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When is a system not a system? Challenges to improved humanitarian action in food crises

Summary of symposium presentation

Austen Davis, the General Director of MSF Holland made a presentation on 'Challenges to Improved Humanitarian action in Food Crises' at the symposium on Nutrition in the Context of Crisis and Conflict' at the 29th ACC/SCN session in Berlin. Highlights of the address follow.

The basic perspectives on food security analysis, famine theory, nutritional assessment and food and nutrition intervention have been established for some time. There is also general consensus that effective reaction to nutrition challenges depends on a multidisciplinary approach strategically and practically coordinating avoidance of migration, health and epidemic control, food security and livelihood support and sustenance of care environments. Humanitarian action is grounded in a set of principles designed to promote maximum access to people in crisis and the prioritisation of a particular set of objectives relating to alleviation of acute human need and the preservation of dignity. There are no major gaps in our conceptual knowledge that should inhibit our actions.

There have been some considerable advances in the technical and logistic capacity of the various aid agencies to deliver timely and effective responses to nutritional crises around the globe. However, despite these advances there has been little substantive progress in our shared capacity effectively to assist, protect, support and care for the needs of the majority of people in most desperate need. We still have terrible hunger, we still have chronic pipeline problems, and major shortages in food basket quantities and qualities. We have major inequities in the distribution of foodstuffs and services, with resources concentrated in certain politically sensitive areas - and other populations abandoned. We have inarticulate migration, shelter, livelihood, nutrition, food and health interventions. In short, the muchvaunted humanitarian 'system' that has emerged has developed enormously in its capacity to talk and to meet and to have papers written on important subjects such as protection. But it does not seem to be able to significantly reformulate itself to be able to implement lessons learned. Why is this?

There is one paradigm that says the 'system' is poorly funded, poorly managed and poorly coordinated. What we need would seem to be greater coherence and leadership of the 'system', through streamlined donor funding, effective coordination mechanisms, improved information sharing and a common set of technical standards. The presenter suggested that there needs to be a completely different frame of analysis for the problem and possible resultant actions.

If humanitarian action is genuinely aimed at impartially serving those in greatest need (impartiality) - if it is humane in its impulse (humanity) - and provided with independence from any other agenda political or religious (independence) and is non-partisan in the social struggle in which it is operational (neutral) - then it has the greatest chance of being allowed.

What this argument proposes is that humanitarian action is grounded in a set of principles designed to promote maximum access to people in crisis and the prioritisation of a particular set of objectives relating to alleviation of acute human need and the preservation of dignity. If this argument is accepted, then it is logical that humanitarian action becomes a small and limited ideology - grounded in an ethic of self-restraint and not the normal utopian and progressive ideologies that inspire us. Humanitarian action does not aim to provoke social change - it aims to assist and protect victims and inspire discipline and restraint in the use of force for social change (this does not mean it is unimportant or unpowerful). Humanitarian action is practical and politically realistic. It must be action oriented; it must be non-coercive; it must be provided solely for the benefit of those we seek to assist. Humanitarian action is targeted to humans and not society and therefore humanitarian actors must take responsibility for the delivery of their assistance all the way down to the beneficiary. The basic conditions that humanitarian actors require are to have the freedom to assess needs; the freedom to deliver assistance and the freedom to monitor the outcome. If these conditions are denied, humanitarian action is likely to be compromised and sow the seeds of its own destruction.

The 'community' of donors, UN agencies, NGOs often try to find solutions based on an assumption we are all part of a 'humanitarian system'. But different political and bureaucratic interests, different ideological perspectives, the technical compartmentalisation of aid delivery, and a focus on service delivery and cost-effectiveness ignore important ethical and political considerations.

Austen advanced a number of ways forward to respond to this critique. Key amongst these are the following:

  1. The current system is not a system, or at least not one driven by humanitarian concerns. It is important to have a greater sense of realism about what the major momentum in humanitarian and political intervention entails, so as to recognise opportunities and threats for the development and promotion of effective humanitarian action.
  2. States will always try and manipulate humanitarian assistance for their own ends. The funding patterns of donor governments should reflect their humanitarian responsibilities. Humanitarian funding should be given to mandated bodies in a manner to promote effective impartial action in support of humanity. Funds should not be provided to mandated agencies (such as ICRC and the UNHCR) on a project basis, as this promotes concentration of funds in certain crisis situations and undermines the impartiality of the specialist agencies.
  3. States should enact law to define and control the use of humanitarian budgets; to enforce separation between the use of humanitarian funds and the pursuit of political interests; and to define their humanitarian responsibilities.
  4. Clear categories of intervention in crises should be developed, with concordant principles and clarity of objectives to guide intervention. Not all assistance provided in emergency situations needs necessarily to be humanitarian, but the objectives and mode of operation needs to be clearly stated so that decisions to act are held democratically accountable; so interventions aim to achieve their true objectives; so the correct institutional capacities are developed to maximise intended goals; and so that humanitarian action is not degraded by incoherence and degradation of its principles through association.
  5. There needs to be much better reporting on aid flows, achievements and quality indicators. Information must be able to be aggregated so there is increased transparency about what is being done, for what reason and what are the trends.
  6. UN agencies must be given a mandate and then funded in such a way as to enhance cooperation and fulfilment of the mandate. If they fail they should be held technically accountable, whilst states should be held politically accountable. There should be an independent review capacity, to map out the UN mandate, to what degree the UN agencies fill their mandates, and if the sum of UN agency actions fulfils the total mandate.
  7. As humanitarian workers/activists we must always be acutely aware of the critical balance between an agency's real drive to meet the needs of people and the bureaucratic interests of the organisation. It is important for us all to struggle to insist on the value of our work through the agencies we work for, and to counter the bureaucratic imperative.

Without a commitment to humanitarian principles; the immediate needs of people; using aid to promote agency and not coerce populations; and alignment of the objectives of the humanitarian aid community - 'systems' perspectives will not serve to enhance our capacity.

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When is a system not a system? Challenges to improved humanitarian action in food crises. Field Exchange 16, August 2002. p15. www.ennonline.net/fex/16/system

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