Tag Archives: Humanitarian action

On the politics of humanitarianism: disaster diplomacy


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.


On Google saving lives and other disappointments


At a recent event I attended discussing coordination in humanitarian action I was curious and excited to see that Ann Lavin, the current director of Public Policy and Government affairs for Google Asia Pacific was talking about Google’s role in the humanitarian space. But my hopes were soon to be crushed.

For the humanitarian community, the role of the private sector is only just now starting to receive much needed attention, and I have to say our government counterparts and UN agencies are doing a much better job so far. The role of for-profit organisations in the humanitarian space is gaining much momentum and little is known about their approach, other than the ‘corporate social responsibility’ bottom line we have all heard, but know little about. And I am not talking about big donations, I am talking about involvement in direct assistance. Everyone is doing it, it seems. In the response to Haiyan in the Philippines Samsung, Korean Airlines and Boeing were some of the few private sector organisations delivering relief aid. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs even put out a Business Brief as part of efforts to avoid duplication and maximise the effectiveness of efforts. Deutsche Post DHL have a global department dedicated to training their staff and assisting them to become involved in humanitarian operations. More and more organisations are becoming involved in very visible roles and in direct assistance activities.

So back to Google. Google has set up their google.org, which aspires to become a fully accessible portal dedicated to sharing information in times of crisis (among other initiatives). When a disaster strikes, they will put a link on the page for people to view and update, or that is how it was explained. The kind of information shared will be, as Ms Lavin put it, anything and everything, although they would prefer if it was from reputable sources. This was not a caveat, however. In my anticipation for what she was going to say I begun to hear alarm bells. Unchecked, potentially sensitive information was going to be made available on the world wide web, in real time? I remembered when doing a child protection training course that we were given a very troubling piece of information. In the days following the devastating Indian Ocean Tsunami, a very high number of registered paedophiles from Australia and New Zealand booked tickets to Thailand. Now these people and other criminal minds could just check the internet to find out where the most vulnerable will be located, which roads will be closed and therefore what areas could be open for looting, potentially highlighting the weaknesses and security vacuums of incredibly vulnerable communities that have just been hit by a disaster. They could even use the tool to their own advantage!

I put this question to Ms Lavin. She was enthusiastic about the value of information, Google’s main asset. So I asked, given the situation with the paedophiles in Thailand, what mechanisms and processes does Google have in place to avoid the unintended consequences of making sensitive information available to the whole world? Call me naïve, but I thought the context setting and question formulation was clear. And I also thought that the question was of a worrying enough nature for her to take it seriously. But Ms Lavin heard “paedophiles” and “Thailand” only. She laughed off that there should be limits put on the kind of information available online. And she proceeded to make a joke about “not searching for child pornography” in crisis situations or any situation because “Google will turn you in”. The male (military) dominated audience laughed, except for very few who knew exactly where I was coming from. My question brushed aside with great flare, I was left extremely disappointed at Google’s lack of accountability.

I was somewhat consoled by the fact that my peers had been left equally disappointed. These are the kind of people Ms Lavin was calling upon to work with Google to make information available, ultimately to make Google look like the ultimate corporate socially responsible citizen. Well, I have news for you Google, corporate social responsibility is more than just a label. It is not just about picking a feel-good cause, put resources into it to make an underdeveloped idea a reality and take the credit. Humanitarian crises are situations in which hundreds, thousands of people often living in already precarious situations have their vulnerabilities multiplied by 1,000 million. Humanitarian crises are situations that take an enormous amount of time, resources and accountability to even begin to make right. Humanitarian crises require professionals that take their work and their approach seriously and responsibly (and we have our fair share of idiots too). The humanitarian community has been on a decades-long learning curve and I am not sure what exactly makes Google think that it can just get it right, the first time around, by the click of a button (quite literally).

As for the Director of Public Policy and Government Affairs, her ways might be quite a hit in the male-dominated, superficial and  uninformed on humanitarian issues world of business. The humanitarian community does not have a monopoly on knowledge, but they have been doing this, as their sole occupation, for slightly longer. Right about the time when the internet was just being made available publicly. And some for even longer, Henry Dunant comes to mind. There is yet much to be learnt by Google and peers about the sort of impact that their actions can have, other than adding to their bottom line, in whatever way they want to think about it. And I welcome the opportunity to again remind them that child protection is an incredibly serious business. It makes no money, takes lots of resources, but it most certainly is not a joke.