Disasters,1998, 22(4): 352^360

In Defence of Humanitarianism
Nicholas Stockton Oxfam

The humanitarian crisis which followed in the wake of the genocidal regime in Rwanda in 1994 generated massive media attention and an unprecedented outpouring of international public and private assistance. In late 1997, the Rwanda refugee population in Zaire was subjected to a disaster of similarly epic proportions as a result of military action. Yet this crisis went relatively under-reported and failed to attract substantial aid funds, particularly from official donors. This paper seeks to document and account for the demise of the humanitarian imperative. It confronts a number of the criticisms of humanitarian action, concluding that, rather than being flawed, traditional humanitarian values remain valid and should be defended wherever there are situations of conflict. Key words: Rwanda, Zaire, humanitarian principles, aid policy, refugees, health.

In 1996 Oxfam was one of several international relief agencies singled out for praise in a major inter-agency evaluation of the 1994 Rwanda emergency (Borton et al., 1996). The agency was cited for having provided clean water to over 2.5 million refugees and the displaced in the Great Lakes region of Africa during 1994. These were terrible times and many new records were established. The worst of all being the genocide in Rwanda where 800,000 people were slaughtered in just six to eight weeks. In addition there was the largest single exodus of refugees ever recorded: 200,000 poured into Tanzania in two days of April 1994; a record which stood only for four months until 850,000 Rwandans inundated Goma in August 1994. In response, a plethora of agencies deployed record numbers of relief workers to provide humanitarian aid. After this another grisly new record was to be made. The severity of humanitarian disasters are typically nowadays measured by reference to the crude mortality rate (CMR): the numbers of deaths per 10,000 persons per day. Under ‘normal’ circumstances deaths occur at the rate of fewer than 0.5 per 10,000 persons per day. In dire situations the CMR can double or treble to two or three per 10,000 per day. In Goma, the dysentery and cholera epidemic claimed about 60 people per 10,000 per day. Some 50,000 people died in just four weeks (Borton et al., 1996). This public health disaster was eventually contained by the provision of clean water and intensive rehydration of thousands of victims. Such humanitarian actions did save tens if not hundreds of thousands of lives. In certain respects, the Goma relief operation was an outstanding triumph for the logistics, technology and professionalism of the modern
ß Overseas Development Institute, 1998. Published by Blackwell Publishers, Oxford OX4 1JF, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.

In Defence of Humanitarianism


humanitarian disaster response system. It also represented a new peak of private humanitarian response in the UK. The 1994 Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) appeal raised £37 million for the Great Lakes emergency. In stark contrast to these events, played out under intensive media coverage, it is probable that very few members of the public who contributed to the 1994 DEC appeal also know that another new disaster record was created in the Congo/Zaire in April and May of 1997. This event followed on from what is probably the largest case of mass refoulement ever, when in late 1996 hundreds of thousands of refugees were forcibly repatriated to Rwanda by military action. In the period running up to this event, the US government, backed by many other states and NGOs, had argued that repatriation was the sine qua non for achieving political stability within the region. In the face of insufficient voluntary repatriation, the Rwandan government, apparently with significant support from the US and others, decided to ‘solve’ the problem militarily. However, while many people returned to Rwanda, the bulk of the former Rwanda army and militias plus tens of thousands of civilians fled westwards, with the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo–Zaire and the Rwandan Patriotic Army in hot pursuit. These activities were conducted in a tense atmosphere in which many humanitarian and human rights agencies felt cowed by the constant assertions of the US and others1 that humanitarian protection and assistance had become part of, indeed some argued, the critical element of, ‘the problem’ (Gowing, 1998). In the meantime a rolling horror show unfolded as the military pursuit penetrated ever further into Zaire. Medecins Sans Frontieres has estimated that the ´ ` CMR of Rwandan refugees in Zaire peaked at 60.7/10,000 per day in May 1997, a rate similar to the crisis in Goma in 1994 (Nabeth et al., 1997). For a few days in May, Oxfam’s staff estimated that the CMR reached 300 deaths per 10,000 per day, a public health disaster record that Oxfam has not encountered elsewhere. During 1997 perhaps as many as 200,000 people, from the very same population that had benefited from the DEC appeal in 1994, may have perished in Zaire — fleeing from troops clearly intent upon revenge for the genocide of 1994. Privately, senior UNHCR staff acknowledge that they have ‘lost’ more people registered under their international protection mandate since October 1996 than the total cumulative ‘loss’ from 1945 to 1996. Rwanda seems to be sinking back into full-scale civil war, the new Congo continues to be highly unstable and Burundi’s protracted crisis continues. International agency staff, inured to this dreadful context, frequently refer to the situation as ‘business as usual’. Such calamitous events appear to provoke no particular international reaction from the media or from international statesmen now apparently habituated to witnessing the widespread employment of crimes against humanity and war crimes as standard tactical devices in contemporary internal warfare. In spite of the severity of the public health disaster in Zaire in 1997, there was relatively little media coverage and no DEC appeal for funds. To all intents and purposes, it appears that those who had benefited from the massive humanitarian operation in 1994 were deemed to be no longer worth saving in 1997. What has happened since 1994 that can explain this apparent new indifference to the plight of so many people in central Africa — and not just there — but also to people in dire need in Sudan, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Liberia, Sierra Leone, North Korea and numerous other emergencies? How are we able to explain why in 1994 the world provided US$7 billion in humanitarian aid but only some $3 billion in 1996


