The politics of refugee relief: UNRWA and the ongoing funding crisis

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On 9 November 2020 Philippe Lazzarini, the Commissioner General of UNRWA, tweeted: “I am pained to announce that despite all efforts to raise the resources for @UNRWA 2020, I informed our 28,000 staff that we do not have enough funds to pay their salaries in full this month”. This is a desperate situation for the Agency serving 5,7 million Palestinian refugees in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, West Bank and Gaza. How will restored aid levels under the Biden administration affect the organisation, and what is the wider context of international aid to UNRWA?

Funding crisis

The economic shortfall was a direct consequence of United States President Donald J. Trump’s policy of defunding UNRWA in 2018. The US, a major donor since the creation of the Agency, cut approximately 30 percent of UNRWA’s budget. The decision to defund UNRWA reflected both the Trump administration’s attitude towards international engagement generally, as well as its intention to undermine the Palestinian refugees’ established rights and existence as a political problem.

In addition to the funding crisis, UNRWA operations and refugees – struggle under the combined weight of Covid-19, civil war in Syria, economic collapse in Lebanon, the entrenched occupation of the West Bank and the Israeli-Egyptian siege of Gaza.

UNRWA is a humanitarian “quasi-state” providing basic services like education and health services to Palestinian refugees. Half a million children attend the 700 UNRWA-run schools and 3,1 million refugees access Agency health services. With its programs, UNRWA provides a basic social security net in a context where, by virtue of being stateless, the refugees are often disfavored compared to the local nationals. Poverty rates among the refugees vary. Around 25 percent of the refugees live in overcrowded refugee camps, characterized by dilapidated infrastructure and higher levels of poverty. Some common features are unemployment, insecure employment and lower wages.

Critics of UNRWA often promote a myth of UNRWA turning refugees into helpless, passive aid recipients by providing “perpetual” relief assistance. Relief, however, is limited to the poorest segment of the refugees only, and to emergency operations, like currently running in Syria and Gaza. One result of strict criteria is that refugees who do not qualify may also find themselves in dire straits. Moreover, the Israeli occupation has created conditions of severe hardship, and international aid seeks to alleviate that. While urgently needed, aid may also  be claimed to subsidize the occupation. The blockade of Gaza alone has resulted in losses of USD 16,6 billion to Gaza’s economy.       

International aid to UNRWA

In November 2019, the UN General Assembly supported the renewal of UNRWA’s mandate, like it has every third year since 1949. But such support does not reflect states’ willingness to fund the Agency. In fact, UNRWA has struggled for decades to cover its budgets, as it depends on annual voluntary funding from states. This has made operations vulnerable to donor fatigue, to shifting donor priorities and to competition from other humanitarian crises. As a result, UNRWA must expend a great deal of effort to raise funds. Moreover, as each year passes without a solution to the refugee issue, the need for services (like schooling) increases due to population growth, leading some critics to label UNRWA’s efforts as “unsustainable”.

Aid to UNRWA does not come without strings. It is often contingent on reforms: for example, measures to cut expenses and cost efficiency. US aid to UNRWA has had a high degree of conditionality. A prime example has been the demand for Palestinian staff “neutrality”, referring to their political affiliations. Most donors have funded UNRWA because it is seen as helpful to upholding regional stability and because they have traditionally funded it. At the same time, UNRWA risks losing funding if it moves too far into what is considered political terrain and away from the core of its mandate.

Initially, after the US 2018 aid cut, other donors stepped up to fill the gap. But already in 2019 contributions dropped again. Currently, in pure numbers, Germany is the largest donor, while Sweden and Norway are highest per capita. Generally, the funding trend from Europe has been downward. In addition, the sudden defunding by Gulf countries in 2020 appears related to the US-driven normalization deals with Israel (EuMEP policymaker update, UNRWA crisis special, 18 Dec. 2020). Recently, a French newspaper leaked rumors that UAE is plotting with Israel against UNRWA to remove the organization without a solution to the refugee problem. These trends illustrate insecurities for the future. The Agency will most likely face demands for further reforms, tighter budgets, operating in a crisis mode affecting both employees and refugees. Some observers suggest that regional destabilization could occur if services are cut.

More than 70 years after the establishment of the Israeli state and the well-documented forceful displacement of Palestinians, Israel has never admitted any responsibility for the refugees’ displacement, and fiercely rejects any talk of their return. The refugees have not had access to any voluntary durable solution, restitution, reparations, or compensation based in international law or UN resolutions. It is a situation of violated rights and protracted injustice. The refugee question has been marginalized in political negotiations, most recently in the Oslo framework. This points to the dilemma of using humanitarian assistance as a substitute for politics, as a painkiller rather than a cure. This dilemma is real, but marginalizing or closing down UNRWA does not help solve it. Rethinking refugee relief and international aid is however overdue, as is strengthening UNRWA’s mandate and refugees’ access to rights.

Palestinian refugee camp, Kjersti G. Berg

Changing of the guard

The overall aim of the Trump administration’s aid cut was not just to remove UNRWA. It was to deny the existence of the Palestinian refugees and the right of return, and to remove them from the political equation – in accordance with Israel’s stated interests. The Trump administration has also targeted other core political issues, such as the status of Jerusalem and the ongoing Israeli annexation of the West Bank. While the Biden administration will not undo policies on Jerusalem and normalization agreements, the new administration has moved quickly to renew US aid to UNRWA.

With the Biden administration, it appears that the US will return to multilateral politics and to the role as a major aid actor worldwide. While the resumption of aid to UNRWA is important in alleviating dire needs, it is unclear what the terms and conditions of funding will be. Even with Trump gone, right wing politicians in Israel and Republican members of Congress will continue to seek to remove UNRWA, delegitimize it, and argue that UNRWA is perpetuating false refugee claims (one report by the US Congress suggested that only 20,000 of them are refugees).

Biden is expected to continue the United States’ longstanding support to Israel and not leverage its USD 38 billion, decade-spanning defense package to Israel for policy changes with respect to the Palestinians. While some will celebrate resumption of the peace process as a positive development, it provokes little optimism in Palestinians. This is a return to the old game, where Israel under the guise of the said process was able to undermine the two-state solution by accelerating land grabs, deepening violations of international law, and entrenching the occupation.

Debunking misconceptions UNRWA and Palestinian refugees

Due to its close relation to the unsolved Palestinian refugee question, ideologically and politically-motivated misconceptions abound about UNRWA and its mandate. UNRWA was established in 1949 as a temporary mechanism for humanitarian assistance and “works” projects (i.e. projects aiming to integrate the refugees into the host countries by way of employment. These projects were closed shortly after) for the newly-made Palestinian refugees. It was part of a dual system, where UNRWA would cater to refugees’ humanitarian needs, while their political rights were covered by UNGA Resolution 194, enshrining their Right of Return and compensation for the material losses they suffered in 1948. The UN Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP) was mandated to facilitate “repatriation, resettlement and economic and social rehabilitation of the refugees and the payment of compensation”. However, the push to solve the refugees’ predicament through negotiations faded. The UNCCP became inactive and the international community would gradually see the refugee problem mainly as a humanitarian problem. UNRWA’s mandate has evolved over the years, but the core of its mandate is to provide essential education, health, and relief services while the Palestinians wait for a just solution. The mandate does not include searching for political solutions.

One common misconception is that removing UNRWA will do away with refugees’ status as refugees, including their right of return. The Right of Return is well established in international law: it is not unique to the Palestinian refugees, and it does not depend on UNRWA’s existence. Another repeated misconception is that UNRWA is unique or fundamentally different from the UNHCR. It is not. It is an overlapping system to the UNHCR, and an integral part of the international refugee regime. UNRWA’s generational definition of Palestinian refugees, registering descendants of those who fled in 1948, is often a selected target of critics of UNRWA. Today, 5,7 million, and counting, Palestinian refugees are registered with UNRWA, as many are both stateless and refugees, and the political question remains unsolved. Their registration is fully in line with UNHCR practices. Palestinian refugees are refugees as per international law, and they have the right to protection just like other refugees. As UNRWA only registers the 1948 refugees and their descendants,  one can add that UNHCR would also have registered displacements of Palestinians after 1948 and until current days, making for even higher numbers of refugees and internally displaced persons. The argument that UNHCR would have solved the refugee question is fictious. Destroying UNRWA, which is the result of cutting aid, does nothing to alter the political reality, it only increases suffering in an already dire situation.

Refugee Legal Aid in Humanitarian Operations

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This post first appeared on Maja Janmyr’s blog, and is re-posted here. You may access the original post by clicking this link. Nora Milch Johnsen is a research assistant at the Norwegian Centre for Human Rights, where she works on the REF-ARAB, BEYOND and ASILE research projects led by Maja Janmyr.

