Is the humanitarian still on mission?

By Pierre Brunet.

This article by Pierre Brunet, author and humanitarian worker, raises the question of whether humanitarian work is still humanitarian work. What link or break is there between commitment and management, between revolt and process, between audacity and reporting, between risk and conformity? Where is humanitarianism between evolution and deviance, innovation and recovery, change and alignment?

You can judge for yourself by reading this thought-provoking article. It is up to you to react by writing to us at whether you agree, disagree, are next door or elsewhere.

We will publish your reactions in a future edition.


For someone who, like me, got involved in humanitarian work in 1994, that is to say, halfway from the humanitarian work of the French doctors in Biafra in 1968 to the industrialized, standardized and professionalized work of today, the feeling of not being able to distinguish, in the present, both the heritage of the past and the promises of the future, is great. It is not a question here of lamentations, in the manner “it was better before” – and it was not always better before, we all know it – but of asking ourselves what we have, perhaps, lost of essential on the way, and in what this essential, if we do not find it, will make us disappear by the only force of its absence.

Words often precede us. At least they escape us to transform reality, even before we are aware of it. When they escape from our audacity or our revolt, they can announce a long term human adventure, of those which accomplish irreplaceable things. When they escape from our fear, they trace the road to annihilation. Human history has known many, many impulses or movements, countless struggles and ideologies, and so many things that seemed eternal to us, which simply disintegrated and disappeared. Humanitarianism is not eternal in nature. The world can continue to turn without this movement of active, effective, committed solidarity. Without it, the world will be much more inhuman, much more cruel, much more unjust, much more desperate, but it will be, at least as long as the ecological conditions allow. Humanitarianism, in this respect, is the active and above all voluntary manifestation of a human impulse, not of a planetary necessity. Its existence therefore hangs by a thread, that of our sincerity, our desire, our will, our courage. And this is where words tell the truth in spite of ourselves. Why are the words “audacity”, “revolt”, “commitment”, and even “mission” demonetized in the humanitarian field today? What have we lost along the way? And what have we gradually replaced them with?

We have replaced them with words like “professionalization”, “management”, “annual performance evaluation and “productivity” bonuses”, “process”, “guideline”, “reporting”, “donor accountability”, “profitability”, “project manager” or “country director” instead of “head of mission”… I have even heard that the humanitarian sector should “adopt the start-up spirit” (without being told exactly what this meant, apart from the fact that anything that did not fall under this spirit was a fossil museum), or that we should “Uberize” ourselves (again, This expression, which is not well explained, seems to imply that humanitarian aid is nothing more than a service, a service that only responds to the laws of the market, a market that, as we all know, must give in to ultra-liberalism and deregulation for our own happiness, humanitarian aid as well as the rest… ). Words have a meaning. If we think in terms of profitability, then we decide, as is sometimes the case, to open a mission not according to the needs of human beings, but according to this imperative of profitability. And we close, in the same way, a mission that is no longer “profitable”… Without qualms. More and more people in the humanitarian field are smiling about their feelings, and I find this disturbing, and especially significant. And when you no longer have a mission leader but a director or a project manager, it may mean that you no longer feel you are on a mission.

To be on mission is to act in the sole interest of the human beings we help or rescue. Is this still the case, when all the young, or not so young, “managers” of humanitarian aid have totally integrated that, for an NGO today, the essential, priority, founding relationship is no longer the relationship with the beneficiary, but the relationship with the donor…? The beneficiary has progressively gone from being the “subject” of humanitarian aid to the “object” of a transaction.

Transaction in which an NGO, acting as an “aid seller”, “sells” to such and such a donor so many beneficiaries fed, or sheltered, or provided with drinking water or other, for such and such a duration, and for such and such an amount… And the humanitarian in the field has very often become a contract manager of the operation.

Let me be clear. I am not naive. I have had, and still have, responsibilities in the humanitarian field or in headquarters, where I was and am at the heart of this financial constraint, of this vital issue of “money being the sinews of war”, and I have always assumed it. I also know what is at stake in terms of size, volume, and organization, which are decisive for the survival of NGOs, and I assume the same. I also know that today’s “industrialized” humanitarian system is able to take care of the needs of many more people than before, in terms of volume. I simply note that these issues have gradually changed us. It is no longer the survival of human beings in distress that occupies us primarily, obsesses us or revolts us, it is our own survival as NGOs… The need to find and develop – a need that I do not deny – the means to continue to exist as structures has gradually instilled in us the fear of disappearing. This fear often thinks about the place of our humanitarian commitment. It has slowly eaten away at our audacity and our specificity. We said to ourselves, in a double movement of inferiority complex and fascination towards the entrepreneurial world “since our constraints and our stakes are similar to those of a company, we must now think, organize ourselves, and function like a company, because our survival depends on this condition”. I deeply believe that this is a mistake, and a suicidal one. Humanitarianism will only remain irreplaceable as long as it remains founded, driven, organized, on and by values, principles, a spirit, a purpose, radically – and I insist, radically – different from that of private enterprise, whose purpose, quite respectable, is the production of profits. In other words, the more we resemble companies, the less valuable, useful and necessary we will be, because what we do, and the way we do it, can be done by private actors, who will remain the best and most competitive in this field, that of providing services for profit. And we will have sacrificed our most precious added value, that capacity that only genuine humanitarians have to “go where others don’t go”, to rescue the “last mile beneficiaries”, to do “tailor-made” when needed, especially in complex and intertwined environments or contexts, in short, to respond to the needs of those who are not “profitable” but who often have the most acute needs…

Of course, for a while, we will ensure our survival in the short or medium term, but in the long term we are preparing our disappearance. Our only future is our difference. It is this original difference, born of revolt in the face of the distress of our fellow human beings, nourished by audacity and commitment, that has made humanitarian aid this great human adventure capable of making the difference, for millions of people in the world, between death and survival, and between survival and life…

All the difficulty, all the challenge for humanitarian aid is there, today: to adapt lucidly, effectively, with pragmatism and determination, to a globalized, industrialized, competitive, standardized, framed, conditioned humanitarian system, in a word more and more constrained, and to keep for all that its only real added value, this disinterested commitment, this sincere impulse that acts not for itself but for the other, and this because, deep down, the other does not exist… This awareness that the human species is only one, that what happens to others happens to us too, that solidarity is consubstantial to humanity. Knowing that we need financing, and also the “critical size” to be able to continue to act, but not acting only with our eyes fixed on the financial tables and the objective of the critical size in mind. Why not become more and more professional, if professionalization means more and more competence, rigor and efficiency, but find and follow, whenever possible and necessary, our audacity and our revolt. The growing aversion to risk that has been observed among humanitarians in recent years is actually quite logical; why take risks when it is only a question of making a service profitable in order to support a structure?

Risk is not very profitable; it regularly requires costly efforts to adapt, logistics, financial management, and additional negotiations with donors; it sometimes interrupts programs and funding for security reasons; and it generates risks for people in the field, risks that are also costly in terms of crisis management and sometimes even justification to the donors. It is difficult to establish good multi-year business plans with risk. Whereas it is enough to look for a better “market”, i.e. a more profitable, safer, more comfortable country, where the same type of service can be sold… at the least risk…

In “War and Peace”, Tolstoy wrote a sentence that often comes to my mind: “Man is good for nothing as long as he fears death, everything belongs to him who is not afraid of it”. I believe that this sentence can be applied to humanitarian NGOs. The fear of disappearing is of no value to them, and only the uninhibited and audacious pursuit of their “mission” will offer them the prospects of the future. What if we went back on mission?


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.