The unintended consequence of limiting humanitarian work because of counterterrrorism efforts in hot spots such as Somalia and Gaza is that it brings more suffering to civilians, said Jan Egeland, Secretary-General of the humanitarian NGO Norwegian Refugee Council.
“There was one case of a group who thought they could not give school feedings to kindergartens anymore because the headmaster was seen as being part of Hamas. Of course, a baby is a baby. A baby is neither left or right, or Islamist or Christian. A baby has needs, and those need to be covered.”
Mr. Egeland said that, while donors want to do away with any and all contact with or assistance to terrorist groups, there are no laws prohibiting negotiating access to armed actors, “as we have to do, even [with] those who are terrorists.”
“But, they [donors] have very often said, we cannot do humanitarian work that is in any way assisting these groups,” he said.
Somalia was another example. “In Somalia, we saw that starving people in areas controlled by al-Shabaab were suddenly having fewer organizations and agencies working for them, and some of these groups then felt that they had to go through cumbersome procedures to be sure that aid was given according to criteria, which made it more difficult to do relief. And starving people, again, should be given food aid and other aid flexibly and easily according to needs, whether or not they’re under a bad de facto ruler.”
Mr. Egeland said he was torn when the humanitarian system became more integrated with political, military, and developmental missions. He said, as humanitarian actors, “we need to make very sure of our independence, our neutrality, our impartiality from political and military actors.”
“That is also why we launched now this study on the negative effects of counterterrorism legislation in donor monies,” he said. “We need to maintain our independence and neutrality. And I think we can and should do that at the same time as we among ourselves coordinate better, become more robust in helping defend the rights of vulnerable people.”
Jérémie Labbé is a Senior Policy Analyst at the International Peace Institute. He tweets at @jeremie_labbe.
Listen to interview (or download mp3):
Jérémie Labbé: I’m here with Jan Egeland, newly appointed Secretary-General of the humanitarian NGO Norwegian Refugee Council since August 2013, and former head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs from 2003 to 2006. Jan, thank you very much for being with us on the Global Observatory.
You participated on a study commissioned by your own organization and OCHA on the impact of counterterrorism measures on humanitarian action. Can you tell us more on the impact these measures?
Jan Egeland: This study is a study of experts, independent experts, that was commissioned by the United Nations and OCHA, on the one hand, and the Norwegian Refugee Council representing NGOs on the other side, to find out what has been the real impact of counterterrorism laws on humanitarian work for the most vulnerable groups in places where there may be groups that have been designated as terrorists.
And the conclusion is very clear that there has been, unfortunately, unintended consequences, whereby nongovernmental organizations, even UN agencies and other humanitarian organizations, have had to limit their work for needy people or have censored, themselves, their work, limited their work, for some of the most vulnerable groups because we have been afraid of the consequences of being active in Gaza or Somalia or other places studied here. And the unintended consequence is, as I say, civilians are suffering. I don’t think the legislators wanted that. What we now ask for is a real dialogue with the good donors that want us to help the poor and the vulnerable. And this dialogue should lead to more flexible legislations and rules for organizations like my own.
JL: Can you be a little bit more specific on the kind of impacts that those counterterrorism measures have on humanitarian action? Is it like a risk of being criminally prosecuted for contact with terrorists, for instance?
JE: Well, indeed the governments want to do away with any and all contact with or assistance to terrorist groups. They have not prohibited, specifically—and that’s very good—us negotiating access to any and all armed actors, as we have to do, even [with] those who are terrorists. But, they have very often said we cannot do humanitarian work that is in any way assisting these groups. So, for example, in Hamas-governed Gaza, many groups have limited their assistance to children in schools; they have limited their work for the most vulnerable civilians. There was one case of a group who thought they could not give school feedings to kindergartens anymore because the headmaster was seen as being part of Hamas. Of course, a baby is a baby. A baby is neither left or right or Islamist or Christian. A baby has needs, and those need to be covered.
In Somalia, we saw that starving people in areas controlled by al-Shabaab were suddenly having fewer organizations and agencies working for them, and some of these groups then felt that they had to go through cumbersome procedures to be sure that aid was given according to criteria, which made it more difficult to do relief. And starving people, again, should be given food aid and other aid flexibly and easily according to needs, whether or not they’re under a bad de facto ruler.