A building with curtains in Beirut, Lebanon. Photo: Alev Takil via Unsplash

How do humanitarian organisations provide legal aid to refugees in countries that do not have any refugee-specific legislation and where rule of law is largely absent? I spent most of 2020 examining this question closer in my MA thesis focusing on the legal aid program of one international humanitarian organisation in Lebanon. More specifically, I sought to understand how Lebanon’s legal and policy framework on refugees influenced this organisation’s legal aid operations, and which strategies were used to promote and to improve refugee protection in this context. As I will argue in this blog post, the endemic lack of rule of law in Lebanon has discouraged the organisation I studied from outrightly challenging the restrictive refugee policies of the Lebanese government.

Refugee legal aid in the context of a humanitarian operation

The humanitarian response to influx of Syrian refugees to Lebanon has been among the largest humanitarian operations globally. The legal aid program I studied is operated by one of the leading humanitarian NGOs in Lebanon and specifically targets refugees and others affected by the Syrian crisis. The program offers information sessions, legal counselling and representation on different predefined legal topics and is also involved in legal research and advocacy.

Legal aid is provided in a context of increasingly restrictive policies with regards to refugees, and a justice system suffering from endemic lack of rule of law. Despite the fact that refugees make up a quarter of its population, Lebanon is not a party to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, and the country does not have any formal legislation affording any special status to refugees. Ten years into the Syrian crisis, the situation for refugees in Lebanon is becoming ever more precarious. As a result of tightened regulations, it is estimated that only 22 per cent of refugees in Lebanon have legal residency status. Without a valid residency visa, Syrian refugees are considered illegally present in the country and can face criminal sanctions that might lead to arrest, detention, deportation orders or deportation. To avoid interactions with the authorities, refugees are restricting their movement, limiting their access to basic services such as education and health care.

This situation is further aggravated by the fact that Lebanon’s sectarian power sharing system – largely based on elite-bargaining and clientelist networks – uneasily interacts with institutionalized responses to refugee protection and principles of rule of law. The presence of refugees is largely governed through elite-bargained decisions, some of which are kept confidential. Political interference with the judiciary is also not uncommon, and judgements challenging the political interests of the Government are not necessarily enforced. As such, the lack of rule of law affects not only the nature of Lebanon’s refugee response, but also the prospect of challenging it through the use of legal mechanisms.

Manoeuvring Lebanon’s refugee policies and justice system

In my thesis, I argue that the lack of rule of law that is endemic to the Lebanese justice system has discouraged the humanitarian legal aid program from outrightly challenging the restrictive refugee policies of the Lebanese government. Rather than engaging in strategic litigation, I argue, the legal aid program pragmatically explores the possibilities for protection within the existing bounds of Lebanon’s legal and policy framework.

A main finding in my work is that the legal aid program I studied is hesitant to engage in strategies that directly challenge the Government’s restrictive refugee policies either in court or through advocacy. As they often owe their positions to political leaders, judges are generally unwilling to challenge the Government’s policy by accepting pro-refugee argumentation. In the few successful cases, the judgements have not necessarily been enforced. Political interference with the justice system seems thus to discourage the use of strategic litigation.

In addition, by exposing individual refugees to the authorities, the legal aid program often considers that directly challenging political interests comes with a risk of harm for the individual concerned. Informed by a rights-based approach to humanitarian assistance, the legal aid program is committed to the ‘do no harm principle’. In this case, this principle seems to prevent the use of more confrontational strategies altogether. The humanitarian organisation’s dependency on the cooperation of the Lebanese government in order to fulfil its functions also makes it vulnerable to any backlash that could be triggered by directly challenging the Governments’ refugee policies.

In this context then, the focus of the legal aid program is less on strategic litigation and more on administrative procedures. As refugees are not afforded any special status under Lebanese law, the legal aid provided by this organisation is focused on assisting refugees in navigating their options within the fragmented and often inconsistently applied legal and policy framework. The activities related to legal residency thus focus on the administrative procedures available to renew or regularize residency at the General Directorate of General Security (GSO), either based on a UNHCR registration certificate or a ‘pledge of responsibility’ by a Lebanese national. For example, even seemingly straightforward administrative procedures for legal residency and civil registration require legal representation due to burdensome document requirements and the Government’s inconsistent application of these. And as I specifically discuss in my thesis, the legal aid program seeks to improve refugees’ access to civil documentation by engaging with the relatively independent institutions of the religious courts and the elected neighbourhood leaders, the Mukhtars.

Possibilities for protection and potential for harm

Providing legal aid within a legal and policy framework that is inherently hostile to refugees is not a straightforward task. In my thesis, I discuss the ways in which the legal aid program’s politically pragmatic approach, in its quest for practical solutions, in some cases may result in increased protection in some respects, but heightened protection risks in other.

In 2015, on the request of the Lebanese government, UNHCR suspended its registration activities and no longer provides ‘new’ refugees with a UNHCR certificate. This means that currently, the only way to secure legal residency for those unable to obtain this certificate is to find a Lebanese national willing to ‘pledge responsibility’ for their stay.

Residency based on a ‘pledge of responsibility’ is not identical to the regions’ infamous kafala system but it mirrors the same exploitative dynamic, as the migrant’s residency is tied to the contractual relationship with the employer sponsoring the residency. In response to reports of migrant workers suffering horrific abuse under the kafala system, numerous rights groups have called for the dismantling of this system altogether, although not specifically with regards to the ‘pledge of responsibility’ available for Syrian refugees.

Because it is currently the only option of legal residency for a large number of Syrian refugees, the legal aid program’s assistance in obtaining residency based on a ‘pledge of responsibility’ is indeed a pragmatic solution. This approach nevertheless raises questions about the role of humanitarian organisations in assisting refugees to enter into a contractual relationship which, on the one hand, may protect them from the severe consequences of illegal stay, but, on the other, might expose them to exploitation in the hands of potentially ill-meaning sponsors. Choosing between the devil and the deep blue sea, as the saying goes, is often a fundamentally difficult question – both legally and morally.

My study of the legal aid operations of this one humanitarian organisation in Lebanon sheds light on the dilemmas humanitarian legal aid providers are confronted with when they operate in contexts similar to that of Lebanon, where rule of law is largely absent, and where the legal framework does not provide for the protection of refugees. More than anything else, however, my study raises more difficult questions than it answers: In the pursuit of refugee protection, to what extent can – and should – humanitarian organisations engage in principled and sometimes outrightly confrontational strategies that nonetheless may backlash?  And to what extent should these strategies rather be pragmatic? In Lebanon, the legal aid program I studied balances these dilemmas by manoeuvring the protection possibilities within the existing bounds of the legal and policy framework, while at the same time steering clear of direct confrontations with the Lebanese government.

The Coldest Cold Chain: Chilling Effects of Covid-19 Vaccines

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This post first appeared on the International Health Policies (IHP) blog, and is re-posted here. You may access the original post by clicking this link.

Woman receiving an influenza vaccination at the Maternal and Child Hospital in Vientiane, Laos. Photo: CDC via Unsplash

After various stretches of lockdowns and the related dire political, social, and economic consequences, the world has welcomed the news that several companies – including ModernaAstraZeneca and Pfizer – are approaching an effective vaccine for Covid-19. Approximately 200 more are in the pipeline, of which 48 in clinical and 164 in pre-clinical stages of development. While there is thus hope on the horizon, for low and lower-middle income countries the roll-out of the vaccine will be enormously expensive, whatever option is eventually selected. As such, the life-saving vaccine may bring ramifications for future prioritization within domestic health budgets as well as allocations in foreign aid budgets.

In terms of ethics considerations, much of the debate so far has either focused on (1) criticizing high-income countries scrambling to secure vaccines for their citizens for lacking in solidarity and for inadequate support of equitable distribution schemes (COVAX) – or (2) on prioritization of population groups (see herehere and here). Contributing to the emergent analysis of the ethics of Covid-19 vaccination schemes while things are still ‘up in the air’ – the coordinated ‘mammoth operation’ led by UNICEF is in the midst of a vaccine tender process (running 6 weeks from November 12) – in this commentary, we suggest that attention must also be paid to the complex ethics challenges arising from the logistical challenges of distributing specific vaccines.

Taking the Pfizer vaccine, with a storage requirement of -70˚C (-94 F) or below, as our case example, we identify a preliminary list of challenges relating to the feasibility and societal impact of a successful roll-out of an ultra-cold chain dependent vaccine. The cost and the probability of logistics failure is extremely high – and even if a program can be successfully implemented, serious ethical issues with chilling effects on global health outcomes will likely arise. We also suggest that laying out some of the issues related to the Pfizer vaccine, if it were to be rolled out globally, can shed some light on medium and long-term ethics challenges for other vaccines as well, even if some probably present fewer challenges in this regard.

