Interview with François Grünewald « The humanitarian action in question ».

©Groupe URD, François Grünewald.

An interview with François Grünewald, Groupe URD’s Director of Monitoring and Foresight, conducted by Alain Boinet for Défis Humanitaires.

Défis Humanitaires: For our readers, can you remind us of Groupe URD existence’s reason and its history?

François Grünewald : Groupe URD was founded in 1993. It began as a network of exchanges between practitioners on the challenges posed by the end of the Cold War. The younger generations, who did not experience this period of ideological confrontation, cannot imagine how polarized the associative movement of the time was and how much this change in the world challenged us. For four years, at the rate of one meeting per quarter, once at MSF, once at ACF, once in Lyon, once in Paris, once in Marseille, thought was built up, accompanied by initial operational research, the organization of conferences and the production of a first book « Entre urgence et développement, pratiques humanitaires en question » (Between emergency and development, humanitarian practices in question). In 1997, after several years of functioning as a « network for exchange » between humanitarian and development actors, Groupe URD decided to change its objective and become what it is today: an active operational institute which should help to change the lines.

It was at this point that three challenges emerged for us: the first was a challenge of method: how to influence the sector? This is how the concept of the collective learning cycle was born around a simple objective: to improve the practices of the actors. All Groupe URD’s activities were then structured with this objective in mind, from extracting knowledge from the field to producing methods and strengthening the capacities of actors in both the North and the South.

The second was quality management. Opposed to the standardization of aid, we have often been described as the champions of « contextualization »: no miracle solutions that can be replicated everywhere, no totipotent technical standards. At the time, in 1999, I wrote an article « discovering complexity and turbulence and making friends with them ». This is where we met Edgard Morin, who was for a time Honorary President of Groupe URD. This is where all our methodological commitment dates from, with major questions about quantum approaches we challenge on their fundamentals: Robert Chambers’ two principles, which date back 40 years (optimal ignorance and appropriate imprecision) remain extremely relevant on an operational basis but have difficulty resisting the « data » fad.

The third was a « geo-ethical » challenge. I had just left the ICRC on a whim, a farmhouse lost in the Baronnies Mountains in Drôme Provençale. I didn’t want to be in a glass and concrete building in a big city, but anchored in a fragile territory where we would constantly have to seek coherence between our discourse abroad and our contribution at home. Finally, the daily experience of the multiple risks of our Drôme, fires, floods, landslides, the contact with the rural crisis but also with those who fight for a respectful rurality, helps us in our work on humanitarian aid and crisis management. Living in the country of Manon des Sources allows us to better understand the agro-pastoral crises… While we have made our site a recognized eco-reference, with two solar energy systems, bioclimatization and phyto-purification management and significant efforts on our carbon footprint, our efforts on reducing the environmental footprint of aid started more than ten years ago are starting to pay off. NGOs are mobilizing, donors are starting to move, and many are looking to us to move forward.

What do you think Groupe URD’s added value is?

François Grünewald : We are pilot fish, we are « out of the box » thinkers and we will stay. Over the last 20 years, we have been at the heart of many struggles in the sector. Our particular strength comes from our constant back and forth between the field and theory, between the production of knowledge and policy work. We were among the first to talk about the link between HIV and AIDS and food insecurity, based on our assessments in southern Africa in the early 2000s. We were pioneers in thinking about humanitarian work in cities with our book « Villes en guerre, guerres en ville » (Cities at war, wars in cities) (2004) and the numerous works since then, particularly on Haiti, which have really brought the subject to the fore. The same goes for the question of the environmental footprint of aid, and many other subjects. Not to mention our latest Autumn Universities on « Humanitarianism and Collapse », agility or the localization of aid . In the end, many people recognise that it was Groupe URD that brought the word « quality » into humanitarian aid, when « compliance with standards » was the most common.

