unparalleled access to information compared to the past. I think that decisions that are taken sometimes with good intent, like clearly having an integrated mission, was supposed to be the way the international community was going to promote durable, sustainable peace in Afghanistan.

"But these decisions have legs to come back at you when things don't go the right way. I think we often tend to privilege solutions that look good on paper, but don't necessarily correspond to the reality on the ground."

The interview was conducted by Jérémie Labbé, Senior Policy Analyst at the International Peace Institute.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):

Transcript:

Jérémie Labbé: I'm pleased to welcome on the Global Observatory today Antonio Donini, senior researcher at the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University near Boston and editor of the book The Golden Fleece: Manipulation and Independence in Humanitarian Action, published in late 2012, that looks at the politicalization and instrumentalization of humanitarian action in modern history. Antonio, thanks for being with us today.

In the recent book, you mention at some point that "manipulation is in the DNA of humanitarian action." That sounds like quite a severe accusation. Could you clarify what you mean by that?

Antonio Donini: Well, our book is about the relationship between humanitarian action and politics, and how in different contexts many different actors may want to take advantage of the assistance that is being provided for their own goals. So there are various types of instrumentalization. There’s active instrumentalization when a warring party, for example, tries to take advantage of the assistance or hijacks the assistance. But there is also passive instrumentalization in the sense that donors or agencies can decide to intervene in a particular context or not. I think we mean by saying that instrumentalization is in the DNA of humanitarian action, is that in all contexts there is this tension between the principles of neutrality, impartiality, independence, and, of course, humanity, which is the most important of all principles, and the reality, the realpolitik, on the ground. Humanitarians have to learn how to navigate between these shoals of politics and instrumentalization. But in one way or another, humanitarian action is always subject to instrumentalization, and I think that is what we mean.

JL: You also argue that there has never been a golden age of humanitarian action, where humanitarian actors could go about their activities without any political interference. Yet, given that humanitarian action has taken a much more central place in world governance in recent years, don't you think that independent and neutral humanitarian action is ever more complicated today?

AD: Well, it's clear that since the end of the Cold War, the world has become a much more complicated place. One of the few advantages of the Cold War was that it acted like a big cushion that prevented crisis from veering out to control, and the end of the Cold War has unleashed all sorts forces, nationalist forces, ethnic grievances, that have led to conflict in a number situations. So, I think you're right, it is a very complicated world. And also the place of humanitarian action has changed. It used to be that humanitarian agencies worked mainly outside the context of conflict. For example, refugees would be assisted outside their country of origin. It was difficult or even impossible for aid agencies or even the UN to work inside a country in conflict. There were very, very few organizations working, for example, in Afghanistan in the 1980s. But now, working in conflict has become the norm. We see that in all situations there is an attempt by aid agencies to be present or desire to be present. And, of course, that means we're dealing more directly with belligerent forces, and sometimes with abusive authorities.

So, it's been a steep learning curve for the humanitarian enterprise over the past 10, 20 years, and this learning curve is not over because we're still grappling with some of the main problems, some of the same problems, about how best to try to protect the essential activities of saving and protecting lives from overt manipulation.

Of course, there always be a little bit of instrumentalization but I think it's major, major aspects that are of concern. The question perhaps that we need to ask is, are we better now that the enterprise is so much bigger, so many more people are involved in it. Are we better in protecting this activity, which remains an essential activity, than we were in the past?

JL: When I mentioned that humanitarianism is taking a much more central role in world governance, I was also thinking about the fact that humanitarian action tends to be more integrated within peace and state building activities so that it serves the legitimate overall objective of stabilizing societies in conflict or failed states. What is your view of the so called current agenda as far as humanitarian actors are concerned?

AD: Well, it used to be that humanitarian action was a small activity at the margins of crisis and conflict. Twenty years ago, it perhaps mobilized $2 or $3 billion a year. Now, over the past 2-3 years, I think the average is around $15 billion, so it's grown tenfold in 15 or 20 years. So this is a huge development which has led on the positive side to more professionalization in the humanitarian enterprise. But also more institutionalization, in the sense that because of the growth of the enterprise, this enterprise moves resources, attracts attention. The media looks at humanitarian actors because in many situations humanitarian action is being used as a tool or as a fig leaf when political problems are intractable and the international community is unable to deal with them.

JL: You've spent many years in Afghanistan, the country that you know very well, if I understand well. And talking about integration of security, political development in humanitarian agendas, it is probably a country that epitomizes or synthesizes all the tensions that humanitarian actors can face in this context. Could you tell us in a few words how humanitarian aid has been instrumentalized there, and it’s one part of your book that looks specifically at Afghanistan.

AD: Well, the history of instrumentalization in Afghanistan is very long. In the 1980s, aid agencies were encouraged by Western donors, in particular the US, to participate in the effort of supporting the mujahidin in their struggle against the Soviet Union that had invaded Afghanistan. Many NGOs took sides. They aligned themselves with the proxy war that was going on in Afghanistan. When the UN appeared on the scene after the Geneva Accords of 1988, which was supposed to bring peace to the country, the UN tried to clean up some of the complicated situation it found on the ground. What it did, which was quite unique, was that it negotiated a humanitarian consensus with all the parties to the conflict, with the government in Kabul, with the neighboring states, with the representatives of the mujahidin parties in Peshawar and in Iran. And this humanitarian consensus was an effort to show that humanitarian agencies were acting independently and as far as possible in a neutral and impartial manner and that they would be given, by the parties who had signed that agreement, the possibility of crossing lines and crossing borders without being hindered by the political agendas of the various parties of the conflict.

