Political Analysis

The political implications of doing humanitarian work

I have been a humanitarian worker for the past 10 years, with extensive experience in designing, implementing and overseeing international development and humanitarian projects. I have worked in over thirty countries to respond to natural disasters and active and post-conflict zones, to enable communities in these contexts to be included in conversations and decision-making affecting their lives.

For the past 10 years I have been thinking “The system is broken, but I am doing something good.” Today, I realized that I am an integral part of the system.

In my field and HQ experience I have seen how the current humanitarian and development industries are part of a global system that often, if not always, changes the social, cultural, economic, political and environmental architecture of countries, with or without the consent of the people.

I see this as a continuation of a colonial approach, intentional or not.

The problem is that, even if you agree with the approach, it is not working!

In “Constructive deconstruction: imagining alternative humanitarian action“, written by Christina Bennett, it is noted that the current in the nature of crises and declining political support for international laws, asylum regimes and humanitarian operations shows how the international humanitarian system has neither the resources nor the political backing to do much about the problems confronting it.

This is also due to the fact that in its operating contexts, the international system is afforded not an actual but rather a symbolic power. Authority and power emanate from organizations’ direct control over resources and from the legitimacy they are endowed as owners of expertise, information and the means of production on a size and scale not immediately available to host governments, local organizations or individuals. (C. Bennett).

As a result, international organizations take on ‘state-like’ functions, such as providing public goods and services and serving as de facto service ministries, often operating without the checks and balances or public scrutiny that would be expected in the states from which those organizations come (C. Bennett).

The overall outcome is that the people most affected by crisis still have little say as to what type of assistance they receive, when and how and there is little, if no accountability at all.

C. Bennett

After more than 10 years working inside this sector, I truly believe that a real understanding of why this system works in this way can come by looking at it within the framework of the international relations and political science theories it comes from, and it is shaped by, but also by looking at the cultural and social dynamics the system relies on, and ultimately at its economical dimension.

The question that I am interested in is the following: can we create a more functional and efficient humanitarian and international development systems? And can we do it in a way that minimizes the political use of these sectors by sovereign states?

I very much know that any reform of humanitarian action will be confronted with external politics and patterns of power and could remain constrained by a lack of power to control or influence these dynamics (C. Bennett). However, the questions that I want to explore is how a more adaptable, flexible and transparent form of humanitarian action is possible, and how we can re-design a system to make the sector better equipped to confront the exigencies of today’s crises.

My point of departure for re-thinking the system is well explained by Sarah Collinson in this paper, where she takes a multi-disciplinary approach to explore the following themes to reform the humanitarian system:

1 – The Humanitarian system as an economic system: an industry, profession and set of transactions based on the marketisation of humanitarian services and vertical contract-based supply chain.

2 – The Humanitarian system as a political and social system: one with distinctive and well-worn power relations within and between organizations, the people that represent and form them, and people affected by crisis;

3 – The Humanitarian system as a legal system: a configuration or architecture operating according to a distinct type of governance and principles, and regulated by procedures and processes for interpreting and enforcing the law.

“Unless, the humanitarian donors, policymakers and practitioners are ready to change their current attitudes and values, examine the ways to change the system itself and genuinely collaborate with affected populations as equal partners, the Oxfam sexual misconduct scandal will be another news item that will fade away into the background. This is the only way to change the colonial nature of the humanitarian system and make it relevant and effective for affected populations.”

– Janaka Jayawickrama

In my more than 10 years’ experience working in developing and war-torn countries I had eyewitness the strong limitation of an international system that is not enforced or applied to all cases in the same way. I feel that we are addressing international law principles in the wrong way: trying to fit the reality of facts into the principles we wrote down, rather than the contrary.

And this is the ultimate paradox of this work: we are political agents, yet unable to address the challenges we face because we act as if we were working in a neutral and impartial system, and in this way legitimizing its fallacies.


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