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(Forman and Parhad, 1997)? While global refugee numbers had declined in this period by some 16 per cent, the reduction in the refugee ‘case-load’ was almost certainly compensated for by increased numbers of internally displaced persons.2 The erosion of humanitarian action is reflected in the year-on-year donor response to United Nations consolidated appeals (CAPs) for humanitarian programmes which fell short by 24 per cent in 1994, 27 per cent in 1995, 31 per cent in 1996, 35 per cent in 1997 and so far, by a massive 79 per cent in 1998.3 It is worth noting that this deteriorating donor performance in response to the UN CAPs has taken place against a declining appeal target, down from $2.7 billion in 1994 to $1.5 billion in 1997. It is also important to recognise that this decline has taken place within a more general slide in total official international assistance, falling from its high point of $61 billion in 1992 to $55 billion in 1996.4 Examined from this perspective, the falling level of humanitarian aid seems to reflect a more general OECD disillusionment with aid transfers. There are no doubt numerous reasons for this decline in private and official humanitarian aid and development co-operation. Just some of these pertaining to the humanitarian system in particular will be considered below. There are four major challenges to the humanitarian system that have caused great damage to its reputation. These can be summarised as: • The demonisation of the ‘undeserving’ disaster victim and asylum seeker. • The ‘new pragmatism’ that favours the resolution of ‘local problems’ by local actors. • The growing hegemony of the theory of welfare dependency. • The end of the ‘age of innocence’ in media relations with aid agencies.

The `undeserving'disaster victim
Perhaps the most insidious challenge to humanitarian values has been the widely reported claim that many disaster victims have no one but themselves to blame. Indeed, in the case of Rwanda it has become a commonplace that the ‘extremist Hutu’ leadership was able to sustain its political control over the refugee population by their astute manipulation of humanitarian aid. This story line was and is used by many, including African Rights, the US and Rwandan governments, to justify the forced repatriation of most of the refugees (or ‘fugitive Hutu extremists’ as they have been labelled), and the ‘disappearance’ of the remainder. This argument has also suited many official aid agencies who found in it an excellent reason to suspend humanitarian aid and to be ‘pragmatic’, i.e. to do nothing, irrespective of any further distress experienced by this group of pariah refugees. This argument is flawed in many places. First, by no means all refugees were guilty of genocide. Indeed some 750,000 of those forcibly repatriated or ‘lost in Zaire’ were children under five. Over 1.5 million were under 16 years of age. Of those who disappeared in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, some 50,000 were children under five, the majority of whom had never set foot in Rwanda. Second, withholding humanitarian assistance on the grounds that those in need may be criminals is like suggesting that the ambulance service should conduct triage on the basis of alleged criminality rather than upon the clinical urgency of each case. This is

