The humanitarian in the trap of the time, who embraces too much embraces badly…

To run after one’s time – and its conceptual fads – is an exhausting exercise, if not vain. One can also wonder if it is not an approach which by nature disperses energies, knowing no limit, at the risk of a 360 degrees “catch all”… likely to make one lose the North.

Any time generates its conceptual fads, which fade away, by dint of rubbing up against reality… Ours does not escape it, and even seems particularly fertile in this field. The reasons are numerous and could be the subject of an article in itself. But the fact is that today no dimension of human activity escapes it… Humanitarianism, thus, finds itself caught, “embedded”, we could say, in this general movement where the certainty of speaking and acting in the name of the universal good leaves little room for doubt, nuance, or even the consideration of reality. In the era of globalized humanitarianism, “industrialized” according to some, more and more standardized, framed, constrained, sometimes directed, this involvement is concretized by an increasingly massive impregnation of these conceptual fads, by donors, influencers (such as certain large Anglo-Saxon NGOs) or partners of humanitarian NGOs, such as United Nations agencies or governments.

Thus, these NGOs and humanitarian organizations are now encouraged, often by those they need to continue to exist as structures for action, to demonstrate, or at least affirm loud and clear, their adherence to the long list of these conceptual fads. Any written document, issued, consultable, from a humanitarian organization becomes an opportunity to respond to an implicit summons, that of positioning ourselves on each of the themes in the air of time, to “check all the boxes”, as a good and irreproachable student, responding to the favorite subjects “that must” be addressed, as we say in our jargon. Independent in principle, we find ourselves, in an unspoken way, “assigned to sign” at the bottom of each paragraph of a doxa which aims, of course, only at the good of all.

Pierre Brunet in Afghanistan in 2003, as part of a mission with the multiple operational teams of Solidarités International in the country.

Honesty demands that we recognize that there is more than meets the eye in this phenomenon. First of all, it is important to emphasize the sincerity of the individual adherence, as citizens, of a good number of humanitarians to a large part of these themes and concepts. Furthermore, the irruption of these concepts into our thinking often leads to an enrichment of our approach, which can lead to a widening of the scope of our action. Finally, this conceptual irruption forces us to leave our comfort zone and to question ourselves, to re-distinguish the priority from the secondary, the essential from the complementary, the obvious from the debatable, and to redefine the responsibilities of all the actors.

Having said this, let’s look at the main themes and conceptual fads that we humanitarians are being asked (or at least suggested) to take on or at least make our own by adherence-absorption-integration in our mandate, whatever it may be. Small non-exhaustive inventory à la Prévert or “What we should address, in addition to the humanitarian needs of people in distress…” :

  • The urgency of responding in the short and medium term to vital needs and at the same time putting in place sustainable solutions has founded the double nexus of emergency and development. The complementarity between humanitarian and development approaches, now often implemented together and in parallel, is an undeniable progress. However, in recent years, a third nexus has been insisted upon, the triple nexus of emergency-development-peace, in which humanitarians, at the risk of their fundamental principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence, should, through their actions, participate in the establishment of peace in the countries in conflict where they intervene. This false good idea, just like the recent one of participating in the fight against terrorism by screening our teams, partners, service providers and especially beneficiaries, is fortunately rejected by the majority of humanitarian NGOs in the name of these principles. This is the first example of concepts that have been seductive, but which are inoperative, dangerous and incompatible with what we are.
Iraqi women of Solidarités International register beneficiaries of humanitarian aid ®Solidarités International
  • The localization of aid, a theme highlighted at the May 2016 Istanbul Global Humanitarian Summit, has since become a staple of any humanitarian NGO’s positioning. In addition to the fact that humanitarians did not wait for this summit to see the interest in general and the benefit for the populations of assisted countries of favoring, whenever possible, the design, organization and implementation of aid provided, as close as possible to the needs, by national humanitarians, doesn’t this much sought-after concept often overlook a few important points? Among these, don’t we sometimes forget a little quickly, in our eagerness to embrace it, that international humanitarians contribute to the effectiveness and efficiency of aid through their commitment, their skills, experience and expertise, which are sometimes rare in countries in crisis (in addition to the question of logistical capacities and emergency response), and through the framework of humanitarian principles and rationalized and shared operating methods of which they are the guardians? Should we throw the baby out with the bathwater?
  • The fight against the effects of climate change is a vital and global issue. We know this. Our role as humanitarians is to participate, whenever possible, through relevant programs of adaptation to this change, of resilience in the face of shocks, to limit and mitigate its effects on populations that are often among the most threatened on the planet. We have been doing this for many years now, and will have to do it more and more, better and better. But is it essential to complicate and weigh down our action by multiplying the “processes” for measuring our carbon footprint and the tools for “accountability” of our “eco-responsibility”, as we are not, by far, the most polluting organizations on the planet? As for the fight to limit global warming, is it within the scope of our mandate, of our mission? We are not the UN, and even the UN is struggling on this crucial issue…
  • The notion of protection of populations, for the past twenty years, has become more and more important in the field of humanitarian semantics, and as a “prism” for a growing number of programs implemented. The principle of protection is, in itself, a very good thing, no one disputes this. But, once we have established as its foundation the International Humanitarian Law (IHL) that we must defend relentlessly, what does this notion, which is very broad in nature, mean in concrete terms? Does it fall within the scope of our possible action? Yes, insofar as it is our responsibility “to do no harm”, not to aggravate in any way by our action and our behavior the threats and attacks on the dignity and fundamental rights of the people in distress that we are helping… Yes, because when it comes to specific groups (women, children, the handicapped, such and such a community, etc.), it is true that we must, whenever necessary, pay particular attention to them and inform the competent actors of the serious attacks of which they are victims. But beyond that? In countries where people are threatened at any moment by war and violence, where explosive barrels or gas are dropped on them, where schools or hospitals are bombed, is it within our reach, and is it lucid, to claim to be doing a work of protection?
Clearance operation in Haiti, 2011®Solidarites International

