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Web Name: Humanicontrarian | This blog is supposed to spark critical discussion around current issues affectin






Our Western Identity

The Proportionality of Our Attention


Depending on how you look at it, it was Day 4 or Year 8 of the war in Ukraine when I began drafting this blog. It is now Day 145. I recall those early days, the emotions stirred as I saw my younger self in the wire-rimmed glasses and quilted winter coat of a young Kyiv professional, or my family in the hand of a child clutching his mother’s luggage strap as the throng surged for the door of a train. There was little in my head that could be labelled dispassionate. In other words, my head held little professional interest in the Ukraine news, even as my unease grew at the white-out erasing all line of sight to any other crisis.

It is OK to identify with people because we find something of ourselves in them. These paths of affinity trace paths of identity such as race and gender as well as less obvious similarities. In March 2002, in the back of an MSF Landcruiser, I sat opposite an Angolan man who had already lost four children, cradling a last, limp daughter on his lap. My next several nights brought terrible imagery, and in the mornings came panic attacks at the thought of going to work. Weeks later, debriefing with a psycho-social care counsellor in Amsterdam, I came to understand why I’d experienced such a reaction on this occasion, and not on others. I’d become a father in 1999 and was struggling with a new kind of performance anxiety. This man and his little girl were no longer ‘simply’ a pair of humans in extreme distress. I saw a dad, unable to protect his child, and to this day it seems like the most terrifying feeling in the world.

It is even OK for the countries of Europe to devote far more attention and aid to the crisis in their back yard, just as we would expect the African Union to be far more involved in a crisis in the Sahel than the OAS or ASEAN nations. But…

It is not OK to ignore the structure of the aid system to the point that our affinities undermine our common humanity; to ignore the significantly skewed concentration of ‘certain’ affinities in the decision-making clubhouses across major donors, UN agencies, and the large INGOs. Voting on the Christmas dinner menu is not a problem until we in the clubhouses ‘discover’ that turkeys own the bulk of the votes. Neither human affinities nor the AU nor the OAS create a global distortion in aid resources. The formal humanitarian sector does. Notably, in 2022 this distortion has been noted. Witness the mainstream critique being raised re the proportionality of aid going to the Ukraine versus other crises, such as Somalia, Yemen, or Ethiopia. (see here or here). And yet our fixation on Ukraine has endured these past months, only beginning to wane in June and only fleetingly interrupted by an earthquake in Afghanistan.

Bias in the ignoring of bias. Following the previous point, perhaps more revealing and yet less revealed is the double-standard; the non-response to partiality’s contamination of the principled ‘purity’ of aid. For years now, ‘local’ actors have been forced to swallow the bitter pill that they cannot be neutral because of their local identity, and hence were disqualified from ascending to the penthouse suites in the global humanitarian club. Their ‘natural’ bias of being in their home context, full of affinities, has been judged as threat to principled aid. The system assigns consequences to such bias. So where was the call in the Ukraine crisis for humanitarian decision-makers to step aside given their bias; given their conflicted interest and powerful affinities? Where was the challenge to the neutrality of their agencies and the appropriateness of having authority over their work given the undivided support for Ukraine among their home country governments and citizens?

Humanitarians need to be particularly mindful of impartiality in this regard, because this is the substantive ethical principle that operationalizes our affinity-laced humanity. Impartiality instructs humanitarian aid be delivered on a non-discriminatory basis and therefore in proportion to the urgency of need. We may forgive media corporations for following the cash and clicks even as we might hope for a more equitable distribution of news content. If it bleeds, it leads – that is their credo?[1] But it is a problem for humanitarians when not all bleeding is of equal media value because humanitarians have a different obligation. Where is the assessment of the sector’s principled performance? As the Ukraine crisis produced and engulfed resources, how did impartiality fare at the global level of distribution? Where is the concern over agencies pulling staff/resources away from other crises to manage the well-funded expansion of operations in the Ukraine war context? Tellingly, the Ukraine response suggests a pathogen in the system at the level of impartiality, which as an ethical rather than operational principle should raise far greater discussion than the neutrality of local organizations.

Is institutional attention a critical resource, like healthcare, food, or cash? What does it mean when GD (General Director) after GD heads to Ukraine for a photo op and website home pages greet the visitor with the faces of Ukrainian children in March, April, May, and often still in June? Given the causal linkage of attention to the provision of assistance, asylum, refuge, and compassion, shouldn’t impartiality guide the institutional use of humanitarian media resources, such as an agency’s home pages or its Twitter feed? Perhaps this would have been the perfect time to counter the prominent bias in media attention by devoting prime website real estate to other crises, or sending GDs to other contexts, to interrupt the frozen gaze on Ukraine. To some extent this discussion is taking place. Good. But is the issue being framed as a matter of obligation and principle? Is this discussion alive in board rooms as an issue of accountability? Or are some humanitarians simply feeling uncomfortable with their in-house disproportions?

