Logo

Politics and Humanitarianism

April 12, 2004

In the Shadow of Just Wars by Rony Brauman

Introduction

CHRISTIAN BARRY: Welcome to this meeting of the Achieving Global Justice Seminar, an initiative of the Carnegie Council’s Justice and the World Economy Program. The seminar series focuses on the question of protecting the substantive freedoms of all human beings, which requires both institutional rules and arrangements as well as agents who recognize these rules and act accordingly. We look creatively at the institutional arrangements that would help to realize this goal, and at the responsibilities of different agents to bring about these arrangements where they are lacking.

Tonight’s seminar focuses on three principles of humanitarian action: impartiality, neutrality, and independence. These principles have come under attack—both doctrinally, as principles that are not viable for governing humanitarian action, and practically, in view of the so-called just wars of the past few years.

Rony Brauman is a particularly helpful speaker to address these issues because he recognizes both the promise as well as the limits of humanitarian action.

In an article he contributed to the Carnegie Council publication Human Rights Dialogue, Dr. Brauman focused on what is lost when we look at the evaluation of health practitioners and health systems in a broadly consequentialist way, where we are willing to trade the lives of those at present for the prospective longevity of others in the future.

Dr. Brauman joined Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in 1978 to volunteer in Thailand with Laotian and Cambodian refugees. He was the organization’s president from 1982 to 1994, during which time MSF’s humanitarian activities increased tenfold. He was an early proponent of the internationalization of MSF and helped to foster the organization’s evolution from a small group of dedicated medical volunteers to an internationally renowned humanitarian aid organization delivering emergency medical aid in nearly eighty countries worldwide.

Dr. Brauman has worked in Chad, Eritrea, Uganda, and many other countries; he has contributed to numerous publications.

I would also note that the theme of humanitarian action will be highlighted in a special section of the forthcoming issue of Ethics & International Affairs.

Thank you very much for joining us to discuss MSF's new book, In the Shadow of 'Just Wars'.

Remarks

RONY BRAUMAN: Thank you for the opportunity to present this book and discuss the issue of politics and humanitarianism. Given the importance of U.S. NGOs and aid institutions, given that we are in the country that has just now rehabilitated the concept of just wars, and given that we are within a stone’s throw of the United Nations, it seems particularly appropriate to be having this discussion right here today.

The need to reflect upon humanitarianism takes us back about twenty years, to the famine in Ethiopia (1984-1985). Before then, we were of course aware of the limits, the shortcomings, and the internal contradictions of humanitarianism as collective action; but in Ethiopia we saw that humanitarian aid could be turned against the very people it was trying to help, that it could be used as a weapon against them. The idea that humanitarianism could do more harm than good in certain circumstances triggered the necessity of continuous reflection on what we were doing—in order to keep alive the possibility of helping people. This was when MSF began to publish essays, articles, and edit books on various aspects of humanitarian aid.

Then, in the early 1990s, with the end of the Cold War and the beginning of a new era of interventionism by the United Nations, MSF again felt the need for reflection. We started publishing the book series Populations in Danger, which presented our conception of the necessary limitations on humanitarian action. Humanitarian action is not the practical expression of an aspiration to help others, nor is it a practical expression of goodwill generally speaking. Humanitarian action also differs from the act of providing basic supplies to people in need.

In the 1960s, for example, when U.S. doctors were organizing an immunization campaign for the Vietnamese, it would have been a joke to say they were acting out of humanitarian instincts. Rather, they were acting out of military and political needs, to assist the U.S. Army with its psychological operations. Although some Vietnamese probably benefited from this medical care, no one would have described it as humanitarian.

The same applies to Soviet doctors providing medical care in Afghanistan during the Soviet war in the 1980s. Russian doctors were working under the auspices of the Red Army providing medical care in Mazar-e-Sharief, in Herat, and in Kabul—but nobody would have thought to call this humanitarian.

