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.

Security and development in the Sahel: a book to understand … and to act.

Pierre Brunet gives a rich and clear summary of the book Security and Development in the Sahel, published by Harmattan, edited by Peer de Jong.

L’Harmattan [1] has published a book that summarises, in a digestible number of pages, the interventions, analyses and reflections exchanged during the symposium “Security and Development in the Sahel, from Concept to Reality”. This event was organised by the Themiis Institute and the Europe-Mauritania association, at the Paris headquarters of UNESC0 on 1 October 2019.

Quite often, this type of report or symposium minutes is a dry, complex thinkum, aimed at a narrow readership of academics or specialists. This is not the case with this book, which reads like a multi-voiced but fluid, homogenous, coherent and above all clear analysis. Mixing inventory, concrete diagnoses, speaking examples, global vision and presentation of the “field of the possible” in terms of solutions to a problem that is already too advanced as far as this Sahel region is concerned, it attempts to answer this question: How can we fight against the multifaceted insecurity that plagues the countries in the area, while at the same time building the means to offer a future to both the victims and the actors of this insecurity (often the same ones…)?

The development-security continuum, a Copernican revolution for European thinkers

Moreover, this book is a counterpoint – or an echo – of Serge Michailof’s essay “Africanistan”, which I also had the opportunity to review for Défis Humanitaires. In his book, Serge Michailof insisted on the need for “developers” in the broadest sense to “dare” to engage in the construction of tools ensuring long-term security, tools without which all development efforts are lost in the sands… And in L’Harmattan’s book, it is very often the observation of the need to “dare” to engage in the construction of a development that is sustainable, viable and capable of meeting the immense expectations of a population destabilised by numerous simultaneous shocks (including, for example, beyond insecurity, climate change), a young population and exponential demographic growth, that is asserted. And this is often done by the military, which is far from neglecting the need for military combat, on the ground, in the face of the numerous armed groups taking advantage of the disintegration, disappearance or abandonment of the state and its services in huge regions. Without development prospects, no military victory will ensure real security change in the long term.

Distribution of CASH, Mali, 2017 / ©Solidarités International

This ‘continuum’, to use a buzzword, between development and security, as the Mauritanian Major General Ould Sidi Mesgharou writes, is a Copernican revolution for many European development thinkers who for a long time wanted to see and theorise only the continuum between development and democracy, which seemed to be natural and in a way self-sufficient.

But it is not only European developers who have been challenged in their approach by the emergence and rise of insecurity in the Sahel. As Maman Sambo Sidikou, Executive Secretary of the G5 Sahel, points out in his introduction, “Terrorism is relatively new in the Sahel and has caught us by surprise”. Drawing the consequences of this “strategic surprise”, the same Maman Sambo Sidikou concluded his remarks by affirming the need for the G5 Sahel and also for African and European leaders in the broadest sense involved in resolving the situation, to take relevant, effective and tangible action, which implies “acting differently and going outside its comfort zone”.

A contradiction to be resolved between security expectations and those of the population

This effective action, intervening as well, and in synergy, in the field of the military as well as the institutional and development fields, implies a certain number of prerequisites that I will mention in conclusion, but it already presupposes, as Maman Sambo Sidikou points out, to decide – or at the very least to arbitrate clearly – between security expectations, As for this region of the Sahel, Western allies of African countries… and the expectations of the populations living there… The former, beyond the fight against terrorism, expect the defence and security forces of the countries in the Sahel to “secure the borders”, i.e. “prevent the international mobility of migrants towards the North”, while the populations living along the route of the latter subsist today, to a large extent, from this migration, which consumes and nourishes the local bursar, all along the way… Peer de Jong, Vice-President of the Themiis Institute, even speaks, in his intervention, of “a situation which has ended up generating a profitable economy of disorder whose crossed interests progressively lead to a state of endless war”.

A contradiction to be resolved, therefore, all the more so as the needs and economic expectations of the population in the Sahel are staggering .

