Engagement and disengagement

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Many academic and policy commentators have examined the moral and ethical questions of whether to engage or disengage with the Taliban following its return to power and its exclusion of women from participation in public life beyond the home. Measures by the international community to exclude the Taliban for such violations of the rights of women is nothing new. The report by the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) looking at the context and events surrounding issuance of edict 8 on 19 July 2000 concerning female employment in Afghanistan indicates that the Taliban was issuing decrees and documents relating to female employment shortly after its first rise to government in 1994.[1] The report notes that on previous occasions when agencies suspended work (OXFAM and SCF in 1996) the impacts were limited, and concluded that sanctions were not an effective tool to change Taliban policy. It remarks that special-interest groups who are distanced from the field had a poor understanding of the complexity of the situation, presenting a simplistic belief that removal of the Taliban decree would equate to the removal of problems for women in a traditional and patriarchal society. The UN coordinator recognised there was no coherent collective approach and no bottom line had been defined to agree the terms of engagement.

Kristoffer Lidén (Peace Research Institute Oslo, PRIO and NCHS) organised a roundtable to debate this issue online on 10 February 2023, combining a range of national and international expertise on the policy and practice of humanitarian action in Afghanistan. Through a collective debate on ethics and strategy, it sought to answer the question of what is best for the people affected. It was recognised by the panel there can be no definite answers. There was a shared recognition that the lens of a response must turn towards what is best for the people of Afghanistan, and that traditional approaches to questions of ethics and morality presented as an undisputed universally recognised narrative is problematic. While cautioning against the exceptional framing of a crisis narrative, there was agreement on the need to reframe the discussion towards ‘a new way of thinking’ that will complement calls for a new way of working promoted at the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016.

A consistent approach

The roundtable was unanimous on the unacceptable policies of the Taliban, so the question is what to do? As the IATF report and other cross-agency evaluations indicate, withdrawing aid has no effect on Taliban policy operating in a patriarchal society, and driven by dogma, ideology and theology. Evidence of abuse of human rights may present an assumption of clear moral and ethical red lines but a moral stand that punishes the weakest is not a moral or ethical position. There must be a consistent approach that engages the social and the political dynamics in all its complexity and discards a response that appears simply as the popular thing to do.

Anguished introspection into the moral dilemmas of complicity and compromise frames frequent debate around humanitarian purpose and practice.[2] The question of whether to leave or stay was a recurring debate amongst practitioners and policymakers alike during the early weeks of humanitarian emergency response to Rwandan refugees in Goma, in 1994.[3] The conclusion by almost all the agencies on the field at that time was to remain and continue delivering life-saving assistance to a population of over 800,000 that comprised perpetrators of the atrocities which had led to the mass displacement from Rwanda over the preceding weeks. Doing evil so that good may come is not a humanitarian option.

doing evil so that good may come is not a humanitarian option

The quest is for a middle-ground that helps define a legitimated and coherent approach which allows both engagement and disengagement. This means locating a conceptual space where the humanitarian can both belong and not belong, yet which extends beyond a place of academic imagination and can operationalise the humanitarian identity. One that is able to define the practical bottom lines which are too often absent in humanitarian policy.

Cooperation and contestation

In the complex and contested context of defining red lines and boundaries, talk of a middle-ground may sound too comfortable a place. The nature of engagement must disrupt comfortably established ways of working and ways of thinking. Humanitarian practice will involve cooperation and compromise but will legitimate a limited but influential voice to challenge authority if its humanitarian purpose is at risk. This identifies a space for disruptive engagement with authority: a place of voluntary participation where one can opt in or opt out.

I argue that this is not an imagined place but a very real and practicing place, with a common identity across cultures and religions. There is a long history of a legitimated identity to question and challenge authority with a genealogy stretching from Europe to the Middle East and beyond.[4] The traditions and politics are different, but there is a universal expression of dignity and respect, and the voluntary impulse to protect these values, that is common to all. This gives evidence of a demand for popular access to a dissonant identity, able to question authority and raise a constructive challenge if it sees it deviating from the accepted norms of the community. The concept of a space of belonging yet not belonging – of being a part of something yet apart from it – has been a feature of anthropological scholarship since the introduction of the concept of liminal space by Arnold van Gennep in 1909, and the English publication of his book The Rites of Passage in 1960.[5]

Key to participation in this reformulated space is a sense of solidarity and community: a social and a political place of cooperation and contestation framed by a sense of common meaning. In her formulations of the Capability Approach, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum recognises hierarchies and inequalities in common life but emphasises a universal entitlement to dignity and respect as one which remains fixed and stable. The right to a life worth living is non-negotiable. This presents a humbler approach that is freed from the exceptionalism of traditional humanitarian discourse, where assumptions of a blueprint on principles and values are framed by its formulations of best practice and good governance.

In recognising the agency of a more ordinary, more accessible, place for engagement with power, humility must not be mistaken for weakness. This approach may declare itself innocent of rulership but not of leadership. Identifying a place of shared meaning that focuses on the values of dignity and respect empowers the humanitarian to be relevant and reliable to the community it represents – leading indicators of trust in the socio-political space of humanitarian action.