But our site, opposite the Ventoux, full of flowers, olive trees and horses, is also an « asset ». Everyone who has been there has said « we think well here ». We wanted to create an atmosphere, a space of fraternity. Our Autumn Universities, which attract dozens of participants every year, are rooted in Universitas, the place for exchange around universal issues, but also in hospitality. We want to offer the Fontaine des Marins a stimulating and beautiful space to discuss the challenges facing our sector, but around the pleasure of exchange and solidarity. Why beauty? Let’s go back to the speech that Solzhenitsyn was unable to give in Stockholm in 1970, prevented from coming to receive his Nobel Prize. « If truth is often flouted, goodness rarely lasting, beauty may save the world ». The sun of the Drôme, the smell of genets and lime trees, the flights of eagles and bee-eaters over the offices, the uncertain passage of deer on the road a few metres from the workplace, it helps. And the light, the colours, always changing, always so beautiful, that inspired Van Gogh, Cézanne, De Staël, Vasarely and so many others. This is what we offer to our visitors, trainees, participants in our trainings and conferences.

Humanitarianism has developed considerably since the 1980s. Even today we talk about the « humanitarian system ». How do you see the positive developments and what are the risks facing the humanitarian sector?

François Grünewald : Has humanitarian aid really developed considerably? Certainly, its growth has been considerable, with the release of funds and opportunities that the end of the Cold War freed up: it was the end of the systematic blockades of humanitarian aid by the Security Council, the creation of ECHO and the availability of significant funding, the explosion of NGOs of the « ECHO Babies » generation. But it was also the beginning of the bureaucratisation of aid: we have more project managers, reporting officers, grant writers, accountability departments, auditors and evaluators like us, but are there significantly more people really in contact with the victims: doctors, agronomists, etc. who do technical work in the field with and for the populations, in proportion to the increase in budgets? Not so sure! We are told that the sector is becoming more professional.  But what has become professionalized? The « support » functions and in particular MEAL, reporting, project writing and consortium building. Necessary of course to obtain and manage resources, but so far from action… We are told « yes, the technical work is done by our national colleagues, by the national NGOs we support. ». Humanitarian work is beginning to become a distance work, in which the exchange is lost in the face of the demands of control: ask any head of mission, he will tell you, « I almost no longer have time to go into the field and meet the populations we support, with all the reports to be made, the « proposals » to be written, the coordination meetings where you have to be present…

During the 1st World Humanitarian Summit in May 2016, the Grand Bargain and its 10 priorities had mobilized a lot of energy and expectation. Where are we 4 years later, what are the tangible results and what will become of this initiative?

François Grünewald : Groupe URD was part of the « close guard » that prepared the World Humanitarian Summit for two years with OCHA. And we are proud of that. Unfortunately, what happened at Idlib was a terrible « crash test » of our hopes for the Summit and tends to justify MSF’s position to withdraw from the Summit. At one of the Summit plenaries, I sounded the alarm, saying « I regret their withdrawal, but let’s listen to their message, let’s not treat their decisions as « another MSF » ». The horrors of Aleppo, Idlib and Yemen tend 5 years later to prove that they were not completely wrong. For those who have experienced Srebrenica, Kigali and Grozny very closely, the current paralysis tends to disqualify a large part of the WHS discourse. Not to mention the exodus across the Mediterranean, which we have observed closely in some of our assessments of Lesbos, Chios and our journey from Syria or Sudan to Fortress Europe.

©Groupe URD, François Grünewald.

One of the 10 priorities of the Grand Bargain was the emergency-development nexus. Since then, the idea of nexus has evolved and expanded to stabilization, security and even peace. What does this broadening mean and how should independent humanitarian actors approach the nexus issue?

François Grünewald : Urgency-Rehabilitation-Development: this has been our name since 1993. Trademark copied several times, including as scud against us. We have been involved in all the battles of « Linking Relief, Rehabilitation and Development » (the famous LRRD Link Relief Rehabilitation Development); of Disaster Risk Management (DRM). We have pioneered thinking on resilience, notably by pushing the concept further in our report on the management of the Bar-El-Ghazal famine in Sudan … in 1999 and working hard on it ever since.