Feasibility

With respect to feasibility, ultra-cold chains require special cooling systems in facilities and during transportation. The tradeoffs involved in successful implementation must be carefully considered. Technical challenges greatly increasing risk include time constraints, freezing units, package sizes, and kitting:

  • The vaccine puts significant constraints on time: The proposed active plus passive cooling in containers will enable keeping vaccines in the required temperature range for 72 hours, after which the combination of power cells (active cooling) and dry ice (passive cooling) deteriorates. Such a short delivery time calls for air transportation; yet carrying dry ice on airplanes, especially passenger planes, is regulated as it consumes oxygen. The same solution has been used for ultra-cold chains before (e.g., STRIVE Ebola vaccine), but the scale of any Covid-19 vaccination programme will be constrained by the global availability of such containers, and the regulations constraining their use.
  • The unaffordability of freezing units is a possible spoiler: The estimated time that vaccines will stay usable after opening a package is 24 hours only. At facilities, including storage, customs, cross-docking, materials handling, and vaccination centers, freezing units will be required to store and appropriately handle the vaccines. In a bidding war, rural, small, and underfunded hospitals will lose out.
  • Proposed package sizes are for 5,000 vs 1,000 units. While optimal for transportation, these sizes do not consider usage patterns: the administration of 1,000 vaccines within 24 hours requires huge distribution facilities and massive manpower. Throwing away unused vaccines comes at an exuberant cost. Locations with lower population density may not be able to use such package sizes and de facto be excluded from the distribution of vaccines.
  • Vaccination programs have a host of material needs: syringes, gloves, PPE, tents for locations etc. Kitting will be of the essence; yet the other parts of these health kits will differ in their temperature control requirements. Inter-agency health kits have in the past been developed for vaccination programmes as well as emergencies, and include from cholera kits to entire field hospitals as a kit. They are composed in a way that regardless of the administering unit, any humanitarian organisation or health centre would know what to find in which box, and which items would need special processes (such as temperature control) in handling and storage. In the case of COVAX, UNICEF has started to procure and stock up on e.g. syringes and gloves, as to say, items that will for sure be needed to be able to administer vaccines.

Societal impact

In terms of societal impact, the following chilling effects of getting an effective vaccine program rolled out urgently need ethical consideration:

  • The Covid-19 response focuses on an increasingly narrow range of options for combatting the pandemic. We are now at a point where the solution – in the form of a vaccine (any of the vaccines) – is steering problem framing. However, even if cold chains can successfully be kept intact in hard-to-reach areas, and the vaccine can be distributed successfully, a vaccine program does not solve the structural problems in public health infrastructure that are greatly exacerbated by the pandemic. Food shortages, lack of access to clean water and basic hygiene, domestic violence and drop-outs will not be magically cured through a vaccine.
  • While the Covax Advanced Market Commitment (AMC) scheme will likely be a useful vehicle to secure health outcomes, it should be noted that GAVI explicitly mentions co-payments: “it is likely that the 92 ODA-eligible countries accessing vaccines through the AMC may also be required to share some of the costs of COVID-19 vaccines and delivery, up to US$ 1.60 – US$ 2 per dose – a mirror of the amount paid upfront by self-financing participants.” Taken together, the knock-on effects of the cost of vaccines and ultra-cold chains constrain future decisions about health budget allocations. Already overwhelmed health budgets in poorer regions will be additionally burdened by high-income countries demanding that vaccine coverage is prioritized to combat Covid-19 once and for all. In other words, the countries with the youngest populations and the highest child mortality will be asked to invest their health budgets to rescue the aging West.
  • Whichever vaccine or set of vaccines are procured for distribution through global mechanisms, this decision will likely determine pathways for foreign aid. For example, once effective ultra-cold chains have been financed and established, there is a likelihood that allocations for vaccines will tie up a significant portion of donor budgets for the short-to-medium time. We argue that the funding of vaccine initiatives –in particular the financing of the ACT-Accelerator through ODA budgets– needs to be subjected to careful ethics impact assessments.

In conclusion, while a vaccine requiring an ultra-cold chain may be the most daunting one logistically, all options come with their own requirements on temperature ranges, but also with differences in vaccine efficacy, and regimes to administer. Technically, if we can manage the Pfizer one, the other ones should follow. Regardless, the ethics of every single vaccine candidate, including its likely logistics pathways and distributive impact on public health, needs to be carefully mapped out.

WFP Logistics – Delivering on the promise (WFP Nobel Series, 6)

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The 2020 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the World Food Programme (WFP) for “its efforts to combat hunger, for its contribution to bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas and for acting as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict”. WFP is the world’s largest humanitarian organization, and food insecurity and food aid are much-discussed topics in humanitarian studies. In this blog series, we examine the implications of the award and critically engage in debates on food (in)security, food aid, innovation and technology and the WFP as a humanitarian actor. This is the sixth post in the series. Gyöngyi Kovács is Erkko Professor in Humanitarian Logistics at the HUMLOG Institute, Hanken School of Economics.

Mozambique, Goonda, 24 March 2019 WFP unloading food distributions. Photo: WFP/Marco Frattini

Congratulations to the World Food Programme for receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 2020! Apart from the fundamental yet difficult relationship between hunger and peace, which has been problematised earlier, it is perhaps time to reflect just how WFP sees to it that food is being available, and/or delivered to people who need it.

For a long time already, WFP logistics has had the mantra of “moving the world”. Their logistics and supply chain team is massive, not only in terms of numbers of vehicles and warehouses, but also when it comes to where these are located. Logistically speaking, food is bulky. In other words, it requires volume, capacity, and the related equipment. Given the volumes WFP needs to be able to move anywhere in the world, it is less surprising that they’ve built up their logistics capabilities, and have therefore also become the lead of the Logistics Cluster.

The “Log Cluster”, as it is often referred to, has an important co-ordination role to play if and when large volumes need to be delivered, and many organisations are involved. This is the case in larger sudden-onset disasters, but also after consecutive droughts, when regions and countries have run out of food altogether. The Log Cluster has though also come a long way in co-ordinating other global efforts in logistics and supply chain management, harmonising templates, contributing to global preparedness, writing a logistics operational guide (the “LOG”) to assist other organisations in their logistical efforts, assessing the logistics capacities of various countries etc. The list of initiatives is endless.

But what’s the link between food supply chains and peace? Food has been used as a weapon of war, as discussed earlier in this series. Delivering food to people who have been deprived of it, and negotiating humanitarian convoys to get secure passage is an important aspect. It is so important that “negotiation skills with warlords” is frequently noted as an eligibility criterion on job ads for humanitarian logisticians (Kovács and Tatham, 2010). Furthermore, the way the supply chain is configured can reinstate interdependencies between conflicting parties. Creating, or reinstating interdependencies of traders and industries across conflict lines has been used as a peacebuilding mechanism already in the Balkans in the 1990s (Gibbs, 2009). In essence, the way (food) supply chains are designed can indeed contribute or undermine local capacities, but also contribute to conflicts or conversely, to peacebuilding.

Yet come to this, do we always need to move food, or any other in-kind goods for that matter? Food is a basic need, yes, but importing food can also undermine the local industry and economy. WFP engages in all sorts of innovation projects, from trying out new types of vehicles (amphibious vehicles, drones, trucks delivered by helicopters – some of which may be problematic in conflict zones to begin with, see “The good drone”), to fortifying local foods. Perhaps the most important innovation is though the combination of cash-based initiatives (CBI) with making food available through bringing (local) retailers closer, ensuring the availability as well as affordability of food. The main selling proposition for CBI is that recipients can make their own decisions what they prioritise, and vote with their feet, or rather, their money. This is most certainly a very welcome development. From a supply chain perspective, they require a complete rethink, however (Heaslip et al., 2018). WFP and many other organisations have full-heartedly embraced CBI, with increasing percentages of their “deliveries” being ones in cash. The next question will though be, how to ensure that food is in the markets also during the pandemic. At the end of the day, if everything else fails, humanitarian organisations will still need to deliver.

References

Gibbs DN, 2009. First do no harm: Humanitarian intervention and the destruction of Yugoslavia. Vanderbilt University Press.

Heaslip G, Kovács G & Haavisto I, 2018. Innovations in humanitarian supply chains: the case of cash transfer programmes, Production Planning and Control, Vol.29 No.14, pp.1175-1190, doi: 10.1080/09537287.2018.1542172

Kovács G & Tatham P, 2010. What is special about a humanitarian logistician? A survey of logistic skills and performance. Supply Chain Forum: An International Journal, Vol.11 No.3, pp 32-41, doi: 10.1080/16258312.2010.11517238

Close your eyes and picture “a humanitarian”. What do you see?

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The imperial past and the humanitarian present

This post first appeared on the CMI webpages, and is re-posted here. You may access the original post by clicking this link. Salla Turunen is a Doctoral Researcher at Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI).

Yemen, Hajjah, Abs, Khudaish Camp, 13 June 2019. Photo: WFP/Mohammed Awadh

In the spring of 2017, a shocking piece of news popped on my morning news screen – two UN staff members, Zaida Catalán and Michael Sharp, a Swede and an American, had been killed in the central province of Kasai of the Democratic Republic of Congo. They were kidnapped along with three Congolese drivers and an interpreter, and two weeks later, Catalán’s and Sharp’s bodies were found. Catalán had been decapitated. 

Out of the horrific news I read daily, this one lived on both in the public eye and within my mind. But why this news in particular? Was it because I was preparing to embark on my first field office location as a UN staff member that spring? Or was it because Catalán was a Swede and I am a Finn, hence this event hit close to home? The broader issue here, obviously, is what enabled something to touch me on a personal level, while other manifestations of violence or misery remains ‘out of sight, out of mind’.

