~Written by Victoria Stanford (Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org)
The 17th Humanitarian Congress - ‘Understanding Failure, Adjusting Practice’ - took place in early October this year. The stimulating two-day event in Berlin, Germany could not have occurred at a more appropriate moment for the international humanitarian movement, its workers and its supporters. Just six days previously on October 3rd, an MSF (Doctors without Borders) trauma centre in Kunduz, Afghanistan was bombed, killing over 30 people including 10 patients and 13 staff, and injuring over 30 (more are missing and/or unidentifiable; MSF). The Conference began with a poignant moment of silence for the victims of this tragedy. Inevitably however, the agenda was overwhelmingly full of lectures and seminars shedding light on numerous serious, devastating, and urgent crises that call upon the attention of the humanitarian community; the ongoing instability in the Central African Republic and protracted crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the war in Syria and its subsequent refugee crisis, to name a few.
The demand on the humanitarian system is ever-growing and events such as the Congress facilitate a reflection of its principles, priorities, objectives and effectiveness. The focus on ‘failure’, albeit with its negative connotations, helpfully directed discussions towards ideas for improvement. Importantly, this approach avoided blame and finger-pointing and instead flagged problems that applied to many agencies, in many situations. For example, speakers from the Treatment Action Campaign suggested that international agencies often use local agencies as subcontractors, outsourcing risk to those whose protection is less internationally observed. It was argued that this can often mean that the local workforce, and those directly involved in the crisis are not placed at the centre of decision-making processes. Instead, beneficiaries or those workers who are part of the vulnerable community are treated as “victims” without autonomy, who blindly receive assistance rather than self-remediate. This idea of working with communities rather than for them, expanded to a conference-wide discussion of responsibility. Questions like, whose role is it to alleviate suffering, who should provide the funding and resources, and who should decide policy and provide care for vulnerable people in crisis situations were discussed.
Whilst the conference facilitated stimulating intellectual discussion on the ideas and concepts of today’s humanitarianism, it also showed the reality of human need. An engineer from Syria who came to Germany as a refugee, risking his safety along the highly publicised journey across the Mediterranean, spoke about his experiences. He spoke of the boat that took him across the sea slowly sinking while other passengers panicked, treading water for hours until an eventual coastguard rescue. A story such as his reminded all at the Conference that the jargonised political discussions about the refugee crisis create a rhetoric that often overlooks the human experience. Speakers from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia also provided the weekend’s event with a more individualised, personalised view of the concepts and themes we were discussing; reminding us of the human aspect of an increasingly intellectualised and politicised field.
The Congress also served as a pre-dialogue to the Humanitarian Summit, a novel event announced by the UN Secretary-General to be held in Istanbul in early 2016. The purpose is to discuss current challenges and decide on an agenda for future humanitarian action (ICVA, 2015). Many of the regional consultations which will contribute to the Summit have already taken place, and many of the speakers in Berlin commented on the predictability of the points which have been brought up thus far. For example, it was mentioned by many that staff security and safety in the field is likely to ignite serious discussion and debate, as is the issue of agency co-ordination and leadership. The example of the Ebola Crisis in West Africa provided an astute example of this need for a decision on establishing leadership and accountability in humanitarian action; the general rhetoric was that the WHO did not do enough, early enough, and NGOs such as MSF found themselves to be the principal driving force behind the response efforts.
Increasingly complex humanitarian crises which involve both more agencies and beneficiaries than ever before, must be met with an efficient workforce that can respond to the challenges the humanitarian sector faces. The Conference seemed to bring about an understanding of the fact that the extent to which the sector can be successful may depend on how far the actors are willing to innovate and adapt, introduce creativity, and collaborate with non-traditional allies. Humanitarianism is no longer a subjective theory with ad-hoc projects run by the adventurous few, it is a rapidly-expanding multidisciplinary system which should be based on rigorous evidence and carried out by legitimate actors who show consistent adherence to mutual humanitarian principles. If and how this will come about will rely on the humanitarian sector continuing to self-evaluate, a feat which will be facilitated by the upcoming Summit in 2016, which we all eagerly anticipate.
MSF (2015) Afghanistan: Death toll from the MSF hospital attack in Kunduz still rising, www.msf.org, 23rd October 2015 [Online] Available at: http://www.msf.org/article/aghanistan-death-toll-msf-hospital-attack-kunduz-still-rising [Accessed 24 October 2015]
ICVA (International Council of Voluntary Agencies) (2015) World Humanitarian Summit 2016 [Online] Available at: https://icvanetwork.org/world-humanitarian-summit-0 [Accessed 09 November 2015]