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By Jonathan Whittall
Head of Humanitarian Analysis at Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF), based in Beirut
In understanding why access is sometimes denied for humanitarian workers, what is often overlooked are the ideological and tactical factors that feature in this decision making process for those that control territory.
What 2013 has possibly confirmed is that, in a world of shifting power dynamics, an uncanny correlation exists between humanitarian organisations and McDonalds.
So uncanny in fact that I would go as far as to assert that no country with a McDonalds has blocked access to humanitarian organisations. This should force us to raise questions about the identity of institutional humanitarian action and the real issues behind access constraints for humanitarian workers.
On the surface, 2013 was another bad year for humanitarian access. Large parts of Syria remained out of bounds for medical aid, foreign assistance to earthquake-hit Baluchistan in Pakistan was flatly denied by authorities, and the longstanding blockage of aid to South Kordofan and Blue Nile provinces in Sudan remained in place.
On the other hand, access was largely unhindered to the conflict areas of northern Mali, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic, and the response to the Philippines superstorm was a logistical, not a political, problem.
So maybe 2013 was not an exception, but indeed business as usual: the realpolitik of humanitarian access is based on a process by which the benefits and risks – both perceived and real – are weighed up by those who control territory or who have influence over it. But what makes Central African Republic and eastern Congo different to Sudan and Syria?
There are two categories of consideration for those in a position to grant or deny access. The first category, often overlooked, is ideological; the second, tactical.
Included in the category of ideological reasons are considerations as to whether humanitarian organisations and the activities that they propose are seen to be compatible with the international relations of the authority concerned.
The western humanitarian system is seen by many as, at worst, a Trojan horse of foreign interference or, at best, the caring arm of globalisation – the charitable version of McDonalds.
States that are known to reject humanitarianism outright because it is a form of interference and imperialism are those same states that reject elements of globalisation seen to be advancing western interests.
In this sense, one could develop a ‘McDonalds index of humanitarian access’: no country with a McDonalds has ever rejected humanitarianism on ideological grounds. It is in those states where the economic and political influence of the west still has space that all components of the west’s foreign policy are accepted: both McDonalds and INGOs.
However, it is within the category of ideological concerns that western humanitarian and development NGOs, as well as often independent local civil society organisations, are perceived as a threat to the state that resists the west and seeks its alliances with rising or reemerging powers.
This dilemma of association for humanitarians is rooted in the long-standing relationship between the ‘humanitarian system’ and western power – in the form of both financial and human resources.
This link was most starkly evident in Iraq and Afghanistan where NGOs were used as ‘force multipliers’ of US military efforts. However, one of the biggest blows to the providers of aid was possibly the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, which allegedly made use of an NGO-run vaccination campaign to gather intelligence on the whereabouts of Bin Laden.
The by-now well established accusation that NGOs are spies has, through this incident, been cemented as a key risk factor to consider under the ‘ideological’ category for those who control territory.
However, other considerations often override or complement the more ideological factors. Tactical issues play a central role, particularly in the conflict environments in which NGOs often attempt to work.
The provision – or denial – of assistance to certain populations can serve the tactical military considerations of combatants. In South Sudan, for example, for a long time the government did not allow any aid to go across the frontlines to rebel-held territory, referring to the delivery of aid to opposition-held territory as ‘treason’, as a tactic to dissuade the population from supporting the rebels.
In this sense, tactical considerations may still outweigh the ideological predisposition to accept humanitarian access.
These ideological and tactical considerations are all weighed against the benefit that might be accrued from allowing the provision of assistance.
The possible benefits of allowing humanitarian aid include the ability to win hearts and minds, the possibility of humanitarian aid being used to treat and feed fighters, or simply it can be seen as a political bargaining chip, a show of good faith in a broader chess game of geostrategic considerations.
The uncomfortable reality for organisations like MSF is to understand whether the real or perceived benefits of granting access outweigh the risks.
Whereas McDonalds has no access to Syria, KFC has been granted access – but the franchise is owned by a Kuwaiti company and the regional slogan is ‘100% Arab’.
This is not to suggest that humanitarians must become everything to everyone – but that an understanding of these dynamics is essential to being able to understand how best to evolve while staying true to the core of humanitarianism: challenging the neglect caused by an abuse of power.
What is certain in the realpolitik world of humanitarian negotiations is that access is not granted based on the ‘principles’ adhered to by humanitarian actors.
Neutrality, independence and impartiality are at best tools used to reduce the risk of granting access. They are by no means the ticket to unimpeded acceptance.
It is for this reason that the notion of a ‘principled approach’ – promoted by many in the aid world to mean a strict adherence to the humanitarian principles mentioned above as a guarantor of access – is mostly irrelevant.
At best it is a necessary starting point, a precondition before negotiations can even commence. However, a focus on ‘principles’ depoliticises access, to the point of it being the fault of others for undermining the acceptance of principles.
Politicians will be politicians, and the military will be the military. Humanitarian aid has unfortunately always featured in the considerations of both.
The role of the humanitarian worker is to navigate this political landscape and to identify points of leverage to ensure access to the most vulnerable, wherever they may be and whoever may control the territory in which they live.
In this sense, we need to be radically impartial. But the realpolitik of negotiating humanitarian access is often hampered before it can even begin by the fact that western NGOs represent the McDonalds of the humanitarian sector, with states that exert their sovereignty preferring to fill the gap in the market with more desirable brands.
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