The tendency now is to expand indefinitely the field of humanitarian action, calling “humanitarian" many things that are inspired by a notion of goodwill or positive feelings for other human beings. But saving lives or taking steps to save lives is not humanitarian in and of itself. It would be bizarre to term the distribution of food and blankets by the Nazis under the Third Reich as humanitarian aid.

In the mid-1980s, the philosopher Henry Shue wrote about the CIA providing food, clothing, and vaccines to the Nicaraguan contras. Around that time, there was a judgment in The Hague about U.S. interference in Nicaragua's internal affairs. The United States argued that its agents had engaged in cross-border humanitarian action since their actions had involved neither weapons nor ammunition—simply, they had been distributing basic items to people in need.

Shue argued that an action dealing only with food, blankets, and drugs is not necessarily humanitarian. Under some circumstances, the action of giving out rifles could in fact be construed as humanitarian—for instance, if you gave rifles to the inhabitants of an Indian village that lives under the constant threat of being besieged by tigers, thus preventing people from growing their crops and making a living.

The judgment as to what qualifies as humanitarian depends on the context and the aim of the goods that have been distributed. Under some circumstances, you can distribute rifles and carry out humanitarian action, or you can distribute drugs and garments yet still be political.

In the Shadow of 'Just Wars' describes eleven of the major humanitarian crises of the past five years from an insider’s perspective. Part I categorizes these crises, while Part II addresses the major issues that these eleven crises have raised.

We group these crises according to three different types of international response:

  1. Armed intervention, often referred to as “humanitarian intervention." Cases: East Timor, Sierra Leone, and Afghanistan

  2. Massive involvement by the international community in the field of aid in general, but not humanitarian aid. Cases: North Korea, Angola, and Sudan

  3. No international response, which is in itself a political response. Cases: Algeria, Chechnya, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Liberia

The crisis that occupies a large part of today's media space, namely the Middle East war, is not on our shortlist because the mortality rate is relatively low. Four thousand dead in three years is tragic, but it cannot compare to the mortality rates that have been observed in the countries that I just mentioned. Mortality rate is a relevant criterion for MSF—although it may not be relevant for everybody, for example, policymakers, who need to take other criteria into account. As a humanitarian body, MSF thinks that the mortality rate is a decisive criterion to distinguish between critical and more acceptable situations.

North Korea, Angola, and Sudan have received most of the available world food aid over the past five or six years. In North Korea, for example, a famine amplified by natural disaster claimed 2-3 million lives between 1997 and 2000. The main cause was the totalitarian government, which had essentially turned the country into a slaughterhouse.

When MSF and other NGOs started to work in North Korea, we looked for a humanitarian space where we could help independently, set our own priorities, and go straight to the affected population. But then after a year on the ground, we realized that most of our aid was being used by the government and the military, thus prolonging the famine. As in Ethiopia in the mid-1980s, aid contributed to the death toll rather than providing relief.

This is why MSF decided to leave the country. But food aid is continuing, and the main justification for this continuation is humanitarianism. There is a famine, so we must ship food to this country.

In fact, what the Americans are really doing is trying to provide a parachute to the North Korean regime, which is in slow-motion collapse. It's what the U.S. administration refers to as a “soft landing"—a strategy closely aligned with the South Korean government's Sunshine Policy, which is an appeasement doctrine for reestablishing ties and slowly achieving the reunification of the two Koreas.

While these policies might be perfectly defendable, I argue that they do not rest on humanitarian grounds. Those who are providing aid to North Korea are supporting only the North Korean government and not the North Korean population, and this is not what humanitarianism is about.

A second example of the problems raised by peacekeeping is Angola, which has been at war for more than twenty years now. The war has ended, but I wouldn’t call it real peace, although there are now no gunshots. The UN is a major player in Angola on both humanitarian and political fronts, a situation that has certain inherent contradictions.

I was in Angola a few years ago to present a report on mortality data and testimonies by Angolan displaced persons in the southern areas. We found that tens of thousands of people had been starving to death over the last twelve to twenty-four months as a result of a blockade that had been imposed on the southern region for the sake of the peace process.