That was in the late 80s and early 90s, but the situation changed over time, and when again after 9/11, Afghanistan became the locus of a major confrontation or counterterrorism operation, the donors that intervened in Afghanistan wanted to make sure that the soft power that they wielded through the provision of humanitarian aid, that this soft power would be integrated to the hard power, or with the hard power of the military. Well, two things went wrong. The first one was set, the assumption in 2001 was that the war is over, the Taliban had been defeated, therefore there is no longer need for humanitarian action, and therefore the remaining humanitarian needs could be addressed through working with the government and working with the NGOs that were basically promoting the agenda of capacity building and nationbuilding that the West was supporting in Afghanistan. But then the situation on the ground changed, and many NGOs who wanted to continue to address humanitarian need found that because the war had restarted, they were seen as aligned, they were seen as a part of the foreign efforts led by the US coalition to defeat the Taliban. And of course, the Taliban had support in some parts of the country, and therefore it became very difficult for agencies to work, and there were many attacks against aid workers.

All this was further complicated by the fact that the UN set up an integrated mission where the UN, as a political body, took control of the mission and incorporated the human rights and humanitarian dimensions of the mission into this integrated approach. And that also had consequences in terms of the ability of the system to be seen as if not neutral at least equidistant from the parties of the conflict. Clearly, if you are part of an integrated political mission, it's difficult to claim at the same time your neutral, impartial, and independent.

JL: Still talking about Afghanistan, what's your view of capacities of humanitarian actors to access populations today given what you've just described in terms of the history of the humanitarian presence in that country?

AD: The situation is complicated because it's also moving very fast. The US-led coalition is rapidly withdrawing. We're not quite sure what is going to remain behind in terms of a military presence. And the situation on the ground is becoming more fraught in the sense that various groups are positioning themselves for what may become the next round of fighting. And so far very few organizations are able to work across lines or in areas controlled by the opposition forces or areas not controlled by the government. These agencies are those that have chosen to affirm their principled presence on the ground. These are the International Committee of the Red Cross, Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), and a few others. Most players, including the UN agencies, work with the government and therefore are not trusted as independent partners by the people on the ground, whether it's the Taliban themselves who have cause to see these agencies allied to the coalition military intervention, but also by the population who's not quite sure what would be the consequences if they are seen working with foreign aid agencies.

And I think one thing that's changed in the past 10 years, is the extent to which information is now available on who is funding what. I can give you an anecdote. A friend of mine runs an Afghan NGO in the Helmand province, and he was receiving messages from the Taliban that they were unhappy with one of his projects; it was a simple project building fountains at the bus stations in the capital of Helmand. So he was invited to see the Taliban representatives, and he went to a house where he found two guys behind computers so he said "What are you guys doing?" and they said "Oh, we're checking the budgets of the NGOs because we want to know where the money's coming from." So you can't fool the Taliban anymore or other groups in other countries. People now have an unparalleled access to information compared to the past. I think that decisions that are taken sometimes with good intent, like clearly having an integrated mission, was supposed to be the way the international community was going to promote durable, sustainable peace in Afghanistan. But these decisions have legs to come back at you when things don't go the right way. I think we often tend to privilege solutions that look good on paper but don't necessarily correspond to the reality on the ground.

JL: To conclude this discussion I'd like to bring you to Syria, which is on top of everybody's minds obviously right now, given the dramatic deterioration of the humanitarian situation there. Syria is not covered in your book probably because the humanitarian situation dramatically deteriorated while The Golden Fleece was being published. What’s your point of view on the humanitarian response there, and do you see some manipulation of aid?

AD: Clearly, we see manipulation of aid in the sense that both the government and the antigovernment forces want to take advantage of the aid that is being provided or deny access or manipulate access to certain groups of the population. I don't know the situation in Syria very well, but I think we are seeing in Syria some of the same pathologies that we saw in Afghanistan during the jihad period, or even during the Taliban period where aid agencies are being drawn into doing, of course important lifesaving activities, providing medical assistance, in particular, but they are doing so because international community is either unwilling or unable to deal with the political situation on the ground. So we have a complex emergency where the West that finances primarily the humanitarian action in Syria is paralyzed in the search for a political solution so because we need to do something, we provide funding for humanitarian action.

The other comment I make is that the emphasis to me seems to be more on access, whether it's OCHA, or the main NGOs, are negotiating access with the parties to the conflict, but the dramatic toll of the war on the civilian population and the fact that civilians need to be treated as civilians in a civil war context like Syria, that seems to be a kind of secondary objective. It's mentioned; it's mentioned by the human rights people in particular, but I think that access and assistance are as important as a protection function that humanitarian aid agencies could provide and these protection issues, whether it's often in Syria or elsewhere like in Sri Lanka for example, often seem to be an afterthought of the international community.

JL: Antonio, thank you very much for being with us on the Global Observatory today.

AD: Thank you, it was a pleasure to be here.



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