Catalán’s and Sharp’s dreadful ends raised waves of media attention.[1] Less is known internationally what happened to their three Congolese drivers and interpreter. Also, few would be able to connect the place and time of Catalán and Sharp’s disappearances with the decapitation of more than 40 Congolese police officers.[2] Further, perhaps even fewer could point out the decades of ongoing atrocious violence and mass graves in the region, tracing back to Rwandan genocide and beyond.

UN Sepical Envoy to the Great Lake Region, Mary Robinson’s convoy make a late trip back to Goma after she met with DRC president, Joseph Kabila in Rutshuru, the 29th of Novembre 2013 © Sylvain Liechti

Attacks against aid workers is increasing alongside the politization of their participation and motives. The most recent Aid Worker Security Report from 2019 states that the reporting year of 2018 was the second worst year on record for aid worker security. In 2018 alone 405 aid workers were affected by major violence: 131 were killed, 144 wounded and 130 kidnapped.[1] Contradictory to the media spotlight, the majority of the victims of these attacks were national staff members of the UN organizations and non-governmental organizations and received little international attention.[2] The Aid Worker Security Report continues:

“National staff, always the majority of victims in absolute numbers, now also experience increased attack rates and fatality rates per capita relative to international staff, reflecting increased localisation of aid in high-risk areas.”[3]

Why is it then fairly easy for me to recall and write about an event affecting international staff members over three years ago in contrast to something more recent with national staff members?

The geographical origins and skin colors of stereotypical humanitarians is one manifestation of its histories. As a researcher in the field of humanitarianism, I see how histories of race, ethnicity, colonialism, imperialism and Global South-Global North relations are ever-present and cross-cutting. These themes are woven into the fabric of what we understand as humanitarianism, wherein humanitarianism does not exist separately from the non-humanitarian world and, rather, is a product of it.

In a traditional understanding,[1] humanitarian principles of humanity, independence, neutrality and impartiality direct towards helping those whose human dignity is being threatened and violated. But, importantly, humanitarian misfortune – and particularly the severity of it – does not emerge from a vacuum. Even in the case of natural disasters, a high-income country is better equipped in rapid and effective response compared to a failing state. It is here where these histories and trajectories play a role, both on the sides of people in humanitarian need and the humanitarians themselves.

In shedding light on the details of ‘how’ these historical roles and trajectories manifest, I turn to Hannah Arendt. As an individual with personal experiences of antisemitism under Nazi Germany and one of the twentieth century’s foremost political philosophers, she is a master in analysis of origins of human cruelty and inequality.[2] Arendt’s ‘Origins of Totalitarianism’ refers to the overlap of racism and imperialism which is elemental in understanding the history of Western humanitarianism and further, the humanitarian world of today.[3]

On the one hand, Arendt considers racism as the totalizing concept and main driver behind systematic and structural inequality and deprivation. It originates from historical developments of race-thinking which captured the fatal conceptualization of race. For Arendt, the European ideology of race signified the worst of Western civilization with the most devastating consequences: “race is, politically speaking, not the beginning of humanity but its end, not the origin of peoples but their decay, not the natural birth of man but his unnatural death”.[4]

On the other hand, imperialism, as understood in an Arendtian sense, was a child of racism and colonialism originating in the ‘Scramble for Africa’ and beginning in the 1880s. Imperialism seeks to expand political powers overseas by interference par excellence in other governance regimes and ways of living. Arendt capsulizes imperialist attempt as dividing “mankind into master races and slave races, into higher and lower breeds, into colored peoples and white men”.[5]

In the on-going era of ‘black lives matter’, a prominent question is why white lives matter already?

The historical trajectory of racism and imperialism provides an understanding to this question, although without making the current situation any more just. One key configuration is that race has married class and its unequal power networks since the beginning. According to Arendt, race-thinking was integrated with the class societies of the nation-state building West of the 18th century. Based on an imperialist political philosophy which incorporated businessmen into politicians[6], the law of the state illustrated not a “question of right or wrong, but only absolute obedience, the blind conformism of bourgeois society”.[7] Whereas race substituted nation as the principle body politic, bureaucracy was the principle for foreign domination,[8] the glue holding overseas expansionism together.

Distribution of famine relief in the Madras Presidency. From the Illustrated London News (May 26,1877) via Wikimedia Commons

Connections can be drawn between the racial and imperial past and the humanitarian present, and also to the events of DRC in 2017 with the dramatic loss of aid workers. Humanitarianism is a product of its surrounding world and its roots lay in the same soil. A known researcher in humanitarianism, Michael Barnett, goes as far as to label the period of 1800–1945 as “the age of imperial humanitarianism”, from which the subsequent ages of humanitarianism followed.[9] The stereotype of a white humanitarian has been around long enough for our minds to associate seamlessly with it:

If you close your eyes and picture “a humanitarian”, what do you see?

These connections continue further. On a conceptual level, imperialism was, and political expansionism is, often paved with alleged humanitarian intent. Further, both humanitarian intervention and imperialism are located in the spectrum of international interventionism. On a practical level, and borrowing Arendt’s words, interventionism is primed with Western riches, not only monetarily, but also “in education, technical know-how, and general competence” (often applicable among humanitarians), which then also “has plagued international relations ever since the beginning of genuine world politics”.[10] An illustrative example is that consequentially to the ‘Scramble for Africa’ and many other related developments, the following humanitarian interventions found geopolitical ground in Africa and many of the biggest humanitarian aid receivers can still be found on the continent today. This dance between the imperial past and the humanitarian present can, of course, be found also in other places.

When racism and imperialism combined, human lives got different price tags based on geographical origins and skin color. While this was also true under colonialism, imperial ideology continues to travel by ideas. Talal Asad captures one of these fatal ideas:

“the death of poor people in the world does not matter as much as the death of people in affluent societies. In saying this and acting on this belief, the patterns of living and dying in the world come to be affected by it.”[11]

Prior their deaths, the patterns of Catalán’s and Sharp’s living varied from that of their Congolese drivers and interpreters. After all, they were the “UN experts” on their mission.[12] Is it, then, only following the unjust logic that difference also marked the pattern of their deaths?

The events of DRC are illustrative in the humanitarian context, particularly of the attention being paid to national and international humanitarian workers. Transcending from imperialism, the idea of human worth becomes a subjective estimate based on racial origins in which Western whiteness is the social norm.[13] This, of course, does not equate to whiteness becoming a safe haven for peace and prosperity. Whiteness can transcend further into specificities, divided by religious differences, nationalities and minority-majority politics. Turning to the example of Nazi Germany, certain categories of whiteness were prioritized over others.

But to conclude where I started, in Congo. In a humanitarian sense, what we pay attention to and what resonates with us on a personal level is a complex myriad of conscious and unconscious ideas of human worth. Were Catalán’s and Sharp’s lives worth more than that of their driver and interpreter companions? If measured in terms of public outcry, the answer seems to be yes. If measured in terms of grief caused by a loss of a family member, my estimate would be to say no. Perhaps it is trivial to even talk about measurements on a such horrific occasion. Rather, and on a personal note, why did I get shaken by the decapitation of one white woman, but miss the news of decapitation of over 40 Congolese police officers, when the context was the same? My best bet is to turn to the racial and imperial history from which our present conceptualizations and understanding of the world stems, and start to unlearn from there.

[1] See, for example, the statement by the United Nations Secretary-General at https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/statement/2017-03-28/statement-secretary-general-death-two-members-group-experts, the Human Rights Watch at https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/03/28/dr-congo-bodies-two-un-experts-found, the New York Times at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/20/world/africa/congo-zaida-catalan-michael-j-sharp-united-nations-democratic-republic-of-congo.html, Foreign Policy at https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/11/27/congolese-cover-up-un-congo-murder-zaida-catalan-michael-sharp/ and the Amnesty International at https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2018/11/drc-un-must-investigate-disturbing-cover-up-claims-over-murders-of-experts/.

[2] See the Guardian at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/26/congolese-militia-decapitates-more-than-40-policemen-as-violence-grows.

[3] Humanitarian Outcomes, Aid Worker Security Report 2019, available at https://www.humanitarianoutcomes.org/sites/default/files/publications/awsr_2019_0.pdf

[4] Foreword by Egeland, J. in Weiss, T. G., & Barnett, M. (2013). Humanitarianism contested: Where angels fear to tread. Routledge.

[5] Humanitarian Outcomes, Aid Worker Security Report 2019, p. 2.

[6] With this concept I refer to the mode of humanitarianism represented by its classical actors, such as the IFRC and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), who defend the ethical terms and neutrality of their practice. Comparatively, new forms of humanitarianism can be seen strictly instrumental toward desired outcomes, such as introducing democracy and overthrowing oppressive groups, see for example Mascarenhas, M. (2017). New humanitarianism and the crisis of charity: Good intentions on the road to help: Indiana University Press.