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the arbitrary application of punishment before trial and it constitutes cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment on a massive scale. Such treatment is arguably a crime against humanity as the right to life applies to all people. This right is non-derogable and cannot be legally removed as an act of capricious vengeance. Third, rights are indivisible and inalienable. The withholding of humanitarian aid as a substitute for judicial action is ethically and morally indefensible. Finally, extra-judicial killings and deaths arbitrarily meted out through ‘humanitarian sanctions’ simply serve to reinforce fear, prejudice and to fuel the cycle of violence, revenge and retribution. The concept of the ‘undeserving victim’ is therefore morally and ethically untenable, and practically counter-productive. It represents an outright rejection of the principles of humanity, impartiality and universalism, fundamental tenets of human rights and humanitarian principles. When operationalised, the evidence from the Great Lakes and elsewhere is that the abandonment of humanitarian principles in fact reinforces the culture of impunity — it does not, as many had naıvely predicted, ¨ eradicate it.

The `new pragmatists': local solutions for local problems
As well as blaming the victims, many commentators have claimed that aid prolongs suffering as it obviates the need for local people to invent local solutions and that it undermines political accountability and the social contract between citizen and state. Warlords can tear countries to shreds in the full knowledge that the humanitarian system will clear up the mess afterwards, and in effect, subsidise the human costs of warfare. Furthermore, as humanitarian aid does not discriminate between just and unjust causes, it consequently acts as quartermaster to all parties to any conflict and thereby prolongs warfare, irrespective of any moral and ethical considerations. Humanitarian aid also diverts attention away from long-term political solutions and focuses solely upon treating symptoms. With no prospect of international humanitarian action, local leaders would be obliged to act more humanely and responsibly. This argument assumes that the ‘root cause’ of the problem is to be found and resolved locally. In other words, forget colonialism, imperialism and apartheid, forget structural adjustment, forget international debt, forget economic globalisation, forget the international arms trade and forget rapacious corporate behaviour. Forget covert superpower military and intelligence operations. While not going to the other extreme by claiming that external agency is to blame entirely for the post-Cold War increase in the numbers of internal conflicts, these external forces can surely not be completely absolved of all responsibility either. Available evidence suggests that international aid is a drop in the ocean compared to war economies. For example, total international aid to Afghanistan stands at about $120 million per annum. The UK street value of Afghanistan’s annual production of narcotics is an estimated $15 billion. This is about 150 times more than is spent annually on international aid to Afghanistan and perhaps five times the amount spent on humanitarian aid globally in 1997. If only an estimated $45 million is paid to Afghan farmers, the remainder is presumably shared out between international drug dealers and Afghan ‘warlords’. This would suggest that


