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October 1, 2010

Responsible Humanitarianism

The sight of floods in Pakistan swallowing a vast swathe of land, destroying homes and devastating lives, is heart-rending. The displaced people deserve compassion and assistance. Coming on the heels of ongoing political strife, frequent incidents of terrorist violence, and a government struggling to assert its authority as inspired leaks claim the generals are about to stage a coup, it would seem Pakistan’s cup of miseries is overflowing. And yet, weeks after the deluge, international efforts to assist Pakistan have not matched the generosity governments have shown in past catastrophes in other parts of the world. Their caution was because of the dysfunctional nature of the state, and the fear that channeling aid through fundamentalists somehow wasn’t a terrific idea.

But the European Union thought differently: it did not see a problem with providing assistance through jihadi militant groups—presumably the “good” Taliban and its allies who like blowing up things and people—because they have a network in parts of Pakistan where the Government’s writ does not run or reach, and the government’s machinery is either unwilling or unable to function. The EU’s approach is pragmatic: the jihadi groups may do terrible things, but they are there; they have the people’s support and they have access to volunteers, so working with them to provide relief meets the immediate objective of helping the flood-affected. True, such a strategy may strengthen and legitimise the pan-Islamic extremists, but the EU doesn’t have a gentle difference over a point of view with them about women’s rights, or minority rights; presumably it is a fundamental disagreement. And yet, the EU seems to think that it should surely not get in the way of alleviating the misery of the people.

To be sure, there is merit in the West bypassing governments while providing disaster relief. The policy disregards sovereignty, but it makes sense. In many disaster-affected countries, the local government is in no position to act: it lacks resources and capability to respond quickly to provide relief. With infrastructure destroyed, it often doesn’t have enough people to deploy to act as relief workers. Experienced Western aid agencies know this, and know how to operate under such circumstances without offending the state, and help rebuild the society.

But as David Rieff pointed out in his excellent work, Bed for the Night, this shows the muddled thinking pervading humanitarianism. Mr Rieff was writing about aid agencies which manipulated data to keep their narrative simple, to earn support for their work. “The first and greatest humanitarian trap,” he wrote, “is this need to simplify, if not actually lie about, the way things are in the crisis zones, in order to make the story more morally and psychologically palatable.” Mr Rieff has severely castigated aid agencies for their role in the Yugoslav and Rwandan crises of the 1990s as they simplified narratives to achieve narrow objectives. The nuance—that the conduit, as with the militant groups in the present case, is deeply flawed, and it tends to get glossed over. As Jonathan Goodhand, a British scholar, has pointed out in the context of the Ethiopian famine, the consequences can be disastrous. To recall, during that war, aid agencies were so keen to continue their operations, that they effectively aided the continuance of the war, by providing food aid to rebel soldiers—who made the granting of aid to civilians conditional upon them receiving food aid (since an army cannot march on an empty stomach). When the BBC revealed this recently, Bob Geldof, the musician-turned-humanitarian-messiah responded with characteristic bluster. But the arguments of neither Mr Goodhand nor Mr Rieff have been effectively contested.

The problem of channeling humanitarian aid through militant groups is precisely that. Not only would the aid legitimise those groups; it would also help them win the “hearts and minds” of a bitter, estranged population that does not see the West as a friend or an ally. Western aid in strife-torn countries has often been mischaracterised, as in the 1958 novel, The Ugly American, where authors Eugene Burdick and William Lederer, showed how in the fictional country, Sarkhan, but loosely resembling Vietnam, the message of what the West stood for, was lost.

Here’s one good reason the pan-Islamic extremists can’t be trusted: One of the cornerstones of aid delivery is that the donor provides aid without discrimination: it would reach the neediest, irrespective of the person’s religion, gender, or class. It is difficult to believe that the Taliban and its allies—with their well-documented record of discrimination of women, minorities, and people they disagree with, would provide aid in a non-discriminatory manner. Aid becomes political tool in the hands of non-representative, malevolent governments. For example, Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe is notorious for having withheld relief materials and food aid from provinces and regions which had voted against his ruling party and supported the opposition instead. Fat chance for Pakistani villagers who may have opposed the extremists, to receive aid, in such circumstances.

Under the pretext of ensuring that the plight and needs of the flood-affected trump all other issues, the EU’s misplaced pragmatism will in fact consolidate the hold of the jihadi militant groups over parts of Pakistan where the state needs to be bolstered. Under the international humanitarian law, the Red Cross and the Red Crescent have the authority and responsibility to operate under extreme circumstances, and all warring parties—state and non-state—have an obligation to permit those agencies to assist civilians. (The Taliban’s record with aid agencies is charmingly predictable: they have kidnapped several workers in the past; they have also killed a few; and in late August, they threatened Western aid workers if they operated in certain flood-affected areas).

What the EU would expect from working with such groups under these circumstances remains a mystery. There is a simpler word for it: appeasement. Its result: An undermined Pakistani state which ripens the prospect of a coup; an emboldened rebel movement that would build neither democracy nor protect the rights of all citizens; and the international community’s ability to influence positive outcomes drastically weakened. How could such a scenario be good for Pakistanis, even in the short term?


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