[7] In the field of humanitarian studies, I am not, by any means, the first or the last to affiliate to Arendt. Some contemporary examples include Owens, P. “Hannah Arendt, Violence, and the Inescapable Fact of Humanity”, in Anthony F. Lang Jr and Williams, J. (eds). Hannah Arendt and International Relations: Readings Across the Lines, Palgrave, London, 2005; Young, I. M. “Power, Violence, and Legitimacy: A Reading of Hannah Arendt in an Age of Police Brutality and Humanitarian Intervention”, in Minow, M. (ed.) Breaking the Cycles of Hatred: Memory, Law, and Repair, (2002): 260-287, and Weizman, E. The Least of All Possible Evils: Humanitarian Violence from Arendt to Gaza. Verso Books, 2011.

[8] Arendt herself addresses this issue only on rare occasions, rather, numerous similar references to human rights can be found in the publication.

[9] Arendt, H. (2004). The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Schocken, p. 209.

[10] Ibid, p. 202.

[11] Ibid, p. 185.

[12] Ibid, p. 189.

[13] Ibid, p. 242.

[14] Barnett, M. (2011). Empire of Humanity: A History of Humanitarianism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

[15] Arendt, H. (2004). The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Schocken, p. 163.

[16] Asad, T. (2007). On Suicide bombing. New York: Columbia University Press.

[17] See for example Human Rights Watch, available at https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/03/28/dr-congo-bodies-two-un-experts-found.

[18] I claim that here an intersectional connection to gender can be found; similar to male gender in the spectrum of genders, whiteness in the spectrum of races is “not an identity, not a particularizing quality, because it is everything”. Haywood, C. and Mac an Ghaill, M. 2003. Men and masculinities: Theory, research and social practice. Buckingham: Open University Press, p. 103.

The World Food Program won the Nobel Peace Prize. Does food aid boost peace? (WFP Nobel Series, 5)

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This text first appeared in the Washington Post, and is re-posted here. Ida Rudolfsen is a Doctoral Researcher at PRIO, and Halvard Buhaug is a Senior Researcher at PRIOThe 2020 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the World Food Programme (WFP) for “its efforts to combat hunger, for its contribution to bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas and for acting as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict”. WFP is the world’s largest humanitarian organization, and food insecurity and food aid are much-discussed topics in humanitarian studies. In this blog series, we examine the implications of the award and critically engage in debates on food (in)security, food aid, innovation and technology and the WFP as a humanitarian actor. This is the fifth post in the series.

Photo: heb@Wikimedia Commons

The Norwegian Nobel Committee named this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, recognizing the World Food Program (WFP) for “for its efforts to combat hunger, for its contribution to bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas and for acting as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict.”

With the World Health Organization under pressure and countries such as the United States emphasizing isolationism over international collaboration, this year’s Nobel Peace Prize is a push for “international solidarity and multilateral cooperation,” the head of the Norwegian committee said. It is not surprising, therefore, that last week’s announcement was met with near-universal praise, with commentators describing the award as “highly deserved” and “badly needed.”

But is there a direct relationship between combating hunger and building peace? Our research helps explain why these linkages are so complicated.

Global hunger is on the rise

After a steady decline in the prevalence of global undernourishment, the trend has deteriorated in recent years. The covid-19 pandemic is making things worse. WFP estimates that without international assistance, the number of acutely food-insecure people in high-risk countries may nearly double (from 149 million to 270 million) before the end of the year.

Prevalence of undernourishment in 2018. Red dots indicate locations of armed conflicts from 2015 to 2019. Countries in gray lack reliable nourishment information. (Data from World Bank. Map courtesy of Andreas Foro Tollefsen/PRIO)

From conflict to food insecurity …

The Nobel committee’s announcement describes the link between hunger and armed conflict as a “vicious circle,” where conflict can cause food insecurity and food insecurity may trigger violence.

The first part of this link is clear — almost all of today’s major food crises are in countries experiencing endemic conflict and violence. The WFP spends over 80 percent of its operational budget on humanitarian operations in conflict zones. In September, WFP Executive Director David Beasley wrote, “we can’t end hunger unless we put an end to conflict.”

Experts sometimes describe war as development in reverse. Wars often trigger displacement of agricultural livelihoods, or can lead to armed groups looting or destroying crops. And wars can set back progress toward food security for decades.

Add in a global pandemic and extreme weather events and it’s easy to see why the United Nations is now warning of the potential for famines of “biblical proportions.”

… And food insecurity to conflict

But the link from hunger to conflict is less obvious. True, persistent or increasing levels of food insecurity can produce widespread grievances that can motivate people to form groups and engage in violent behavior. Likewise, there is a robust statistical relationship between increasing food prices and social unrest.

These insights reveal less about the role of food insecurity or hunger specifically, as opposed to economic hardships more generally. Widespread hunger and mass starvation are outcomes of political failures that simultaneously produce a host of social ills — underdevelopment, inequality, exclusion — that increase conflict risk. Assessing the independent role of hunger in causing such events is not easy.

People at the brink of starvation are rarely found fighting at the battle front and social movements protesting against high food prices usually originate among members of the relatively better-off urban middle class. “Food riots” usually concern broader and more complex societal challenges than the cost of bread, similarly to collective responses to peaks in the price of other basic commodities like electricity and fuel.

Food aid can have unwanted effects

Even if hunger rarely causes violent conflict, can humanitarian efforts to strengthen food security increase the likelihood of peace? Aid provided by WFP and other humanitarian efforts can be crucial in alleviating acute food crises. But aid delivery isn’t always effective, and food doesn’t always reach those for whom it is intended. Research shows that those trapped in high-intensity conflict areas receive less assistance than those less exposed to the violence.

Why? Often it’s because ongoing armed conflict makes areas of acute malnutrition inaccessible, which means that humanitarian organizations may have to rely on local armed groups for aid delivery. In Yemen, for example, WFP had to make agreements with local militias in an effort to get food to vulnerable populations, all while worrying that donations could be captured and distributed to the warring parties instead of those most in need.

A related concern is the potential effect of humanitarian assistance on conflict dynamics. An inflow of food and other lootable commodities can attract armed groups. These armed groups may want to secure access to valuable resources, to use food as a weapon in war or as tactical behavior to use as leverage in bargaining. Food relief organizations face a dilemma: They must assist those hardest hit by hunger, but must also be aware of the significant risk that corruption — or violent seizure of food aid — may inadvertently contribute to aggravating or prolonging the conflict.

An influx of food aid to vulnerable areas can also undermine local markets. When cheap or free food is brought in from outside, local farmers risk losing their income. For this reason, WFP has shifted toward a food assistance approach, giving recipients cash directly instead of food aid. This development is likely to stabilize communities’ food production capacity without disrupting local markets.

Of course, food aid doesn’t solve everything. Violent conflict and food insecurity are products of ineffective and discriminatory governments. Achieving the U.N. Sustainable Development Goal of zero hunger by 2030 is impossible without ending armed conflict and strengthening political institutions conducive to peaceful political rule.

This year’s Nobel Peace Prize is important because it sheds light on one of humanity’s greatest challenges, one that cannot be tackled without the international community’s coordinated efforts. Nonetheless, it’s not an award free from controversies or politics; provision of food aid will not cure violence and instability, and won’t replace conventional peacebuilding efforts. In some cases, food aid may even unintentionally prolong the suffering for those most affected by armed conflict.

Peace continues to elude the Nobel Prize (WFP Nobel Series, 4)

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This text first appeared on Flesh & Blood: The Blog of Mukesh Kapila, and is re-posted here. You may access the original post by clicking this link. Mukesh Kapila is Professor Emeritus of Global Health & Humanitarian Affairs, University of Manchester. The 2020 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the World Food Programme (WFP) for “its efforts to combat hunger, for its contribution to bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas and for acting as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict”. WFP is the world’s largest humanitarian organization, and food insecurity and food aid are much-discussed topics in humanitarian studies. In this blog series, we examine the implications of the award and critically engage in debates on food (in)security, food aid, innovation and technology and the WFP as a humanitarian actor. This is the fourth post in the series.

From the Norwegian Nobel Institute, 7 October 2011. Photo: Erik F. Brandsborg/Aktiv i Oslo

The recent award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the World Food Programme (WFP) triggered mixed reactions. WFP’s humanitarian efforts certainly deserve applause. At the same time, questions arise. Do already privileged organisations doing their mandated jobs need such affirmation?  More fundamentally, should humanitarian and peace efforts be confounded?

The Norwegian Nobel Committee recognised WFP for its efforts against hunger, bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas and preventing the use of hunger as a weapon of war.  This is great work but largely about mitigating the consequences of conflicts and not tackling their root causes.

Yes, hunger is often used as a weapon of war and WFP’s food pipeline succours desperate civilians. Whether that prevents the weaponisation of food or contributes to peace is debatable.  It could also, unintentionally, free belligerents of responsibility for populations under their control and just keep on fighting.