Creating a trusted identity

The IATF report was critical of the reactive prescriptions directed by universalist principles that were insensitive to the social and political context of Afghanistan. It noted the need for a balance between reactive responses that can quickly become irrelevant and unrepresentative and those that recognise the complex swirl of social and political forces influencing the context of humanitarian action. Tensions exist between universalist and multiculturalist perspectives. But deeper still are tensions on the precedence to be given to universalist principles stated in UN charters and conventions, or in varying interpretations of religious tenets. The social, political and religious tensions between external prescriptions and communal practice are seen to be at the root of resistance. For a communal approach to succeed it must be both principled and pragmatic.

To re-engage trusted participation with the community of stakeholders in an emergency response means turning the lens towards a new narrative on the humanitarian principles that focuses on their relevance and representation to the community and all stakeholders in a crisis. Here I suggest we turn our attention to understandings of voluntary service and universality which form two of the seven Fundamental Principles of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (RCRC) Movement too often ‘orphaned’ from the traditional humanitarian discourse.

turning the lens towards a new narrative on the humanitarian principles

A review of documents in the archives of the RCRC Movement compiled during a process to formalise its Fundamental Principles in advance of their promulgation at the International Conference in 1965 reveals a detailed discussion around the principles of Voluntary Service and Universality that are core to formulations of Impartiality, Neutrality and Independence. The debates around the identity of the volunteer and its universal expression at that time identify a more shared and less contested expression of solidarity across society and cultures, framed by the over-arching principle of Humanity, than the dominant discourse of today.

Engaging with this spirit of humanity, and recognising the context where it functions, directs towards a new way of thinking that looks away from the precedence of externally constructed conventions, and the forces of dogma and ideology. It turns instead towards recognition of a shared identity that engages discussion and interpretation at a social and political level that enables wider participation of all members of the community, with no regard to gender or other distinctions. This is a shared approach which focuses on outcomes not procedures. In other words, doing what works.

A well-disordered space

This is not an innocent middle-ground but an engaged and confident space that is legitimated by the community to cooperate with authority and enabled to challenge if its humanitarian parameters are breached, or its red lines crossed. It is a temporal space where the humanitarian can opt in or opt out but is a place where the humanitarian purpose remains stable.

a place where the humanitarian purpose remains stable

Nor is this an academic illusion. Practical examples from my own experience on the field were evident in the humanitarian responses to Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar 2008-2011, which took place in an environment where trust in the system was fragile, and where access was highly restricted. Concerns about physical and material access predominated most of the international discussions at the time but less attention was around access to a space for discussion which was critical in opening the practical avenues for the humanitarian organisations on the ground. A meeting of Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) Foreign Ministers shortly after the cyclone struck led to an ASEAN-led mechanism to facilitate trust, confidence and cooperation between Myanmar and the international community, and played an important role to open channels of negotiation with the government of Myanmar. Once local organisations with a legitimated interface with these international and regional platforms (such as the Myanmar Red Cross) gained authorisation from the government at central level, a fear of noncompliance with central regulations was replaced by pro-active cooperation and an eagerness to define and approve humanitarian projects at an operational level in the affected townships, according to the needs identified by the local communities, among which local government officials and the military authorities were part.

We must escape from the illusion of a system that will speak with one voice. But we must talk of a place where one can pursue a principled and coherent approach. The narrative must be careful not to politicise humanitarian assistance but must be comfortable with its political engagement. The PRIO/NCHS roundtable was unanimous in stressing the primacy of people in a humanitarian response that engaged new approaches focusing on trust and participation in a messy and disruptive place. It is a well-disordered space that works with the complex messiness of humanity and recognises the inequalities and hierarchies it presents. One that is organic and dynamic, focused on a stable outcome that leads to shared entitlements of dignity and respect. It is a space which scholars of Social Identity Theory describe as capable of twinning the collective ‘We’ with the individual ‘I’.[6] This recognises a principled discourse that looks from the inside out instead of from the outside in, keeping as its compass the overarching principle of humanity. Not a hubristic prescription for the collectivisation of kindness but a more humble – more powerful – direction that protects a life worth living.

we must escape from the illusion of a system that will speak with one voice


[1] Matthew Fielden and Sippi Azerbaijani-Moghadam (2001). ‘Inter-Agency Task Force Study On Taliban Decree And Its Implications Female Employment in Afghanistan: A Study of Decree # 8’ (page 4).

[2] See for example, Chiara Lepora and Robert Goodin (2013). On Complicity and Compromise, Oxford University Press.

[3] Alasdair Gordon-Gibson (2016). ‘Goma 1994: Notes from the Field’. Genocide Studies International, Volume 10, no. 2: 254–267.

[4] See Enid Welsford, The Fool: His Social and Literary History (London: Faber and Faber, 1935); Louise Amoore and Alexandra Hall, ‘The clown at the gates of the camp: Sovereignty, resistance and the figure of the fool’. Security Dialogue, Volume 44, no. 2 (2013): 93–110

[5] Humanitarians on the Frontier, Chapter 9.

[6] For example, Raimo Tuomela (2013). Social Ontology: Collective Intentionality and Group Agents, Oxford University Press.