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[casi] A Moment of Truth for the Humanitarian Enterprise

A Moment of Truth for the Humanitarian Enterprise

By Larry Minear | July 9, 2003

Editor: Emira Woods, Institute for Policy Studies (IPS)

Foreign Policy In Focus

No crisis is wholly unique. However the task of protecting and assisting
people in Iraq confronts the international humanitarian enterprise with
challenges differing in degree, if not in kind, from earlier high-profile
crises. Not only nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), particularly those
based in the U.S., but also the humanitarian apparatus of the United Nations
face vexing dilemmas.

In the run-up to the Iraq war and since, the professional association of
U.S. relief and development groups, InterAction, held a score of meetings
with Pentagon officials to establish the terms of NGO engagement in Iraq.
Would NGOs be permitted inside the country by the U.S.-led occupying forces?
How would their work be coordinated? Would the UN be allowed to exercise its
normal coordination function, as NGOs had urged? Would aid groups relate, as
in normal crisis settings, to the U.S. Agency for International Development
and the State Department, or instead to the Pentagon, which was in charge in
the Iraq theater?

During the limited contingency planning that took place before the Iraq war,
NGOs emphasized key principles, such as civilian control of humanitarian
operations, neutrality, proportionality, and independence. However, as U.S.
officials offered funds, NGOs became, as they put it, more "pragmatic." "We
would wish for as clean and straight a civilian chain of command as
possible," Save the Children's President Charles MacCormack told a reporter.
"But we want to be there to do the job we know how to do." Reviewing the
negotiations and the early outcomes, one analyst reached the logical
conclusion that "to work in Iraq and other countries the U.S. government
deems vital to its interests, NGOs will have to either redefine how much
operational independence they need, or stay home."

Staying home is not a comfortable option for groups committed to the
humanitarian imperative. Why should they not be active wherever there is
need, particularly when U.S. government funds are made available by the U.S.
Congress and taxpayers for the protection of life and the relief of
suffering? Yet invoking the humanitarian imperative does not resolve all the
perplexing ethical NGO dilemmas. After all, the imperative gives way in
settings of grave insecurity, when NGO activities become too perilous for
staff or beneficiaries. And what is the relevance of the imperative in
scores of crises where a given agency is not involved? If you don't provide
humanitarian succor everywhere, on what basis do you provide it anywhere?

"Sitting out" a crisis such as Iraq or Afghanistan has major institutional
drawbacks. Lack of involvement affects not only the world's perceptions of
an aid agency. It also limits agency revenues that underwrite overall costs
of administration, fundraising, and program operations. In the competitive
world of NGOs, there is no assurance that the agency which, for the best of
reasons, lowers its profile and moderates its reach will soon recapture
foregone market share. Not being an active player on the ground may also
limit potential agency influence on U.S. policy and on media coverage of a

But U.S. NGO participation in the Iraqs, Afghanistans, and Kosovos of the
day carries risks. They include the greater complexity of programming in
settings of high political profile, the distortions of proportionate
responses to need around the world, and the likelihood that U.S. attention
span and resources will be more short-lived than the problems that cry out
for redress. Involvement also carries more hidden dangers. Accepting U.S.
government funds in Iraq, for example, may call into question the neutrality
of a given agency's program in other settings such as the Philippines and
Indonesia, where NGOs are working in areas of political tension and U.S.
military presence. American agencies, which bear a special burden by virtue
of their nationality, will need to think more closely and deeply before
allowing the world's hyperpower and the self-styled leader of the
international anti-terrorist crusade to define their imperatives for them.

To their credit, some U.S. NGOs are beginning to assess the implications for
them of the more unconstrained and unabashed assertion of American
political, economic, and military power around the world. "Our whole
enterprise is already under siege," comments one agency head. "The way the
administration is conducting humanitarian assistance in Iraq and Afghanistan
is creating new challenges." The traditional approach, characterized by
partnerships, transparency, and a strong multilateral component, are "no
longer on offer by the U.S. government." Reviewing the bidding, another CEO
asks, "Should we clearly draw the line?" The issue is anything but
hypothetical. Several U.S. NGOs that accepted initial U.S. government funds
for work in Iraq have already decided against applying for additional
resources. Yet as the NGOs contemplate giving the "N" in NGO more profile,
U.S. officials in recent weeks have become more insistent on the "G."

Recent developments represent a moment of truth for UN humanitarian action
as well. International staff from agencies such as the Office for the
Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, UNICEF, and the World Food Program
were withdrawn from Iraq for security reasons just before the first bombs
fell on Baghdad, returning only six weeks later after the worst of the
fighting had subsided. Reflecting afterwards about whether they should have
stayed in Iraq throughout the war, as did expatriate staff of the
International Committee of the Red Cross, some UN officials expressed the
view that they should have contested even more vigorously the expulsion
order they received from the UN's security apparatus. Even those who believe
that the possible existence of weapons of mass destruction made their
departure legitimate now express the view that the UN should have factored
into its pullout decision the likely difficulties at the hands of the U.S.
occupying authorities of getting back in.

Consigned by the U.S. to limbo for several critical months, UN aid officials
described themselves as caught "between cooptation and irrelevance." One can
sympathize with the UN's humanitarian apparatus without accepting its
passivity or its hand-wringing. This is not the first time that the UN has
failed to find creative ways to meet human need in political thickets. For
years it was equally conspicuous by its absence in Chechnya,
Nagorno-Karabakh, and East Timor. If the UN is worried about cooptation, why
does it station UN liaison personnel in U.S. military command centers such
as Tampa or Kuwait City? If the UN is worried about irrelevance, let it
address the recurrent problem of protecting the independence of its
humanitarian agencies from the political cross-currents of the Security
Council, which in this instance delayed UN reengagement while sorting out a
political impasse among its members. This is hardly the first crisis in
living memory in which high politics in the Security Council has undermined
the responsiveness of the UN's workhorse aid agencies.

To its credit, the UN has taken some steps to reassert its humanitarian bona
fides. It issued in April, and updated in May, guidance specifying that "A
clear distinction must be retained at all times between the functions and
roles of UN humanitarian personnel and those of the military and civilian
representatives of the Occupying Power." UN field staff have received quite
specific do's and don't's to follow in interacting with U.S. troops and U.S.
government aid personnel. This is a definite improvement over the situation
in Afghanistan, where the activities of the U.S.-led military coalition
became blurred with civilian humanitarian work.

In short, to color the world's humanitarian enterprise red-white-and-blue is
to accept as a given the politicization of aid work by U.S. NGOs and United
Nations aid agencies. Yet why should the global humanitarian imperative
follow the American flag, even in the age of the hyperpower? There is a
large, variegated, and creative world of operational nongovernmental groups
out there, many of which are not American or, if American, have non-American
sister agencies. And the UN itself has other constituent Member States
beyond that represented by Washington, not to say promises to keep to
would-be beneficiaries in strategic backwaters around the world.

The Iraq crisis has thrown an overdue spotlight on the soft underbelly of
the humanitarian enterprise. For NGOs, it is time to reexamine what it means
to be genuinely nongovernmental. For the UN's humanitarian apparatus, it is
time to insulate life-saving and life-protecting operations from global
political crosscurrents. Only then will the international humanitarian
enterprise be able to perform effectively its altogether critical tasks.

(Larry Minear <> is the director of the
Humanitarianism and War Project at Tufts University. He is also a political
analyst with Foreign Policy in Focus (online at

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