The problem was not the blockade. The problem was not the peace process—MSF is, of course, supportive of the peace process. The problem was the mixture of humanitarianism and politics. The UN is a political player and, at the same time, a humanitarian player through its Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), which has been the main coordination body for international aid to Angola. OCHA, wanting very strongly to take part in the peace process, approved of the blockade on humanitarian grounds. In the name of peace, they had effectively arranged for the starvation of tens of thousands of people. That was unacceptable.

MSF confronted the UN, claiming they were denying the existence of a famine in a war-stricken area because if they acknowledged it, they would have to end the blockade and do something. But the UN dismissed our report, saying we were mistaken about the famine and accusing us of being self-righteous.

But facts are facts. There was massive starvation in Angola, and this starvation had been organized with the complicity of the UN. The same applied in Sudan. I am not accusing specific people. I am denouncing the confusion between the process of humanitarian aid and the process of peace construction—which ought to be separated.

Neither in this book, nor in my mind, nor in MSF’s mind do we intend to teach lessons to anybody. We come with our analysis and our criticism of a number of bodies, including ourselves. We are insiders, and we want to be part of the debate among field players, as well as among people who are interested in these issues more generally.

This book is not a list of instructions for politicians to follow. We are not in a position to tell politicians what to do. Our only objective is to stir reflection and debate over major international issues related to aid and in some respects, the misuse of humanitarian aid and humanitarian notions. This has been a growing concern of the past thirteen years—since the first “humanitarian war" in Somalia in 1992. (1992 was also the year when MSF published its first Populations in Danger book.)

The motto “shoot to feed" was invented in Somalia. “Shoot to feed" is very strange from a humanitarian point of view.

Since Somalia, and to some extent since the first Gulf War in 1991, an idea has been developing that humanitarian action ought to be conducted under the auspices, the authority, or the protection of the military. MSF rejects this idea because we think that our main strength lies in the confidence we can inspire through the transparency of our intentions and the means of accomplishing our goals. Rifles, gun ships, and armored vehicles should not be used as the means of accomplishing humanitarian acts.

In closing, I would like to read just one sentence that I found in a recent New York Times article by David Rohde, about GIs in Afghanistan. He reports having interviewed an American soldier in an Afghani village about fifteen miles from the Pakistan border, who told him: "The more they help us find the bad guys, the more good stuff they get." In other words, this soldier thinks that humanitarian action should be used either as a reward or as a sanction—but that is exactly what humanitarian aid should not be. In the Shadow of 'Just Wars' underlines the need for humanitarian action to be independent of politics—as a necessary condition for neutrality (although I don't much like the idea of neutrality) and as an absolute condition for impartiality.

Questions and Answers

CHRISTIAN BARRY: Thank you. I would like to summarize what I see to be the core points, which may help to foster discussion. One is the claim about what counts as a humanitarian crisis. Dr. Brauman’s contribution to this volume is called "Iraq: In Search of a Humanitarian Crisis." He concludes that there never was, or is at present, a humanitarian crisis in Iraq, humanitarian crisis being identified in terms of the indicator of premature mortality.

Also the response to the situation in Iraq is not humanitarian in terms of the characterization of what counts as a humanitarian act. An act is considered humanitarian if and only if it is not restitutive—if it is not performed out of obligation but rather is something freely given. Dr. Brauman offers the following example of the provision of food, aid, and bottled water during the siege of Basra:

The magic of words transformed the landing of troops, munitions, and provisions at Umm Qasr into a humanitarian operation: due to fears of a "humanitarian crisis" resulting from the encirclement of the neighboring city of Basra, the offensive was accelerated to resolve the crisis and to distribute "humanitarian aid." It is high time we realized that the term "humanitarian" when employed in such conditions is purely propaganda. Under the laws of armed conflict, it is the responsibility of the occupying power to meet the vital needs of the population and to treat prisoners properly. These are legal obligations, not humanitarian gestures. Calling the provision of water and food to Iraqi civilians a "humanitarian act" is tantamount to claiming that the sparing of life of prisoners of war is a "humanitarian act." For an act to be humanitarian, it should be freely given and be neither obliged by law nor owed as compensation for harm done. Giving people goods of which we ourselves have deprived them is not a donation but restitution. To refuse to do so constitutes theft.

