Tag Archives: UN

A Nobel for the WFP: A non-political Peace Prize for humanitarian multilateralism? (WFP Nobel Series, 1)

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This text first appeared on the PRIO blog, and is re-posted here. You may access the original post by clicking this link. 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 first post in the series.

A World Food Programme ship with workers unloading pallets of high energy biscuits during the Second Liberian Civil War in 2003. By 26th MEU(SOC) PAO (U.S. Marines) via Wikimedia Commons

This year’s Nobel Peace Prize is awarded to the World Food Program 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”. The announcement emphasizes the importance of supporting – and funding – international solidarity and multilateralism in a world in crisis. The WFP is praised for its work in extremely difficult conditions and for gaining access to populations in war zones like Syria and closed dictatorships like North Korea.

Together with the struggle against slavery and the provision of medical assistance to wounded soldiers, the fight against famine is the original humanitarian cause. Images of starving victims in Biafra in the late 1960s and then again in Ethiopia in the 1980s mobilized TV audiences and humanitarian efforts to ensure food delivery. Today, as the economic and health consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic devastate the livelihoods of communities globally, the WFP estimates that an unprecedented 138 million people are in need of food aid.

In her announcement, the chairman of the committee, Berit Reiss-Andersen, described food as “the best vaccine against chaos”. Asked if she expected that this year’s prize would be uncontroversial, Reiss-Andersen hoped that giving the Nobel Peace Prize to an organization helping to end starvation would not be provocative, indicating that food-aid was non-political. Whatever the reception, we argue this is nevertheless a deeply political choice, due to the assumptions it makes about food as an instrument of peace, about the linkages between humanitarianism and peace and finally about the World Food Program as an international organization.

This contribution first puts the opening quote in context, showing how food is currently framed as an instrument of peace. It then focuses on the very political nature of the WFP as a multilateral humanitarian organization within the global environment, even as the emphasis of the Nobel Peace Prize is on its role in “saving lives”. Finally, it discusses one example of the WFP at the operational level: the politics of humanitarian technology.

Food as an instrument of peace

In 2015, hunger eradication became one of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. As Reiss-Andersen indicated in the Nobel Peace Prize announcement, the WFP is the “UN’s primary instrument for realizing this goal”. In 2018, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2417, recognizing the link between famine and conflict, and reasserting the importance of international humanitarian law in addressing hunger in armed conflict. Echoing this, the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize is presented first and foremost through the lens of the insecurity that is created when food supply is insufficient, or controlled by warring parties, and thereby praising the WFP’s contributions to making “food security an instrument of peace”.

This peace-humanitarian nexus, however, is problematic. The prize recognizes the existential threat that a lack of food causes for human life and the importance of preventing the use of food as a weapon of war. The struggles against the Irish and Russian famines were foundational moments in modern humanitarianism. Yet throughout history, mass starvation has been miscategorized as a natural phenomenon, or as an unfortunate side-effect of conflict and political oppression. Scholars have disputed this narrative, focusing instead on the infrastructures of food distribution and the political underpinnings of famine and mass starvation. The politics of famine are fierce, as exemplified by the heated discussion of whether the food shortages in Niger in 2005 amounted to a famine at all – and whether that mattered. While the focus on early warning systems and increasingly fine-grained measurements of access to nutrition in real time has provided the international community with increasingly accurate tools for predicting and addressing food-shortages, these mechanisms remain prone to interference. And as the Nobel committee notes, the WFP (and other humanitarian actors) can do little in the face of endemic funding shortages.

Thus, defining what constitutes a famine, and thereby who should respond to it, with which means and requirements, are deeply political questions. Just as hunger can be a weapon of war, so can food aid be instrumentalized in conflict settings. Improving the conditions for peace requires much more than providing food; it necessitates political commitment to promote and preserve peace.

WFP and the political nature of humanitarian multilateralism

The prize – given to an agency headed by David Beasley, a Trump nominee – is seen by some commentators as a criticism of the US for turning its back on multilateralism and withdrawing funding from the World Health Organization in the midst of a pandemic. Founded in 1963, the WFP has historically been criticized as a front for American agricultural interests. American executive directors have led the agency since 1992. The US has always been the largest donor of the WFP, which remains relatively popular in the US.

