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Sheep among wolves


IN late 2001, during the NATO invasion of Afghanistan, I was challenged by a local man as I waited for a taxi on the steps of the Pearl Continental hotel in Peshawar.  'Are you British?' he asked me, in a friendly tone. I answered yes - in fact I was working for CAFOD at the time. Politely, without changing his tone of voice, he asked: 'Why are you killing Pushtuns?' I could see that the distinction between aid worker and military officer was meaningless to him: I was British and that made me responsible. Since then the distinction has become if anything more blurred: on June 9 this year, the same hotel was blown up, killing at least 11 people.
By contrast, in 2002 I travelled the full length of Sri Lanka, from Colombo in the south up to Jaffna in the north, where our local partner, headed up by a Roman Catholic priest, was helping to meet the needs of communities caught in the war zone. On the Tamil Tiger side of the frontline, amid bomb-blasted trees and an eerie quiet, we met a family whose young son had died that day of a 'fever'. The conflict meant that health services which could have prevented his death were not properly functioning. It only underlined for me the importance of getting aid across the battle lines.

Sri Lankan friends were very surprised to hear that I had been able to travel freely in this region, when it would have been very hard for them to do so. In fact, the privilege of being able to cross the front line was offered because, unlike the muddied situation in Afghanistan, our status as independent humanitarian workers was clear and unambigious. It meant that we were, to a limited extent, able to alleviate the challenges faced by the community.

But looking back over the years working in humanitarian aid, I fear it is in danger of becoming the exception rather than the rule.


Humanitarian aid, strangely enough for a sector which proclaims 'impartiality' and 'neutrality' as core values, rests on a radical and subversive concept: that even in the middle of war and disaster we must protect and assist civilians and others not directly involved in the conflict .Why subversive? Because this means helping anyone - even your enemy - for no other reason than our common humanity. The radical position of Henri Dunant, the founder of the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement, was not that he treated battlefield wounded, but that he made no distinction about the side they had fought on. In time, this expanded to a wider body of international humanitarian law that in essence describes the human rights of people during conflict and war.

This is subversive for many reasons. For one thing, it sets up true humanitarian aid in tension with our modern approach to international crisis management. According to a true humanitarian approach, within a conflict a humanitarian agency must prioritise people in need above wider political goals, in fact, it must set itself apart from political goals.
For Christians, the obvious resonance is with Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan, but our familiarity with the story can blind us to its challenge. Compassion for your enemy, expressed in action, is often seen as politically naïve, lacking pragmatism, failing to see the greater good. But Jesus does not allow us to duck the fact that each individual suffering person, enemy or not, is made in the image of God, and cannot be ignored.


The Kosovo crisis of 1999 was described by the Labour government as a 'humanitarian war'. The aim was to defeat Serbia in pursuit of peace and stability in the region.  Humanitarian agencies had a wider concern - for those affected by NATO's bombing in Belgrade as much as for the ethnic Albanians ejected with violence from Serbian territory. The residents of the camps I visited in Belgrade faced conditions similar to displaced people I saw in temporary shelter following the 2004 Asian Tsunami.

NATO had co-opted humanitarian language to describe its aims, but for a party to the conflict to claim 'humanitarian' intent was damaging to the message that humanitarian aid is provided across frontiers to assist people in need - even the 'enemy'.

In Kosovo there was a strong case for intervention, but what of recent conflicts where the motives are more open to question? The UK government's active combat role in Afghanistan and Iraq were both justified to the public on the grounds of broader peace and security objectives, clearly linked to a responsibility to protect civilians. Tony Blair said this in his speech to a party conference ahead of military intervention in Afghanistan1:

'People say: we are only acting because it's the USA that was attacked. Double standards, they say. But when Milosevic embarked on the ethnic cleansing of Muslims in Kosovo, we acted... look what happened, we won, the refugees went home, the policies of ethnic cleansing were reversed and one of the great dictators of the last century, will see justice in this century… And I tell you if Rwanda happened again today as it did in 1993, when a million people were slaughtered in cold blood, we would have a moral duty to act there also.'

But to some extent in Afghanistan, and indisputably in Iraq, the motives for the military intervention were blurred. I am not taking a position here on the rights or wrongs of either conflict. My point is to try and explain what a difficult environment the linkage between humanitarianism, human rights, and political-military intervention has helped create for humanitarian action.