Another contestable claim is whether humanitarian action should focus on the relief of present suffering rather than suffering looked at atemporally, against a statistical model of how your actions might lead to future deaths.

Finally, we have the claim that humanitarian aid should be allocated solely according to need. This criterion for the provision and the prioritization of aid should not be binding on all actors. Rather, it is being provided as a model for a specific kind of actor, a humanitarian actor, and in that sense contributes to the definition of the morality of the role of humanitarian organizations.

QUESTION: Would you address the issue of the dangers faced by humanitarian workers? Why have they become targets for belligerents in recent years?

RONY BRAUMAN: There is no good reason for anyone, of course, to target humanitarian volunteers in the field. During the 1980s and 1990s, however, we saw a rapid growth in the numbers of humanitarian workers in the field. During the 1970s, hardly anybody was in the field. Then you had many more in the 1980s and many, many more in the 1990s—to the extent that you could hardly find any conflict situation without a large number of humanitarian actors. This increased the likelihood of our being more exposed to war hazards.

In general, however, humanitarian field workers have not been targeted. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in Congo-Brazzaville, in Liberia, in Sierra Leone—where active wars have been waging and where hundreds of humanitarian volunteers have been working for years—there are hardly any casualties.

An International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) team was killed in the northeastern part of Congo three years ago. Although terrible, this case does not represent a systematic targeting as is sometimes claimed. The same happened in Chechnya, where probably the most casualties have occurred—again, the victims worked with the ICRC, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and MSF. Another victim was Fred Cuny, a long-time U.S. humanitarian actor. The MSF worker Arjan Erkel, who was taken hostage two years ago, has just been released—great news for us.

If humanitarian players are targeted in some circumstances, armed protection is not a solution because we cannot place ourselves in belligerent situations, which would be the case if we carried weapons or accepted the protection of foreign armies.

The humanitarian space is not shrinking. On the contrary, what we have seen during the past decade is an opening of that space. When I started my career in this field, there were a number of countries that were absolutely inaccessible to humanitarian aid. Now access is no longer restricted, and more and more humanitarian aid has been pouring into these countries. The drawback is that today more workers are exposed. That naturally means more casualties. But more casualties do not automatically mean that aid workers have been targeted.

In a few countries, it may happen that we are targeted. MSF was targeted during a certain period in Sudan. And it is still unclear whether we will resume operations in Chechnya after the release of Arjan Erkel. That of course doesn’t change the situation in Chechnya, where the massive slaughter of civilians continues and where the Russian authorities do not welcome foreign witnesses.

But these cases are exceptions: as I said, the humanitarian space is more open now, and humanitarian actors are able to perform a broader range of activities than before.

QUESTION: I'd like to ask a question related to the way you define humanitarian aid. I wonder if we are facing what French philosophers like to call an antimony, or logical contradiction. On the one hand, there is concern that humanitarian actions be impartial and motivated by good intentions, rather than purely political. On the other hand, we find so-called humanitarian efforts that do not actively engage with the politics, with the real political powers that exist in the humanitarian aid context, including governments, the militias, the military, and various international agents.

My concern is this. A lot of the time politics is about getting bad people to do the right things for the wrong reasons. If we think that somehow people are going to do the right thing for noble or impartial reasons, we are off on a very utopian fantasy. So wouldn't we be better off thinking about humanitarian aid in a political sense? In general it's about assessing the motives of agents or their impartiality, and in particular contexts, it's about getting aid to those in need in a way that is not damaging to their life prospects.