The WFP is no stranger to political controversy. Given the emergency focus of its work, with short time horizons and the potential costs to human life, the agency continually makes difficult tradeoffs. The WFP has historically struggled with corruption and food diversion, facing accusations of half of the food aid disappearing in Somalia in the 2000s. Operations in North Korea have, over time, proved challenging in relation to the quest for humanitarian accountability. Occasionally the agency has closed operation in response to donor concerns about local diversions of funding and food items, including staff corruption, such as in Yemen in 2010. Its partnerships with private companies likewise raise protection concerns, such as when its biometric ‘data lake’ (comprising sensitive data such as beneficiary biometrics) was potentially at risk of becoming accessible to Palantir and to security actors whose notions of protection refer foremost to national security rather than to the security of its humanitarian beneficiaries.

The organization has also been in the spotlight for its ongoing struggles with a problematic working environment, with reports cataloguing discrimination, abuse of authority, sexual harassment and retaliation; so far ineffectively dealt with by a poor management culture. As late as in September, there were reports of allegations of sexual misconduct in relation to a WFP compound in Northern Uganda.

The politics of the WFP at an operational level: the example of technology

In recent years, the WFP has won praise and criticism for its approach to innovation and digitization. From initial pilot projects to gauge the advantages of using biometrics to its use of blockchain, the WFP has now become a forerunner in using new technology to think differently about assistance, such as the move from ‘food’ to ‘cash’, a significant innovation in effectively meeting the needs of those affected by crisis. The use of new digital technology, however, has significant challenges.

Harnessing “data and tech to save lives” has indeed helped the WFP in various ways. Yet, acknowledging that “data and tech” can have advantages should not preclude debate about potential flipsides and critical dimensions of these developments. As mentioned above, the WFP announced last year that the agency had decided to enter into a “five-year partnership” between the WFP with Palantir, a “controversial US-based data analytics company with deep links to US intelligence agencies,” criticized for being a human rights violator.

As a more specific example of how this partnership spilled over into the WFP’s programmes the case of Yemen is worth mentioning as the issue of biometric data collection became the subject of “a pitched standoff” between the WFP and Yemen’s Houthi government. Referring to the controversial Palantir-partnership, Houthis accused the WFP of being “a front for intelligence operations,” i.e. not a politically neutral humanitarian actor. Commentators have observed that  this dispute was not just about data but essentially about “power, trust and the licence to operate”. Crucially, the tech-related confrontation has ‘real’ consequences, putting food aid to 850,000 people caught in a dire humanitarian crisis at a standstill.

Although debates about this partnership waned rather quickly, it is important to contemplate the broader relevance for the humanitarian community in a time where humanitarian governance increasingly revolves around data governance. Critical discussions – and more transparency –about the collection and sharing of digital data from people in extremely volatile contexts and about emergent humanitarian data-infrastructures are crucial for the integrity of humanitarian protection mandates. Here, the WFP, which remains a curiously under-studied international organization, could also do much more to facilitate academic engagement with the organization.

Concluding thoughts

The work of UN agencies like the WFP, are examples of multilateralism as an essentially deeply political endeavor. In the years to come, climate change may return famines to the core of humanitarian action. The kind of versatile World Food Programme we have seen emerge over the last decade will likely become an even more important actor on the multilateral scene. At the same time, as discussed in this blog, while this Nobel Peace Prize is undoubtedly a prize for humanitarian multilateralism it is not unproblematic to read this as being in praise of the humanitarian enterprise as such.

From Moria to the UN Security Council: Norwegian Domestic Politics and Foreign Policy Ambitions

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This post first appeared in Norwegian in Dagbladet. You can read it here.

Norway’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Ine Eriksen Søreide and Jordan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Ayman Safadi at an event in Jordan. Photo: Indigo Trigg-Hauger / PRIO

The fire at the Moria camp underlines the depth of the crisis in the international system intended to protect people fleeing their home countries. Under the Refugee Convention, people in need of asylum must be given the opportunity to apply for it. The fundamental flaws in this system weighs heavily on the international community and will dominate the political agenda for the foreseeable future. At the same time, we are now seeing a deeply irreconcilable conflict between the domestic policy considerations shaping Norway’s immigration policy and the foreign policy ambitions that the country is pursuing. While Norway prepares itself for a term on the most prestigious and respected international forum, the UN Security Council, where its opportunities to exert influence will be significant, “on the home front” its approach to one of the great challenges of our time is to wait for other countries to take the initiative.

