Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Stabilizers, Humanitarians, and Clashes of Perception
Globalization and the greater interconnectedness between the North and South have created unprecedented opportunities for global governance and the expansion of capitalist development. Yet at the same time, globalization’s darker side has meant that threats such as organized crime, terrorism, weapons proliferation, and pandemics do not respect geographical boundaries, and their spread is seen as a major risk to national and international stability. This has driven “stabilizers” to the fore of international politics: donor states are increasingly interested and engaged in the “borderlands” of the world system, those areas beyond the reach of liberal governance and capitalist development and characterized by weak governing structures, violent conflict, poverty, and crime (Duffield 2001). They are also known as “fragile states.”
Through a range of military, humanitarian, diplomatic, and economic instruments, this engagement ultimately seeks to eliminate or contain these sources of instability. The stabilizers, however, go beyond narrow security objectives and claim to enable the political and social conditions necessary for recovery, reconstruction, development, and lasting peace. This is partly because achieving short-term security objectives is deemed to require longer-term transformation. As emphasized by the former United Kingdom defense minister Liam Fox, “the primary reason for sending our armed forces to Afghanistan was one of national security. . . . But clearly, if we are to make the long-term gains that will provide the stability to maintain the momentum when our armed forces eventually hand over to the forces of the Afghans, we will require a long period of development in concert with the international authorities, the NGOs, and our and other countries’ aid programs.”
These stabilization efforts are by no means homogenous; they take different forms at different times, and can be governed by diverse sets of rules and executed through varied networks of alliances. Yet despite these differences, they are underpinned by the common objective of forging, securing, or supporting a particular political order that is deemed to protect or enhance national and international stability (Collinson, Elhawary, and Muggah 2010). These efforts, despite their emphasis on improving human security, have clashed with classical notions of the humanitarian endeavor and its commitment to unconditionally alleviate suffering and protect the lives of civilians without ulterior motives. This clash is partly one of perception: of the roles, means, principles, and objectives that guide each actor, and, where these conflict, perceptions of who represents the greater good, or, in the language of Snow White, “the fairest of them all.” This brief article explores these clashes of perceptions.
Means and Ends
Humanitarian assistance is deemed to be an important part of the stabilizers’ “toolbox.” Delivering emergency health, education, water, and sanitation services is considered crucial to bolstering security (Pavanello and Darcy 2008), creating immediate benefits that serve to enhance the legitimacy of stabilizers and their allies and undermine support for rivals. This improved stability is then meant to create the space for recovery and longer-term development. These theoretical assumptions underpin most stability efforts. NATO forces in Afghanistan have sought to weaken support for the Taliban through the delivery of humanitarian and development aid. The Pakistani military has used a similar strategy against Islamic militants. The Colombian government has used the same tactics to recover territory from guerrillas. The UN stabilization mission in DRC, MONUSCO, is employing humanitarian and development aid to help the government increase stability in the east of the country. The US government in Yemen has placed humanitarian assistance and livelihood support at the heart of its strategy to support the government and undermine Al Qaeda. The list goes on.
These trends have humanitarians worried. Stabilizers are accused of politicizing and securitizing humanitarian assistance, hitching it to wider goals that ultimately violate the boundaries and core principles that guide humanitarian action. Humanitarian engagement in conflict contexts, critics argue, is based on an implicit covenant with belligerents: in exchange for non-interference, that is, following the principles of neutrality, impartiality, and independence, belligerents allow humanitarians to operate and respond to needs (Leader 2000). This implies focusing on alleviating the immediate symptoms of crises or instability, rather than dealing with the causes. The use of humanitarian assistance as part of a stabilization strategy violates this covenant and places the work of humanitarians at risk. They are likely to be denied access to populations in need, and in the worst cases may even be subject to attack if belligerents associate them with a political project they oppose.
In sum, humanitarians reject the attempt by stabilizers to include them in their wars as it is perceived to politicize them, while stabilizers perceive humanitarian assistance as an effective means to help stabilize societies.
The Greater Good
Tensions come to the fore when humanitarians insist on providing independent and impartial relief that is perceived to undermine the stabilizers’ objectives. For example, in Somalia the delivery of assistance in militia-controlled areas was resented by donor state diplomats and the UN Political Office, which argued that the distribution of relief in these areas was enhancing the legitimacy of militia groups and providing them with sources of revenue. In the name of the “greater good” of strengthening the state, they called for assistance to be channeled through the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) (Menkhaus 2010). In fact, the UN special representative of the secretary general, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, saw the humanitarian response as being little more than a distraction from the wider tasks at hand, even going so far as to equate humanitarian neutrality with complicity (Menkhaus 2010).
