Tag Archives: aid workers

Humanitarian challenges in Syria

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NCHS arranged a seminar on the humanitarian situation in Syria. During the discussions it was made clear that the world had not seen a humanitarian emergency of this scope since Rwanda 1994. Lack of access inhibits humanitarian operations directed at the Syrians in Syria, while the programs for the protection of refugees are still underfunded. There are many potential partner NGOs operating inside Syria, but the large international humanitarian NGOs have a hard time finding implementing partners. NGOs that are reliably neutral and have a full mastery of Western accounting standards – are in short supply. It was noted that work in Syria was very dangerous for both the media and the humanitarians; kidnappings, arrests, and executions have effectively blinded the international community and largely incapacitated the humanitarian response.

The seminar was opened by a rough introduction to the current positions in the civil war: The cleavages are many and, unfortunately, multiplying. A rough summary is that the Assad regime controls areas to the south and west; the opposition controls areas in the north and east – while the northern most area is controlled by Kurdish nationalists. The conflict threatens the stability of the entire region. Turkey is under pressure by a massive influx of people fleeing the conflict, Jordan is hard-pressed by its’ own population which can potentially gain support from Syrian refugees, and the population of Syrians in Lebanon is closing in on the 25 % mark. Considering Hezbollah’s close affiliation with the Shiite regime in Syria, and that the majority of fleeing Syrians are Sunni, this can potentially destabilize the political balance in Lebanon.

It was claimed that the international actors have a disproportionate focus on refugees; to the detriment of the internally displace inside Syria. A partial explanation for this is that it is very difficult to act inside Syria. The security situation is tough for the international humanitarians and the complex political situation makes it difficult to choose local implementing partners. It was also emphasized from many speakers that the neutrality had become an impossible ideal inside Syria. It is virtually impossible to get a full overview of political implications and potential offences taken at any given course of action. Meanwhile the UN is forced to work within the framework of Syria as a sovereign state, granting the Assad regime authority over how they conduct their humanitarian efforts. The national Red Cross Society also has close ties to Assad’s administration. Concern was expressed by several speakers that humanitarian relief could be abused by Islamist elements in the opposition. To this it was objected that the Islamists were there to stay. Neglecting humanitarian obligations in fear of supporting radical Islamists could potentially lead to a failure similar to the one faced in Somalia. The consequences could be catastrophic for the Syrian population.

The potential for abuse of humanitarian aid to promote political and military goals is large. At the same time the situation is dire. With winter on the way it can become necessary to sacrifice neutrality in order to ensure that the aid can reach those in the greatest of needs.

The complete video of the “Humanitarian Challenges in Syria” seminar (in Norwegian) is available here:

Part 1

Part 2

 

PoC: Protection clusters and the formation of ambiguity- the view from Bor and beyond

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How come the policy realm of protecting civilians is increasingly being challenged on both conceptual and practical grounds, all the while efforts are being done in policy headquarters and in the field to refine its idea the implementation of it?

One such refinement seeking to alter established practices is the introduction of the protection cluster among humanitarian organisations in South Sudan in July 2010. Initially, the PoC unit of the United Nations’ Mission to Sudan (UNMIS) served as the link between the UN mission and various civilian UN and non-UN entities regarding civilian protection. The 2010 reorganisation advanced the cluster approach as a means to coordinate diverse and dispersed protection activities, with the aim to think more broadly about protection concerns drawing on interagency cooperation and coordination among the humanitarian organisations present in the area. In southern Sudan the protection cluster was to be led by UNHCR (and co-chaired with the Norwegian Refugee Council), now serving as protection lead and focal point for protection issues in the area. The cluster chair’s role is to facilitate a process aimed at ensuring coordinated and effective humanitarian response in relation to protection.

Cacophony and dissonance, however, seemed to prevail when I attended a protection meeting in Bor during my fieldwork in South Sudan’s Jonglei state in late 2010. While the distinction between the humanitarian community and the UN peacekeepers had become clearer as a result of the reorganization, the cluster approach had also brought a host of new actors into the protection folder and into the very same meeting room. The diverse and, at times, conflicting understandings of protection among the various humanitarian organizations now seeking to coordinate their efforts did not promote unity, harmony and dialogue. Rather, it seemed like all the actors involved instead used the meeting as a forum for presenting their own, distinct views and approaches to protection. In nourishing the particular and operational distinctiveness the organisations, in effect, prevented to consign to any overarching approach to or notion of protection. So, by the time everybody had presented their own work and how their organisation dealt with protection concerns, the meeting was over and people started to leave to attend to other duties.