RONY BRAUMAN: I did not mean to imply that humanitarian actors are superior human beings. Humanitarian actors' morality is not superior to that of politicians—at least not on an individual basis. I have been talking about institutions—their postures and positions and the logic of their actions—not individuals. I am also not trying to imply a moral hierarchy among NGOs, governments, and international institutions. On the contrary, I strongly disagree with this use of morality by humanitarian players, whether inside or outside MSF.

You mentioned the ethics of responsibility—or, as Weber put it, doing the right thing for the wrong reason. Humanitarianism should be executed on a single-issue basis. That is the only advantage MSF or CARE can offer: when in the field, we follow a simple agenda, that of helping people in need. We are not selling anything. We are not preparing any long-term agenda. We are not trying to gather votes at the Security Council or to protect market share for Airbus Industrie. We just want to help. This is our raison d’être, and our sole source of strength.

QUESTION: So your view is entirely intention-focused—meaning you would have governments doing exactly the same actions as humanitarians, delivering to exactly the same people with the same immediate consequences—but their acts would not be classified as humanitarian because governments have grander motivations for undertaking actions with humanitarian consequences.

RONY BRAUMAN: Yes, you could put it that way. But it's not always easy to determine, since any unexpected event could change the whole context. For example, look at the different responses from MSF, the Federation of the Red Cross, and the U.S. government with respect to the humanitarian crisis in North Korea. When MSF realized that our aid was reaching only those in government, we pulled out. Maybe some of these people needed our aid: after all, a North Korean civil servant is not a privileged person. He is privileged in comparison to the rest of the North Korean population but not in comparison with the rest of the world—he cannot easily get food and medical care. But that is not a reason for humanitarian aid agencies to continue providing aid, when they know that their aid is contributing to the famine now.

QUESTION: I would like to ask about the moral hierarchy that develops among MSF, other organizations, the UN, and people in need. I agree with your distinction between action that is motivated by humanitarianism and action that is politically motivated albeit with humanitarian consequences. I wonder if we could think of humanitarian action in terms of symbolic power, as conceived by Pierre Bourdieu. There is symbolic power between humanitarian organizations and aid recipients. It is also not difficult to imagine some kind of moral hierarchy developing among organizations that operate in the context of the war on terror.

Also, most NGOs depend on donations. An organization's impartiality and neutrality may be compromised by the influence of donors, especially when the organization lacks a transparent structure of governance. Maybe MSF is different, with a very open governance structure. But very few organizations encourage participation by aid recipients, for instance. They are not democratic, which in turn has implications for symbolic power.

RONY BRAUMAN: I would mostly agree that NGOs are in a position of symbolic power and sometimes even symbolic violence—the kind of violence that is exerted without the one who exerts it knowing it and without the object of violence knowing it either.

Besides Bourdieu, I would like also to take up Marcel Mauss’s position. Marcel Mauss was an anthropologist who worked on social links. I was struck the first time I read Mauss that for him and others in his school, society is the result of exchange: gift and counter-gift.

The paradox of humanitarian action is that it is based on gifts but no counter-gift. It means that it denies any possibility of social linkage, of social construction. If humanitarian aid is given in exchange for something, it is no longer humanitarian. Yet if it is given without any counter-gift, it is a destroyer of social cohesion.

This internal contradiction should be seen as a limitation of humanitarian aid. It is one of the many reasons why humanitarianism should be restricted to a very limited space of human action generally. Politics is about constructing social links. Humanitarianism is about relieving individual suffering.

The tendency now is to expand indefinitely the meaning of humanitarian action by labeling any action humanitarian that has been inspired by goodwill, positive aspirations, human welfare, or human security. Any policeman could be described as a humanitarian agent under this expanded definition. So I don't think that the notion of symbolic power undermines humanitarian aid; rather, it is more of a limitation.

On your other point: Having a representation of the beneficiaries or the recipients of humanitarian aid on MSF's governing board does not make sense. It would be impossible in practical terms to include aid recipients on our board of trustees or in any of our institutional authorities.