Weakened UN structures

UNWRA, which works with Palestinian refugees across the Middle East, is in serious financial difficulty after its main funder, the United States, withdrew its support for the organization in 2018. The agency is also struggling politically, because the Trump administration has taken the issue of Palestinian refugees off the negotiating table. The Palestinian refugee problem is particularly important because it illustrates, more than any other situation, how long a refugee crisis can continue if it is not solved.

Even so, UNRWA’s responsibilities are minor compared with the burden carried by UNHCR. UNHCR, which is responsible for all other refugees worldwide, is struggling because of the enormous and ever-growing number of refugees globally, and the shortage of political and economic will to take the measures necessary to resolve the problems. Solutions involve providing housing for people in need, and also finding enduring solutions to the situations that caused them to flee in the first place. In both cases, the central role of the UN in addressing these key questions, both as an international forum and through its specialized organizations, should be obvious. At the start of 2019, there were 79.5 million refugees worldwide. At that time, UNHCR had only half the funding it required for 2020-2021.

The burden-sharing principle is central to ideas about how the international community should assist refugees, but it is not legally binding. There are no mechanisms for establishing a reasonable and just method for making countries share the burden. As a result, the system depends on some countries taking the lead, setting the standard, and then bringing others on board. It is at the same time difficult to argue against the fact that countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, Italy, Greece and Turkey are in practice bearing far more than their share of the global challenge of providing protection for refugees.

Norway on the UN Security Council

Although refugees are not directly the concern of the UN Security Council, the UN’s reputation, credibility and effectiveness are weakened if its agencies and member states fail to resolve the various longstanding refugee crises. Accordingly, some connections should be made visible here: from the burned down Moria camp via Oslo and to the UN Security Council in New York. As the Norwegian government celebrated its successful campaign for a non-permanent seat on the Security Council, the institutional difficulties concerning the protection of refugees follows it into the assembly rooms in New York.

Until Moria burned down, the Norwegian position was that Norway should contribute by accepting children from the camp, once another 10 or so countries had already gone ahead and provided assistance. It was clear that this policy was formulated with an eye on the domestic policy agenda, but if Norway is to take up one of the most important positions in international politics, then surely we should not be waiting for other countries to take the lead, so that we can follow in their footsteps. In this regard, Norway’s reputation as a major humanitarian power comes into play. Norway’s foreign-policy capital rests very much on this reputation.

Successful management of this legacy could both strengthen Norway’s position on the Security Council and encourage other countries to take their share of responsibility. This is needed.

Ramadan and Social Responsibility During Coronavirus

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This text was originally published in Norwegian in Vårt Land and is-reposted here. A version of the post translated into English also appears as part of the PRIO blog series Beyond the COVID Curve. Translation by Fidotext.

Mosque in Grønland, Oslo. Photo: Oskar Seljeskog via Flickr

Muslims have just celebrated Eid al-Fitr, the festival that marks the end of Ramadan, the month of fasting. The month of fasting, which is demanding in itself, has been even harder this year with the current social distancing requirements. Usually the high point of each day would be gathering with family and friends to break the fast with the evening meal, known as iftar. This year these customary gatherings have not been possible in the same way as in other years, for Muslims across the world.

Religion and risk of infection

Places of worship, like other spaces where large numbers of people gather, were affected early on by the Covid-19 pandemic, and in some cases were early hotspots for spreading infection. A synagogue in New York, a church in the Philippines, and a mass religious gathering in Pakistan were all hotspots for spreading Covid-19 infection in early 2020.

In Norway, mosques were quick to shut their doors and take on an important role in efforts to stop the spread of infection by providing information and advice. Through their networks, mosques have reached out to people who were not easily reachable through the authorities’ established channels. Like for other religious leaders, the decision to ask the faithful to stay at home, away from mosques, has been difficult. In times of crisis, religious beliefs and rituals are important to many people. But the situation has demanded the opposite; not to gather, not to stand close together.