Privilege is the power of an agency to assume it can determine right from wrong for itself, especially in a system so weak in accountability. The entitlement of the formal Western sector is well illustrated in deciding for itself when it must play by its own rules, when compromising them is ok for itself or not OK for others.

Power is the privilege of not even being conscious of this assumption.

[1] Actually, when you think figuratively about it, If it bleeds, it leads wouldn’t be such a bad standard to guide impartiality. Certain better than If they’re white, the aid shall take flight.

AccountabilityHumanitarian PrinciplesRacism

Don’t Just Do It


The leader of the UK’s Labour Party just took action. “I would, of course, do the right thing and step down.” This is, of course, politics. Kier Starmer’s catchy response to accusations he broke Covid lockdown rules was delivered in order to contrast his integrity with the Prime Minister’s refusal to hold himself to account.

Forget about the recent plan to send single male migrants to Rwanda, or even Brexit, the British government’s most dangerous manoeuvring comes in the form of a single, innocuous word: “job”. As in “But I think the best thing I can do now is, having settled the fine, is focus on the job in hand.” Faced with a police fine for having broken Covid rules (see “Partygate” for those lucky enough not to follow British politics), the party line was clear: the Prime Minister wanted to “deliver on the priorities of the British people”, he was “keen to get back to the job”, and the British people wanted to see the Tory party “getting on with the job”.

This line of argument recalls the well-worn path of politicians, corporations, the Catholic church and, sometimes, just about all of us: the good I do buys me some space for the bad. It’s like carbon offsetting for sins.

Let’s skip back five years. Not long after the World Humanitarian Summit, I was talking to a leader in our sector, a vocal proponent of transferring power to local non-governmental organizations (LNGOs). “Kevin” was an enthusiastic supporter of the Grand Bargain, especially the commitment to deliver a fat chunk of funding directly to local organizations. Turns out, Kevin’s commitment involved a commitment to the idea of localization rather than to an actual substantial shift of responsibility and financial resources. Turns out, his views spoke for much of the sector. Turns out, there was a caveat. The sector’s inequitably powerful and overly Western contingent can bask in the noble glow of being champions of localization while effectively blocking it.

The INGO Kevin worked for – a major player – was committed to the Grand Bargain. Yet, its uppermost commitment is understood as being to people, not the Bargain. Fair enough. But this ‘higher’ commitment has been interpreted to mean that Kevin’s INGO should operationalize localization only if it did not diminish the quality or quantity of aid, and that Kevin’s INGO should be the judge of this potential diminishment.

This was the Grand Bargain’s ideological equivalent of fine print. So much for the slogan says humanitarian work should be “as local as possible and as international as necessary”. There’s a lot of ‘devil’ in the detail of that last bit.” But let’s not enter the “INGO vs LNGO: who can do it better?” debate. The more critical issue is that the arguments of both sides – the pros and cons of local action – share the same underlying logic. This is the logic of effectiveness. Is aid really only about who can do the job better?

Back to the British PM. The danger in Boris Johnson’s declaration recalls the danger we as leaders perpetrate and perpetuate upon our own humanitarian sector. We remove annoying obstacles to our business by rendering ethical principles invisible. The Kevins of our sector can talk endlessly about doing things the right way, about one day doing things in a ‘righter’ way (new evidence-based guidelines are being developed by our global task force!), and about doing things in a ‘righter’ way than local organizations (after all, we must build their capacity on the new evidence-based guidelines).

What the Kevins do not want to talk about is doing the right thing.

Johnson’s apology for transgressions effectively shreds the uppermost responsibility of leadership – to champion the ideals, aspirations, and ethical principles which guide actions, and which unite societies even where there are strong disagreements on the ‘how’ level. Neither British politics nor humanitarian action would be well-served by moral purity, yet the power of both are gutted by excluding ethics from deliberation and decision. We need to think about the politics that has girded decades of constant, directive paternalism; and the presumption this status quo can be justified on the basis of effectiveness and actions.  The ethical cost is too high, for instance to the principle of humanity.

People matter because they are not static vessels of need to be filled by our action. Human solidarity is impossible without recognition of the other’s human sovereignty. Being more capable than local NGOs sounds like a logic we tossed out 60 years ago (and it’s an assumption of dubious accuracy as well).  Would it have been OK for Britain to maintain rule over Kenya or Sierra Leone on the basis of Her Majesty’s greater technical and economic capacity?  That sounds offensive. Why?  Because there are principles more important than doing a good job.

ethicsLocalizationUK Government

Two new posts (elsewhere)

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Last week ODI/HPG launched a new (and excellent) report on what we can learn from the response to DRC Ebola outbreak #10. Having led HPG’s 2015 review of the Ebola response in West Africa, I was asked to contribute to the discussion. Twice. That led to a joint blog with Kerrie Holloway, one of the authors of the new report. To nobody’s surprise the authors found issues such as community engagement and embedding the international response in the context of the outbreak remain points of weakness.

