World Humanitarian Day is celebrated every 19 August since 2008. While humanitarians celebrated in their own way by implementing appropriate relief efforts, there was no shortage of official statements. We must first of all welcome them because these statements are useful to reinforce the need for solidarity with populations in danger. We must also take them at their word. Is humanitarian aid always equal to the needs and risks of the victims of war, disaster and epidemics against a background of extreme poverty?
On August 19th, Martin Griffiths, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, said that 303 million people were in urgent need of humanitarian assistance and that he had “great hope” despite “the depths of despair and division”. Joseph Borell and Janez Lenarcic for the European Commission applaud “…all those working on the front line, constantly risking their lives to save others and reduce human suffering”. Even US President Joe Biden from the White House said that humanitarians “…need our protection and support more than ever” and “It is therefore imperative that we collectively strengthen our humanitarian response”. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres recalled that “Far from the spotlight”, “against all odds, often risking their lives, humanitarians are alleviating suffering in the most dangerous of conditions”. He goes so far as to say that “Humanitarians represent the best of humanity”. I would add that we must humbly and convincingly demonstrate this every day if we are to live up to our mission to save lives!
The theme of this year’s day is “It takes a village”; between those affected, neighbours who help each other, local, national and international humanitarians with diverse and complementary skills and capacities. We cannot forget public services and states as the sustainable solution to be supported and promoted.
This recognition cannot fail to raise questions and to be useful to public opinion, governments and the various actors in political, economic and social life. However, in order to carry out our humanitarian mission, beyond the moral support of these leaders, we need above all concrete measures and an adapted and demanding policy on their part.
In welcoming their statement, this is the best they could do to give humanitarianism what it needs to be more effective in relief work.
Humanitarianism is based on the principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence. These principles apply to all and the partnership between humanitarian actors and state or inter-state actors must scrupulously respect and apply them. It is up to humanitarians to be the first to set an example in their daily work, avoiding any risk of partisan politicisation for purposes other than impartial relief.
Beyond commitment, humanitarian aid is about providing the means to meet the vital needs of people at risk. In 2020, we found that while humanitarian needs had increased rapidly, resources had stalled after a steady increase in previous years. This year, OCHA found that needs were estimated at $46.3 billion but only $15 billion had been mobilised by mid-year! What will happen at the end of the year when Ukraine requires immense resources that cannot be taken away from the victims of other crises, from the Sahel to the Middle East?
Let’s face it, International Humanitarian Law (IHL) is in danger of being weakened, if not undermined, by anti-terrorism laws (COTER), which risk on the one hand “criminalising” humanitarians in the territories where they provide relief and where so-called terrorist groups operate and, on the other hand, by imposing administrative screening obligations on the populations they rescue. The mechanical and unintelligent application of these measures will have the effect of reducing aid to victims and putting humanitarians at risk. Who will take this responsibility?
Similarly, at the 1st World Humanitarian Summit in May 2016, one of the collective decisions had been to decide to simplify the administration of humanitarian action, which has the unfortunate tendency to become bureaucratized at the risk of weakening the responsiveness, adaptation, access and impact that are essential to relief efforts, and increasing their cost. But this does not seem to have happened. On the contrary, bureaucracy is thriving and becoming more expensive in all areas of aid to people. Why don’t the institutions do what they publicly commit to? Can we believe that more and more bureaucracy is always better humanitarianism? Which institution will set an example of virtuous, efficient and sufficient simplification for all?
Moreover, the industrialisation of aid is also a danger at the end of the humanitarian chain. In the face of major crises such as the food security crisis caused by the war in Ukraine, it is essential to massify the volume of international aid. However, at the other end of the chain, aid must be adapted as closely as possible to the needs of each population, lifestyle and capacity in order to optimise the quality of the aid for the benefit of the recipients. In this respect, the diversity and complementarity of actors is a major asset, whereas a “single model” designed to manage volume would ultimately weaken the humanitarian ecosystem which has been built up over time through a kind of organisational empiricism which is regularly revisited. As not everyone can do everything and a few cannot do what all the others do, the synergy of diversity is a key asset.
Beyond these messages to the leaders and partner institutions such as the United Nations, the States, the European Commission and others who are described as “donors” in the NGOs but who are first and foremost partners, I would like to conclude by placing all this in a more global context.
If humanity is one, humanity is also a diversity that deserves respect and recognition. A diversity of peoples, countries and nations, states, cultures, ways of life, religion, cuisine, music and many other “identities” inscribed in history. Conversely, massification is one of the characteristics of totalitarian systems or of a vision that would reduce human beings to the exclusive role of producers and consumers in a world that would resemble a vast supermarket.
The war in Ukraine, beyond freedom and independence, is also a global geopolitical war that will change the existing order and balance of the world. Some believe that this is the end of “globalism”, or even “universalism”, and the affirmation of localism, nations, peoples, religions and history as the frameworks of collective belonging necessary for the sovereign governance of each people and for the security of human communities. If humanitarianism has worked in ‘globalism’, it can just as easily be adapted to these frameworks, which are equally in need of humanitarianism in times of crisis.
On the condition that we pay more attention to “others”, in particular small peoples, small countries and minority cultures, which are all the more in need of our attention, our respect and our help because they are small and often the object of domination and great misfortune in their history. In this context, which could be described as “human relocation”, humanitarian actors can and must also alert, mobilise and act in the face of increasingly threatening global risks such as climate change, extreme droughts and floods, and the increasing scarcity of water and biodiversity, which humanity, in all its diversity, urgently needs to live. Will humanitarian aid be able to contribute to this, that is the challenge.
Finally, I would like to thank all those who make this edition of Humanitarian Challenges possible through their donations, however small (make a donation). Thank you.