The good deeds of WFP and other humanitarian organisations require no justification beyond their intrinsic merit in preserving humanity.  In contrast, peace-making, peace-keeping, and peace-building are fundamentally partisan – and hence political – especially when there are contentious perceptions of  “good” and “bad” sides. 

Co-opting  the supposedly impartial humanitarian endeavour into the peace cause compromises the precious trust that is essential to reach all sides.  In anointing WFP, the Committee has sent perverse signals especially when it’s pronouncement hitched this year’s  Prize to the defence of multilateralism that has been so damaged by COVID-19 politics.

What is the ‘peace’  that the Committee wants the Prize to signify?  “Blessed are the peacemakers…” proclaimed Matthew 5:9 in the Christian Bible.  The Muslim Quran talks at 5:16 about the “ways of peace”. Other theologies have their own constructs.  Millennia later, the nuances of these hallowed words are still puzzled -or even fought – over.

The same is true about Alfred Nobel’s will of 1895. He established his Peace Prize for persons (not organisations!) who have done “the most or best to advance fraternity between nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies, and the establishment and promotion of peace congresses”.  While his instructions are clear, how are they to be interpreted in our ever-changing world?  

Perhaps that is why the Committee’s decisions have elicited both approbation and bewilderment during the 120 years of the Peace Prize that, ironically enough, coincided with the bloodiest phase of recent human history.  The 135 peace laureates include 28 organisations and 107 individuals, of which 77 are European/American and 17 women. 

Humanitarians are well-recognised:  the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) won three times, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) twice, as well as the League of Red Cross  (now  International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies), UNICEF, Médecins Sans Frontières and individual humanitarians such as Henry Dunant (the first laureate in 1901 and Red Cross founder), Albert Schweitzer, and Mother Teresa.  

Human rights bodies are there too, notably Amnesty International and human rights activists such as Martin Luther King Jr, Andrei Sakharov, Elie Wiesel, and Liu Xiaobo. All of them are great, though they illustrate a wider paradox. The stand they – and others inspired by them – take for human rights often generate conflict. That is not surprising. After all, no fundamental human right that we take as a universal norm nowadays was ever won without someone somewhere having first struggled – and usually fought – for it. In many cases, the same human right had to be fought for again and again to preserve or regain it. Human rights and peace make uneasy bedfellows.

Less controversially, several conflict mediators  and treaty negotiators such as Ralph Bunche and Dag Hammarskjold are represented among the Nobel Peace laureates but actual pro-peace bodies are relatively rare. Frederic Passey is acknowledged for the first Universal Peace Conference. There followed a few others including Nobel’s friend, Bertha von Suttner, and the International Peace Bureau, Quakers and the Dalai Lama.  

By all accounts, even by his adoring admirers, Alfred Nobel’s peace philosophy was not profound. His family enterprise benefited from armaments for the Crimean War and he made his fortune from dynamite and other explosive materials, albeit for civilian use. He said that it was not his responsibility if people used his inventions for wholescale killing. Nevertheless, a prematurely-released obituary described Dr. Nobel as having become rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before. Perhaps that stimulated his desire to be remembered in a better way. His soul will be comforted that his Prize has gone subsequently to campaigners against weapons of mass destruction such as the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

Mahatma Gandhi is perhaps the greatest known peace apostle whose birthday (2nd October) is the UN -designated International Day of Non-Violence. He was turned down five times for the Prize and the narrow-minded Norwegian Committee accused of not appreciating the struggles of non-European people or of being cowardly for fearing damage to Norway’s relations with the powerful British Empire. The missing laureate’s supporters asserted that Gandhi could do without the Nobel Peace Prize but whether the Nobel Committee could do without Gandhi was the question. This question was answered by a succeeding Committee expressing deep regret that Gandhi had not got the Prize.

Of course, all reputations are shaky. Gandhi is nowadays accused of racism with his statues at risk of been toppled.  Similarly, Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has been widely criticised for connivance with crimes against humanity inflicted on the Rohingya­­­. The Nobel Committee have taken convenient refuge behind their self-created procedures that the Prize cannot be awarded posthumously (Gandhi) and neither can it be recalled (Suu Kyi).

Meanwhile, the annual Peace laureate announcements are as full of drama as the Hollywood Oscars but the selections are about as transparent as the Papal elections.  To be fair, this is bound to be a precarious affair as all peace is provisional. A classic example was the 1973 Prize for the Paris peace accord.  The United States’ Henry Kissinger accepted the Prize but did not attend the ceremony, while  North Vietnam’s Lê Đức Thọ refused it. In any case, neither of them were convincing role models for peace: the war continued until Vietnam was forcibly united after considerable further bloodshed. 

The Nobel Peace Prize is also accused of politicisation. That is ironic as peace is very much a political business and is the reason why the majority of peace laureates are political personalities. They include no less than 26 heads of state and government (including four American Presidents) and political entities such as the United Nations and the European Union.  Why not? Even if many of the Prizes are for unfulfilled aspirations rather than real accomplishments, perhaps they are still useful pour encourager les autres. 

That brings us back to the Peace Prize – the only one of the Nobel Prizes that can – for unclear reasons – be bestowed upon institutions. Does WFP as the UN’s largest humanitarian body with an approx US$8 billion budget really need the medal, diploma, and modest US$1 million money? Will it make any difference to countering the record levels of world hunger or progressing peace anywhere?

The Norwegian Nobel Committee may wish to rethink its future approach to recognising real peacemakers who certainly need all the encouragement they can get. Meanwhile, it is also time to value humanitarian work for its own sake: perhaps a Nobel Humanitarian Prize for doing simple good that is unencumbered by calculations of peace or the sending of obscure or contentious political signals.  It should be given to otherwise unrecognised humanitarian workers – not huge organisations – as a powerful affirmation of the power of ordinary humanity. 

Dr. Nobel could then truly rest in peace.

The Humanitarian Antaeus: Overcoming the Power Asymmetry between Humanitarians and Armed Groups in Frontline Negotiations

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Salla Turunen is a PhD Fellow with a research focus on humanitarian diplomacy and the United Nations. This blogpost stems from the combined in-person seminar and Zoom webinar “The Frontlines of Diplomacy: Humanitarian Negotiations with Armed Groups”, held on 1 October 2020 at Bergen Global in Bergen, Norway. The event featured a presentation by Ashley Jonathan Clements and comments by Marte Nilsen (PRIO) and Salla Turunen (CMI). A recording of the event is available here.

Photo: Juan Arredondo, Getty Images/ICRC

In Greek mythology the giant Antaeus, a son of the gods, was known for his invincible skills in wrestling, which enabled him to collect the skulls of those he overthrew to build a temple for his father. His remarkable strength derived from his physical contact with the Earth. Antaeus remained undefeated until he encountered Hercules, who discovered the source of Antaeus’ power and vanquished him by disconnecting him from the Earth.

Such stories, in which wit and tactics overcome strength and supremacy, seem as old as the hills. However, in reality they reveal some of the qualities required by humanitarians operating on the frontlines of today’s armed conflicts. When faced with armed groups, humanitarians often negotiate from a position of weakness. What kinds of challenges do humanitarians face as they try to achieve operational aims such as the delivery of humanitarian aid to civilians? What tactics and strategies are available to them in negotiating with the humanitarian Antaeus – non-state armed groups? This blogpost discusses these questions in the light of ‘humanitarian diplomacy’, a new term for an old practice.

Humanitarian diplomacy – the praxis between the apolitical and political

Diplomacy is traditionally understood from a state-centric perspective, regarded as a practice undertaken between bilateral states or occurring on multilateral platforms such as the United Nations. However, today’s diplomacy and its practices have expanded beyond the confines of a realm limited to states, thanks to developments such as globalization, multilateralism and technological advance. A number of new and descriptive terms have emerged to describe the diplomatic practices relevant to these new developments. Accordingly, humanitarian diplomacy has entered the stage to illustrate a form of diplomacy that is used to achieve and advance humanitarian interests.   

One characteristic of humanitarian diplomacy is its engagement with all stakeholders involved in the humanitarian context, whether official or non-official actors. Among the latter are non-state armed groups, which are increasingly central for humanitarian action on the ground. As the conflicts of today that lead to humanitarian needs are frequently localized and involve civilians, perhaps the most common counterparts that humanitarians operating on these frontlines encounter in negotiations are representatives of armed groups.

Imagine yourself in the shoes of such a humanitarian official: if you represent the traditional humanitarianism stance, your goal is to deliver aid where it is needed in a manner that is impartial, neutral, independent and serving humanity. In order to reach the people in humanitarian need, you have to deal with the armed group that is in charge of the territory where the needs are located. Upon your encounter with the group you might try to justify your request for access by calling on humanitarian principles and international humanitarian law. But such a strategy often proves useless since you are demanding respect for your stance where there is none. What can you do?

Such humanitarian negotiations are threatening the very existence of humanitarian identity. When humanitarian identity is built on the principles of full, independent, impartial and neutral respect for humanity, what leeway is there for compromise? Particularly with armed groups uninterested in the protection of civilians and with numerous human rights violations under their belts, the rationale of protecting human life is a weak bargaining chip. In order for humanitarians to reach their goals, engaging with the political seems inevitable in the politics of life in which humanitarians are inherently invested. Navigating this political humanitarian arena is where humanitarian diplomacy serves as instrument– to use diplomatic means and tools to achieve humanitarian aims.