This led to my solo blog post, where I ask whether or not it is time to shoot the messenger. Meaning, whether or not in addition to our finger-pointing at operational agencies and donors, it is we who deliver evaluations and reviews turn to accept some responsibility for sectoral intransigence and bad practice. Why do evaluation and review miss the forest for the trees, or dive into program performance with politics and systemic dysfunction being placed oh-so-conventiently outside the scope? What is the cost of this misdirection?

It’s past time the sector pays more attention to the messenger. The opening of the blog…


As the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) launches its new research on the 2018–2020 Ebola outbreak in the DRC, global news of new outbreaks in the Republic of Guinea and again in DRC gives pause to reflect. By way of grasping for a silver lining, this frequency offers the opportunity to improve global health and humanitarian operational responses by learning from them. A second opportunity is to improve by learning from how we learn.

Our sector publishes no shortage of evaluations, reviews and reports that traffic in ‘lessons learned’. Yet contrary to the cosy idea of having learned lessons, this new HPG report from Crawford, Holloway, et al highlights a repetition of shortcomings, such as the quintessential agency turf battle that manifests in debates over how the crisis was framed and thus responded to (in this case whether Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) was primarily a vertical health crisis or had fused with and fuelled the longstanding conflict and multi-dimensional political and economic crisis in Nord Kivu); and the failed imperative for such extraordinary expenditure (in this case, an estimated $1 billion) to leave behind permanent infrastructure and capacity. These issues are anything but unfamiliar. They were unambiguously signposted by many reports on the 2014-16 outbreak in West Africa, including a previous HPG study (which I led), and in the evaluation reports of too many crises before that…

[To continue (to get to the fun part), here’s the link.]


The Politics of Humanitarian Uncertainty

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[What began as a conversation about uncertainty with HERE-Geneva’s Marzia Montemurro ended up finding its way to an article, now published by the good folks at Global Dashboard. The thrust of our argument is that humanitarians have “failed to engage with the bias in its attention and the political content of how uncertainty is interpreted, ignored, unseen, and suppressed.”

Our catchy tiitle? Uncertainty and Humanitarian Action: What Donald Rumsfeld can teach us. The article:

Since its onset, one striking feature of the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) has been the narrative power of its novelty. This global narrative depicts COVID-19 pushing humanity towards a ‘historical divide’ of BC and AC (before and after COVID-19), where unknown, unpredictable futures await.  Within the humanitarian sector, we reveal this same preoccupation with the post-COVID future in a plethora of reports and webinars. While the virus itself may be the antihero of this narrative, we believe uncertainty should be recognised as the second, less visible protagonist.

Keep reading here.

Critique of Aid

Reversing the paradigm

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Just as they do every late December, the interviews and opinion pieces will come. Atypically, though, the end of the mere year of 2020 seems to have displaced the usual attention to the end of a decade (no, the decade did not end last December 31st).

Well, it has been a comparatively eventful year. So some form of this question will be asked over and again: What’s the biggest thing that happened in 2020? For humanitarians, given the unique qualities of 2020, perhaps the more interesting question is this: What will prove to be the fourth most impactful event of 2020, after all-too-obvious triumvirate of (1) COVID-19, (2) Trump loses the election, and (3) Black Lives Matter forces scrutiny on the humanitarian action’s neo-colonial hangover.

My answer comes in the form of news from late last week. Unicef will be supporting a feeding operation that aims to reach between 10,000 and 15,000 children.  That will include for example delivering breakfast meals to 13,000 students over the next two weeks (in-school feeding programs will be closed for the holiday).  This food aid marks as typical and maybe even as innocuous of a Unicef program as you might imagine.  Happens every day.  Literally.  But in Unicef’s 70-year history it has not happened that the agency delivered food to children in the United Kingdom.

Returning to our eulogy for 2020, this small event may be one that eventually sneaks up on the humanitarian sector the way all good disruptions do, because it impacts on the level of ideology and perception. With delivery of this small program comes fruit, rice, bread and the power of South to North humanitarian action (even if the example is not specifically South to North).  Not yet. Not yet an event like a Tanzanian medical mission to combat the pharmacalization of American childhood.[1]  Those examples will come. They should come.  And we should not wait for them to come. We should plan and execute their coming because that is one of keys to saving humanitarian action from itself, from its paternalistic, Othering, saviourism.

