Foreign and Humanitarian Aid: Paradox and Perspectives

Delivered by Joelle Tanguy, U.S. Executive Director, MSF, at a panel discussion organized by the Institute for International Liberal Education. Other panel members: Michael Edwards (Ford Foundation), Julia Taft (U.S. Department of State), and Alex de Waal.
March 8, 2000

I am pleased to have this opportunity to join Julia, Alex, and Michael in discussing the paradoxes and perspectives of humanitarian aid, especially in the company of Bard College colleagues and friends. Thank you for inviting me tonight.

I am not sure I am up to the task of drawing a sharp and crystal clear picture of perspectives in foreign aid. Actually, I know I am not! But as a humanitarian practitioner, I can easily highlight the paradox of humanitarian assistance as they fill our daily life, challenge each choice of deployment, each decision to speak out.

First, to be sure there is no misunderstanding, I have to acknowledge and emphasise right away that humanitarian aid is fraught with tremendous political and ethical controversies, and that steering a course of impartiality, which is our work, is a daily challenge.

To make sure that aid is not fuelling conflict, to make sure that it is not turned against the very people we seek to help requires extensive political and ethical considerations that are not part of the standard medical school curriculum!

Aid can be taxed, hijacked, looted, racketeered. Interventions can be manipulated to build internal or international legitimacy, to freeze military gains, to sustain ethnic cleansing, to enforce population displacements, to support famine policies. Each of these statements brings to mind the likes of the Sudan, Somalia, Bosnia, Rwanda and the Congo, Burundi and so on.


When confronted with the dilemma of fuelling a war economy or sustaining political or military strategies, MSF strives for a lucid and responsible approach that might involve minimalist programming or even abstention, but remains essentially concerned with preserving humanitarian space.

Every situation requires careful analysis. "From a moral stand point, weighing the pain inflicted against the pain avoided is an impossible endeavour. Despite all contradictions attached to the act, striving to save lives and alleviate distress remain fundamental. Humanitarian action cannot be considered as the "small change" of larger political considerations. But to recognise that humanitarian aid could have perverse effects and lengthens the war, leads one to at least ask the right questions on the type of program to design, on the control to exercise, on the level of aid to channel." (Rony Brauman)

For example, once the emergency needs of the population have been met, MSF has reduced or even withdrawn when humanitarian aid had a strong chance of prolonging the war. This was the case in the Rwandan refugee camps in Zaire and Tanzania, from which MSF withdrew in late 1994.

The difficulty is to build a consensus on when and where to draw the line. The current dilemma in South Sudan is a case in point. Operation Lifeline Sudan has repeatedly failed its mission to assist the most vulnerable. But NGOs, the UN and donor states have long failed to recognise the fact publicly and address the structural failings of an aid system that does not guarantee independent humanitarian assessments, assistance and monitoring. Was the line in the sand drawn long ago at the first failure of OLS, is it being drawn now that further unacceptable pressures are being placed on humanitarian agencies by the SRRA, or is there still room to manoeuvre in the Sudan?


Well, not much. There's never been a "golden age" of humanitarianism. Contemporary crises do not bring unprecedented dilemmas to humanitarian actors. In our experience, while it is clear that the context has changed, aid organizations were faced with just as intractable dilemmas in the past decades. Extensive reflection and debates of a similar kind animated our organization throughout the 80s. Feeding the Khmer Rouge along the Thai-Cambodian border was one instance; watching aid used as a tool of the brutal forced migration policies of the Mengistu regime in Ethiopia was another. William Shawcross' exposé in 1984 of the dilemma of "how to feed the victims without also providing aid to their tormentors" attests to the debates then within humanitarian organizations. These debates shaped much of our approach to the crises of the late 1980s and 1990s.

But two things are new. First the multiplicity of actors, then the all-encompassing humanitarian discourse.


On the multiplicity of actors, one figure would suffice. 250 relief NGOs operated in Albania and Macedonia at the peak of the Kosovo refugee emergency. Similar numbers operated in Sarajevo and Mogadishu.. This is a 1990's phenomenon. Humanitarian action can fuel the crises it seeks to alleviate, and all the more so since the number of NGOs and their funding multiplied in the 1990's. (And not all is Julia's fault!)

And in this growing community of relief NGO, many mandates get blurred between the strictly humanitarian and non-governmental, and the political, information gathering, human rights monitoring, conflict resolution, even the notion of non-governmental has no more relevance in many cases.

This can not only fuel a conflict but also tremendously challenge the security of humanitarian workers. Unlike peacekeepers, we have no gun, no air-coverage, and in most cases no bulletproof vests. Our security truly lies in our transparency, our clarity of purpose and the support this helps muster in the local population and leadership. The emblem, the flag, the logo of a humanitarian organisation used to be its guarantee of safe passage because it stood for independent, non-governmental, impartial assistance. This no longer the case: in some parts of the world we're dressing down, taking down logos and flags, as foreign groups get associated and suspected in their agenda.


The second new feature in humanitarianism this decade is the new "humanitarian discourse."

What makes us most uncomfortable is the notion of "Humanitarian Intervention" now conveying not the civil action in response to humanitarian crises but the political and military actions deployed in response to the causes of the crises.

States have used noble motives for centuries to justify armed intervention into the domestic affairs of other states. Such justifications include the defense of human rights, of minorities, of their own nationals. It began with the notion of the "just war," suited the ideas of the European countries intervening to protect Christians in Islamic countries in the 19th century, and continued In the 1970s when India intervened in Pakistan to protect the Bengali people from extortion by the army.

The expression itself "humanitarian military intervention " and its associated legalistic rationale the "right to intervene," "authority to intervene," mix two approaches which, though not mutually exclusive, weaken each other when they are combined. The first is independent humanitarian action; the second is political and military intervention undertaken in situations involving mass crime or terror. Both approaches are necessary, but in order to serve their purposes, we believe that they must be carried out independently.

Politicizing aid and assistance, for example, would make them the object of negotiations, of bargains, of diversions. In other words, it can reduce the scope of action within which relief is provided. When it is politicized, humanitarian action may be perceived as interference, and this is precisely what made us hostages in the Northern Caucasus, targets in Burundi, and undesirables in Belgrade.

Similarly, presenting soldiers in international contingents as volunteers is to disarm them, to tie them hand and foot, and to risk their lives needlessly as in Bosnia. It may even, in a monstrous misinterpretation, mean killing in the name of humanitarianism. (Alex and I actually met for the first time in Somalia when he documented the misguided approaches of the peacekeeping forces in Somalia, violating the very laws they came on to impose.)


Well, others would be better suited to answer this question. I feel more suited to ask questions about the future. One questions in particular around political responsibility since all humanitarian and medical action operates in response and in challenges to political failures.

Humanitarian response occurs where the political has failed or is in crisis. For humanitarian assistance is assistance to the excluded, the marginalized, the victims of violence, those abandoned by the political contract.

Humanitarianism is not a tool to end war or to create peace. It is an immediate, short-term act that cannot erase the long-term necessity of political responsibility.

What the world needs is change, not charity. How will the international community restore this political leadership and exercise its responsibility?