Vertiginous, because population growth in the Sahel – as Serge Michailof had already demonstrated in his book – is explosive. Franck Galland, who works for the ES consulting engineering firm he manages, recalls the figures: the population of the G5 Sahel countries will double in the next twenty years. For example, Niger, which had 3.5 million inhabitants in 1960, has 20 million today, will have 35 to 40 million in 2035 and more than 50 million in 2050… As Alain Antil, Director of the Sub-Saharan Africa Centre of the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI), states, “The demographic explosion is not a problem in the absolute, but de facto it accentuates all the problems, starting with the basic service needs of the populations, which are already difficult to cover. If we take only the primary need for access to water, Franck Galland points out that 150 million Sahelians are already facing huge challenges on this issue, with per capita water availability having decreased by more than 40% over the last twenty years. As for the “economic expectation” in itself, the situation is almost worse: Alain Antil explains that the economies of the zone only have the capacity to create, in terms of good jobs, not even 10% of the annual needs of new arrivals on the labour market.

Transit site, IOM, Cameroon, 2014 / ©Solidarités International

“The war in the Sahel reveals the inadequacy of our European development models to the emergency”.

A decisive part of the misfortune gnawing at the region is, according to many speakers, a form of renunciation, blindness or avoidance on the part of many of the politicians in power. Alain Antil states that “everyone pretends to believe that the security apparatus, and by extension the states, govern their territory”… To illustrate this “absence of elites’ outburst”, he cites as an example (an intervention made before the coup d’état of 18 August 2020) the case of Mali, where “the political course seems to run smoothly in Bamako, without major changes, while more than half of the national territory is now controlled by others than the state”. However, as Peer de Jong points out, “the war is becoming international and spreading”. And he goes further, pointing out that this war-insecurity that is taking hold and spreading leads to fears of contagion towards the South and the Gulf of Guinea, which could lead to a “Somali-style” development. Peer de Jong said that “the Gulf of Guinea is now within reach, suggesting the possibility of a chaotic zone and the possible establishment of “multi-purpose caliphates” between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. Finally, Peer de Jong underlines that “the war in the Sahel reveals the inadequacy of our European development models to the emergency”. He specifies this urgency, detailing how the deterioration of the security situation, combined with the absence of the state in the territories, allows the unlimited development of highly organised cross-border crime based on the GATs (Armed Terrorist Groups), crime with multiple activities (trafficking in arms, drugs, migrants, etc.), which benefits everyone, between “narcoterrorism” and “islamic terrorism”.

It is therefore urgent to win the war, because, as the Mauritanian colonel N’Diawar N’Diaye states, and even if the stakes of development are, at the same time, essential, “this war will be won militarily or will not be won”. Peer de Jong goes on to explain that “the objective is no longer simply to destroy an invisible enemy with less and less rudimentary means, but to encourage the emergence of an environment that is hostile to it. It is therefore necessary to act on the biotope of this adversary of which he himself is sometimes a stranger, by favouring the emergence of a space that is resistant to the presence of an Islamist terrorist force or not”. The objective is therefore no longer simply the “constantly renewed” destruction of terrorists, but rather action in favour of populations likely to bring their aid and to switch to assistance to armed groups.

It is in this respect, as Peer de Jong points out, that “the fight against violent extremist groups, by its obviously political purpose, is akin to a counter-revolutionary war”. And he continues: “Any counter-insurgency war implies methodical and long-term actions at the level of the threatened state.

Only a strengthened state presence can embed security

The objective is therefore clearly the people. Peer de Jong, again, sets out the concept and the method: security is mainly provided by the effective presence of the state as far away as possible (access to water, education, health, administration, police, gendarmerie, army, justice). It is a question for the state to reach the most distant and therefore the most destitute, by setting up the essential and regalian services in a sustainable way. Only this effective and honest presence (especially in the area of justice) can entrench security wherever the army has taken back territory from the enemy. The ultimate objective is therefore to “put in place a policy of dissociation (GAT-population) by carrying out continuous security and development actions as close as possible to the centres of life”.