The social responsibility of Muslim leaders

Religious leaders have played a role in fighting coronavirus in many places. While some have promoted conspiracy theories and sown doubts about the true danger of the virus, religious leaders all over the world have contributed to preventing infection, many by putting their religious authority behind official infection-control measures. This is evidence of the social responsibility often taken on by religious leaders. This social responsibility has taken on a new form within the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, but simultaneously it is recognizable, perhaps especially for the enthusiasm with which most Muslims contribute to social initiatives during the month of Ramadan.

In recent months in Norway we have seen a series of initiatives designed to provide assistance through donations of money and food. For many Muslims, the month of fasting is a time of self-denial, for evaluating what one has and sharing it with people who have less. The month of fasting, and the festival of Eid al-Fitr at its end, is a time when many Muslims give a little extra. It is time to pay the annual religious alms, or zakat, comprising 2.5% of one’s total wealth accumulated over the year, which is used to combat poverty and help people to lead more dignified lives.

Coronavirus initiatives in Pakistan, Nigeria and Indonesia

Naturally, the pandemic has triggered a huge wave of social engagement among Muslims all over the world. We have followed developments in Pakistan, Nigeria and Indonesia, three countries included in our study of Muslim humanitarian actors. All three countries have been hit hard by Covid-19. Numbers of infections and fatalities are rising daily. Societies are locked down, with enormous economic consequences for millions of people who now have no jobs or incomes.

In all three countries, the government restrictions are subject to constant debate. Religious leaders and networks have great political influence, and are very important for social services. An effective response depends on religious leaders and organizations taking on responsibility.Pakistan has seen an enormous number of private initiatives. There is a long-standing and strong charitable tradition in Pakistan, through the distribution of money and food. This time, under lockdown, distributions have been mobilized through WhatsApp and social media.

In Nigeria, many of the country’s Muslim organizations have come together to coordinate local responses such as the distribution of food and other humanitarian items. Nationally, the Nigerian Interreligious Council (NIREC), which consists of Muslims and Christians, has organized a joint prayer initiative, intended partly as an expression of the common challenge presented by the pandemic.In Indonesia, religious leaders want to use Zakat funds to help mitigate the economic downturn caused by the pandemic. The leaders emphasize that this is about concern for one’s fellow humans, where seeing a neighbour starve is not a viable alternative, and they call on neighbourhoods to engage in mutual support.

A new UN partnership with Muslim humanitarian organizations?

Covid-19 has affected all of us. We still know little about how the pandemic will change our lives both across different places in the world. But we know already that it will affect some people worse than others, and that the impact will fall disproportionately on the most vulnerable. People who were already the most at risk, with the least access to healthcare and the fewest economic resources, are now those who are being hit hardest.

The coronavirus crisis has shown clearly the importance of everyone contributing, and everyone coming together. Global cooperation amongst different actors – the private and the public sector, secular and religious – has become more important than ever. This is precisely the point made in the UN’s Agenda 2030, which sets out 16 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The global pandemic has lent new relevance to this agenda.

In order to tackle the problems which the pandemic is causing for the world’s poor, the UN wishes to enter into partnership with Muslim actors in aid as well as the Islamic-finance sector. Dealing with the coronavirus pandemic and its complex consequences will require international cooperation and global solutions. How, and to what extent, such new partnerships will function across existing lines of division, remains an important question.

Meanwhile, we send our best wishes for a happy Eid al-Fitr to those of you who are celebrating.

PoC as a concept for UN peacekeeping

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The Protection of Civilians (POC) has gradually become central to UN peacekeeping both in policy formulation, in mandates, and in practice. Yet, the concept is broad, and few actors agree on its meaning. Such a broad understanding hinders coordination on issues across agencies, and makes the implementation of POC challenging. Few agree on whether POC is a specific task of peacekeeping mandates, or it should be an overall concern across all tasks.

The issue is further exacerbated by the lack of differentiation between POC and the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). The somewhat contested status of R2P thus contributes to undermine the inclusion of POC concerns in peacekeeping mandates. The introduction of a related system-wide agenda, Rights Up Front (RUF) is not about to make that more clear. An essential task at the policy level is therefore now to clarify the status and meaning of POC both vis-à-vis other tasks and other broader protection concerns.