Unicef delivering emergency aid in the UK offers disruption via “a well-publicised humanitarianization (problematization) of the many crises in the global North.”[2]  Aside from feeding destitute children, the (ulterior) purpose is to “shift the prevailing charity model to one of an exchange among equals, where the North and South partner in ‘saving’ one another.” In other words, to break the mindset which binds together so much of what is right with humanitarian action with so much that is wrong.  This targets the narrative in which the rich, developed, scientific, virtuous and flat-out most excellent people of the world help those who are poor, primitive, irrational, corrupt and flat-out screwed.  Further, this spoils the incentive structure by targeting the construct or dynamic in which we who live in humanitarian-giving nations are enabled to feel superior about ourselves, while those in humanitarian-receiving nations are helped to feel inferior.

The response of Jacob Rees Mogg, a living caricature of British superiorityness, highlights the received meaning of Unicef’s work here in the UK (which should, after all, have come as no surprise given Philip Alston’s blistering report). In Mogg’s vigorous rejection, he railed against Unicef’s action as a “political stunt”, arguing that Unicef aid should be given to what Donald Trump has less eloquently termed “shithole countries”.[3] The reaction of politicians on the UK left was identical in its assumptions, using the fact of Unicef’s local humanitarian action to shame the Prime Minister and his party, calling it “a disgrace” that Unicef had to help feed children in “one of the richest countries in the world.” As if Congo or Iraq weren’t nations brimming with riches and millionaires.  As if the accumulation of the UK’s riches weren’t intimately connected to the production of either the crises being targeted by the humanitarians or the 14M people in the UK who live in poverty (pre-COVID stat!).

In ten (twenty?) years we will hopefully see that this small disruption forms part of a larger transformation, one in which millions of people will assume the wealth and social capital of a country like Yemen or South Sudan and feel the disgrace when children there need to be fed by international donations, and those people will be the Yemenis and South Sudanese themselves.  And where we in the West will feel and see an identical disgrace in the opioid/drug deaths across the working class America, or the loneliness of the elderly in Japan.  And where we can share this disgrace across the entire human family rather than excepting ourselves from it.

The appeal of that critique lies in certain égalité; in the realization that we are just like them.  It certainly fits with my intermittently critical tone and mounting calls for a humanitarianism riddled with humility. But seeing ourselves just like them is also problematic. After yet another decade, perhaps greater humility will produce the parallel recognition as well.  They are just like us.

[Edited for clarity on 27 Dec 2020].

[1] See e.g.

[2] DuBois The New Humanitarian Basics pp. 26-27. Or see this script of a rather unscripted Chatham House conversation on humanitarian disruption between me, Urvashi Aneja, Markus Geisser, and Champa Patel.

[3] Putting aside Trump’s language, I fail to differentiate his opinion from either mainstream humanitarian thinking or its public narrative. These places we work are exceptional in [insert here rephrasing of ‘shitholiness’ in terms of levels of violence, lawlessness, destitution and helplessness].


The Future of Aid

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The editorial team at The New Humanitarian has assembled a series of ideas on the future of aid. Their call was to keep it short and simple (400 words) — not my usual M.O. — just make a clear statement of a problem and then solution.

The series is well worth the thought-provoking effort. For example, Abby Stoddard writes on how humanitarian access to certain populations in crisis is blocked/restricted by heavy insecurity (e.g., NE Nigeria, Syria or Somalia). The idea? Turn it around. Instead of humanitarians transporting tons and tons of aid to people, what about the people (who are not helpless and know their country) setting up supply lines and accessing humanitarians?

And here’s a sample from my argument that less is more: This rethink requires the humanitarian deployment in protracted crises to step back, un-occupying the space in which others – those with the responsibility, the expertise, and the right (i.e. states, development actors, local civil society) – can step forward to build (over time) a peaceful and stable society. Their society.

Critique of Aid, Our Western Identity

A Nexus critique of Humanitarian Protection

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If the Triple or Humanitarian-Development-Peace (HDP) Nexus were not confounding enough for humanitarian operations, think about our sector’s most misunderstood cluster, humanitarian protection, which has long remained shrouded in conceptual fog. Even after a decade of the UN’s mainstreaming of humanitarian protection, its 2014 Independent Whole of System Review of Protection in the Context of Humanitarian Action concluded that ‘the widespread perspective among humanitarians [is] that they do not have a role to play in countering abusive or violent behaviour even when political and military strategies and tactics pose the biggest threat to life’ (Niland et al., p. 27).

The Review’s finding suggested a pervasive sectoral malaise with the practice of protection. Humanitarian protection thus struggles against a profound if not foundational weakness, one exacerbated by more ‘mundane’ trends such as the decline of multilateralism, the progressive (non-Western) pluralism of the sector, and the consistent weakening of the sector’s rights-based approach.  The proposition here is that the HDP Nexus offers a rare means for humanitarians to think differently about their work in general, and about protection in particular. 

