Will future humanitarian disasters be able to get the best assistance?

Katy Migiro for Thomson Reuters Foundation – WNN Improve It

Somali displaced boy looks out on settlement camp
On September 2011 displaced Somali boy looks out over the Seyidka settlement camp for the displaced in the region of Berkulan near the outskirts of Somalia’s capital city of Mogadishu. Image: Ismail Taxta/Reuters

(WNN/Thomson Reuters Foundation) Nairobi, KENYA, EASTERN AFRICA: As global emergencies multiply, humanitarian workers are in effect running long-term welfare projects and are being co-opted into politics, while the world is spending “peanuts” on solving the crises, leading humanitarian scholar Peter Walker said.

Walker worked for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies for many years, founding its flagship annual World Disasters Report, before becoming director of the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University.

He was speaking in Nairobi at the launch of “The Golden Fleece: Manipulation and Independence in Humanitarian Action”, to which he contributed. The book focuses on the manipulation of humanitarian aid to achieve political, military and other objectives.

Will there be more humanitarian disasters in the future?

It’s almost built in that you are going to have more crises.

Where does climate change take us? Where does globalization, demographic change take us? All of these are happening at the same time.

They all essentially say you are moving to a world which is much more connected. You’re moving to much more complicated systems, and complex systems have a propensity to tip into crisis every now and then.

And we absolutely know from history that when the environment changes rapidly, as in periods of climate change in the past, what society tries to do is keep up.

And when it can’t keep up, it usually reverts to control. And control usually manifests itself as violence and oppression and you end up with humanitarian crises.

Is the humanitarian community up to the job?

People think our work is in emergencies. They have this image of humanitarian workers: ‘Here is a crisis. Why don’t we go?’

We know it’s not like that. 70 percent of our spending goes into crises that have lasted at least eight years. 50 percent of it goes into crises that have lasted more than 12 years.

We are filling this void between relief and development and we don’t have the tools for it, because all of our tools were designed to do short-term life-saving work. They weren’t designed to work like this.

One of the things we rarely do is say: ‘Why are we doing this? Why aren’t development agencies coming in and using their tools? Why is it being handed off to the humanitarians?’

How can states be helped to end these decade-long humanitarian crises?

All the evidence – about when states move from being fragile, with deep humanitarian needs, to moving out of it – says that the leading indicator is where you get improved governance.

‘It doesn’t have to be democratic. It has to be governance where people think they are not being crapped on by the next layer up. They think: ‘You know what? I think I am getting a fairish deal.’

It’s not to do with wealth in a country. If governance improves, if corruption starts to go down, then you know your country’s on the right road.

Isn’t that what the United Nations tries to do with integrated missions that support state building?

That is what integrated missions are supposed to do. They are supposed to create the framework, or the mechanisms, that allow that to happen.

Integrated missions is an example of the coherence agenda that most western states and donors are promoting as a way of trying to provide a comprehensive response, and … using humanitarian action as part of this response.

Humanitarian action is [now] much more incorporated in the political agenda of promotion of liberal peace or the promotion of global capitalism.

And that’s where we have a major problem. Our book argues for maintaining a clearer separation between humanitarian action and politics.

How can humanitarians escape this dilemma?

I think humanitarian agencies have overstretched themselves. I really don’t think they should be in the business of trying to change states.

Those principles – of neutrality, and deep understanding of the context, and negotiating consent with anybody you have to in order to get access and physical presence, a sense of solidarity – actually matter.

And that’s a completely different beast from running a $50 million a week, five-year feeding programme. What many of the bigger agencies are doing is essentially some form of long term welfare support…

The second thing that I think history tells us – when we go back over the last 100 years and look where you managed to move from devastation to a stable state – is that the cost then was orders of magnitude more than we put into crises around the world today.

We may think we put a lot into Somalia but compared with the percentage that was put into, say, trying to stabilize Europe after the Second World War, it’s peanuts.

It’s about humanitarianism maybe being more humble and doing what it can do extremely well. And really pushing for people to get much more serious about how do you get out of this.


Working for the Thomson Reuters Foundation since 2010, Katy Migiro worked as a text and radio journalist in East Africa and as an analyst for the United Nations in Kenya in the wake of the 2007/08 post-election violence. She also worked as a press officer for Christian Aid in the UK campaigning to Make Poverty History and on climate change. She has an MA in International Relations from United States International University – Africa with a focus on conflict and development issues. A native Londoner, she has lived in Kenya for 10 years. She has two daughters.


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