Entering the UN peacekeeping system from Kofi Annan’s emphasis on the need for a “culture of protection” as a remedy to the failures of peacekeeping in the mid-1990s, the POC has since become an established part of the peacekeeping vocabulary and repertoire of actions. Today, while not a central concern to all UN agencies involved in peacekeeping operations, POC is nevertheless a factor taken into consideration by most of them. While it was for long seen as the prerogative of OCHA, it is now also an equally important concern to DPKO. The prominence given to POC in UN documents is symptomatic of a growing awareness of protection issues within the international community. However, these good intentions and interventions have not always led to the security and peace desired. Effective implementation of POC still involves practical challenges at the operative level as well as resolving the conceptual muddle characterizing POC today.

For the UN is routinely accused of not protecting when expected to in practice, and at the conceptual level little has been done to clarify what POC actually entails, and the extent to which it should figure in peacekeeping: is POC but one aspect of a vast array of measures, and should it therefore be compartmentalized alongside other policy areas, or is it an overreaching or cross-cutting concern for peacekeeping operations as a whole? In which case, should it also guide the work of agencies not formally part of the operation?

Yet, the past years have seen an increasing number of policy and doctrinal processes aimed at streamlining POC. Combining the UNs military capacities with the humanitarian ethics of protection produces both opportunities and challenges. On the one side it makes the PoC framework more robust, putting greater political (and military) capital behind preventive protection efforts, while also enabling actual physical protection of civilians. On the other side, it risks politicising protection, and conflate the UNs political-military agenda with the humanitarian, in turn jeopardising the humanitarian principles so central for the legitimacy of PoC.

The PoC is central to peacekeeping operations in seeking to manage war-to-peace-transitions. This involves both civilian and military entities, and a critical problem is their lack of a shared understanding of what PoC means in and entails for practices. This is partly due to the UNSC who feared defining and operationalising PoC would make it too binding for member states and override the UN’s lack of resources. Hence it was never properly defined and instead the UNSG opted for mainstreaming a ‘culture of protection’ throughout the UN system. The problem here is that distinct actors interpret this culture differently and contextually, thus making interagency harmonisation difficult. The paradox of this is that while mainstreaming POC would seem to require a simplification of the concept, so to speak, in order to make it more tangible, this in turn would run the risk of undermining the aim of POC, which is to be malleable enough as to provide protection in all situations.

There is a crucial need for more grounded reflection on how to provide effective protection. As long as understandings of “protection” vary, ranging from the provision of direct physical protection to the wider framework adopted by the UN, greater flexibility should be shown in which interpretation of protection is taken as the point of departure, depending on the aim of the case in question.

POC is broad, lacks tangibility, and is still elusive to many involved in peacekeeping. Accordingly, it has become a conceptual battlefield with little agreement of the status of POC, ether as a legal principle rooted in International Humanitarian Law, guidelines for humanitarian action, or a comprehensive doctrine including coercive means. This confusion is due to the fact that POC is vague and open for interpretation and contextualisation. This inherent feature of POC has been exacerbate by the fact that a number of actors eager to further legitimize the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) have been deliberately confusing the two concepts. While both the POC and R2P concepts are related in terms of aims, there are clear differences between them. R2P is interventionist, POC is not.

R2P faces the problem of legitimizing humanitarian intervention which POC does not face, and its disciples have therefore sought to attach or confuse the two in order to take a share in the broad legitimacy POC has enjoyed, but which R2P has lacked.

Even so, these distinct concepts are routinely referred to as synonymous and used interchangeably in the same contexts. This is not likely to change with the recent launch of the Rights Up Front (RUF) Action Plan, yet another concept aimed at remedying the failures of peacekeeping. If no concerted and central effort is made within the UN to conceptually clarify how POC, R2P and RUF relate to different agencies, contexts, policies and actions, UN peacekeeping will have to deal with three related, often competing, ideas or cultures of protection – all good intentioned, yet not clearly defined as to enable action. Such a reflection must take the field as its starting point, as the key to understand protection in any given context is to understand how it translates into practice, and the extent to which its application addresses the needs on the ground.