Nor do we allow the representation of donors. We want to make our own decisions on the basis of the evidence we have gathered. Transparency is our only condition. We accept that we will be held accountable for everything we say, every dollar we spend, every medicine we give, and every operation we carry out.

Total transparency is, after all, a totalitarian notion. But the effort to be transparent, to agree to be held accountable for every single thing we do, is what good governance consists of for a relief organization.

Some NGOs talk about having donors represented in their organizations. I don’t think donors can be represented. On what grounds, what quota? Would it be the small donors or the big ones? Would it be people with experience of international action or, on the contrary, those without any preconceived notions? To reiterate, it simply isn't practical.

QUESTION: First a comment on the last suggestion of recipient or donor representation in the NGOs. Donors only get in the way. The recipients, by your account, shouldn’t be represented. No one should classify themselves as a perpetual recipient of aid.

And now two questions: What is your opinion on the sanctions on Iraq? Should they have been abandoned because, while meant to weaken a dictatorial government, they ended up contributing to the deaths of many children?

Secondly, would you discuss the problem of diversion of humanitarian aid? NGOs often find the refugee camps where they are working being taken over by the defeated military force that has just been driven out of the land from which the refugees came. The vanquished militia would like to commandeer the humanitarian aid and use it to regroup. What does the NGO do: insist that the militia disband so that the aid can go where it’s supposed to for the reasons it is supposed to? Or do you say, “Well, at least some people are getting fed who would not otherwise be fed," and continue to pour aid into the camp?

In a humanitarian intervention in, say, North Korea, where it turns out that the first effect of humanitarian aid will be to strengthen the cause of the famine, what do you do? Do you hold back and say, “We will give no aid until we can administer the aid under our conditions"? Or do you say, “Let’s give out aid under their conditions and hope that some, at least, gets to the children"?

RONY BRAUMAN: I don’t have a fixed position on sanctions. The only thing that matters is their practical effect.

What was the effect of the sanctions in Iraq? To strengthen Saddam Hussein’s government. It has been amply demonstrated that he was able to draw, through a variety of mechanisms, real financial, material, and political benefits from the sanctions regime imposed on his government.

I was in South Africa many times in the 1980s and early 1990s, where I talked with a number of black South Africans who told me they were pro-sanctions. It turned out that sanctions were rather effective in that country: apartheid was lifted more quickly than it otherwise would have been. In Iraq the practical effects or consequences of the sanctions were pure disaster. They destroyed the middle class; they strengthened the Baathist Party. Plus a number of Iraqis died prematurely because of those sanctions—though probably not as many as people say (it’s impossible to calculate precise figures). In any case, we can assume that too many people died because of the sanctions, and that is enough to condemn the sanctions. But the main reason they are condemnable is political, not humanitarian. Sanctions were unfair, resulting in the collective punishment of the Iraqi population.

To your second question about refugee camps, yes, refugee camps sometimes turn into military sanctuaries. Wherever one finds refugee camps or camps for internally displaced persons, it means that a war has taken place. War means factions, and factions mean movements back and forth across borders. Refugee camps are part of these movements. We have to accept this. We are not there to regulate how the world works. We are not there to dictate behaviors to local actors.

The problem arises when humanitarian aid becomes a tool of social and political control. In my experience, whenever that happens, MSF eventually comes into conflict with the local authorities and then decides to leave.

It happened in the Khmer Rouge camps on the Thai-Cambodian border in the early 1980s. It happened in the Salvadorian refugee camps at the Honduran-Salvadorian border in the late 1980s. It happened in the Rwandan refugee camps in the Kivu province of then Zaire in 1994 and 1995—this last is probably the most spectacular example because war broke out in the refugee camps. That was no coincidence but an obvious consequence of the voluntary blindness of most of the humanitarian field actors, including the UN and most of the NGOs involved in refugee work. This is one of the many reasons why NGOs should cultivate a reflective capacity. They need to analyze their own field positions and ask: are we becoming a tool in the hands of a local power, or have we retained enough independence?