Thus far, however, humanitarian protection’s (scant) Nexus engagement marks a missed opportunity, seemingly bogged down in a discussion of how to adjust the status quo. For example, a year ago PHAP held a webinar to unpack this vital subject, with the promising (if not somewhat clunky) title of The future of protection in the nexus: The role of the Global Protection Cluster and humanitarian protection in the humanitarian-development-peace-security nexus.[1] Aside from the ICRC’s contributions, I detected zero evidence of humanitarian protection leadership looking differently at the concept of humanitarian protection. Rather, the conversation remained embedded in the substantial barriers to nexus praxis, such as coordination.

The literature remains even thinner than the conversation.  Damian Lilly has produced (for ODI’s Humanitarian Practice Network) a relatively comprehensive and discerning overview of how the HDP Nexus affects humanitarian protection. The discussion focusses on the nexus as a policy initiative, and hence generates more of an updating exercise than a rethink.  His paper usefully examines the challenge to humanitarian protection of an overt or institutional linkage with development and peace actors; and then proposes ways forward in dealing with issues such as collective outcomes, program funding, joined up planning, and so forth. The essential yet less ‘useful’ question remains:  What can the HDP Nexus show us about the nature of humanitarian protection?

My own discussion paper on the Triple Nexus, published earlier this year by CHA Berlin, mostly traffics in the less useful.  It fleshes out the discussion obviated by our preoccupation with the pragmatic challenges of linking together three antagonistic, siloed sectors.  Moving beyond the issue of a tri-sectoral organigram, I believe the Nexus should be used to undermine the humanitarian sector’s inadequate, sequestered thinking. It can do this by helping us to better understand both the needs of people and the (inadvertent) consequences of humanitarian programming.  And then the real goal – to change how we see ourselves. The need for such a new gaze?  I would place humanitarian protection near the front of the queue.  Yet – mea culpa — my paper largely avoids the topic.  So now, a first correction of that mistake.

The HDP Nexus presents humanitarians with two can-openers for their tin-walled silo – looking at it (critically) through the lens of development and through the lens of peace (D & P). In their October conference Triple Nexus in Practice – What about Peace? CHA Berlin allowed space for making a few first cuts in the protection can (see the 30-minute conversation between Florian Westphal and me at #4 on the playlist).  What did that conversation yield?

Protection activities form a humanitarian response to those exercising power in such a way as to harm human dignity (see also the full discussion paper). Yet even the best of humanitarian work simultaneously brings negative consequences for peace, development and human dignity.  Why is it so easy to criticise powerful dictators and yet pay no attention to the exercise of power by the sector? Humanitarians may be excused if these are outbalanced or rendered invisible in the heat of emergency response, and yet we same humanitarians should be held accountable when this outbalancing or invisibility stretches on for decades of protracted crisis.  Hopefully, balance and visibility will be enhanced by ‘nexus-thinking’ that drags the sector (kicking and screaming) to the mirror.  What might this look like for protection?

The humanitarian sector has a problem with context. As some of the earlier panels from CHA’s conference described, the level of context blindness displayed by international humanitarian interventions can be staggering.  This cannot surprise us so much as our complacency given the apparent complexity of conflict and context, and yet along that dark road of uncertainty, so full of known and unknown unknowns, we feel it imperative (if not virtuous) to publish highly contentious reports on indiscriminate and discriminatory slaughter by a government, deliberate neglect of populations, rape as a weapon of war, and so forth. Don’t our blind spots matter? Are they really just spots? Where is the accountability (the protection) from the predictably unforeseen consequences?  What power dynamics lay beneath the ethics of, say, a foreign organization publishing a report in the absence of a multi-layered, structured inquiry into the local system of social and political relationships?  Does denunciatory advocacy and finger-pointing produce division and divisiveness? Can it reinforce hatred between groups (as the noted human rights lawyer Philippe Sands has concluded)? Does this form of protection work – so lucrative to the INGO in terms of its public image — essentially constitute an act of Othering, a heightening of group identity that collides with community peace efforts (‘peace’ with a small P) attempting to bring sides together?How does our reductionist, oversimplified and yet dominant narrative transform complex contexts into stereotypes of poverty and endless conflict that therein call for protection work and international humanitarian intervention? Who is it that protects people in crisis from the humanitarian narrative that trumpets the people’s and government’s incompetence, corruption, primitivism and helplessness?

Finally, if Nexus-thinking from a development perspective spotlights and challenges the inequitable distribution of power underlying so much of humanitarian action, it will necessarily confront the disempowering tactics and processes of humanitarian protection. Nexus-thinking should push the sector towards a protection analysis of what it means to claim the narrative of others, and then to propagate this narrative through the power of well-resourced communications departments and well-placed networks of influence.  What does it mean to sit at the table on behalf of others – what a big fat humanitarian anachronism! – when surely today all peoples can and already do organize to tell their own stories and lobby for their own justice, yet often remain functionally invisible because of the space taken and defended by the major Western agencies? 