Then we saw the emergence of the 3 Ds (defence, diplomacy, development), the development-security continuum, starting with the military component. But as General Giap (the man who took Saigon from the Americans) told us: it’s easy to win war; it’s much harder to win peace. Here we are, with a first difficulty: the impossibility of winning the war.

Within this framework, we must on the one hand defend the operational principles that make it possible to work, while being aware that our fine approach of « acceptance » is very much under threat and that in many cases we may have to be content with tolerance. And to do so with an intelligence of fine negotiation. Non-empathetic approaches to this issue are almost systematically doomed to failure. But our organizations are « populated » by impatient, often disrespectful and sometimes arrogant young people with masters and other degrees, who treat people with little regard for the often impressive thickness of their lives.

In fact, we are facing a bit of a dead end: it is neither the « Diplomacy-Defense-Development » triangle nor a « Securitization-Stabilization-Development » sequence that is needed, but a different approach both in terms of tools and time management. If peace is ultimately at stake, then let’s look at what would bring peace to conflicts such as those that cross the Sahelian strip. Historically, there are three kinds of peace:

  • peace won by crushing the enemy: that’s the role of Defense. But we know how fragile these won peace are, when that victory is anchored on the crushing and humiliation of the defeated.
  • imposed peace, through the presence of stronger actors who force the parties to the conflict to cease hostilities: this is the role of Diplomacy, and in particular its multilateral aspect, but it is also where the bottom lies How much has this mechanism really and durably solved crises?
  • negotiated peace, leading to agreements whose implementation will be linked to the collective intelligence of the parties to the conflicts and possibly their sponsors (bilateral diplomacy), including with civil society actors. And here we must accept not « win win » but « loose a little bit – loose a little bit » which can only be achieved through dialogue and negotiation.

Obviously, the challenge would be to obtain a « peace dividend », with an end to fear and the return of a certain socio-economic normality, or even a little prosperity.

Faced with the conflicts in the Sahel, what does Diplomacy do? Negotiate. But with whom? For the time being, Diplomacy has mainly mobilized to strengthen the collective war effort. More African armies, more European weapons, more American drones, more planes, helicopters, etc.. In short, more Defence. If this may have led to some localized successes on the ground, the latest events in Guiré, Diouara, Boulkessy, Mondoro and Indelimane in Mali, Koutougou in Burkina Faso and Inates in Niger show that this is not enough. Faced with insurgents dressed in civilian clothes, highly mobile, highly infiltrated into the population, increasingly strategic and capable of mounting complex and well-coordinated operations, the increase in the number of deployed personnel, often inadequately trained, not very mobile and poorly equipped, and the use of drone and wiretapping technology are quickly reaching their limits.

The real diplomatic stakes, particularly in Mali, would be a strong plea against the corruption that undermines the country at all levels. It would also be to encourage the authorities to start negotiations 1 with the actors of the political jihad. If the peace won seems impossible, if peace imposed a chimera in the Sahelian context, negotiated peace remains.

What is Development going to do in this story? Certainly, poverty is the source of all evils. It is true that climate change exacerbates rural tensions and, in synergy with demographic pressure, throws young people onto the path of seeking other economic alternatives. It is true that girls’ unequal access to education hinders social progress. But let us not delude ourselves: in the face of the challenges of bad governance, the absence of a fair penal system, and regular abuses by the Security Forces, these development actions carry little weight.

However, beyond the political response which is often lacking, the priorities of the Grand Bargain and the World Humanitarian Summit remain relevant despite the difficulty of responding to them. Do you think that this process is at the end of its cycle, or that it needs to be relaunched in order to succeed, or that it needs to be reinvented?

