For a professional non-institutional humanitarian commitment

By Christian Georlette, President of Aviation Sans Frontières International.

©Aviation Sans Frontières

Today, Christian Georlette answers here in Pierre Brunet’s gallery “Is humanitarian aid still on a mission?” which has been widely echoed by the humanitarian community. Christian Georlette, born in Belgium, has been President of Aviation Sans Frontières International since 2016 with a career spanning nearly 40 years in several humanitarian organisations. While thanking him for his point of view, we invite you to participate by sending us your testimony on

In its recent column entitled “Is humanitarian aid still on mission?”, Pierre Brunet presented the humanitarian commitment to us as the result of a revolt that generates an active, effective, committed, audacious movement of solidarity, a movement which carries an ideology. At least, that is the main idea I learned from it.

Humanitarian aid, which is seen as an ideological commitment in solidarity, is necessarily ethno-centred and stealthy. It is the result of a struggle, a reaction of revolt against a perceived established order. It triggers a sense of solidarity that does not always translate into effective or appropriate actions on the ground while being the source of extraordinary successes. Culturally, it is the prerogative of the Latin world, which advocates the gift of self and selfless action. This humanitarian has dressed himself in the clothes of “process” professionalism but more often he has not completely immersed himself in them despite appearances, jargon, etc.

One of the reasons for this is that, often, Latin humanitarian staff, whether they are “directors” rather than “heads of mission”, remain motivated by the fact that they carry out extraordinary (extraordinary and admirable) work whose humanitarian purpose places them above the standards that usually govern project management and HR management, particularly in companies. One example is that the loss of money resulting from poor operational choices by inexperienced “expatriate” staff is hardly sanctioned, as these staff already donate their time. Moreover, the notion of professionalism should not be reduced to that of salaried employment.

©Aviation Sans Frontières

Humanitarian action can also be experienced as a personal and professional commitment to fundamental human rights, the first of which is certainly survival in dignity. In this case, the driving force of engagement, its fundamental value, is respect for others and not the revolt that generates ideological engagement. This value – respect for others – is probably not part of the value systems of all the societies that make up the planet, but it is not far from being universal, even if it is experienced differently here and there.

This vision of humanitarian action does not spare the debate and a position on the root causes that cause the exploitation and premature death of so many people in this world (the subject of revolt), but it is more likely to be sustainable and to address this debate as a whole, particularly through certain United Nations agencies. These often criticized institutions, a little less often rightly criticized, have become indispensable in terms of human rights and survival and have nevertheless enabled universal progress in this field.

In this vision of humanitarian aid, professional motivation consists in being motivated by respect for others and fighting to provide the best possible service, because we are convinced that we provide the best possible service. It is also necessary to be able to evaluate and question oneself, hence the existence of humanitarian performance assessment tools, standards and quality systems that must be used in substance and not only in form. After all, the populations targeted by humanitarian action are entitled to expect a service that offers the best possible cost-efficiency ratio, hence the concept of accountability.

The problem does not lie in the use of words and concepts such as management, processes, guidelines, logical frameworks, performance analyses… It lies in the way we will configure these tools that should help us to measure the effectiveness and relevance of our interventions. These parameters, the quality systems, must focus on the human and humanitarian impact of the projects. A humanitarian air service can be considered as very efficient because an aircraft has a good filling rate, but this does not say anything about the real impact that this service has or has not had on the effectiveness of an NGO in the field and the service it provides to the population.

Christian GEORLETTE, ©Aviation Sans Frontières

If we have a successful association in the sense of humanitarian service, we must indeed make it sustainable. It must be made profitable in relation to the availability of funding, for example from the European Commission and the United Nations, institutions that have appropriated humanitarian action and put associative and commercial actors in competition as subcontractors. “Profitable” projects in terms of attracting institutional funding, which can also be effective for the benefit of human beings, should enable the association to establish itself, broaden its base and consolidate it.

The important thing is to take advantage of this consolidation to devote yourself to seeking non-institutional funds, increasing your equity ratio and thus your ability to act independently on the themes of your choice. Dependence on institutional funding as a condition for survival consists in adapting to the new paradigm of institutionalized humanitarian action. In the end, these funds are taken from the citizens, it is up to NGOs – even as subcontractors – to use them in such a way as to have a proper impact on the populations who are to benefit from them.

An NGO is essentially “non-institutional”. This can take the form of testimony, revolt against the established system (and against institutionalized humanitarian action?) In the alternative approach to professional humanitarian action, it can take the form of putting pressure on institutionalized humanitarian action to better take into account the real needs of field actors (including NGOs) and targeted populations.

Yes, aid is probably “industrialized”, it is certainly “institutionalized”. But rather than rejecting this reality – to return to which “fundamentals” of the past – why not have the audacity and inventiveness to work on the system from within, as a responsible actor constantly inhabited by a concern for the other? And to highlight the needs of people “much too expensive or difficult to reach”, it will be necessary to fight using tools such as management, processes, guidelines, logical frameworks, performance analyses, etc. as long as they have been properly configured, on quality systems based on humanitarian efficiency (the aircraft can only carry one passenger provided that the work of the passenger, at destination, impacts many lives) rather than technical (the aircraft must be filled). In fact, the two must coexist to achieve a good balance.

Aviation NGOs did indeed go “where others do not go, no longer go”. This is the former signature of Aviation Sans Frontières Belgium. Last mile” air transport is now the monopoly of institutional humanitarian action, and many small bush airfields have since been forgotten. Today, Aviation Without Borders is working to highlight the very specific needs of NGOs in the field in terms of air transport so that they can be taken into account in the budgets and programming of institutional humanitarian action, in order to increase the effectiveness of the aid provided to the population.

This is a professional and non-institutional humanitarian commitment that reflects the added value that NGOs can bring to institutional humanitarian action. And it is true that this requires a certain boldness to, in a way, challenge the standards established by the institutions in order to make them evolve. It is a commitment to a form of accountability for humanitarian aid. So yes, the humanitarian sector can still be on a “mission”. It must not redefine itself in opposition to institutionalized humanitarian action, it must define itself with, within it, asserting its added value and influencing it, imposing itself as an essential stakeholder and no longer appearing as a subcontractor. This is a huge challenge to be met in order to influence the use of the billions of euros that institutional humanitarian action weighs, rather than distance itself from it.

Discover the website of Aviation Sans Frontières (ASF) International as well as those of ASF Belgium and ASF France.

Born in Belgium in 1962, Christian Georlette spent his early youth in a rural area of DR Congo. Marked by this period, he studied tropical agronomy. In the meantime, he joined the Belgian Red Cross as a volunteer in 1980. After his studies, the Red Cross offered him an international assignment and in 1985 he found himself on his first mission in Chad, where Hissène Habré was in the grip of civil war. What he thought was only a break in his life became his job. He will discover about thirty African countries for the Red Cross, various NGOs, the Humanitarian Aid Office of the European Commission and the German Technical Cooperation. He served in several countries in conflict, including Rwanda in 1994, trapped in Kigali in the midst of genocide from which he escaped only by miracle. Christian Georlette joined Aviation Sans Frontières Belgium in 2007 as Director. He is also President of ASF International, of which he is a founding member in 2016. It works to improve the impact of humanitarian air transport on the effectiveness of NGO field work, developing a quality system based on humanitarian effectiveness indicators rather than on efficiency indicators inherited from commercial air transport as is the case today.