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cutting humanitarian aid would have little or no impact upon the ability of the Afghans, and their foreign sponsors, to wage war, nor do many in Afghanistan believe that it would persuade the warlords to shoulder the burden of the humanitarian programme and spend less on waging war.5 Criminalised economies obviously thrive on lawlessness and the collapse of civil authority. Embargoes on humanitarian aid can however strengthen the hold that warlords and drugs barons have over already desperate people. Bad as well as good local solutions also exist and it is very hard to see how humanitarian assistance necessarily favours only bad, or conversely, only good local solutions. Were it not so tragic, it would be almost laughable to suggest that without humanitarian aid wars and natural disasters would stop. It is like saying that we can prevent traffic accidents and fires by abolishing ambulances and fire-engines. Confusing correlation with causation is a potentially deadly error in this policy environment. In the aftermath of the cessation of humanitarian aid to Rwandan refugees in 1996, the wars in the region have all heated up and tens of thousands have died. Some speak about the resumption of the genocide in Rwanda. This contrasts with a lull in political violence in the region during the height of the humanitarian programme in 1995 and 1996. Arguably, the Great Lakes was a more peaceful place with international humanitarian aid and protection than it has become without it. Yet humanitarian protection was quite deliberately suspended and tens of thousands of people were sacrificed on the altar of a convenient combination of political correctness and short-term financial expediency that seem to underpin the ‘new pragmatists’, ‘do no harm’ and ‘local solutions’ policies. Cutting humanitarian assistance as a punishment for waging war is now advocated by some as a global panacea for ending conflict. The only likely result is that the victims of war will have their sentences enhanced. Finally, and perhaps most crucially, those who are willing to trade lives and suffering today for political gains tomorrow should perhaps examine the reliability of economic, political and social forecasting. The demonstration of causation and attribution in a globalised environment is perhaps more difficult than ever. The application of ‘do no harm’ policies is tantamount to playing God — a deadly, perhaps totalitarian business to indulge in without the benefit of 20:20 future vision, a faculty which is conspicuous by its obvious absence. There is no firmly established relationship between the provision of humanitarian aid and the prolongation of war, either in quantitative or in qualitative terms. Aid policies, including the application of ‘humanitarian’ sanctions or embargoes, founded upon such arguments are built upon weak theory and anecdote only. Much of the ‘new pragmatists’ argument is been captured in the phrase ‘humanitarianism should not be used as a substitute for political action’ which most prominently surfaced from the Joint Evaluation of Emergency Assistance to Rwanda (Borton et al., 1996). In co-opting this argument, the ‘new pragmatists’ have slightly modified the sentence, with a profound transformation in meaning and implication. For example, a British Foreign Office official writes that ‘humanitarianism as a substitute for political action is unsatisfactory’ (Evans, 1997). Does that mean that the UK will not provide humanitarian assistance if it is seen to be at odds with its political interests? Such an argument travesties the actual meaning of the Joint Evaluation’s conclusion which might well have included a caveat to the effect that political action (or inaction) should not be used as a substitute for humanitarian action. This lesson

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very clearly emerges from the latest study of international assistance co-ordination in the Great Lakes (Lautze et al., 1998). The failure to mount coherent political and military interventions in 1994 allowed the genocide to happen. Again, in 1996/7, some blame for tens of thousands of predictable deaths in the Great Lakes region must be attributed to the failure (or subversion) of international political will to guarantee protective asylum or custody for those at risk (see, for example, Stockton, 1996). In this case ‘local solutions’ were applied, while international humanitarians mainly watched in frustrated impotence and exclusion. Does anyone now wish to claim this as a great success?

The culture of dependency
That humanitarian assistance is sometimes given to the wrong people may be bad enough but it is worse still, some critics claim, that it corrupts and ‘disempowers’ even those who are entitled to it. Like welfare scroungers, humanitarian beneficiaries become idle, indolent and dependent. What actual evidence is there for this oftenheard challenge? The critics of international humanitarian response regularly refer to the funds spent on humanitarian work in quite awesome terms. In fact humanitarian spending still amounts to just over 5 per cent of all international development assistance.6 Even at the high-water mark of international humanitarian spending in 1994, the global total was less than half of the sum available to the Welsh Secretary of State for Health and Education for a population of 2.7 million people. Global international humanitarian spending in 1996 was about the same amount that the British government estimates is ‘lost’ in fraudulent disability claims every year7 — and less than British Telecom’s annual profit in 1996. Of course, by definition, desperate people do sometimes depend upon international humanitarian assistance. We know, however, that the resources consumed by people affected by disasters are made up, in order of importance from: their own savings; from so-called ‘survival strategies’ such as casual labour, prostitution, etc.; from relatives; from host communities;8 and only lastly from aid agencies. There is no systematic evidence of humanitarian aid being provided in sufficient quantity nor with adequate reliability for anyone in their right minds, except perhaps aid workers, to become dependent upon it, let alone build a ‘culture of dependency’ around it. There is on the other hand a mass of evidence demonstrating that aid policies based upon reducing the so-called ‘dependency syndrome’ — such as food-forwork schemes — are usually inefficient, ineffective and poverty enhancing. Even at the height of global humanitarian spending, and even assuming no delivery overheads, the average person affected by a natural or man-made calamity would receive (usually in kind as the poor seem not to be trusted with money) assistance worth less than $80 per annum. Bearing in mind that the World Bank uses $1 per day as the benchmark for absolute poverty, it is obvious that a career in humanitarian aid scrounging would be pretty short lived, if not to say highly dangerous, given the places that the claimant must travel to for that assistance. The current experience of many Sudanese ‘humanitarian claimants’ surely bears this out.


