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Humanitarian Agenda 2015:

Principles, Power and Perceptions

Presentation by Antonio Donini

Oslo, Norwegian Refugee Council

25 May 2007

HA 2015 is a major independent research project based at the Feinstein International

Center at Tufts University in the US. It is an international effort involving researchers and
consultants from a wide variety of countries. It focuses on the challenges and compromises
that will affect humanitarian action worldwide in the next decade.

Origins: The malaise in the international humanitarian community after the coalition
interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Consultation organized by FIC in October 2003
registered the widespread realization that HA was being instrumentalized as never before
and that the survival of humanitarianism as an ideology, a movement and a profession was
at stake. We decided that it was necessary to go and check whether this same malaise
resonated in the field. Hence the focus of the study: perceptions of communities affected by
conflict and crisis.

Perceptions. Our study is about views and judgments about humanitarian action. Thus it
is more about “meanings” than about facts. “Meanings” are important because they shape
peoples’ perceptions. But perceptions have real consequences: if you are peceived as having
taken sides, your safety might be at risk!

Research issues are organized and analyzed around four interrelated “petals”: the
universality of humanitarianism, the implications of terrorism and counter-terrorism for
humanitarian action, the search for coherence between humanitarian and political agendas,
and the security of humanitarian personnel and the intended beneficiaries of humanitarian
12 case studies—Afghanistan, Burundi, Colombia, Liberia, Northern Uganda and the Sudan
—provide the basis for the analysis, conclusions and recommendations contained in our
preliminary report. Additional case studies—OPT, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq,
Nepal, Sri Lanka—are underway as part of phase two of the research. A final report will be
issued in 2007.

The approach is evidence-based. The focus is on local perceptions. Generic and country-
specific findings are distilled through an inductive process involving interviews and focus
group meetings at the community level aimed at eliciting perceptions of local people on the
functioning of the humanitarian enterprise. Additional data is gathered through interviews
with aid community staff and an electronic survey of headquarters personnel. Readers are
encouraged to make their own assessments of the field data, which is available on the web
(at More than 1,500 people interviewed individually and in focus groups.
Return visits to some of the case study countries to bring back the results.

The findings highlight the crisis of humanitarianism in the post 9/11 world. They show that
action aimed at alleviating the suffering of the world’s most vulnerable has been
incorporated into a northern political and security agenda. Instrumentalization has reached
unprecedented levels – but is it an extreme limit of a multiyear quantitative trend or a major
qualitative change in the place of humanitarian action in a globalized world?

With respect to universality, our data shows that while core humanitarian values seem to
resonate in all cultures, humanitarian action is widely viewed as a northern enterprise that
carries values and baggage sometimes at odds with those of civilians affected by conflict on
the ground. The “balls diagram” in the report (p.10) attempts to explain this. Our findings
show that basic humanitarian values resonate in all cultures. It is not the values
themselves but the power relationships, the management style and the baggage and
behavior that “outsiders” bring to the relationship with “insiders” that are problematic. And
this seems to cut across conflict and non-conflict disasters: in Pakistan assistance was
welcomed wherever it came from (scantily clad Cuban doctors were less problematic than
female Pakistani aid workers from outside the region).

Thus, the perceptions and needs of communities in crisis must be given higher priority.
Northern humanitarians also need to listen more and preach less. They need smaller
mouths and bigger ears.

Urgent steps are needed if humanitarian action is to become more truly universal. This
requires recognizing the contribution of other humanitarian traditions and, learning from
the resourcefulness, resilience and coping strategies of communities. Contributions of the
non-western humanitarian traditions are nowhere recorded, - they do not make it to the

ODA hit parade - nor are the contributions of zakat, remittances and the coping
mechanisms of communities themselves.

Humanitarianism is a dominant discourse; it encourages isomorphism; we speak to people

who look and speak like us. It is as if we were saying “you” can join “us”. Top-down, expat-
driven approaches to humanitarianism need to give way to more inclusive, culturally
sensitive, and grounded approaches that are fully accountable to beneficiaries.