Of course, NGOs are never totally independent from the local authorities. Part of our aid is always diverted. A fourth or a third of the total amount is the normal taxation. We have to be realistic and accept that—otherwise, better to abandon our efforts.

When the situation goes beyond those limits, then field-relief NGOs typically resort to using the media and other tools for exerting moral pressure on local powers, so as to end up with a balance of power.

In the Kivu camps and in the Rwanda camps that were established after the genocide, I’m sure MSF could have done something. We had plenty of money, as well as plenty of technically trained workers. As far as providing food to nutrition centers and establishing efficient hospitals, all was going well. The only problem was, our efforts were serving the interests of the clique of génocidaires. They had seized the camps and were exerting total control over recruitment, warehouse management, and salaries.

The aid was to the tune of $1 billion per year—a good proportion of which was reaching the hands of the génocidaires. Neither the NGOs nor the UNHCR wanted to stop this. In circumstances where MSF is sure it is serving the interests of murderers and can do nothing to stop them from murdering, then we refuse to be an accomplice. As far as we are concerned, this is the only ethical option.

QUESTION: Could there be ways to reduce the proportion of aid that is likely to be diverted by cooperating with other actors in the field? In other words, is it possible to enhance the effectiveness of aid delivery through a coordinated, common field strategy? MSF has been very critical of OCHA's integrated approach to aid and intervention, claiming that it results in prioritizing politics over humanitarianism. Is it possible, both in principle and in practice, for a humanitarian organization to cooperate with the UN without running the risk of politicizing its humanitarian mission? Doesn't cooperation—at least of a technical kind such as information sharing—enhance the effective delivery of aid?

RONY BRAUMAN: MSF is not in a position to be "extraterritorial" when we are in the field. We are rooted to the local context and we don’t want to establish our own authority, which means that we have to do deals with local governments. When the UN is involved—the case in many situations—we exchange with the UN agencies, and especially when we work in refugee camps, where we want the authority of UNHCR (they have the mandate of defending refugees and the right of asylum). It is extremely important that UNHCR exist and be prosperous and strong.

We support the goals of the UN, which implies that we support their actions. But the goals of peace processes should not be mingled with the goals of humanitarian aid. In the early 1990s, more peacekeepers were deployed in the field than in the previous fifty years. That gives you an idea of the importance and the magnitude of modern peacekeeping operations.

When there is confusion between peace and aid goals, as in Angola, then MSF shouldn't pull out. If UNHCR establishes a blockade on certain areas, we simply have to say, “Okay, you establish a blockade, but we are not concerned by this blockade. It's not our problem: it’s your problem. We will try to find our own way through." Sometimes, of course, this is impossible; and sometimes, as happened in Angola, it takes so much time that many people die.

Another such example occurred in Liberia ten years ago, during the blockade against Charles Taylor’s NPFL forces in the northern part of the country. The UN considered Taylor to be the main obstacle to the peace process. The means to weaken his force, as in Angola, was to establish a blockade, thereby collectively punishing the whole population.

MSF had not been authorized to enter the region; but we ignored this and said, “No, we want to go into these areas." We organized a convoy jointly with UNICEF; therefore we acted with a UN agency. We warned the UN and ECOMOG, the ECOWAS peacekeeping force. All relevant authorities were informed. It was unofficial but not clandestine. And then we were bombed. ECOMOG launched an air attack and totally destroyed our convoy. Luckily, there were no human casualties.

As president of MSF at the time, I sent a letter to the UN delegate in Nigeria to protest against the bombing. He responded that the bombing of a humanitarian convoy was justified by the peace process. “Charles Taylor is the main obstacle to our goal. And all Liberians want one thing, peace." This was the first time I realized just how contradictory humanitarian action and peacekeeping operations could be. I understand the peacekeeper's perspective—except that peace cannot be achieved through starvation.

