Is humanitarianism in a post 9/11 world headed for a crisis?

Boston -- Imagine sitting down to talk with eight mullahs in a village in central Afghanistan, meeting with people in the war-torn Gulu district in Uganda, or attending a town meeting of displaced persons in Colombia. How do people such as these, on the receiving end of international assistance, perceive humanitarian action in their respective countries? Is it fulfilling its intended purposes?

To identify the challenges that will affect humanitarian action over the next decade, researchers from the Feinstein International Center (FIC) at Tufts University traveled to Afghanistan, Colombia, Sudan, Burundi, Liberia, and northern Uganda. A new report from that effort, entitled The Humanitarian Agenda 2015: Principles, Power, and Perceptions, identified major gaps between the current practice of humanitarian action and the local perceptions of beneficiaries in crisis situations. It concluded that if these gaps are not addressed, they will pose increasingly difficult challenges to the success of international humanitarian aid throughout the next decade.

FIC researchers explored four interrelated issues:

  • the avowed universality of humanitarianism
  • the implications of terrorism and counter-terrorism for humanitarian action
  • the search for coherence between humanitarian and political agendas
  • the security of humanitarian personnel and the beneficiaries of humanitarian action

Focus groups and individual interviews were conducted with a wide range of local populations, government officials, personnel from the United Nations, International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other related parties in each country.

"The findings highlight the crisis of humanitarianism in the post 9/11 world," says Antonio Donini, a senior researcher at the Feinstein International Center and co-author of the overview report.

"We found striking similarities and significant differences among countries. On the question of universality, for example, the western and northern nature of the aid enterprise was welcomed by most people in Sudan while in Afghanistan the values and baggage of the 'outsiders' were often at odds with those of the locals. In some cases aid efforts have become an irritant and a provocation."

One common thread throughout all the countries was that aid practitioners need to improve their understanding of local culture as an investment in more effective and more secure operations. "A resounding message," says Donini, "is that northern humanitarians need to listen more and preach less, learning from the resourcefulness, resilience and coping strategies of the communities."

"Our findings in the four focus areas confirm that the humanitarian enterprise is vulnerable to manipulation by political forces far more than was previously thought," continues Donini. "Failure to address and reverse present trends will result in the demise of an international assistance and protection system based on time-tested humanitarian principles."

Case study reports on the individual countries accompany the main report. Highlights from the Afghanistan and Colombia reports are below.

Meeting with Mullahs in Afghanistan: Addressing Cultural Competence in Humanitarian Action

In Afghanistan, lead researcher Donini conducted more than 50 interviews and 18 focus groups in both rural and urban areas to discover how community members, aid workers, and government officials perceive the humanitarian work being done in the country post 9/11. He found that one of the main barriers threatening humanitarian action is the gap in perceptions among NGOs, politicians, the media, and Afghan people.

He explains: "At a minimum, humanitarian action is seen by the Afghan people as alien and pregnant with foreign-ness, based on issues such as language, social, and religious differences. At a maximum, it is suspected of having a hidden agenda ranging from the promotion of 'different' or un-Islamic values to religious proselytism or intelligence gathering for political agendas."

Donini and colleagues call for more culturally sensitive approaches to improve the outcome of humanitarian action. "The current approach of top-down, expat driven processes based on values which are fundamentally northern and western is not working for the Afghan people," says Donini. He and colleagues call for more work on local perceptions, including an analysis on ways to better achieve change from within.

"Coupled with the general frustration of Afghans that life has not improved since the Taliban were chased from power, criticism of humanitarian action from media, political forces, and the public contributes to a volatile environment for aid agencies." Donini acknowledges that these perceptions are often based on rumor but stresses that they should be addressed by identifying strengths and weaknesses of aid, including evidence-based assessments from independent groups to document cost-effectiveness.

Donini emphasizes the importance of improved communication among governments, NGOs, and the Afghan people to discuss the issues that are often ignored. "Humanitarian groups should not be afraid to lead the discussion on corruption within the aid system and governments, the implications of the rapidly-expanding illicit economy, and the discrepancy between promoting internationally accepted human rights and the need to be culturally sensitive," he says. "Conversation can only facilitate the long-term goal of ensuring human rights for people in Afghanistan."

Looking to the future, Donini understands that "choices made in Afghanistan today are likely to have deep consequences for the humanitarian enterprise's ability to address life-saving needs well into the future. In order to maintain credibility, humanitarian actors need to be more discerning in understanding the political contexts in which they work, more assertive in advocating for policies that do not undermine the rights of civilians, more accountable to beneficiaries, and more professional in their approach to these challenges."