Tactics for overcoming the power asymmetry

Humanitarians have very few negotiation tools to offer in terms of carrots and sticks. Yet they can negotiate access to and delivery of aid more efficiently than the odds against them would suggest. In overcoming the imbalances humanitarians face on the frontlines of today’s armed conflicts, humanitarians have a number of tactics and strategies available to them.

But before we explore these tactics we need to understand the challenges. At the humanitarian field level, the palette of humanitarian actors operating on the ground is more colourful than ever before. Multiparty agreements, various operational priorities and different understandings of the nature of humanitarianism, among other factors, place humanitarians in a complex framework, and that’s even before we bring other stakeholders into the equation. Moreover, the question of what and who constitutes an armed group is relevant for any context-specific interpretation, as, for example, the case of Myanmar and the country’s military forces showcases. Of course, negotiation counterparts, such as armed groups, recognize humanitarians’ complex dynamics and may use them for their own interests. Humanitarian actors may be played off against each other and set in competition within a given sector. And all this takes place in a race against time where humanitarian needs are dire and the obstacles for meeting them get harder and higher.

This complex humanitarian system is highly decentralized and, despite its tendency to morph, it tends to be consensus-driven. It is difficult for an individual to represent the entirety of a cause or system, and this inevitably fragmented approach can only be an impediment for an effective negotiator. Even if a green light is given, physical access difficulties or potential dangers to humanitarians themselves may torpedo the endeavour in the subsequent stage. Moreover not all armed groups are open for negotiation – and humanitarians cannot or will not negotiate with terrorist groups, in particular.

Despite these challenges, and sometimes because of them, humanitarians have a range of tactics available. Enhanced capacity at individual and institutional levels in dealing with armed groups have proven effective, as well as stronger policies and research related to them. As in any other diplomatic endeavour, building trust is a key component which humanitarians can engage in by demonstrating their impartiality and neutrality. Overall, humanitarians should not undermine their non-intimidating nature – sometimes that is precisely where the dialogue for trust and relationship-building begins. Another crucial tool is to demonstrate contextual awareness, and to try to foster the interests of the negotiation counterparts. Humanitarians should ask themselves what the armed group is aiming for. Often these include goals such as maintaining and increasing legitimacy and reputation and substituting the provision of a certain service that the armed group provides with something else.

Another humanitarian strength lies in the interconnectedness of our world. At times, the opportunity to be brought to the negotiation table with a prominent, international humanitarian actor gives an armed group a sense of legitimacy, and may even lead to the signing of a cease fire or peace agreement. Leveraging third party pressures such as lobbying the UN Security Council is another route. Alternative methodologies is also an avenue to explore – we should ask what can be done remotely (a particularly timely conversation at the time of the COVID-19 pandemic) or through local partners. Sometimes the question is what should not be done – withdrawal and conditionality can be viable tactics in certain conditions.

Politics of humanitarianism

Humanitarians help to set the international political agenda whether they agree with it or not. Humanitarian negotiations are of central importance to world affairs, not peripheral, as they might once have been perceived. These negotiations are inherently political: the frontlines of diplomacy are at the frontlines of ongoing conflicts. Humanitarians’ unprecedented level of engagement is shaping the political reality in which other sectors, such as traditional state diplomats with their respective foreign and security interests, operate.

Yet humanitarians are reluctant diplomats. The Dunantian school of thought, in particular, aims to steer clear from political labels of any kind, as they see these as hampering operational realities. However, more often than not humanitarians are faced with ethical dilemmas arising from their principle-driven system. In terms of impartiality, can aid be delivered to some but not all? In terms of neutrality, how feasible it is in practice not to address the root causes of a conflict if this leads to the risk that the conflict will last longer? In terms of independence, can humanitarians operate without the permission and collaboration of de facto rulers, be they governments or armed groups?

With its focus on negotiation, pragmatism and compromise, humanitarian diplomacy is an instrument for navigating these complexities. It is often understood as humanitarian action, and surrounds the seemingly ever-expanding field of humanitarian negotiation, and indeed there is a close symbiosis: humanitarian diplomacy cannot, in reality, be separated from humanitarian negotiations as otherwise it risks becoming nonmeaningful without close encounter with operational realities. Similarly, humanitarian negotiations without humanitarian diplomacy will have only a limited impact and the quality of the agreements achieved is likely to be poor.

The humanitarian Antaeus, armed groups, gain strength from their comfort zone – their territory, power over civilians and the upper hand in access negotiations. Humanitarian diplomacy is a magnifying glass for examining the comfort zone and an extended toolkit for operating around it. In humanitarian diplomacy, humanitarian principles are a route map but not the final destination, as Ashley Jonathan Clements states:

‘Failure to make some level of ethical compromise through negotiation risks fetishizing humanitarian principles at the expense of addressing humanitarian needs. These principles – fundamental and foundational though they are – are a means to an end and not an end in themselves’ (Clements, 2020, p. 183).

Source

Clements, A., J. (2020). Humanitarian Negotiations with Armed Groups: The Frontlines of Diplomacy (1 ed.). London and New York: Routledge.

WFP wins the Nobel! Is this an opportunity to enhance protection? (WFP Nobel Series, 3)

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The 2020 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the World Food Programme (WFP) for “its efforts to combat hunger, for its contribution to bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas and for acting as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict”. WFP is the world’s largest humanitarian organization, and food insecurity and food aid are much-discussed topics in humanitarian studies. In this blog series, we examine the implications of the award and critically engage in debates on food (in)security, food aid, innovation and technology and the WFP as a humanitarian actor. This is the third post in the series. Norah Niland is a long time aid worker and human rights defender. She is co-founder and member of the Executive Committee of United Against Inhumanity.

A Sea-king helicopter onboard of HMCS St John’s, takes off for Chardonniere, in Haiti, with her load of 1000 kilograms of corn soya blend, on September 15, 2008. Photo: Cplc Eduardo Mora Pineda via Flickr

The Nobel Peace Prize Committee signaled the critical importance of food when it announced that the world’s largest humanitarian agency, the World Food Programme (WFP), was this year’s winner for its role in combating hunger and, by extension, “bettering conditions for peace.”  This is encouraging news but is it the full story? 

Instrumentalization of food aid

The prize brings to the fore the relationship between food – or lack thereof – and military strategies in contemporary armed conflict.  The use of food as a weapon of war does not feature much in the discourse surrounding humanitarian action.  At a time of diminishing multilateralism, the 2020 Peace Prize provides a useful opportunity to reflect on the growing need for humanitarian action given, in no small part, the flagrant disregard of fundamental humanitarian norms.  Trucking in food tends to be the easy part. Helping ensure that hunger is not weaponized and that food aid is not used to advance political or military agendas is the real challenge.  WFP now has a unique responsibility to invest in efforts that demonstrate that it is a worthy Nobel Laureate.

The recognition and acclaim inherent in the Nobel Peace prize is of particular importance in a time of frayed and failing multilateralism. The crossed vetoes of the Permanent Five (P5) in the UN Security Council (UNSC) effectively ensure that those in favor of war and the arms trade that sustains it – the P5 are among the world’s biggest arms dealers – effectively green-light atrocities.  These include the deliberate starvation of civilians by blocking or bombing life-saving humanitarian food and other supplies, medieval-style sieges and embargoes that restrict or destroy the use of essential infrastructure such as ports and other means of transport.   Inaction in the UNSC is tantamount to complicity in a trend where the weapons of choice on to-day’s battlefields include not just aerial bombardments and other explosive weapons but intentional starvation that disproportionately affects children, women and those who are already vulnerable. A study on Yemen, for example, found that “civilian areas and food supplies are being intentionally targeted.”[i]

Few will dispute that WFP, and other agencies involved in tackling hunger in to-day’s war zones, other disaster settings and in situations of chronic malnutrition, poverty and deprivation, deserve the plaudits and the support needed to continue their vital work.  

While the rationale for the Nobel prize acknowledges the significance of the relationship between hunger, armed conflict and peace, it is important to acknowledge the extent to which food insecurity, and efforts to address it, are weaponized in contemporary war settings. Although WFP is often at the forefront in negotiating access for food convoys, experience from Afghanistan to Yemen, including settings such as Somalia, Sri Lanka, Syria, Sudan, South Sudan and Myanmar, shows that food assistance is routinely instrumentalized at great cost to those who are hungry.

A Prize with moral responsibility

Denying food to war-affected communities – deliberate starvation – as a method of warfare has, for this past century, been recognized as a war crime. The politics of such situations are, invariably, complex and complicated but it is incumbent on all stakeholders, including humanitarian entities such as the WFP that enjoys significant leverage, to challenge such practices and to do so in a meaningful and robust manner.