It is not just politicians who encourage these linkages. Many in the humanitarian sector, sharing Tony Blair's outrage at the failure to protect civilians in Rwanda, are more than happy to work pragmatically in 'coherent' approaches which place an overall resolution of the conflict as of highest value, implicitly accepting the restrictions on humanitarian aid access which result.

But such approaches have been at a cost, and the cost has been the ability to cross front lines to help those at greatest need, like the family I remember so vividly from Sri Lanka. While no agency is immune, it is telling that those agencies which have fought hard against 'coherent' approaches to humanitarian aid, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross or Medicins Sans Frontieres, generally retain more ability to work consistently in sensitive conflicts such as Iraq or Afghanistan. Others, even large UN agencies, too identified with one side or another, can become targets and be forced to leave.



This dynamic affects our ability to help those affected by the conflict in Darfur. Today in Darfur the UN runs two operations, one humanitarian, the other a military peace-keeping operation. Two types of helicopter fly across the skies of the region - both white, both with UN written on the side, but one written in blue and the other in black. One carries soldiers, the other carries aid workers.

Which is which? I can't remember half the time, so how can we expect a resident of Nyala or El Geneina, a government soldier or a militiaman from one of the various armed groups to know the difference?

In 2008, 260 humanitarian aid workers across the world were killed, kidnapped or seriously injured in violent attacks - the highest toll in 12 years that records have been kept.2
We should not be too trusting that when a government waves a humanitarian or human rights banner in support of a political or military goal, that other strategic interests are not lurking in the background. And we have often failed to recognise that even if we are working with governments of goodwill, too many links between ourselves as humanitarian workers and the countries from which we come, will mean that we are seen as an enemy in the minds of the communities we most want to reach - those caught on the wrong side of a frontline.


'I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.' Matthew 10.
And so the first challenge for humanitarian aid agencies is this: let us not give up on, but rather press for humanitarian space. That is, a separate humanitarian identity that is clearly identifiable as civilian in nature and de-linked from whatever other political or military objectives, even human rights objectives, may be on the table.  Argue for it and explain it in meetings with our peers, donors, and communities that we work in. Show that we mean it by continuing to strive to work across front lines, in the difficult places where people are in need but without support. Show that we mean it by stepping back from the cosy relationships with donor programmes and UN structures when they are too politicised.

And doing this, not because of some abstract philosophical or legal position, but because in Jesus' words we should be 'innocent' and help those who are at their most vulnerable, even those who may be our 'enemies'. Holding on to our 'innocence' means not slipping into a cynical pragmatism that accepts a quota of civilian suffering for the sake of a 'greater good'.

And living out the subversive compassion that we find in the gospels requires Christians to use their political brains. To be 'shrewd' and wise: applying to governments (who will always have a strategic agenda, however well intentioned and principled) a healthy scepticism and care, making sure that we avoid cooption.


Taking such an approach consistently may also help the wider public to understand aid agency efforts to help people caught in conflict. Misunderstanding means that aid agencies can be perceived as having a political agenda. In early 2009, the BBC and the Disasters Emergency Committee had a very public dispute over whether an appeal to help civilians affected by fighting in Gaza should receive free airtime. The BBC argued that DEC assistance was lacking in impartiality because it was not delivered equally in Israel and the Gaza strip. DEC agencies argued back that the people in need were mainly in Gaza, and that therefore this was where help was most needed.

The dispute hung on two different interpretations of the word 'impartiality'. For the BBC, impartiality as a journalist means balanced reporting of the issues, equal weight to the Israeli and Palestinian perspective. For the aid agencies, impartiality is understood as providing aid on the basis of need - so if more people need practical assistance in Gaza than in Israel, then that is how the money should be divided up.

So to improve understanding there is a need for aid agencies to be much clearer and consistent in explaining their neutral and impartial position, and in demonstrating that reality in the way they do their day to day work.  


The next reason to hang on to humanitarian action has little to do with conflict - at least, so far. This reason is environmental damage and climate change or 'breaking the computer of God' as a Kenyan tribal leader put it to me as we sat together in a stifling hut in the midst of the drought of 2006. It's a factor that's firmly on the public agenda as we prepare for the UN climate treaty negotiations in Copenhagen next month - very much the last chance saloon, particularly when viewed from the developing world..
Environmental disaster - even environmental disaster fuelled by human activity - is nothing new, with good evidence of prehistoric civilisations destroyed not by war, but by an overexploitation of natural resources. But what analyses such as those put together by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggest is environmental disaster on a terrifying scale. Here are just a few of the projected future impacts, all the more alarming for the cautious tone in which they are expressed in a 2007 report from the IPCC3:

'Drought-affected areas will likely increase in extent. Heavy precipitation events, which are very likely to increase in frequency, will augment flood risk.'
So, more droughts, more rain, and more floods.

