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On the politics of humanitarianism: disaster diplomacy

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The targeting of aid workers by ISIS militants has raised again the issue of the unprecedented politisation of aid of the last decade, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan. The idea of disaster diplomacy that has been around for a while recognises the impact that disasters can have on peaceful and unstable contexts and the opportunities that arise for internal as well as external stakeholders. Disasters very rarely take place in political vacuums and in some instances they have been catalyst for significant socio political changes, as in Aceh following the Indian Ocean tsunami.

Disaster diplomacy is a concept that is beginning to dominate the defence and foreign agendas of many countries. Following typhoon Haiyan, that hit Philippines with devastating effects a year ago, there was a significant number of reports alluding to disaster diplomacy, especially with relation to US and Chinese involvement. It is an inevitable trend in a region (the Asia Pacific) where military exercises and simulations on humanitarian disasters is a good way to build trust, reinforce key messages about the sanctity of state sovereignty, and feel good about working together. But it is problematic because, in the long-term, we are likely to see militaries used to advance foreign policy agendas and aid policies shifting to accommodate geopolitical considerations (even more so than it is now). And this can have an impact on aid workers the world over, especially in complex emergencies situations.

In the non-for-profit sector there is an understandable and increasing scepticism about the rising role of militaries in relief activities. Not least because, in many of today’s conflicts, this role can lead to a blurring of the lines between humanitarian and military actors. Both have different approaches, priorities, procedures and organisational goals. And in certain contexts, the conflation of these different ways of operating can lead to misperceptions, confusion and, ultimately, significant threats to the security of aid workers and their operations, as well as the communities in need of assistance. It is a serious issue. Journalists and politicians often don’t help by making comments that are uninformed and contribute to misinformation and misperceptions. Remember the Bush administration’s claim that NGOs were force multipliers in the war on terror?

And then there are also issues over duplication, conflation, confliction, wasting of aid, lack of accountability, etc., etc. Many humanitarian operations run by NGOs have had to be suspended due to insecurity and inability to carry out their mandate in accordance with international standards. This has devastating effects on the communities that need help. It is complex.

Militaries in the Asia Pacific region are using disaster diplomacy to promote better relations with other militaries, and now humanitarian exercises form part of most joint military exercises. Even China has joined in. The US military is considering institutionalising HADR (Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief) as a core part of its function, in much the same way as Malaysia or Indonesia, to name a few. NATO has developed doctrine on disaster assistance.

This is undeniably a secondary benefit, and I don’t necessarily have a problem with that, but I argue that it should never be the goal, especially in complex emergencies. There are a number of reasons for this. First, the politisation of humanitarian aid goes against its very basic principles: humanity, impartiality and neutrality. There is also the principle of independence, which can also be threatened by the militarisation of aid that often goes hand-in-hand with the politisation of humanitarian aid. You see, any political agenda will have a hierarchy of priorities, and human suffering and its alleviation should never be ranked.[1] Take for example the many humanitarian crises that are just forgotten due to their geopolitical irrelevance. Second, aid funding can be diverted to cover the costs of fulfilling foreign policy agendas rather than focusing on alleviating suffering. Like focusing on provinces that contain the elements for a political win rather than on those that are more likely to benefit from the aid.  I am not saying all money should go to NGOs. What I am saying is that aid funding should be focused on aiding in an effective, sustainable and accountable way, and in line with international standards.

Third, there is the issue of the blurring of the lines I mentioned above. In the last few years the militaries of many countries have come a long way in developing better ways to fulfil their operational mandates; be it in combat or in humanitarian relief operations. ‘From warriors to peacekeepers’ is often used informally to describe how their role has shifted since the end of the Cold War. But at the end of the day, they remain war fighting machines, and no matter how well they can implement Quick Impact Projects (and don’t get me started me on those) they will never be able to escape their raison d’etre, nor do they want to. And that is a problem.

Don’t get me wrong, military capabilities fulfil a critical and life-saving function in the early stages of a response. Militaries know that, humanitarians know that. Many countries in the Asia Pacific region have integrated their national militaries into their disaster management systems with a high degree of effectiveness. Militaries are a lot more proactive in promoting dialogue than humanitarians and the first to admit they don’t want to create dependencies (except for the South Koreans in Philippines who have decided to stay on for 12 months and assist with recovery after typhoon Haiyan, that is the first such case). And there are enough rogue aid workers out there causing more harm than good in endangering humanitarian professionals in complex emergencies. The waves of good will that lead to people just packing up their bags to go and help in crisis situations often result in further complications as was recently illustrated by a New Zealand ‘aid worker’ who essentially called on military forces in Iraq to violate International Humanitarian Law. Just. Like. That.

There is no denying that the killing of aid workers and journalists by ISIS, accused of being political pawns illustrates the effects that the politisation of aid in Iraq and Afghanistan have had. 2013 was the deadliest year yet for aid workers: 155 killed, 171 seriously wounded and 134 kidnapped. Disaster situations in other parts of the world are also relevant, as are the actions of all involved in emergency relief. What happens on one side of the world can be easily followed from distant places thanks to social media and the internet. Politicians, journalists, practitioners and commentators need to understand that disaster diplomacy is a double-edged sword. It may win the government of the day a few points. It could even help bring diplomatic opportunities that may alleviate certain geopolitical pressures, and this is positive. But it also affects millions of people who suffer in geopolitically irrelevant states because their lives are not worth investing on. It has the potential to duplicate aid efforts and contribute to ineffectiveness if contribution reflects, or is perceived to reflect, a political whim. It creates a blurring of the lines that leads to misperceptions and misunderstanding about the intention of humanitarian aid, both in disaster and complex emergency situations. And it leads to the increased number of security and safety hazards, and deaths of international and local humanitarian practitioners we have witnessed over the past decade.

If interested in reading more about this disaster diplomacy here are two links:

Disaster Diplomacy in Aceh: http://www.odihpn.org/humanitarian-exchange-magazine/issue-37/disaster-diplomacy-in-aceh

Disaster diplomacy: how disasters affect peace and conflict: http://www.preventionweb.net/english/professional/publications/v.php?id=18059 )

 

[1] Note, I am talking about humanitarian aid, not development. This is an interesting debate when we talk about the implementation of human rights treaties.

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