Children participating in a handwashing quiz, Niger, 2014 / ©Solidarités International

As Peer de Jong acknowledges, “this form of action, which constantly mixes political, security and development action, requires a large number of staff. In any case, it is structurally part of the medium term. The return of people’s confidence in the State is not necessary, it can only be built over the years. The method, moreover, must be adapted to the particularities of each country or zone, because, as Christophe Bigot, France’s special representative in the Sahel, points out, “Over an area of five million km2 , we cannot have the same approaches”. Finally, other issues that are sine qua non should be examined, such as the non-representativeness, in most of the G5 Sahel countries, of regional or ethnic diversity in the size of their armed forces, as underlined by Alain Antil.

For without representativeness, the quality of the relationship between government forces and the population is altered, and this is central because it is vital that the human environment, in the words of Peer de Jong, “is favourable to government forces. Without this support, it is illusory to think of regaining control of lost areas. Regaining a foothold in a region, effectively controlling it, can only be achieved through the cohesion – almost connivance – that must exist between government forces and the people. The latter must feel ‘part of the country’, which implies a real work of perception of belonging and the construction of nation-states in the Sahel”.

What forces are needed to lead this struggle? As Senegalese Lieutenant General Babacar Gaye, a Senegalese army general, says, “the UN model of population protection developed in the Democratic Republic of Congo and summarised by the concept of ‘presence as protection’ does not work satisfactorily in the Sahel. The adaptation of the UN tool to the threat in the Sahel should – in order to restore the moral standing of the blue helmets and thus the credit of the Organisation – be part of a more global approach to security, more focused on the root causes of conflicts, their prevention and peacebuilding”.

So, invent, or reinvent (Peer de Jong speaks for the armies of the Sahel to “recover their ancestral know-how”), a new form of military forces adapted to the challenges of the Sahel?

Combining security missions and regalian missions: the Mauritanian example

The example of Mauritania was examined in depth in this colloquium (due, among other things, to the sponsorship of the Europe-Mauritania association). The Mauritanian army has successfully trained and operated, in parallel, GSIs (Special Intervention Groups) equipped with armed pickups, capable of springing up and acting alone and far away, in autonomy, constituting a rapid, rustic force supported by the air force; on the other hand and in synergy, the Mauritanian general staff has implemented nomadic groups, often equipped with camels. These nomadic groups, somewhat resurrecting the ‘Saharan companies’ of the ‘colonial’ era, have the capacity to patrol in depth for a very long time in regions that they know, to move around where even 4X4s do not pass, to blend into the landscape, and, in addition to security missions (search and destruction of GATs, fighting and ambushes of opportunity) to carry out regalian missions with very remote populations, to follow simple development programmes aimed at the immediate satisfaction of the needs of these populations, and to offer police services (fight against cattle thieves, etc.). ). Knowledge of the terrain, rusticity, adaptability, autonomy and versatility… At a time of high-tech warfare and UAVs, the most effective long-term response may not be where we thought it would be…

Malian Tuareg refugee camp in Mberra, Mauritania, 2013 / ©Solidarités International

Other, much more “macro” tools are also needed. In this respect, Christophe Bigot detailed the creation of the Sahel Alliance in July 2017, under a Franco-German initiative with the World Bank and the EU. This new approach “makes it possible to devote more funds to the Sahel but also to reform the way development is done by reaching vulnerable areas, by using actors other than the State when the latter is absent, through non-governmental organisations (NGOs), local authorities or companies”. Finally, France has proposed a new framework for relations between the Sahel countries and their partners, called the “Coalition for the Sahel”. This new framework, led by Christophe Bigot himself, aims to “give a new impetus and to direct/energise efforts in four directions: the fight against terrorism, strengthening the military capabilities of States, support for the return of administrations to the territories and development aid”.

Reading this book gives a sense of hope, even if the findings and diagnoses are sometimes uncompromising. There are solutions, within reach, that is to say, a willingness. It remains for political, administrative and military leaders to respond to the prerequisites implicit in these solutions; lucidity, courage, a sense of responsibility, transparency, integrity, a willingness to include at all levels all the communities making up each country in the Sahel, a readiness to coordinate closely with neighbours and allies and to give themselves the means for this long-term fight, proximity to the reality on the ground… and a high degree of vision.

Pierre Brunet

Writer and humanitarian

Consult Pierre Brunet’s biography.

1] “Security and Development in the Sahel – From Concept to Reality”, edited by Peer de Jong, L’Harmattan editions.