Arrogant humanitarianism is a thing of the past
Deputy Director General of Médecins sans frontières
The time of a certain humanitarian is over, the time of the humanitarian aid of the beginnings of Doctors Without Borders: a somewhat arrogant humanitarian, who then went to the countries of the South not only to explain to them what they should do, but further tell them that it would be done for them. This humanitarian person lived, indeed, he is part of the past. But humanitarian aid in general, I don’t think so. Certain situations are still there: displacement of populations, for example. A parallel can be drawn between the boat people in the China Sea of the 1970s and 1980s and migrants in the Mediterranean Sea more recently. We can also cite epidemic situations with states that still do not have the means to support part of their population.
But the change is obvious, and we can date it to the 2000s: a classic Western humanitarian model – which can be described as “romantic” or “neo-colonial” – takes a hit in the wing. This state of affairs stems first of all from the dissatisfaction of the populations, who demand to be more and better involved in the workforce, but also in the direction and implementation of humanitarian work. Today, 64,000 people work for MSF around the world, and more than 90% of them are national staff, that is to say from the place where we operate.
Some issues persist. First of all, how can we gain access to vulnerable populations in conflict situations, especially when hostile radical groups intervene in these conflicts? Then, we must mention the issue, again old, of the quality of relief and the development of medicine. It is another humanitarian who died: the humanitarian who said that it was not serious to use molecules twenty-five years old, in Afghanistan for example.
Finally, the last humanitarian aid almost over is the amateur humanitarian aid, on a human scale. There are of course always small structures concentrated in a precise place, on a given problem, and which do an admirable job. But today this is no longer the global picture of humanitarian aid. Today, we are in the presence of very large NGOs, MSF being the largest, with almost industrial methods. The positive aspect is the ability to intervene in many different places: MSF now covers more than 80 countries. It was unimaginable only twenty years ago. This size is synonymous with professionalism and great competence. The less positive aspect of this development is the bureaucracy, which you cannot be exempt from when you are a multinational organization of more than 60,000 people. We spend a lot of energy to avoid these bureaucratic drifts which could weigh on the action. It is a constant struggle.
Collected by Fabrice Deprez
War entrepreneurs chased aid workers out
Specialist in development issues, Paris 4-Sorbonne University
The time of humanitarian aid is not over but it is facing acute difficulties when it has never been more necessary. Historically, humanitarians went to areas hit by major crises to rescue populations and do advocacy work. The care of the bodies was accompanied by a discourse on the causes of the crisis, on crimes and criminals. What MSF did in Rwanda, for example, in 1994 when Jean-Hervé Bradol denounced the genocide against the Tutsis and highlighted France’s role in supporting the genocidal regime. In other words, from the boat people to Afghanistan, from Somalia to Darfur, humanitarian workers have always sought to access the victims by ignoring borders to treat them and save them. And, in all these crises, they developed a political analysis that they heavily publicized with a view to mobilizing public opinion to resolve these same crises.
Criminal regimes, armed groups, war entrepreneurs have understood this perfectly, so they have driven them out. And those who remained, they took them away. Now they are killing them, as we saw last year with the assassinations by Boko Haram of members of Action Against Hunger in Nigeria. In this way, humanitarians withdrew from the field while becoming big machines with bulky seats, where the work became bureaucratized and turned in the direction of the expectations of donors. And they delegated the task of going into the field to local executors. For them, it’s a job like any other, unlike the early days of humanitarian aid.
Going to the heart of conflicts at the risk of exposing one’s life is no longer considered acceptable, which raises the question of the evolution of the duty of assistance. It is a victory for all the perpetrators of crimes and catastrophes. This is the case today, for example, in Ethiopia. But also from the Sahel, Somalia, Libya, South Sudan, Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan. This reality has changed the humanitarian discourse on the causes of the crisis that mobilizes them: it is now built around climate change alone. Not that it has no impact on contemporary crises, but it is not the only cause. Political responsibilities, bad governance, corruption, poverty, lack of perspective for youth, rivalries between clans, between pastoralists and farmers, the play of neighboring states, of the great powers, and appropriation are erased. wealth, religious radicalism.
By analyzing crises from the unique angle of climate change, echoing the Secretary General of the United Nations, aid workers no longer anger rogue states and war entrepreneurs. By adopting this unique reading grid, they found a new field of legitimation and financing of their actions to continue to exist.
Collected by Laurent Larcher