UN And MSF At Odds Over Future of Humanitarian Work

May 10, 2016 –  Medecins Sans Frontiers’ decision last week to withdraw from the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) taking place later this month highlights the tension between aid organizations and the United Nations over the future of humanitarian work.

In a statement, MSF said the summit threatens “to dissolve humanitarian assistance into wider development, peace-building and political agendas.”

The Nobel-prize winning group, which has lost several staff members and had its hospitals bombed over the past year in conflict zones, added that it failed to see how the WHS would address the urgent needs of people living in conflict in Syria, Yemen, South Sudan and other areas of armed violence.

At the heart of the matter is the UN’s desire to promote resilience in doing humanitarian and development work. While MSF say that humanitarian work should be kept separate from development work, the United Nations increasingly sees the two working in tandem.

Those inside the UN advocating for a joint approach point out that countries that emerge from conflict or other complex emergencies do not have a stronger society or systems when the emergency or conflict is over, and very often have a recurrence within five or ten years. For this reason, the UN and the WHS are asking how can countries that have repeated crisis be put on a sustainable path after a crisis.

With this in mind, there is a push to have humanitarian and development actors work in tandem, unlike the traditional sequential approach where aid workers come in and do their work and once they leave development workers come in and try to rebuild the society.

However, because of the core humanitarian principles of impartiality, neutrality and independence, humanitarian actors avoid working with local governments and once they leave the society is no more robust nor does it have a better emergency response system because aid organizations set up their own parallel systems that bypass the local governments, which should be the first line of response.

Another reason for the push towards resilience is that many crises are slow onset and protracted and it’s not necessarily a humanitarian response first and then a development response. Syria is a case in point where the crises is in its sixth year and it is both a humanitarian crisis – tending to the wounded and feeding the hungry – and a development crisis – establishing schools, devising cash for work programs – and it is also a transnational crisis affecting primarily its neighboring countries but also beyond, as in the case of Europe and the debate over refugees.

One can only admire the great work that MSF does around the globe in responding to emergencies and the great sacrifices it has made in doing so, and it it easy to sympathize with their decision not to attend the WHS.

Yet, an opportunity may have been lost in exploring how best to respond to future emergencies with the decision of MSF not to attend, given its status in the humanitarian world. Natural disasters are increasing and new conflicts continue to emerge and escalate at an alarming rate. Dealing with these crises exogenously is not going to work – outsiders going in and then leaving.

Core humanitarian principles – neutrality, independence, impartiality – need to be respected but they do not preclude the recognition and use of local systems. The question is how can local systems be used by respecting impartiality and neutrality and independence. 

- Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

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