For most of its history, humanitarian intervention was something that took place “out there”. From its origins in Biafra in 1967, through Bosnia in 1992, Rwanda in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide and Darfur in 2003, the pattern remained the same. Virtually all relief organisations were based in the Global North, in Western Europe and in North America, and virtually all emergencies (Bosnia being almost the sole exception) took place in the Global South, above all in sub-Saharan Africa.
To use the military expression, humanitarian aid has always been expeditionary. And if there were echoes of Western missionaries during the heyday of European colonialism, this was anything but a coincidence. Relief work tends to attract idealistic young people on the Left, but its origins lie partly in the imperial notions of “uplift” through missionary activity, and partly in the ambitions of the Red Cross movement to mitigate the most terrible effects of warfar
The would-be relief worker joined a non-governmental organisation such as Oxfam, Save the Children, or Medicins sans Frontières and would then be assigned – again, very much like a priest or a soldier – to a crisis zone. And, again like a 19th-century European missionary or a soldier, the decision about where to deploy was made either by the NGO, or by rich donor governments, or within the framework of the United Nations and its development agencies, which themselves were largely controlled by these same governments – by anyone, in short, but the people in the places where the emergency was unfolding.
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That’s not to say that humanitarian aid is ‘imposed’ on those who benefit from it. If anything, it is usually the opposite: a human being in dire straits does not have the luxury of rejecting assistance because of its provenance. And institutionally, the NGOs could not operate without at least the consent of the governments in the affected areas.
But consent should not be confused with having had much of a say in how a decision to launch a humanitarian intervention was arrived at. As with economic development – also largely imposed from without by the World Bank and the IMF – it was taken for granted that governments in affected areas would cooperate. If they didn’t, it was assumed to mean, as it did in the case of the government of Sudan during the Darfur crisis, or the government of Sri Lanka during the Tamil Tiger insurgency, that the government in question was either responsible for or complicit with whatever dire situation had drawn the NGOs in in the first place.
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The aid agencies, however, did not believe they were the solution to the emergencies. Most relief workers felt that Sadako Ogata was speaking for them when, as High Commissioner of the UNHCR in the 1990s, she declared there were no humanitarian solutions to humanitarian problems. Nonetheless, when they were in the field most humanitarian NGOs claimed to be acting purely on the basis of the needs of populations affected by war, refugee emergencies, epidemics and natural disasters. They viewed themselves as politically neutral, their actions concerned only with alleviating the sufferings of their beneficiaries.
Those who engage in what, in less linguistically-sensitive times, was called charity claim to be impartial. Striving towards that goal is a way for individuals and organisations to ring-fence their activities from politics. An NGO that renounces the pretense of neutrality might be able to perform many of the technical tasks of a humanitarian agency such as medical aid, water and sanitation, but they would be considered a solidarity organisation, outside the UN-supervised system. That means operating with fewer resources, fewer protections and more restrictions on where they can work.
The vast majority of NGOs have never wanted to operate like that. But working within the system has its own frustrations. It is human nature to want to solve problems, not simply alleviate them. To insist that this is all that can reasonably be expected of them, as I did in my book on humanitarianism, A Bed for the Night, seems to many aid workers to be morally intolerable.
The problem is that there is scant evidence to suggest that humanitarian action can change the world. It is possible that the international human rights movement can do this. But despite the overlap between human rights work and humanitarian action, they are very different activities.
A human rights activist must be a rights absolutist; there is no room for compromise on basic principles. In contrast, the relief worker must resign themselves to making deals with warlords or dictators. Short of military intervention, they must shake hands with the devil if they want to achieve anything concrete.
In my book, I described two acute threats to the humanitarian project. The first was this alliance with the human rights movement, which I argued would benefit human rights groups, since relief agencies would end up serving as their eyes and ears in places where humanitarians could go but human rights rapporteurs would never be permitted to enter; but would actually be detrimental to aid agencies, since it would endanger their ability to keep working.
The second was the co-optation of relief work by powerful governments because the prestige of humanitarian action was valuable as a moral justification for imperial ventures. The most grotesque example of this I know was George W. Bush justifying the continued American occupation of Afghanistan on the quasi-feminist rationale that the Taliban oppressed women. And shortly before the 2003 Iraq War, then US Secretary of State Colin Powell told an assembled group of representatives of American humanitarian organisations that they were a tremendous “force multiplier” for the US military.
I wrote the first version of A Bed for the Night in 2003. In the intervening 16 years, these two tendencies have come to largely define what is expected of aid agencies both by governments and activists, and how these agencies construe their own project. What has changed, though, is that the context in which relief groups work has grown far, far worse.
The “Global War on Terrorism” has meant that, much as relief workers might wish it otherwise, humanitarian aid is an integral part of the war effort. At the same time, the ideology of human rights has attracted the allegiance of the ‘best and the brightest’ within the relief world. Humanitarian action has always had a legitimacy problem: what gives an NGO in Barcelona or Geneva or New York the right to intervene in Chad or Yemen or Myanmar? The law-based claims of the human rights movement have seemed to offer a way forward.
The problem, though, is that across the globe human rights norms are in crisis. After having been in decline for more than half a century, the number and lethality of wars throughout the world is once more on the rise. And global warming will inevitably result in resource wars in the areas most badly affected by it. Welcome to the Anthropocene.
A world in which Russia, China, India, Brazil and the United States are ruled by authoritarian populists is not a world in which human rights are likely to flourish. Syria and Yemen have shown that the laws of war can be ignored at will, while Venezuela and Myanmar are emblems of the new freedom with which dictatorial regimes can create migration crises without anything being able to stop them.
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All of these developments have made the job of humanitarian relief organisations more difficult, but they have not changed its essential characteristics. It took a migration crisis closer to home to do that.
Much like the Rio Grande, which separates the United States from Mexico, the Mediterranean has long been a frontier between the Global North and the Global South. Given the size of the migratory crisis in the Mediterranean, it was inevitable that the relief agencies would become involved. But in doing so, the approach that had marked the humanitarian project since Biafra was unsustainable.
It’s one thing for a relief worker to go from London to Liberia and resist taking a political stance on the conflict there, claiming only to have come to alleviate its effects. But when the crisis is unfolding in the countries where the NGO workers come from, that stance is impossible to maintain.
Aid workers may claim that all they are doing in the Mediterranean, or on the Italian-French border, or in Calais, is helping migrants in need of assistance. But the reality is that in doing so, these aid workers are taking a political position vis-à-vis their own governments. The “neutrality” and “impartiality” to which relief groups could lay claim in the Global South makes neither moral nor operational sense now that the crisis has come home.
Not all relief groups are willing to admit this yet. But they will be forced to confront the fact that their actions are political. The anti-migrant politicians – Salvini, Orbán, Le Pen, etc – recognise the humanitarian agencies as their enemies, and they are right to do so. The challenge to relief groups is to decide how to respond effectively. And this can only happen if the humanitarian world finally abandons the pretence that its actions are not political. Aid agencies will be political actors like all the others. But the choice they face is politics or irrelevance.