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Given that no major humanitarian operation has ever been based upon an explicit and binding contractual relationship with beneficiaries, and given that frustrated, and thus often dead, humanitarian claimants have no legal redress, and given that no humanitarian agency or donor has ever accepted the concept of a legal obligation to provide humanitarian assistance, any talk of an ‘international welfare net’ is at best fanciful. Humanitarian aid may be a form of welfare, but it certainly has not been given as a right, either in terms of quality or quantity. Numerous studies have confirmed that beneficiaries normally regard it as a temporary, unreliable and inadequate windfall (see, Harrell-Bond, 1996). This unreliability is one of the main reasons why so many people die in humanitarian disasters. That rich nations and rich individuals should invoke the spectre of the culture of dependency to reduce international humanitarian spending is something of an obscenity. Neither logic nor evidence bears out the existence of the humanitarian dependency syndrome.

NGO proliferation, amateurism and lack of accountability
As many as 100 NGOs are said to have turned up to ‘help’ in Goma in 1994 (Borton et al., 1996). The place was awash with the modern symbols of international aid: Tshirts, car stickers and flags. Humanitarian ‘heralds’ were there, the NGO press officers, doggedly pursuing journalists, brandishing their new angles on the story, often relating to their own agency’s courage, skill and impact. All clamoured for television coverage and made claims about what could be achieved, some of which were indeed outrageous. Many have subsequently argued that the relief system is now badly out of control, having become a self-perpetuating expatriate industry unscrupulously exploiting other people’s misery. Where genuine compassion exists, it is all too often combined with a gross naıvety and amateurism that produces unforeseen and damaging side-effects. ¨ Finally, the international agencies operate in a manner that grants their staff near complete impunity for professional incompetence. They can get away, literally, with murder. While there is doubtless some truth in all of this, it is important to establish how generalisable the picture is. There is very little empirical evidence that actual harm has been caused by increased numbers of agencies per se.9 In fact increased agency competition has certainly demanded more efficient and more professional approaches. It also offers the donors, both private and official, more choice of potential implementation partners. Indeed in the ‘development’ zone, many of the same critics of the humanitarian scene actually celebrate institutional proliferation as an indicator of the health of ‘civil society’. It is surely right that humanitarian agencies pursue television and media coverage of major humanitarian calamities. Would it be better to ignore them or cover them up? The failure to engage much serious media attention to long-term suffering and structural poverty is hardly likely to be remedied through cleansing our screens of disaster stories. Surely it makes little sense to argue that because some ambulances leave the scene of some accidents ‘empty-handed’ that in future ambulances will be despatched one at a time, no matter what the scale and severity of the reported incident. If in Goma some

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agencies turned up unnecessarily, it is very important to consider carefully what might have happened if an insufficient number had turned up, before jumping to the conclusion that it is possible to define and plan for an optimal response. Of course the humanitarian agencies and their staff are not perfect. But compare their response after the disaster of the Great Lakes with that of governments. While France, the UK and the US variously denied responsibility and buck passed furiously, the NGOs got on with the Sphere project,10 People in Aid,11 and the Humanitarian Ombudsman12 project. These very complex exercises in inter-agency co-operation, involving hundreds of very diverse organisations, are laying down clear standards of ethical behaviour, minimum standards in service delivery, best practice standards in human resource management and methods of enhancing accountability to legitimate humanitarian claimants. It is of course easy to build up a portfolio of cases pointing to venality, inefficiency and ineptitude within the humanitarian system. However, as is often said in legal circles, bad cases do not necessarily make for good laws. Abolition of the health service as a whole is not a rational and justifiable response to the identification of bad practice in particular circumstances. Evidence for and against needs to be weighed carefully and the principle of proportionality reflected when reforming the system.