Similar tensions are apparent in other stabilization contexts. In Colombia, when humanitarians raised protection concerns, the government labelled them “defenders of terrorism” and accused them of taking sides with the guerrillas (Elhawary 2010). Likewise, in Sri Lanka, efforts by humanitarians to work on both sides of the conflict have led to depictions of them as allied to “terrorist” groups (Goodhand 2010). Yet humanitarians reject the idea that these stabilization agendas represent a greater good; they argue that, despite being couched in the language of peace and stability, the stabilizers’ objectives are part of highly political and contested projects. In Somalia, humanitarians claim that the TFG lacks the capacity and willingness to organize an effective humanitarian response, and that its predatory behavior is itself a major source of civilian insecurity (Menkhaus 2010). Channeling assistance through the TFG would jeopardize humanitarian neutrality, fail to help those most in need, and ultimately make humanitarians more vulnerable to attack. Similarly, in Colombia and Sri Lanka, humanitarians argue that these stabilization efforts, despite often being labelled as “humanitarian operations,” are primarily about protecting state interests, often to the detriment of the civilian population. In fact, the alliance between humanitarians and stabilizers is perceived by some as undermining the humanitarian imperative and its values, often sacrificing lives today in favor of promised (but not guaranteed) political gains tomorrow. As Jean-Hervé Bradol explains, the problem resides “in the allegiance of humanitarian actors to institutional political authorities who have the power to condone human sacrifice, to divide the governed between those who should live and those who are expendable . . . when humanitarian aid operations lose sight of their objective [saving as many lives as possible], they are not only ineffective for people in need, but they become embroiled in the production of political violence and exacerbate the human consequences they are supposed to relieve” (Bradol 2004, 21).
Who Is Fairest of All?
The root of the problem lies in the clash of interests between humanitarians and stabilizers. Stabilizers, while possibly admiring the solidarity and humanity of humanitarians, will still seek to oppose principled humanitarian action if it is deemed a hindrance to the pursuit of their objectives, and if they feel that they can benefit from a more politicized humanitarian response. Similarly, humanitarians, who may well share the stabilizers’ desire to end violence and establish the conditions for a more stable society, will reject stabilization if they see it as securitizing and politicizing humanitarian action in a way that hinders their ability to impartially alleviate suffering and save lives.
These tensions have been reinforced by developments within the humanitarian sector. The 1990s saw, along with the expansion of the humanitarian system, an extension of the boundaries of humanitarian action itself. In practice, if not in principle, many agencies have come to accept the need for a transformative agenda, and see humanitarian action as part of broader human rights, development, peace-building, and state-building (Barnett 2005). No longer content with dealing with the symptoms of crises, many humanitarians are now seeking to influence the causes and risks that shape vulnerability and suffering among populations. Consequently, they accept the political corollary that these actions imply. What has yet to emerge, however, is a coherent humanitarian paradigm that incorporates these different spheres of action. Humanitarian action is still largely defined in terms that exclude or even reject broader responses to humanitarian crises (Collinson, Elhawary and Muggah 2010).
This disconnect between discourse and practice reinforces the clashes of perception between humanitarians and stabilizers. Those humanitarians agencies, often dubbed “Wilsonians” after Woodrow Wilson’s belief that societies can and should be structurally transformed so as to encourage progress (Stoddard 2003), still seem to cling to the notion that they are neutral, impartial, and independent, despite aligning themselves with stabilization projects. Therefore, either a coherent paradigm needs to emerge that brings together these different spheres of action, or greater attention needs to be paid to constructing a “humanitarian consensus” in which the boundaries of humanitarianism are more clearly defined (including the actors that constitute it) in opposition to stabilization (and other) agendas (Donini 2010a). A continuation of the status quo is likely to increase confusion and misperceptions, not only among humanitarians and stabilizers, but perhaps among the communities and individuals they aim to help.
It is important to note, however, that a “humanitarian consensus” among Dunantist organisations (those that seek to position themselves outside of state interests by adhering to the principles of humanitarian action) is unlikely to be the answer on its own. Humanitarian action has always had to navigate treacherous political waters, and while the principles of humanitarian action are a guide to protect it from being manipulated by politics—“the rules for supping with the devil without getting eaten” (Leader 1998, 290)—they are not always foolproof. Even a strict adherence to principles does not alter the fact that humanitarians are a vector of values and modes of behavior that many of those in the borderlands find hostile and reject (Donini 2010b). There is also a lack of regulation within the humanitarian sector, with agencies collaborating or adhering to agreed practices only when there are clear incentives to do so. So while a “humanitarian consensus” may be agreed upon in theory, collective action problems persist in practice. Furthermore, attacks against humanitarians might not result from their politicization but rather from the benefits of demonstrating “the might of the attacker, the weakness of the victim, and the inability of the opposing force to prevent such attacks” (Hammond 2008, 290). In other words, whether stabilizers and their rivals respect principled humanitarian action is likely to be contingent on the perceived utility of humanitarian assistance in any given context. Principles cannot guarantee this.
This may partly explain the will of some agencies to align themselves with stabilization as a shortcut to enhancing their utility (at least to one actor in a conflict), attracting resources and offering a means to transform the structural causes of vulnerability. Yet a note of caution is called for here: scratch the surface of the stabilization discourse and one finds not the happily-ever-after fairy-tale ending, but rather, as witnessed in countries such as Afghanistan, Somalia, and Iraq, projects that are failing to deliver what they promised. The lack of evident success, coupled with the sheer cost, waning domestic political support, and an environment of financial austerity, are likely to lead stabilizers to abandon the more ambitious and difficult task of “emancipating” the borderlands, and concentrate their efforts on narrower security objectives related to containing identified threats, with those “humanitarians” who are willing acting as one of many technologies of control.
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