Terrorism: an Ongoing Reality for Generations of Colombians

The humanitarian challenges in Colombia share some of the characteristics in Afghanistan, but also have some special features. A large portion of the Colombian population is displaced from their lands, with several of the country's indigenous groups facing potential extinction due to the country's decades-long armed conflict between left-wing guerrillas and the Colombian state. Because of the endemic nature of the violence, involving a combination of drug traffickers, armed insurgents, and criminal elements, a primary focus of humanitarian action in Colombia is physical security: that is, protecting citizens from war-related violence, human rights abuses, and crimes against humanity. The larger concept, however, is human security, which includes establishing and maintaining social, economic and cultural rights for citizens to protect their long-term welfare.

Colombia's terrorism is largely home-grown, which makes it "markedly different from terrorism connected to the post 9/11 'Global War on Terror,'" says Larry Minear, recently retired director of the Humanitarianism and War Project at the FIC and lead researcher in the Colombia case study. "In fact, the level of violence in Colombia is relatively the same as it was pre 9/11, despite the fact that government officials in Colombia and the United States have portrayed Colombia as a frontier in the global war."

Analyzing responses from interviews, town hall meetings with communities of the displaced, municipal and regional officials, human rights groups, United Nations agencies and Colombian and United States military personnel, and others, Minear and colleagues examine the ways in which efforts by international aid agencies to one degree or another become caught up in the politicization which plagues Colombian society. They call on humanitarian organizations to examine the historical and political roots that underlie terrorism in Colombia, both home-grown and domestic and to adopt innovative approaches in such highly political environments.

"We've documented some of the challenges faced by humanitarian action with respect to terrorism and hope to call attention to the need for humanitarians to maintain their independence from politics," says Minear. "Allowing humanitarian action to be compromised by politicization, either globally or locally, can greatly complicate the work of assistance and protection agencies. Humanitarian principles require that assistance and protection be provided to people regardless of their perceived relation to the global war on terrorism," emphasizes Minear.

Although terrorism is a daily reality for many populations in Colombia and elsewhere, it is "not an all-purpose explanation for today's conflicts, nor should it become the overriding factor in determining international resource allocations," concludes Minear. "We encourage the United Nations to re-establish the 'social contract' which allows international humanitarian access to civilians, as well as to promote a "robust international structure to combat terrorism that is based on international norms."

Beyond the research on Afghanistan and Colombia, the Tufts study identifies recurrent challenges in Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, and northern Uganda, each with certain distinctive dynamics as well.

The Feinstein International Center at Tufts is now launching a second phase of the Humanitarian Agenda 2015 research to collect information in other conflict areas including Nepal, Palestine, Iraq and Sri Lanka. Several settings that have experienced natural disasters (for example, Pakistan) may also be added to the mix. Center staff are also conducting international briefings for donor governments and aid agencies to discuss the conclusions and recommendations of the study in Washington DC, New York, London, Geneva, Stockholm, Copenhagen, The Hague, Dublin, Kabul, Bogota, and Addis Ababa.

The Humanitarian Agenda 2015: Principles, Power, and Perceptions report and accompanying reports on all countries are available on the Feinstein International Center web site (fic.tufts.edu). A short summary report is also available on that site in both English and Arabic. The Feinstein International Center, part of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston, engages in research to promote more effective humanitarian action and a better understanding of crisis contexts.

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Antonio Donini, Larry Minear (Team Leaders), Sippi Azarbaijani-Moghaddam, Greg Hansen, Tasneem Mowjee, Karina Purushotma, Ian Smillie, Elizabeth Stites, Xavier Zeebroek. "Humanitarian Agenda 2015: Principles, Power, and Perceptions." Report, Feinstein International Center, Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, Tufts University, Medford MA. October 2006. http://fic.tufts.edu/?pid=32

If you are interested in learning more about these topics, or speaking with a faculty member at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, or another Tufts health sciences researcher, please contact Siobhan Gallagher at 617-636-6586 or Peggy Hayes at 617-636-3707.

The Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University is the only independent school of nutrition in the United States. The school's eight centers, which focus on questions relating to famine, hunger, poverty, and communications, are renowned for the application of scientific research to national and international policy. For two decades, the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University has studied the relationship between good nutrition and good health in aging populations. Tufts research scientists work with federal agencies to establish the USDA Dietary Guidelines, the Dietary Reference Intakes, and other significant public policies.


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