Nexus-thinking should bring these and many other conversation-starters to the sector’s table. D and P therefore hold the capacity to end much confusion about humanitarian protection and, at the very least, promise to shake the power of H action and its exercise of H protection.

[Edited 30 November 2020 to correct some unclear phrasing]

[1] I note that PHAP is hosting an interesting humanitarian protection debate on Monday, 30 November: The State of Protection in the COVID-19 Era


Covid-19 futures in humanitarian action

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[Along with my colleague Urvashi Aneja, I have authored this article on ODI’s HPN (Humanitarian Practice Network) website. Thanks to our colleagues Paul Harvey, Sean Healy and Sandrine Tiller for their comments. And thanks to HPN’s Wendy Fenton and Matthew Foley for their suggestions and edits.]

For many, the coronavirus pandemic’s novelty, deadliness and potential persistence mean we are facing a new ‘historical divide’ of BC and AC – before and after Covid-19. Reviewing scores of blogs, articles and reports as part of the MSF Reflection and Analysis Network, we found considerable evidence that the humanitarian sector (if not the world) sees itself as poised at just such a critical juncture – yet little agreement as to the direction of travel (more/less authoritarian, more/less interconnected, more/less green, more/less local). Still more pressure to change comes from the anti-racism movement, bringing powerful calls for a sectoral decolonisation.

Given this attention on Covid-19 and calls for the transformation of power dynamics within the aid arena, we identified several key issues, themes and challenges that we think need to be addressed in the months to come…

The rest of the article can be found here.

Critique of Aid, Our Western Identity

Time for a Punch in the Face?


Can the leopard change its spots?

Across the humanitarian sector, a surfacing of anger, denial, repent, frustration, recognition, shame, rationalization and hope. The sector moves into action: webinars, all-staff meetings, executive suite statement, and ‘This time!’ promises of a new zero tolerance. This is not 2020, but 2018. Did culture or power shift? Hard to say. How did our sector perform such a deep dive into abuse of power and not seize upon the issue of race? That remains a riddle to be unpacked.

As it now stands, the aid sector is again being frogmarched into a confrontation with what it has always exercised the privilege to ignore. And we should ask: This time, will the sector’s anti-racist protests or the mea culpa declarations prove the spark to escape its inequitable relationship with people?

It is difficult to bet on success. The humanitarian sector has established a relatively unblemished track record of escaping from the challenge of transformation, leaving change agendas chopped down to technocratic reform. The practice of reform – a seeming good – hence becomes a practiced evasion, an avoidance of addressing deeply embedded inequalities that coalesce in a cluster of ugly isms – paternalism, sexism, colonialism, elitism, and racism. That incomplete list constitutes a straightforward humanitarian defect, namely that the sector is not humanitarian. We may provide vital relief (as might a NATO or even a McDonald’s food distribution) but we trample at existential peril our distinct purpose as enshrined in the principle of humanity.

The difficulty of achieving transformation from within should not surprise us as much as our faith that we will succeed.  It is not simply that the sector relegates big fat disturbing truths to the bottom of the to-do list (too busy saving lives).  It is also the very humanitarian way in which we address symptoms without unearthing the causes.  Example: As the discussion on racism unfolds, Paul Currion explains that terminology like ‘localisation’ looks “suspiciously like language used to avoid talking about the lingering effects of racism.” In effect, localization, the sector’s ‘solution’ to the problem of its resources and power already being localized (i.e., in the West), employs terminology that functions as a terminus, as a building block of the selfsame problem.

So, will COVID-19 and the climate emergency combine to make this moment a critical juncture? Perhaps. Milton Friedman’s shock doctrine claims that “only a crisis-actual or perceived-produces real change.” Or perhaps it is clearer in the less academic analysis of Mike Tyson: “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Will the public outing of the humanitarian system’s institutional racism or its blind fragility amount to a punch in the mouth? Will somebody “take a sledgehammer” to the entire system, as was suggested in a last month’s must-watch panel discussion hosted by The New Humanitarian?

A call for disruption

To answer this question, let’s turn it around: what does this sledgehammer look like? What does humanitarian disruption look like? And can a system disrupt itself from the inside? Can it punch itself in the mouth? In the TNH discussion, the panel explored how the perception of the US as a fragile state might be just such a driver or change. Kenyan cartoonist and political commentator Patrick Gathara asked, for example, if we can imagine African peacekeepers deployed to the United States.

That question holds the potential to disrupt the dominant narrative, because it asks us to confront the underlying paradigm. To answer, humanitarians must imagine South-to-North humanitarian programming (see my examples, p. 26ff). This leads to struggle, because we must reconcile our assumed legitimacy of North-to-South humanitarian action with South-to-North humanitarian work, which strikes us intuitively as wrong, or even nonsensical. Should we not build, for example, a training scenario exercise where Cuban medical teams respond the opioid addiction crisis that killed almost 47,000 Americans in 2018 (compare to last year’s death toll of 11,215 fighters and civilians in the Syrian war)?