François Grünewald : There have been a certain number of interesting advances during the World Humanitarian Summit-World Humanitarian Summit. It is true that the involvement of development funders in the management of sustainable crises makes it possible to better take into account their impact on host populations, but also for the entire youth affected, in order to avoid seeing the development of « lost generations ». However, the administrative tools of development are quickly challenged by the issues of flexibility and agility that accompany these contexts, but also by the issues of respect for humanitarian principles, in situations where, by their very nature, it is necessary to involve the authorities. Another important step forward is the role of national actors, the famous « localisation » which is the source of so much interest and fear. But de facto, certain dynamics pushed by the Great Bargain are the source of many contradictions: pushing cash at all costs, when many contexts show that it is not so simple, raises questions. The dynamics of pushing more and more funds through national actors are confronted with the risks of accountability and mismanagement, or even misappropriation, due to numerous pressures, as we can see everywhere, especially as soon as the crisis is in the media and the money is flowing. In short, nothing is simple and everything must be put into context. The SHM has highlighted real challenges, but there is no magic wand. And the challenges ahead are many, hidden beneath the horizon …

Today and in the next 10 years, what are the main challenges that the humanitarian world is facing or will have to face and how can it prepare for them?

François Grünewald : In an article published in 2011, « Technological and nuclear disasters, major pandemics: the new frontiers of humanitarianism? « I explored some of the challenges. It was before the first Ebola crisis, before there was talk of collapse, that we constantly find references to technological and health disasters in the press. Since then, the technology of the P4 hazard zones has become better known. During a recent training course we organized in Ukraine on techno-environmental risks in war zones, we were able to explore how illiterate humanitarians still are in the face of technological risks and these disasters with very particular kinetics that literally and figuratively explode in our faces. This is one of the directions we are exploring at Groupe URD, by strengthening our collaboration with specialist bodies, particularly civil protection and CBRN.

But alongside this are all the challenges, dangers and opportunities that collaboration with national and local actors offers us. Behind this awful word ‘localisation’ of aid, there is both a new imagination of smarter aid, of renewed solidarity (this is the title of Groupe URD’s Strategy 2020-2025) but also the terrifying chasms of corruption, nepotism and the recuperation of aid for local interests. Our work with Transparency International and the work we are launching with DFID (Department for International Development -GB) on aid in the DRC shows how complex and politically charged these issues surrounding aid integrity are. We must find the right axes and the right methods.

François, we have learned that you are leaving your position as Groupe URD’s Director General. Are you leaving humanitarian aid?

François Grünewald : 20 years at the head of Groupe URD was exciting and heavy. You have to know how to pass on the torch. In an effort of transmission, transition and feminization launched a year ago, I am leaving my position as Groupe URD’s Director General, which will now be taken on by Véronique de Geoffroy. But it will be to concentrate on all those challenges that I am passionate about: those we see and especially those, below the horizon, off the radar screen, that we have to anticipate and prepare for. Continuing to go back and forth between the field and the reflection, looking for blind spots and exploring them, it’s going to be exciting…

François Grünewald 

Agricultural Engineer INA-PG. He has been working for more than 35 years in the field of international solidarity after different positions at the UN, the ICRC and in NGOs. Since 1993, he has been involved with Groupe URD, a research, evaluation, methodological production and training institute specialising in crisis management, humanitarian action and reconstruction. He has conducted numerous research and evaluations on humanitarian and post-crisis programmes (Post Mitch, Tsunami zone, Somalia, Darfur, Central Africa, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Mali, Caucasus, Haiti, Syrian crisis, Nepal, Ebola, Yemen, etc.) for donors (European Commission, French, British and American governments, etc.), the ICRC, IFRC, the UN and NGOs. He leads work on disaster management and resilience as well as on population displacement. A former associate professor at the University of Paris XII, he teaches in various institutions in Europe, Canada and the United States. Author of numerous articles, he has edited several books, including « Entre Urgence et Développement », « Villes en Guerre et Guerre en Villes », « Bénéficiaires ou partenaires » published by Editions Karthala.