Photo: Stine B√łthun

Humanitarian action is used and abused in super power politics, by governments, the media and NGO’s themselves. The way a crisis is defined, frames the response of the international society. –Afghanistan was the first major attempt by the international community to reframe a conflict to suit the needs of Western powers. Humanitarian action was integrated in a political mission. But the idea that you can incorporate humanitarian action into political agendas usually backfires, says Antonio Donini from the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University.

Humanitarian action has always been the subject of manipulation and instrumentalisation, now more than ever. It is increasingly politicised, and it involves enormous amounts of money.

 –The higher the stakes, the higher the risk of instrumentalisation. There is a negative correlation between the degree of superpower involvement and the possibility to act in accordance with principles for humanitarianism. Superpower involvement and politics restricts the space for humanitarianism, says Antonio Donini, senior researcher at Tufts University’s Feinstein International Center and editor of “The Golden Fleece: Manipulation and Independence in Humanitarian Action. Last week, he discussed the recently published book at a literary salon in Bergen Resource Centre for International Development.


Humanitarian utopia

“The Golden Fleece: Independence and Manipulation in Humanitarian Action” draws an outline of the history of humanitarian action, and delves into the tension between fundamental humanitarian values and political and economic agendas. It also raises the question of neutral humanitarianism and asks if there ever was a golden age of humanitarian action. Donini doubts that there ever was.

Despite the increasingly politicized atmosphere of humanitarian action, humanitarian actors are getting better at opposing instrumentalisation. Also, instrumentalisation has from time to time been successful in drawing attention to forgotten or hidden humanitarian crises. Still, there is a need to discuss the basic assumptions of neutrality and humanitarian action.  Inequality is in the nature of the humanitarian relationship.

-It is not a democratic system. Beneficiaries and survivors have no recourse when it comes to bad practice of aid agencies, whereas citizens in democracies can vote those who do a bad job out of office. Humanitarian action is also dominated by a Northern-Western discourse which frames societies in a particular way. We need to debate the nature of humanitarian action, its inherent inequality and how it is prone to instrumentalisation, says Donini.


The wolf in sheep’s clothing?

After 9/11, the incorporation of  humanitarian assistance into partisan political agendas increased dramatically. In Afghanistan, humanitarian action became an element in an integrated and cohesive strategy, consisting of military intervention as well as reconstruction and humanitarian efforts. A UN political mission brought various tools together in a post-conflict agenda.

-Although humanitarian needs were enormous, the crisis in Afghanistan was not framed as a humanitarian crisis. The international agenda was state-building and the situation was described as post-conflict. This defined the way donors and NGO’s framed their projects, says Antonio Donini,

In the prevailing “Us vs. Them” dichotomy in the global war on terror acted out on Afghan soil, all actors were forced to choose sides. This caused severe problems for humanitarian actors and also affected the International Committee of the Red Cross, who suffered the first of a series of attacks on humanitarian aid workers.

-This attack was a clear signal that humanitarians were perceived as agents in a political agenda, says Donini.

According to Donini, the Western-led intervention in Afghanistan made three mistakes which destroyed all chances of succeeding with the statebuilding agenda. The integrated strategy empowered warlords, kept the Taliban away from negotiations and did not put human rights violations on the agenda.

He asks whether the international society now is about to make the same mistake in Somalia.

-The Somali government has even less legitimacy than the Karzai-government in Afghanistan. Humanitarian actors in the region feel that they are being roped into a politicized agenda and are not comfortable with the situation. The UN is not perceived as a neutral player. Somalia is framed as post-conflict, although it clearly is not, he says.