So in this kind of situation MSF does not collaborate. Not only do we not collaborate, but we also speak out. We don’t want to weaken the peace process, but we refuse to enter into a collective punishment scheme as we dispute the logic of this.

A similar situation arose in the Kivu camps in then Zaire. UNHCR decided that the million people who had crossed the border were refugees. This gave MSF a real problem as we knew that hundreds of thousands were not refugees but criminals fleeing the country. A criminal is not a refugee—not even when he crosses an international border. But in this case, UNHCR had decided that these people, too, were refugees—and hence deserved everything that a refugee is entitled to.

Fifteen major worldwide NGOs criticized the situation. We wrote a letter to the Security Council. Boutros-Ghali acknowledged receipt of the letter, read it to the Security Council, and supported our request, which was that the Security Council send an international police force to separate criminals from refugees.

We wanted to continue working for the refugees—for the people who feared being killed or sent to concentration camps even though they hadn't committed crimes. There were many known criminals who could have been isolated from the rest of the refugees. The UNHCR had a list of thousands of people who were considered war criminals, perpetrators of genocide.

The Security Council ignored our request, refusing to send a police force, and continued to act as if these criminals were refugees and deserved everything due to a refugee.

The reaction of those who had signed the letter of protest was surprising. They were revolted by the attitudes of the UNHCR, the Security Council, and the international community at large. But when our request was dismissed, most NGOs behaved as though nothing had happened: “Okay, we start from scratch all over again and our problems are erased. Now we have refugees because the Security Council said they were refugees, or at least they didn't say anything to the contrary, so by default they are to be considered refugees." So the fourteen other NGOs resumed their operations. MSF found itself alone in refusing to return to the camps.

Another problem was that the NGOs were never in a position to have an open discussion over this issue. It is extremely difficult for us to operate on an equal footing with political powers. They have so many interests, so much money, so much symbolic interest, in Pierre Bourdieu's sense, that it blurs everything. They can't see that responding to people with needs isn't always a humanitarian endeavor. By the opposite logic, entertaining a sanctuary with thousands of criminals becomes a humanitarian action through the magic of words, as I put it, in the case of Basra.

QUESTION: Hybrid organizations whose mission consists of both humanitarian and development aid mandates have to weigh short-term needs to respond to emergencies against long-term development goals in the field. How would you approach situations using such a perspective?

RONY BRAUMAN: It is hard to take a clear-cut position on this issue. Development aid and humanitarian aid are inspired by the same philanthropic impulse. Regrettably, however, this proximity can very quickly lead to confusion because when you are in the social and economic development process, you deal with social patterns and change.

We should abandon the word “development" because it is too self-righteous. Nothing has proved that development aid leads to development. We should call it “social change" instead because that's what this type of aid does: it generates social change.

When you talk about social change, it raises the problem of your own legitimacy. Who are you as an outsider, as a foreigner, to promote social change in Peru, Sudan, Colombia, or Burma? (Who would I be to come to the United States and demand social change because I don’t like the way this country is organized?)

In the end, development comes down to social change, and social change raises the issue of who has been authorized to promote these changes outside of their own country—not as a citizen but as an outsider coming for benevolent purposes.

Although humanitarianism can be conducted on a very large scale, it deals with individual fates and lives: it doesn’t aim to change the way people write their story or prepare for the future. Humanitarianism aims at boosting the capacities of individuals to take charge of their lives, at strengthening afflicted individuals to the point where they can survive disaster (whether it be natural or political).

The humanitarian's position is much more humble and restricted than that assumed by the development aid community. Even though both kinds of aid spring from the same philanthropic source, in practical and philosophical terms they differ greatly.

I have been advocating for years the idea that we—or MSF at least—would be better off sticking to humanitarian aid, which need not be defined exclusively as emergency aid, because it can be provided over the course of years. MSF has operated for years in many refugee camps, but we are there only to relieve the suffering of individuals, even where large groups were involved.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Read MoreRead Less