'In the course of the century, water supplies stored in glaciers and snow cover are projected to decline, reducing the water availability in regions supplied by the melt-water from major mountain ranges, where more than one-sixth of the world population currently live.'
A billion people will suffer critical water shortages.

'Many millions more people are projected to be flooded every year due to sea-level rise by the 2080s…
'…Poor communities can be especially vulnerable, in particular those concentrated in high-risk areas. They tend to have more limited adaptive capacities, and are more dependent on climate-sensitive resources such as local water and food supplies.'
In other words, if you are poor, you're very likely to be affected, you won't have the ability to move away from a high risk area, and not only that, but your fields will either be flooded or dry up and your water supply damaged.


And that's a future which could soon be upon us. But what of the present? In 2007 the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies4 reported natural disasters affecting 201 million people, with a total cost of damage estimated at  63.5 billion US dollars. Each year, over 55 million children5 - the population of Britain - suffer from acute malnutrition, that is, the kind of malnutrition that can kill.

So if this is a baseline, we are looking at an increase in people affected which could multiply many times over.
So (quite apart from the need to tackle causes of climate change) the need to invest in preparing for, and responding to future disasters, is urgent and critical.

But I worry that we may find funding for humanitarian aid harder to come by in the future, just as the environmental screw begins to tighten. The squeeze on our economy caused by mismanagement in the banking sector, caused drops in the UK's GDP of 0.5 per cent. The Stern Review of 20066 warns of annual drops of 5 per cent in global GDP if climate change is allowed to go unchecked 'now and forever'. If our own economy shrinks, will we still find the funds for those even more vulnerable than ourselves - or will we let them sink or swim? To date, all major political parties in the UK continue to stress their support for increasing the aid budget to 0.7 per cent of GDP, but this commitment will be increasingly challenged if public spending in the UK is cut back following the 2010 election, and it cannot be taken for granted. And funding to help poor countries adapt to climate change needs to come on top of existing aid commitments - a tough call for negotiators in Copenhagen in the middle of a recession, but the only fair approach.


As I leave the humanitarian sector to work on long term development policy, I am concerned that the threats to ordinary people worldwide from natural disasters are rising, and that in conflicts we are struggling to reach across front lines to those in need. And I also worry that we might find ourselves short of funds just when they are needed most, as frightened northern countries look first to their own interests and raid the aid budget to pay for banking bailouts.

This is why the spirit of true humanitarian action is vital. Although it proclaims the word 'neutral' - it is not. This truly subversive activity looks not to our own interests, but to those much more vulnerable than ourselves. It asks us to be prepared to prioritise a civilian in enemy territory above our own interests.

And we know that we can make a difference, even if it will feel at times like an uphill struggle. We know that investment now to reduce the risk of disasters will save countless lives.


And if the current financial crisis shows us anything, it shows us that if we want to, the world can make hard cash available in a hurry.  The cost of 2007's natural disasters was 63 billion US dollars. That is about the same as the amount made available in 2008 to bail out HBOS, RBS and Lloyds TSB.
There is one more reason to be cheerful: disaster survivors themselves. There is a widely shared myth that it is aid agencies from richer countries that are the only source of help for communities in the global south. Nothing could be further from the truth. One of the most enduring images that I have from visiting Aceh following the 2004 tsunami is that of the countless Indonesian community groups that formed the backbone of the early response. Similarly in Sri Lanka churches were actively helping communities struck by the wave within hours of the disaster, before aid agency staff in London had even woken up to hear the news.

A new compact between civil society in the south and civil society in the north is then the final challenge to us professionals in our shiny offices. If we can find new ways to support and work with communities globally, even in the face of these immense challenges, then perhaps we could even start to turn the tide.

1 Quoted in the Guardian,
2 Abby Stoddard, Adele Harmer and Victoria DiDomenico, ODI Humanitarian Policy Group Policy Brief 34, April 2009.
3 IPCC, 2007: Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, M.L. Parry, O.F. Canziani, J.P. Palutikof, P.J. van der Linden and C.E. Hanson, Eds., Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 7-22.
4 See IFRC World Disasters Report 2008,
5 Lancet series on maternal and child undernutrition 1; 2008 - quoted in papers for the Conference on World Hunger, 8 October 2008, Action Contre la Faim.
6 The Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, HM Treasury, 2006.