In a way, we humanitarians have to reinvent the wheel. The decisive point of this affair is, let’s remember, the need for most humanitarian NGOs to send “subliminal messages” to the donors of the international humanitarian system by “ticking the boxes” of the conceptual fads of the moment. But should we give in to the temptation of catching all, losing our compass? On the contrary, can’t we take advantage of this context to find the North? To return to the realistic idealism that has made our action indispensable, to rediscover the modesty of our pretensions, but the concrete ambition to save more and more lives. We are not going to save the world, and we are not going to change the world. Once again, we are not the UN, which is already failing to do so… Of course, humanitarian organizations cannot, and should not, be cut off, as if in a watertight bubble, from the issues, the questions that concern and grip this world, but should they strive to embrace them all? He who embraces too much embraces badly…

Pierre Brunet, writer and humanitarian worker:

Born in 1961 in Paris to a French father and a Spanish mother, Pierre Brunet found his first vocation as a freelance journalist. In 1994, he crossed paths with humanitarian aid and volunteered in Rwanda, which was devastated by genocide. In early 1995, he left on a humanitarian mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina, then torn by civil war. There he took on the responsibilities of program coordinator in Sarajevo, then head of mission.

Upon his return to France at the end of 1996, he joined the headquarters of the French NGO SOLIDARITES INTERNATIONAL, for which he had gone on mission. He will be in charge of communication and fundraising, while returning to the field, as in Afghanistan in 2003, and starting to write… In 2011, while remaining involved in humanitarian work, he commits himself totally to writing, and devotes an essential part of his time to his vocation as a writer.

Pierre Brunet is Vice-President of the association SOLIDARITES INTERNATIONAL. He has been in the field in the North-East of Syria, in the “jungle” of Calais in November 2015, and in Greece and Macedonia with migrants in April 2016.

Pierre Brunet’s novels are published by Calmann-Lévy:

  • January 2006: publication of his first novel “Barnum” by Calmann-Lévy, a story born from his humanitarian experience.
  • September 2008 : publication of his second novel ” JAB “, the story of a little Spanish orphan girl who grew up in Morocco and who will become a professional boxer as an adult.
  • March 2014: release of his third novel “Fenicia”, inspired by the life of his mother, a little Spanish orphan during the civil war, refugee in France, later an anarchist activist, seductress, who died in a psychiatric institute at 31 years old.
  • End of August 2017: release of his fourth novel “Le triangle d’incertitude”, in which the author “returns” again, as in “Barnum” to Rwanda in 1994, to evoke the trauma of a French officer during Operation Turquoise.

In parallel to his work as a writer, Pierre Brunet works as a co-writer of synopses for television series or feature films, in partnership with various production companies. He also collaborates with various magazines by publishing columns or articles, notably on international news.