In previous analysis of how the humanitarian sector responded to the crisis of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, I concluded that the intervention exemplified a more equitable and limited model of humanitarian action. The difference in how humanitarians conceived of their role in New Orleans versus in ‘humanitarian contexts’ surfaced the bias in the sectoral lens, and we can now recognize this bias as heavily embedded in racialized verdicts on the neediness, competence and agency of some people.

Humanitarian and disaster relief teams descended on the stricken city of New Orleans and delivered stuff – water, food, blankets, shelter. In other words, a decidedly punctual, modest response aiming to meet basic needs via the delivery of emergency relief. Contrary to the way it intervenes in the ‘global South’, the humanitarian intervention did not conceptualise the crisis in larger terms, and did not see the need (or feel the paternalistic urge?) to engage in rights-based political and social engineering with the goal of ‘fixing’ New Orleans. As a result, it did not seek to address long-standing structural vulnerabilities and problems of violence, corrupt governance, substance abuse, racial segregation and discrimination, gender oppression and violence, shockingly poor education and health services and the myriad of other needs the humanitarian system has captured within the scope of the ‘humanitarian crisis’. (DuBois 2018; 6, citations omitted).

The Katrina response hence demonstrated crisis intervention without further ‘humanitarianisation’. In contrast, crisis in the ‘global south’ produces short-term and assistentialist approaches that “are normalized to compensate for the persistence of structural problems related to rule of law, democratic accountability, public services and deep-seated social division.”[1] Sounds like a key brick in the wall of humanitarian expansion.

The point is that challenges to the assumptions of North-to-South humanitarian action can be illuminating. However, the risk is that we do not probe deep enough. One surprising moment in the aforementioned TNH webinar came as a number of panellists agreed on the worrying signs of instability in the US – threats of violent military repression of democratic protest, an uncontrolled virus that devastates ethnic minorities and the poor, divisive and corrupt politics, economic ruin of millions of Americans while a stock market sets records, etc. That discussion included a proposition: “Should we consider the situation in the US a humanitarian crisis?” The audience answered in the affirmative, 45% saying yes versus 20% for no.

Is American really Yemen (or CAR, Sudan…) in disguise? This question, provocative and as emotionally satisfying as it may be, seems like the wrong question. The issue is not that the sector needs to treat the US more like the ‘dark continent’, it’s that it needs to treat the ‘dark continent’ more like it treats the US. We should reject the idea that the US today is a ‘shithole’ in the way that resembles the ‘shithole’ countries that we have self-referentially defined as humanitarian contexts. We should learn to see that these so-called humanitarian contexts actually resemble countries in the West, full of contradictions and corruption, achievement and incompetence, massive advantages and terrible needs; and full of people whose dignity (a) rejects the assumption of needing to be saved and (b) demands the right to own their struggles.

The TNH poll thus invites the ‘white gaze’, where the deviation from a presumed White/Western norm of wealth and stability generates an exceptionalist break from history and politics, and yields the virtuous hierarchy of giver/savior above the helpless, incompetent victim. Arianne Shahvisi captures this racially biased gaze in her concept of ‘tropicality’, and David Chandler has described this as a perception of non-Western countries as “incapable of rational policy-development and prone to corruption and nepotism,” peopled with victims in need of Western intervention against their “corrupt and inefficient elites.”

To disrupt humanitarian power is to remove the legacy of racism from the justification and extensiveness of our interventions in places like South Sudan, Bangladesh, Haiti, or CAR.  It is to subvert the privilege of believing that our good intentions magically overcome our causal relationship to the profound injustices of those places.  For that sort of disruption, though, we should perhaps look outside the sector, because it will not come from within.

[Edits for clarity were made to the original post, on 28 August, about five hours after posting.]

[1] Fiori, J. et al. (2016) The Echo Chamber: Results, Management, and the Humanitarian Effectiveness Agenda. London: Save the Children, p. 54.

Critique of Aid, Our Western Identity, Politics

The Privilege of Control


Anti-racism protests have prompted unprecedented conversations across many parts of the humanitarian sector.  Institutions and their leaders have raised their hands as witnesses and responders to the destructive practices of racism, and to being spreaders and perpetrators of it.  There is a flow of apology and commitment.  We see strong vows to change, to listen, to understand, to do better, to open up uncomfortable spaces, to rectify, and to eradicate.  An odd gap in this litany of promises?  Reckoning.  Justice.

Let us begin with the simple fact that various forms of racial discrimination – both individualized acts of racial discrimination and institutional racism – are not examples of bad behavior. They are examples of wrong behavior. They are deemed in much of the world to be an offense, usually a civil offense but in some states a criminal offense. Legal codes attach this gravity to racism because racial discrimination and racism (just as sexism, etc.) constitutes an act of direct harm upon an individual, and it is a particularly insidious category of harm because it targets and violates that which is immutable about a human being.