Terrorism and counter-terrorism. Terrorism is a fact of life in the early 21st century. Yet
violence against civilian populations did not originate with 9/11 but has been an ongoing
reality for generations. Indeed, the politicization of the concept of terrorism and the “with us
or against us” paradigm of a “global war on terror” distort the reality that affected people
experience and complicate the work of assistance and protection agencies. Humanitarian
space shrinks dramatically. The terrorism label blocks the possibility of dialogue with
belligerents. Our report breaks some new ground in documenting constraints imposed on
humanitarian action in the service of GWOT and the need for governments and non-state
actors to respect humanitarian norms and to provide space for the work of the agencies,
which must themselves achieve a higher degree of professionalism.

We make a distinction between Big T and small t terrorism. Iraq and Afghanistan vs.
Colombia, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Governments and non-state actors use the concepts
loosely and opportunistically, often frustrating the work of humanitarian agencies. The
language of GWOT acts as a distraction from real issues of structural violence and as a
distortion in how to address them. Humanitarian actors need to be more discerning in
understanding the political and military forces at work, more creative in finding ways to
function in highly politicized circumstances, more assertive in defending principles and in
advocating for policies that do not undermine the rights of civilians, and more professional
in their approach to these challenges.

The political-humanitarian relationship is far from a collaboration among equals. The

data from our research shows that assistance and protection activites often suffer form
their inclusion in political frameworks. The so-called coherence agenda is advanced at
humanitarianism’s peril, especially in high-profile crises where conflict is on-going or

There is a recurrent danger that humanitarian and human rights priorities will be
made subservient to political objectives. It is necessary to counter the orthodoxy of
integrated missions and to continue to document instances of instrumentalization
in order to be able to develop safeguards that can protect the independence of
humanitarian (and human rights) work.

Examples of Afghanistan and Liberia: these were probably the lowest point in terms of the
subordination of humanitarian action to political agendas. NGOs mostly lost faith in UN-
provided humanitarian coordination. DRC, our study shows is slightly better and in Nepal,
wisely, there has been no integration.

The fundamental question remains: “we the peoples” vs. the Temple of states. UN
humanitarian action derives its legitimacy from the Charter and international humanitarian
law. Does it make sense to entrust a body that is part of a political organization with the
delicate task of humanitarian coordination? From Afghanistan, to Iraq, to Somalia the
credibility of UN humanitarian action is undermined, if not seen as guilty by association.

Our data points to a disconnect between the security perceptions of affected communities
and those of aid agencies. Understanding local perceptions of security is key both for the
effectiveness of humanitarian action and the security of aid workers. Humanitarian staff,
both national and international (and the former more than the latter) continue to pay a high
price for their commitment to alleviating the suffering of the most vulnerable.

Humanitarian agencies will have to rethink the way in which they operate in extremely
fraught and insecure contexts. In asymmetric wars, humanitarian action may itself be seen
as skewed in favor of the more established military and political actors and thereby more
vulnerable to attack by non-state groups. Hence the need to better analyze local perceptions
of security and to re-calibrate programs with these perceptions in mind. It is also necessary
to better understand the drivers of insecurity. Why is it, for example, that in Afghanistan
and Iraq where aid workers had been mostly welcome and secure for decades, it is no longer
taboo to attack them?

The humanitarian system is becoming more risk averse and bunkerized – although there is
no evidence that, globally, as a profession humanitarian action has become more
dangerous. Data does not show a spike, except for Afghanistan and Iraq. Our Iraq case
study shows that the system needs to be more in tune with local realities and explore
opportunities to provide assistance and protection where they exist.


Our more recent case studies (Palestine, Iraq, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and DRC) confirm
the validity of our “four petals” approach, but there are a few new twists. In May 2007, at a
retreat of HA2015 researchers, FIC faculty and a few outsiders, progress in the overall
research project was reviewed and avenues for future research explored.

We concluded that there were a number of emerging issues that needed to be explored. The
politicization and instrumentalization of humanitarian action, particularly, but not only, in

the context of the global war on terror has reached levels rarely seen before. This raises a
host of issues related to the relationship between humanitarian and military actors as well
as to the ongoing validity (or not) of the principle of neutrality as an operational construct
in fraught and volatile environments.