The members of the protection cluster mainly saw it as an arena for exchanging information, without questioning each other’s diverging and sometimes conflicting notions of protection. Limited attention was paid to practical solutions, thus causing for some discontent among the participants. Although “protection” was what brought this diverse group together, their practical interface during the meeting revealed the absence of a shared understanding of what protection means and entails in and for practice. Perceptions differed not only between the humanitarian segment, government representatives and the UN mission (including its military commanders). Also among the humanitarian organisations themselves were there diverging and conflicting perceptions and usages of the protection discourse. Basically, all seemed to interpret the protection framework according to their own institutional culture without an eye for harmonisation and coordination.

I hold that these observations are not particular to the protection cluster in Bor. Indeed, I’ve come across similar ambiguities and challenges in other settings, including more central UNMIS levels, among other NGOs and at the UN headquarter in New York. As such, the observations in Bor could be seen as indicative for a larger and more general concern pertaining to the protection of civilians; that is, the lack of a common and shared conceptualisation of the term.

The ambiguity of protection relates to protection’s institutional trajectory within the UN starting in the late 1990s and the political challenges the UN had to overcome when initially dealing with it: on the one hand there was the need to establish a robust framework to secure civilian protection, on the other hand it was a need to have this framework adopted at the most authoritative level. Hence, when the protection framework – infused by the language of the humanitarian principles – was brought to the Security Council, the council refused to adopt it in fear of it becoming too binding and political. In shredding of the principles, the council rather opted for a milder version; that is, a non-binding ‘culture of protection’ to be disseminated throughout the UN. Hence, there exists no unifying notion of protection within the UN, and this ambiguity transfers onto the field level and the organisations involved. It seems that the lack of a clear definition of protection permeates the UN system which inevitably affects non-UN organisations when these seek to coordinate their efforts with UN entities.

The cluster approach seemed to have emerged as an effect of the lack of a stringent protection definition. This illustrates another phenomenon, i.e. the inversion of policy and practice: when the policy concepts that aim to direct practice are unclear, new practices tend to evolve and these practices can be counterproductive to the original policies. As such, the ambiguities of the cluster approach and the lack of a protection definition draw attention to the complex relationship between policy and practice. Nominally policy aims to direct practice, being the very raison d’être of policy-making and the answer to why policymakers invest so many resources into hatching and formulating policies. This positivist faith in planning and top-down approaches have, however, the unfortunate effect of producing a growing ignorance to the local variations and multiple contexts where these policies are being implemented. Such centralized planning is also largely dismissive of the many nodes and intersections any policy passes through when moving from the global to the local, and the unpredictable transformations the original planned intent may take in the diverse junctures between policy and practice. An adverse inevitability, at least from the perspective of the planners, is an ever widening discrepancy between the policy and the practice of it. And the more ambitious the scope is – and the idea of civilian protection based on a set of universal principles is indeed grand – the greater the disjuncture between policy and practice tend to become.

While the policy-practice discrepancy is seen as a challenge to policymakers at the central level, it might give opportunities to the practitioners and assist the beneficiaries at the local levels. As was the case in Bor where the lack of a stringent protection definition meant greater autonomy at the local level for the different agencies. It also meant that all humanitarian actors were included in the fold without having to pay attention to who passes an abstract threshold or not. The loose definition of protection, or the culture of protection, brought different people and agencies together. And although this produced cacophonies when trying to harmonise diverse protection agencies and approaches, it nevertheless allowed for operational variation and complexity that arguably was more in tune with the local needs than any centrally devised policies. And while such complexity and multitude might be a challenge to universal principles and ambitious policymakers, such plurality – indeed an effect of the ambiguous protection framework – might in fact be conducive to a more contextual, sensitized and effective approach to civilian protection.

The Unspoken in Kabul: What does the future hold for humanitarian actors?

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On the day that the UN announced the number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan has fallen for the first time in six years, NCHS hosted a lively and interesting panel debate on the contemporary and future state of humanitarianism in the country (19th February). Based on a recently published report from the Feinstein Center, Afghanistan: Humanitarianism in Uncertain Times, the event took stock of the current humanitarian challenges in Afghanistan as well as how humanitarian actors can prepare for the forthcoming 2014 withdrawal of ISAF forces.  Panelists included Antonio Donini from the Feinstein Center and co-author of the report, academics from SOAS and CMI, and senior representatives from the Norwegian MFA, the Norwegian Red Cross and the Norwegian Refugee Council.