My own organization is today having to turn away money we really need for water and sanitation projects in the biggest refugee camp on earth, which is the Dadaab camp for Somali refugees in Kenya, because we’ve been asked by a donor—which is a very good donor, in general—to do something bad, which is to hand over bio data on all of the staff involved in this project, and all of our partners and contacts in this project, so that they, this western donor, can vet these people. That is prohibited by our board; we cannot do that. We have to avoid being seen as an instrument for any political or other actor in this world, and especially in a sensitive place like the Somali refugee programs.
JL: So, what are the main recommendations coming out of the study in order to alleviate the negative impact of those measures?
JE: The main and overriding recommendation—among many, of course—is let’s sit down and talk. The donors want to help us help the most needy people on earth. They never wanted to make it difficult for us to help these people. That was never the intention of the parliamentarians or the congress men and women who enacted these laws in the first place. And we, on our side, we want to make sure to the donors and to the world that, of course, we have many procedures that make it impossible for us to in any way assist any political or armed actor. That’s counterintuitive to every fiber in our humanitarian body. We have a lot of safeguards. So, by sitting down, I think we can alleviate the fears of each and every government and donor assisting us, and we can then get them to understand and to agree that it was never the purpose to make it difficult to dig latrines for refugees by having a terrorism legislation.
JL: But despite these safeguards, diversion of aid is also a reality in a number of very complicated, insecure places, like in Somalia, for instance. Do you think that humanitarians can do better to alleviate those legitimate fears of some governments that aid may be diverted and go in the pockets of designated terrorist groups?
JE: Of course, that’s always difficult in a chaotic, war-torn place to monitor all assistance, always. If we want now to assist inside Syria, as we should, of course it’s not easy to follow every food parcel to the kitchen table of every single family. But, number one, we’re never sending money to any political armed actor. Period. Our other partners are the groups that we know have a good track record; that will bring the resources to those with greatest needs. We have all sorts of safeguards for that. But then again, it is impossible to control everything and anything. It’s even very difficult in a normal government that has social welfare programs to monitor every single payment to every single person. In this case, however, let’s be aware that we’re giving out blankets, we’re giving out baby food, we’re giving out medical relief. We’re not into any of the things that these armed actors need to undertake their horrific violence or terrorist activities.
JL: For my last question, I would like to take a step back and reflect with you on some of your achievements as Emergency Relief Coordinator and head of OCHA from 2003 to 2006. Back then, you introduced the so-called humanitarian reform, which aimed at strengthening the leadership, the coordination and the funding of humanitarian aid. This reform had many benefits to improve the predictability of humanitarian response, but also had the effect of further centralizing humanitarian aid under United Nations umbrella. Isn’t it on a collision course with increased integration of UN peacekeeping and political missions that brings all UN activities, including humanitarian aid and other political leadership of the mission? And more concretely, what’s your organization’s position to maintain its independence in countries like Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo or Somalia—where the humanitarian coordinator happens to be also the deputy head of the political UN mission?
JE: It’s true that in my time as emergency relief coordinator under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs from 2003 to 2006, I saw the need for a reform of the humanitarian system. We had problems responding well enough in Darfur in particular, which was the exploding crisis at the time. There was not enough predictable money. We often had neglected emergencies when no donor money came. And we also had not predictable enough personnel nor material resources for big operations. We also did not have enough predictable leadership to send in the field.
All of these things were then addressed in the humanitarian reform. We got a bigger and better central emergency response fund. We said we needed clusters of organizations working together in each and every area where we had gaps, like water and sanitation, like emergency education, like logistics, etc. And all of this was not leading to more centralization in the UN; it was rather enabling a humanitarian community with NGOs and UN agencies to work together. So, in the clusters it was very clear that they could be co-led by nongovernmental organizations. It was opening up the whole leadership more to nongovernmental organizations.
The problem of having integrated political, military, and humanitarian and developmental missions was sort of a parallel process led by the Secretary-General and the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, Department of Political Affairs. And here I was, torn as a humanitarian. On the one hand, I welcomed that the UN could really build a state, build a nation—end war, build peace in a coherent manner. But as humanitarians, yes, we need to make very sure of our independence, our neutrality, our impartiality from political and military actors.
That is also why we launched now this study on the negative effects of counterterrorism legislation in donor monies. We need to maintain our independence and neutrality. And I think we can and should do that at the same time as we among ourselves coordinate better, become more robust in helping defend the rights of vulnerable people.
JL: Jan thank you very much for being with us today.
JE: Thank you.
About the photo: A woman holds her severely malnourished young child in a camp for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Mogadishu, Somalia, July 15, 2011. (UN Photo/Stuart Price)