In a textbook display of privilege, agencies within the sector have assumed the capacity to act as both defendant and judge or jury. Defining the boundaries of how they will talk about addressing their racism marks an appropriation, so for instance deciding to look forward but deflecting accountability for the present or the past. Angela Bruce-Raeburn asks the question that is erased by these declarations: “Can a chief executive ‘apologise’ for racism and stay?”

This is a particular exercise of privilege, because it both masks and is a product of our virtue. As I’ve written before, the legitimacy of the sector is challenged by its susceptibility to moral licensing, allowing its good works to facilitate or counterbalance bad stuff. We downplay the offense and then rationalize our actions. Why such persistent difficulties with community engagement, localisation or ‘downward’ accountability? Because we justify our inaction and allow our racism to hide in the plain sight of “power over” policies or practices of knowing what is best for them. Move fast fast fast and you do not notice. Beware the strong resemblance to the original humanitarian sin of its colonial legacy, the enterprise of subjugation and resource extraction being justified by the civilizing mission.


In the almost 25 years since the JEFAR first recommended that humanitarians needed to be held accountable by an independent body, the sector has devoted consistent, massive effort to producing codes of self-accountability, an ever-expanding lists of best practices, standards, targets and other technocratic non-fixes to the problem of the sector’s social injustice.[1] Complaint mechanisms, suggestion boxes, agency hotlines and help desks are emblematic of the twinned mindsets of privilege and of charity, a uniquely inebriating potion that mixes good intentions with an (un)conscious “it’s better than nothing” (“happy to get something”?) rationalisation of sectoral shortcomings. In the end, the underlying distinction of humanitarian accountability is that it does not produce the state in which an agency must give and then be held to account for its decisions and actions. Aid requires a reckoning. And when an offense is committed, it demands justice as well.

The starting point of the internal discussions to come should be letters of resignation. It is not for me to say if they should be accepted, but they should be sincere and on the table. Truth and reconciliation? Independent adjudicators? National inquiries in the countries where aid takes place? Grace? This is easier for me to write than to now predict if I would have had the integrity to submit my own back when I was director. I made the choice to remain, a choice rationalized by the good being done and by my occasional and completely ineffective protestations. My decision marked the mistaken weighing of moral obligations against programmatic output.

Critical to change is recognition that weak sectoral and negligible external accountability do not give rise to or permit racism in humanitarian action. The problem to be addressed is the reverse. Racism gives rise to the sector’s insufficient accountability. The solution is simple in theory. As Themrise Khan astutely argues, “it is the aid ‘recipients’ who must push back against the white aid system”. Accountability is not an internal treasure for the dominant agencies of the Global North to bequeath, but rather a power, authority and even a vocabulary that will need to be taken and will need to be constructed.

To do that, society must counter the sector having approached accountability as an internal or isolated exercise. MEAL programs and internal reporting can and do contribute to accountability, but accountability requires a multiplicity of external prongs. This is what you would find in the West, where accountability for the work in an NGO (or business) arises from the independent work of journalists, review-based websites (coming soon?), official ombudsmen, law enforcement, lawsuits, citizen watch-dog groups, government regulatory bodies, consumer groups, etc. The blindspot should now be apparent. Efforts to improve governance and strengthen civil society should be pushing for the requisite frameworks and skills to hold foreign aid agencies to account and protect people from harm. The neo-colonial gaze means never seeing ourselves as the problem to fix, and yet we exert enormous power over the lives of people in crisis.

The external equivalent of Bruce-Raeburn’s taking issue with non-resignation resides in the governments and civil societies of the states and communities where humanitarians work. How can an organisation that understands itself to have racism threading through its work and culture – driving the conceptualization of programs, framing the narrative and imagery of ‘heroic’ aid, suffusing the relationship with its employees – simply assume that it should or is able to remain engaged in said work? In other words, what is the significance of and process by which we construct ourselves as fit for the purpose of delivering assistance and protection to (predominantly) people of color? This is white privilege at work. Accountability for its racism requires resignation of the humanitarian project, to be accepted or rejected by the governments and communities that have suffered the offense.

[21/July: I made two edits to this post — minor cosmetic changes in the first para and the insertion of a missing “not” in the fifth para.]

[1] While there is considerable external accountability to HQ or institutional donors, this relates more to responsible financial management and log-framed targets, and not to the character of the aid or to the relationship of the agency to the community.

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The idea behind this blog is to spark discussion around humanitarian action, with an eye to points of view running contrary to the prevailing discourse. And to have some fun. Though obviously related to my work, these are strictly personal ideas, opinions and positions (note that I no longer work for MSF, so don't blame them). Further disclaimer: click on the ABOUT button.

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