In a packed room at PRIO composed of Afghans, practitioners and policy-makers, Antonio Donini outlined the legacy of decades of international involvement in Afghanistan. Remarking on the similarities with the Soviet withdrawal from the country in 1989, Donini asked, what has been achieved? He noted that the human development indicators make somber reading after a decade of international engagement since the fall of the Taliban and millions of dollars of aid.  He observed that a unique feature of the Afghan situation is that all major donors are also belligerents, including Norway.

Having been invited to discuss possible scenarios for Afghanistan come 2014 and the need to engage in serious contingency planning, there was general agreement among panelists concerning a set of key issues: the re-categorization of the Afghan situation from “post-conflict” to “humanitarian crisis” around 2008 was very belated and had important implications for humanitarian strategies and policy.  The (marginalized) role of UN agencies and accessibility to various parts of the country remains a challenge. The withdrawal of ISAF forces is seen for some humanitarian actors as a positive development but perceived by panelists with varying degrees of apprehension. There was widespread agreement that there is also an acute need to address Afghanistan’s youth bulge.

Despite some agreement across the six panelists, there were strikingly different perspectives on what has and hasn’t been achieved in Afghanistan and what will come next for both ordinary Afghans and humanitarian organizations.  Some panelists suggested that it was not all doom and gloom, while others were more cautious.

Donini reflected on the fact that humanitarian response had not been overly successful in Afghanistan. The Norwegian Refugee Council described humanitarians as having achieved “remarkably little progress”. However, pointing to the successful work of local organizations in the more stable regions of the country, CMI argued that there were distinctly positive aspects to build on for the country’s future.

The lack of open discussions about contingency planning at the UN level was described by one participant as “the unspoken in Kabul, the elephant in the room”. There is a continuing bunkerization mentality within Kabul and agencies were reluctant to admit that their access is limited. On the positive side, 2014 will offer opportunities for looking more carefully at what negotiated access will mean and broader acceptance of the Taliban as a partner around the table. There is also the possibility that the ISAF withdrawal will undermine the Taliban’s main message of fighting a foreign force. Increasingly, the group will have to ask themselves what they now offer the population beyond attacking foreign troops. Humanitarians will also have to ask themselves difficult questions. As pointed out by a member of the audience, there cannot be an assumption that humanitarian actors (especially international) are actually welcome across the country. For many Afghans, they have already overstayed their welcome and humanitarians need to think carefully about what their future contribution to Afghan society can be.

As other countries scale down their funding, the Norwegian MFA repeated its commitment to maintain its funding for humanitarian aid to Afghanistan.  The MFA emphasized that it saw humanitarian aid as distinct from the Norwegian participation in ISAF. The focus of the Norwegian efforts would be on generating resilience through local capacity building.

In a comment, the SOAS participant, who is also an Afghan national, questioned why pour funding into capacity building now?   He also wondered why none of the other speakers had mentioned the role of the Afghan state which strongly asserts – at least rhetorically – its sovereignty and desire to actively participate in relieving poverty and suffering across the country.  He also described the humanitarian debate about a lack of access as slightly naïve: Afghani politics is about deal making and leveraging resources; humanitarian, drug related or otherwise.

He expressed concern at the militarization of rural Afghanistan as villages and communities are being armed as part of the ISAF withdrawal strategy.  Yet, he suggested that doom and gloom humanitarians also need to question their own contribution to the military Armageddon narrative: “As soon as we pull out, everything will go to hell. But while we were there, things held together”.

Somewhat surprisingly, there was no generally shared apprehension about insecurity.  The Norwegian Red Cross expressed concern about a decreased capacity to deliver as security deteriorates and international contributions to Afghanistan are reduced.  According to CMI, local Afghan NGOs will probably continue to work quite effectively with local populations. It was suggested that only certain kinds of humanitarians – those with foreign funding, dual citizenship or who financially benefit from disseminating a ‘worst-case scenario’ narrative – engaged in doomsday scenarios.  Local staff, particularly in the northern part of the country, focused on getting their job done with quality and politeness as keywords. While there had been a radical under-investment in peaceful areas with the bulk of funding going to Afghanistan’s conflict zones, there was eagerness in Afghan society to move forward.

A final point of discussion brought up by panelists and by young Afghans in the audience was the potential role of the emergent generation of young Afghans.  Afghani society has irrevocably changed and social media has become an integrated part of everyday life. What kind of space for leveraging social changed can be carved out between the traditional political elite, the warlords and the “NGOized” groups of privileged civil society actors?