Similarly, WFP, in common with other relief actors, has a significant moral and institutional responsibility to address the deep-seated problem of transactional sex-for-food, an abomination that is routinely denounced but is a frequent reality in situations of humanitarian concern. WFP, like others, is committed to a zero-tolerance approach to the painful reality of sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment in the workplace, including in field operations, but this problem has persisted notwithstanding various reviews and the introduction of new policies and mechanisms.

The Nobel Peace prize should incentivize WFP to examine and strengthen its overall approach to the right to food including the protection dimension of humanitarian action. This necessitates going beyond the logistics of food convoys at which WFP excels. Otherwise, more instances of the “well fed dead” will occur. Priority attention must be given to the instrumentalization and weaponization  of food. WFP should strengthen its capacity to conduct conflict and contextual analysis that enables the development of strategies geared to avoiding harm to civilians and enhancing their protection.  It must work collaboratively with others to head-off or address dangerous policies and practices that are antagonistic to food security and the safety and dignity of people in need.   

Equally importantly, WFP should capitalize on its status as a Nobel Laureate to give meaningful effect to its declared zero-tolerance stance on sexual exploitation and abuse. This requires senior-level accountability and the establishment of an independent, external monitoring and investigative mechanism to put an end to a shameful history that is at odds with humanitarian values and the distinction of being a Nobel Peace prize holder.

Let the Nobel be an opportunity for everyone to re-affirm our faith in our collective humanity; this means challenging the inhumanity of armed conflict where deliberate starvation and other cruelties entail terrible human suffering, high death rates and growing numbers of people obliged to flee their homes to seek refuge and safety elsewhere.


[i] Is Intentional Starvation the Future of War?
by Jane Ferguson, The New Yorker, 11 Jul 2018

http://www.npwj.org/content/Intentional-Starvation-Future-War.html

TikTok and the War on Data: Great Power Rivalry and Digital Body Counts

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This post first appeared on Global Policy, and is re-posted here. You may access the original post by clicking this link. Kristin Bergtora Sandvik (SJD Harvard Law School) is a Professor of Sociology of Law at the University of Oslo and a Research Professor in humanitarian studies at the Peace Research Institute Oslo. Katja Lindskov Jacobsen is a Senior Researcher at Copenhagen University, Department of Political Science, Centre for Military Studies. In this post, the authors explore how a tech-reliant humanitarian sector increasingly finds itself implicated in a global War on Data.

“Personal data” by Natana Elginting via Freepik

In 1971, the US declared a War on Drugs. In 2001, it began a still ongoing War on Terror. In 2020, the country has initiated a global War on Data to ‘combat’ the malicious collection of US citizens’ personal data. It is the first time that America is going to war for its population’s digital bodies. While this represents a further shift of the battlefield to the domains of cyberspace and trade, there is a likelihood that this war too will entail significant human suffering. This blog post thinks through the consequences for humanitarian aid, problematizing the notion of ‘digital body counts’.

In 1971, US President Richard Nixon declared a War on Drugs (WoD) to eradicate the sup­ply and demand for illegal narcotics. This global campaign consisted of drug prohibition, military aid and military interventions. The toll of this war – both human and financial – has been enormous, costing billions of dollars and taking thousands of lives annually.  

In 2001, US President Bush began a War on Terror (WoT) in response to the 9/11 attacks.  This global military campaign has led to between 480,000 and 507,000 deaths in major theatres of war (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq) alone. As the security and reliability of data links improved, the WoT evolved into an increasingly remote form of warfare, using armed drones. This also entailed an extension of the battlefield, illustrated by the rising number of US drone strikes in Somalia. Adding to the violence was the merger of the WoD and WoT, as illustrated by the Colombian example.

Almost 20 years on, in 2020, President Trump is now launching a ‘War on Data’ (WoDa). “At the president’s direction, we have taken significant action to combat China’s malicious collection of American citizens’ personal data”, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross stated in September 2020. The rationale he gave is familiar, namely that the US wants to promote “our national values, democratic rules-based norms, and aggressive enforcement of US laws and regulations.” While the other wars have depended on military tools from the outset, at present the WoDa ostensibly relies on a weaponization of trade policy, commerce and regulation – and the expansion of military logic to these domains.

While tensions around global technology hegemony has been budding for years, we suggest that the official ‘launch’ of this campaign was the US extradition request for and subsequent detention of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver December 2018 on the basis of fraud and conspiracy to circumvent US sanctions on Iran. In 2020, this campaign – also labelled a “Tech Cold War” or a new “World War over technology”  has been ramped up, focusing on restricting technology flows to China, revamping global technology supply chains, barring certain industry actors from infrastructure projects (such as Huawei’s 5G network) and attempting to curtail US users access to Chinese digital goods and platforms like TikTok and WeChat.

This is also the first time that America is going to war for its population’s digital bodies. ‘Digital bodies’ are images, information, biometrics, and other digitalized data that represent the physical bodies of populations, but over which they have little control or say. Issues of control and say are particularly pertinent where such data is stored in databases to which access may be granted (e.g. via more or less public data sharing agreements), forced (e.g. hacking), or occur as a byproduct of accidental leaks.

While WoDa at this point in time has a clearly designated enemy – China – its impact is likely to significantly impact civilian populations – and their digital bodies – globally, though likely with particular significance for populations already affected by WoD and WoT.  This is because of how digital data gathering has been particularly intense as a counterterror technology, collecting enormous amounts of digital footprints on terror suspects including where the grounds for suspicion may be weak at best (we get back to this). This requires us to think through the notion of digital body counts – not as a measure of disappeared US platform users and dead accounts, but as a critical human security issue. Crucially, we are concerned that the new WoDa is also likely to lead to bad humanitarian outcomes and real body counts. In the following, we identify three humanitarian aspects of the WoDa.

The first concerns sovereignty and data colonization of war-affected civilians. Protecting sovereignty is increasingly about protecting the sovereignty of digital bodies – though through this is a type of protection principle the US systematically ‘violates’ the to ‘digital bodies’ of other states’ populations. Arguably, a precursor to the emergent WoDa is the extent to which the US is collecting enormous amounts of biometric data on civilian populations in war zones, because the digital registration-net is cast as widely as possible, and how this data is kept by the US even after its ‘wars’ in foreign places officially ends (the case of Iraq). According to Spencer Ackerman, the US military compiled biometric data from “3 Million Iraqis,”, which the US holds onto even though troops have come home and the War in Iraq officially ended.  Similarly, UNHCR is an example of an important humanitarian actor that increasingly collects biometric data on subjects that it assists. In view of that, and related to the point about military biometrics moving beyond and maintained beyond the battlefield, it is for example noteworthy how UNHCR has an agreement with the Department of Homeland Security to provide biometric data on all candidates for resettlement – data which is kept even when no resettlement is taking place.

The second concerns Great power rivalry spilling over into humanitarian technology. Proxy wars are a staple of US global military campaigns. Humanitarians often deal with their consequences. In the WoDa, the risk is that humanitarian space itself becomes the site of a proxy war. The issue of control over data and digital bodies and the US’ aim of preventing China from collecting digital data on its citizens could have implications for humanitarian operations that increasingly rely on the collection of digital data. From a humanitarian perspective, biometric registration of beneficiaries helps agencies overcome ‘double registration’ challenges, as well as challenges related to providing donors with reliable numbers. Now, on the one hand, we have seen institutions like ICRC publish a Biometric Policy that limits data storing. Yet, on the other hand, other humanitarian actors keep adding to the list of challenges that biometrics can help overcome. Contactless biometrics as a response to “the risk of COVID-19” being but one example. The latter development calls for attention to questions about whose technology (US? Chinese? Other?) should be used for these data-gathering and storage purposes in an increasingly technology-reliant and data-enthusiastic humanitarian domain? What will be the consequences (credibility, funding, acceptance, neutrality) of the increasing tension with respect to the trustworthiness of the sectors digital infrastructure?

The third concerns a broadening of the lawfare paradigm and its negative effects. The humanitarian sector is increasingly being embedded in a lawfare paradigm, where US counter-terrorism measures and ‘material support to terror’ provisions are being globalized through strategic litigation against humanitarian actors in domestic courts coupled with blacklisting of the same humanitarian actors in global banking systems. What we now see on the horizon is the possible extension of a type of lawfare to incorporate civil society digital procurement of Chinese-produced commercial off-the-shelf solutions of hardware, platforms and networks as a US national security issue. This would greatly up the stakes for humanitarian actors, and significantly impact their ability to provide aid.  

Our initial takeaway is as follows: For people in war zones, the onset of a WoDa has potentially serious security implications for communities and aid actors. This is not about abstract notions of digital bodies and virtual body counts, nor is it a question of risks to privacy and data protection only. This is about life and death. As a tech-reliant humanitarian sector inevitably finds itself implicated in WoDa, it risks becoming more than involuntarily entangled: for example the digital bodies that humanitarian practice produce may increasingly become targets in this war; because the concept and moral imperative of humanitarian aid is put into play, and finally because access to humanitarian assistance might be compromised as the sector gets further enmeshed in these great power rivalries.