Similarly, questions abound on the antecedents and consequences of current conflicts that
need to be better understood, both from the perspectives of the populations concerned and
in relation to the strategies and activities put in place by the international community. In
Nepal, for example, some argue that conflict is the result of “development failure” and
that the suffering of civilian populations was made worse by a sense of denial in the aid
community: conflict? What conflict? This has implications for humanitarians. Should they
come earlier and stay longer? Should they rethink their role in such settings? What needs
to change in the relationship between humanitarian and development actors?

Other issues relate to the shape of the humanitarian enterprise. It is based on Cold War
and post-Cold War assumptions of crises and crises response. It is essentially backward-
looking. Is it adapted to the challenges that are likely to come our way in the coming
decades? If all humanitarians were eliminated by a virus that targeted them… would we re-
build the enterprise the same way as it is now? Our data points to two areas where we are
particularly ill-equipped: the new asymmetrical wars a’ la Iraq and Afghanistan (but also
now Somalia, Lebanon and perhaps tomorrow Chad and Nigeria…); the emergence of crises
where the system has to deal with compounded threats and vulnerabilities linked in some
cases to conflict but also to natural hazards, climate change, technological disasters,
environmental displacement, pandemics, etc. Any combination of these could lead to
frightening “civilization changing” events.

Conflict, in fact, may well be a lesser source of vulnerability than we are accustomed to…
In Zimbabwe today, about 3,500 people are dying every week of HIV/AIDS and there is a
deepening economic, social and political crisis. In many parts of the world new threats tend
to combine and compound. This makes crises more protracted and difficult to address.
Our traditional humanitarian approach is inadequate in such settings.


In closing, the data in the four areas we have studied confirms that the humanitarian
enterprise is vulnerable to manipulation by powerful political forces far more than is widely
understood. Its practitioners are more extended and overmatched than most of us realize.
Failure to address and reverse present trends will result in the demise of an international
assistance and protection regime based on time-tested humanitarian principles.
Humanitarianism may go the way of other “isms”.

Moreover, if the disconnect between the perceived needs of intended beneficiaries and the
assistance and protection actually provided continues to grow, humanitarianism as a
compassionate endeavor to bring succor to people in extremis may become increasingly
alien and suspect to those it purports to help.

As we see it, the humanitarian project is in far more serious trouble than is widely
understood or acknowledged. Projecting the data from our 12-country sample onto a more
global and future-oriented screen, we are doubtful that the current love affair of the
international community with humanitarian action will continue deep into the 21st century.
This love affair is currently based on two notions: that humanitarian action is functional to
the security interests of the countries that are its major contributors and who therefore
shape the humanitarian enterprise; that the current political economy of humanitarian
action – the humanitarian marketplace – will continue to be dominated by like-minded
northern and western-driven values, behaviors and styles of management.

Should either of these assumptions prove to be untrue, either because climate change or
other risks force a paradigm shift in the North’s security concerns or because the Northern
humanitarian monopoly is challenged by other players who do not accept “our” rules of the
game, the current humanitarian enterprise may find itself in very dire straits.

Meanwhile, humanitarianism, as traditionally framed and implemented, may well come to

occupy a smaller place on the international screen, relegated to crises with low political
profile in which the strategic interests of the major powers are not perceived to be at play.
The assistance and protection challenges of the Afghanistans, Iraqs, Darfurs will continue
to pose major assistance and protection challenges. However, the needs in high-profile
conflicts seem likely to be addressed increasingly, if at all, by an array of non-traditional
actors, including international military forces, private contractors, and non-state actors
rather than by card-carrying humanitarian agencies.

An evolution toward a more modest humanitarianism, delimited in scope, objectives, and

actors, would not be an entirely negative development. It would reflect a realization that
current global trends and forces that generate a need for humanitarian action can be
neither redirected nor significantly buffered by the humanitarian enterprise itself. This does
not mean that humanitarians are uncommitted to a more just and secure world but rather
that they are realistic in recognizing that their first obligation is to be effective in saving and
protecting lives.