The remarkable resilience of Henri Dunant’s concepts of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence are based very particularly upon his recognition in 1859 at the Battle of Solferino that humanitarian aid will only be politically possible and ethically justifiable so long as it favours neither warring party with military advantage. These humanitarian principles are as valid now as they were in 1859; in essence the right of non-combatants to protection from violence, inhumane or degrading treatment. The Geneva Conventions and other human rights and humanitarian treaties do therefore confer obligations upon humanitarian organisations and it is absolutely right that the humanitarian system should be held accountable to these norms. In this respect, Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief (1994) offers a powerful normative framework to judge the performance of the humanitarian system. In general, the humanitarian agencies are improving their performance in terms of quality, and their willingness to be held accountable to these principles and associated technical standards. This is well illustrated by the phenomenon of over 100 humanitarian agencies co-operating on the Sphere humanitarian standards project. However, growing evidence suggests that the humanitarian system is doing badly as humanitarian demand seems to be outstripping the supply of official and private compassion. But when contrasted with the failures of an international political culture that fails to get to grips with war-crime impunity, the illegal arms trade and those macro-economic processes that sustain the iceberg of poverty and inequality that lies below the surface of most violent conflicts, then the humanitarian system and its underlying values sometimes look like a warm, albeit beleaguered, beacon of hope. This must not be extinguished. A public engagement with the human tragedies of poverty and violence must be renewed, no matter how distant these may seem geographically or politically.


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1. See, for example: de Waal, A., No Bloodless Miracle, The Guardian, 15 November 1996; de Waal, A., Why One Million Will Not Die, Prospect, 11 November 1996; Wrong, M., Indecision Hits the Case for Intervention in Rwanda, Financial Times, 25 November 1996. Many other such pieces could be cited. Figures based upon US Committee for Refugees (1998) World Refugee Survey. OCHA, UN Consolidated Appeals Summary data: Relief Web 17/07/98. OECD: Net ODA Flows 1950–1996. Website 17/07/98. At the time of writing, the Taliban have expelled international NGOs apparently on the understanding that their humanitarian work will be taken over by the United Nations. DAC figures for 1995 show emergency aid as 5.2 per cent of all international aid flows says OECD Website 17/07/98. The Guardian, 24/01/98. Host communities also includes host governments, local or national, in this context. Several people have told me that this is a particularly weak section of this paper — none however has produced any references that offer hard evidence that NGO proliferation itself is problematic. Minimum standards in humanitarian response, led by the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response and Interaction. A UK-based inter-agency project to define and promote best practices in human resource management. Another UK-based inter-agency project to investigate the feasibility of enhancing accountability to humanitarian claimants and other stakeholders through the creation of a humanitarian ombudsman.

2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10. 11. 12.

Borton, J., E. Brusset and A. Hallam (1996) Humanitarian Aid and Its Effects. Study III: The International Response to Conflict and Genocide: Lessons from the Rwanda Experience, Joint Evaluation of Emergency Assistance to Rwanda, Danida and Overseas Development Institute, Copenhagen and London. Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and the Non-governmental Organisations in Disaster Relief (1994) Network Paper 7. Relief and Rehabilitation Network, Overseas Development Institute, London. Evans, G. (1997) Responding to Crises in the African Great Lakes. Adelphi Paper 311, IISS, London. Forman, S. and R. Parhad (1997) Paying for Essentials: Resources for Humanitarian Assistance. Mimeo., Center for International Cooperation, New York. Gowing, N. (1998) New Challenges and Problems for Information Managers in Complex Emergencies: Ominous Lessons Learnt from the Great Lakes and Eastern Zaire in Late 1996 and early 1997. Dispatches from Disaster Zones, (May). Harrell-Bond, B. (1986) Imposing Aid. Oxford University Press, Oxford. Lautze, S. et al. (1998) Strategic Humanitarian Co-ordination in the Great Lakes Region 1996–1997. OCHA, New York. Nabeth et al. (1997) Violence against Rwandan Refugees. November 29, The Lancet 350: 1635. Stockton, N. (1996) Rwanda: Rights and Racism. December 12, mimeo.

Address for correspondence: Emergencies Director, Oxfam, 274 Banbury Road, Oxford OX2 7DZ.

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