Tribune: war and philanthropy by Francis Charhon

War and philanthropy. Two words so opposed in our minds, and yet…

Destruction in the Kiev district, Photo by Aris Messinis / AFP

It’s a huge shock for adults and older generations alike to relive the dark days of Europe, which seemed to have been consigned to the past and which our young people now only know from books or films. A solitary dictator decides to invade his neighbour in order to wipe out everything that has made it a country, with its history and culture, and to annihilate it with bombs and a wide variety of shells, some of which, it seems, contain cluster bombs. This barbaric method is nothing new to those, like NGOs or journalists, who have had to work in the field in other parts of the world. Humanitarian law is flouted with a cynicism that includes the creation of false humanitarian corridors that will be bombed or mined. In Chechnya and Syria, entire towns were razed to the ground by the Russian army, civilians were targeted, and health centres and schools were bombed. This inhumanity shocks the whole world. But how can we oppose such an insane project without going to war and triggering a major conflict? Nobody wants that. Of course, the Ukrainian army is trying to resist a steamroller that is inexorably advancing, crushing everything in its path. We can hope, unfortunately without much hope, that the sanctions will make President Putin think twice and that the cost of this war will become too heavy.

Honouring and supporting the Ukrainian resistance will not prevent the abominable suffering of a people, the thousands of dead and wounded, the exile of tens of millions of men and especially women with their children, and ultimately the occupation of this country, which will be razed to the ground. Border regions such as Crimea, Ossetia and Donbass have already been occupied; will the dream of the great Russia of the USSR era lead to further interventions in Moldova and Georgia? Who will oppose them?

In the meantime, we have to deal with the effects of war, and philanthropy has its part to play.

Let’s not forget that philanthropy is an ecosystem made up of players (associations and foundations), volunteers and donors; they are all on the move. The worldwide reaction has been as shocked as the violence of the images and testimonies. Huge collections are pouring in from individuals and companies, and volunteers are rushing to help, to relieve the Ukrainian population directly in their own countries or in neighbouring countries. While Poland and Hungary may be able to cope for the time being, Moldova and Slovenia are small countries at risk of being destabilised by the influx of refugees. They need major and urgent support from the international community. All the humanitarian organisations are mobilised and ready to respond to the needs of the injured and the refugees, to provide medical care, food aid and shelter, and to support the local associations that were the first to respond. Some NGOs were already on site, while others are opening missions in Ukraine and neighbouring countries. Foundations have also mobilised to provide support, not only in France, but also at European level, thanks to coordination in Brussels by their “Philae” representation. The International Red Cross, the High Commission for Refugees (HCR) and other UN agencies are also on the move.

At the same time, NGOs such as Amnesty International are documenting war crimes through testimonies, photos and videos, so that one day those responsible for all these atrocities can be brought before the International Criminal Court.

In France, operations are carried out in coordination with the crisis and support centre of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which also provides financial support. This relationship is a model of the relationship between the State, associations and foundations, and could serve as an example for the implementation of an ambitious strategy for the relationship between the State and civil society.

All these response capabilities have been able to develop in part thanks to the generosity of the public. These private funds have given these NGOs the capacity to develop. They have acquired increasingly professional methods of intervention through years of work in a wide variety of fields (war, natural disasters, epidemics, famine, etc.). Among the progress that has been made is the internationalisation of French NGOs: they have opened branches in many countries, thereby increasing their capacity for intervention and the inclusion of staff from the countries in which they operate. Other efforts have focused on coordination between NGOs at national level under the aegis of Coordination SUD, but also at international level through the VOICE network, a forum for exchanging and sharing practices to deal with crises on a sufficiently large scale. A European humanitarian forum will be held in March, organised by the European Commission, a major funder of humanitarian action through its Echo division. The aim of the forum is to take stock of international humanitarian action and facilitate its implementation. Ironically, a debate on humanitarian law, which is problematic in many parts of the world, was scheduled well before the Russian intervention.

The immense work carried out by French NGOs is just one aspect of the work of associations and foundations. They are now visible and recognised as a matter of course on the international scene.

In France, this same not-for-profit sector also carries out important and necessary work in all areas that address the needs of society: culture, the environment, social action, etc. Yet it is not recognised as a player in its own right.

It would be a major political project for a future government to give formal recognition to this sector. The State would have to agree to recognise the not-for-profit sector as an economic sector in its own right, in the same way as agriculture, industry, businesses, craft trades, etc., without constantly seeking to reduce its capacity to intervene. It is not a question of pitting two systems against each other, but of recognising that this sector provides appropriate responses that complement those provided by the state. Through its actions at both national and local level, it is a powerful bulwark against the disintegration of the social fabric that is undermining our nation, and a major element in the “living together” that is essential to our democracy.

Having an ambitious and assertive philanthropic policy, with clear objectives, would make it possible to understand the meaning of the measures that are regularly taken. It would be possible to anticipate costs upstream, rather than taking piecemeal tax measures without weighing up the consequences for recipients, and avoid moving forwards or backwards at the whim of political influences. This would be a real cultural revolution that would require a lot of work, giving up prerogatives and letting go of the administration. It would be facilitated by a stand taken at the top of the State. A conference under the patronage of the President would make it possible to collectively define a vision of the general interest, commitment and generosity, and to review the public governance of the sector.

Philanthropic chronicles, by Francis Charhon.