Shock Therapy:   Promoting Wider Pathways to Humanitarian Participation, Dr. Robert Zuber

16 Nov

This week, I was in Michigan sitting with groups of social work students trying to find pathways to blend the community resiliency they seek to build with a policy community that seems largely disinterested in their skills and testimonies. Among other things, these students struggled with the demands of personal and familial crises, as well as the problems and opportunities that poor, marginalized, disabled persons and others experience for which few if any bureaucratic protocols are entirely relevant.  How, they wondered, do they make a different and preserve their jobs?  How do they communicate the things they have learned in their face-to-face encounters with human need to which their employers are often deaf?  How do they find ways to insert their quite considerable skills into a system that they largely believe to be under-staffed, under-funded and even under-caring?

And make no mistake about it: from the abandoned streets of Detroit to the swollen refugee camps of Lebanon, the international humanitarian system could rightly be described as under siege.  Given the carnage of Syria and Yemen, the generational poverty of Central African Republic and massive refugee flows in the Mediterranean Sea that are rewriting the boundaries of national concern, we are witnessing the evolving of a social and political challenge that is without precedent.

In briefing after briefing to the UN Security Council, OCHA’s USG Stephen O’Brien and others paint a painful picture of impeded access to sites of misery, funding commitments unfulfilled, children abandoned to their own devices, and political resolutions stalled or abandoned.   The burdens now borne by the UN and its major humanitarian partners are trumped only by the misery of so many displaced persons facing a future that seems as grim as the camps that currently hold them.

There will be an attempt to reform our understanding of and responsibility for these crises at the first Humanitarian Summit to be held next May in Istanbul, Turkey. After an extensive process of regional consultations throughout much of 2014 and 2015, a “Co-Chairs summary” was published attempting to crystallize major findings. As the summary noted, “Underlining the entire consultation was the recognition of the common value of humanity and the strong call for the reaffirmation of the universality of the humanitarian principles and upholding international humanitarian, human rights and refugee law. There was a clear call to put affected people at the heart of humanitarian action. Emphasizing that humanitarian action can never replace political solutions to crises, responsible action by global leaders is urgently required to prevent and solve crises and address root causes”

The co-chairs highlighted several themes germane to the consultations and to the core work of humanitarian assistance itself:  Dignity, Safety, Resilience, Partnerships and Finance. Attention was given throughout to helping communities utilize local skills and relationships to become better prepared for crisis response, as well as affirm and finance strategies for caring for persons dislodged by complex humanitarian emergencies occasioned by natural disaster or shocking human violence.

While not expressly named therein, these humanitarian deliberations very much mirror those  that led to the 2030 sustainable development goals – highlighting needs for reliable funding, flexible data, enabling access by host governments, and especially broad participation by diverse stakeholders. In many ways, the participation question is the heart of the matter, the need which if left unfulfilled will jeopardize any hope that we can move humanitarian assistance from response to prevention, from bureaucracy to local contexts and control.

Here in New York, there have been some interesting discussions with suggestions for the type of humanitarian action that delivers with people rather than for them, and that can take its place within a UN system devoted more and more to early political engagement to head off crises before they develop and to strengthening local capacity to deal with crises in the worst instances:

  • Create more rapid response capacity that can anticipate disasters before they materialize and build active, inclusive community partnerships that can help direct humanitarian assistance in the most productive ways.
  • Forge closer relationships with UN political affairs and special political missions inasmuch as many humanitarian crises are political in origin and their most deadly consequences might at least be minimized through robust diplomatic efforts.
  • Promote a better understanding of the security-humanitarian dynamic, including the ways in which overly militarized responses to looming crises can trigger cycles of frustration and retribution that dampen local participation.
  • Create more opportunities for locally-driven response and resiliency plans, developing and coordinating with local assets and placing them effectively and sensitively in the service of humanitarian response.
  • Curb the excessive and often de-contextualized “professionalization” of humanitarian relief, which can result in needlessly inflexible mandates that patronize local residents, instead of incorporating them as agents of response.

In Latin America, as noted often by our colleagues at Instituto Mora, there have been some significant recent successes in response to humanitarian emergencies, though propensities can still be observed to overly-militarize responses even to what are primarily natural disasters – earthquakes, typhoons and flooding.  In addition, what might be called ‘triggers of passivity’ – trafficking in arms and narcotics, gangs, etc. – also inhibit broad community participation in regional humanitarian efforts. Our Mora colleagues are now helping to promote a welcome movement away from humanitarian assistance which is not sufficiently coordinated or financed, does not incorporate local skills, or is discharged by inflexible bureaucracies that do not incorporate into their planning both the benefits and limitations of conventional humanitarian responses and their security arrangements.

While welcome changes are coming, the classic incarnations of humanitarian response are still too often slow to respond, too disconnected from humane political and security arrangements, and certainly too dismissive of local agency. This combination of discouraging factors undermines trust by local communities which we simply cannot afford to squander any longer.  We are simple leaving too many skills on the sidelines – in Mexico, in Michigan and in virtually every community seeking to do its part to preserve and restore human dignity in crisis.  We hope that Istanbul and its preparatory processes can energize responsibilities among diverse stakeholders, and above all make room for the millions of skilled persons seeking and deserving a larger role in humanitarian efforts.

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