The Poverty of Humanitarian Critique?

The Poverty of Humanitarian Critique?

Bertrand Taithe[1]

Médecins sans frontières has just released a short critical report on the absence of humanitarian aid in critically endangered regions of the world. Its title, Where is everyone? is in many ways the full extent of its message. This document is not without merits even if many will find its tone difficult to fathom. MSF does have the legitimacy to articulate a critique and to ground it in its own history of long-term engagement in the most dangerous parts of the world but is it the right way and is it the right question?

To argue as the authors do that humanitarian response lacks impact (which has two meanings, a ballistic one or influence, neither correct it seems to me) is perhaps to demonstrate, in a negative form, the hubristic aspirations of an industry; which, whatever its claims to massive expansion, remains artisanal. If the Yogurt market worldwide is estimated at $69bn the international humanitarians weigh in a third of this at most. This is not to mention the c. 1.5 trillion dollars weapon industry for those who might imagine humanitarian aid as a counterweight to militarism. The question is not therefore perhaps where is everyone? But was there ever anyone? Starting from a position of humility might correct a little two of the fundamental assertions at the heart of this paper: that the humanitarian sector is rapidly expanding but its fields of operation are contracting. The humanitarian sector is not large, it has hardly grown in the past six years and it was not much more present in the medium or distant past.

The MSF report, which summarizes briefly three surveys of humanitarians in the field in South Sudan, DRC and Jordan, makes a number of important negative diagnostics: agencies are now remote controlling and are too risk averse, agencies shy away from emergencies in favour of long term programmes, local agencies are ill-equipped and technical capacity has declined… and furthermore the UN system is not functioning (any longer?) – some may see some irony here since this critique comes from an NGO notoriously unwilling to mingle too much with UN institutions –things are not what they used to be. Instead of focusing the critique on the technical issues and solutions that may be brought about, the critique concentrates unduly on the nature and spirit of the humanitarian “system”.

This critique is probably not ill-founded in many of its elements – all of it sounds very familiar and reminiscent of informal conversation one can have in the field or headquarters of NGOs. One should be wary of self-evident conclusions and instinctively ‘correct’ diagnostics. Even if these fears are commonplace, does it make their reporting in this fashion good or useful?

There is a long tradition of critiques like this one. What these documents tend to share, beyond rightful indignation, is a short-sighted and historically disconnected view of what humanitarian organisations might be able to do. The most important critique this document offers is that NGOs are withdrawing and becoming shy. Undoubtedly, humanitarians could do more, perhaps did they use to do more in the past when they allowed themselves to ignore their duties as employers and acted more freely as idealistic groups of volunteers. More likely, they knew less about what they could not do. The information age brings with it a deeper sense of helplessness. Furthermore it is a function of their success as organisations that they can no longer ignore responsibilities which include the duty of care and concerns with risk, danger and security – where I might agree with the report is indeed that the bureaucratic responses risk assessments produce may be counterproductive and that they rely on self-evident arguments rather than evidence. But this point is lost when so little evidence presented in the report, or when it is associated with a wider point on the role of the UN. It seems contradictory to wish simultaneously for greater UN presence and more nimble field responsiveness. The UN was never and never will be nimble. Whether or not it is humanitarian is another debate.

Ultimately one might ask what is the role of this often devastating but ill-sustained self-critique in the humanitarian sector? Why voice concerns using the language of alarm, surprise and indignation when, should one care to exchange names and periods, this report might have been written at any point in the past thirty or even seventy years?

The poverty of humanitarian critique may well be founded in a deep and profound malaise but it is that of its intellectual tools. Borrowing from the language of management to berate managerial cultures of decision making will never carry the critique very far. There is an irony, therefore, when the entire report claims to present evaluative assessments which rely so little on political and historical context. That humanitarians should be better at what they do is undeniably true – it is a kind of truth we all share when facing our mirrors – that they should practice self-flagellation using the whips of those who would happily end humanitarian aid does not follow. At one year from crucial elections in the UK, I am not convinced it is timely either. In an era when austerity is deployed throughout the world as the excuse to restrict aid budgets, close borders and to undermine international solidarity, this report seems to me to sing from the wrong hymn book. At the onset of the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016, humanitarian critique needs to be lively and healthy and MSF needs to be central to it – but it also needs to be more articulate and convincing.

Humanitarians do their work the way they are –with such a limited sense of their historical trajectory that they often mistakenly identify their inability to reach impossible goals for failure. Some lives were saved, many lives were saved – more could be saved it is true and if, as the authors argue, money is no object – though I would be more convinced were the humanitarian sector’s budget equal to the yogurt industry – there may be something incomplete and ineffective in the way humanitarians run their operations. Humanitarians may recoil in the face of danger and political complexities which are not of their own making, but how would one reverse the proposition? How could it be done while still peddling uncritically the language and bureaucratic aspiration of corporate culture? What would the reverse proposition of a risk-averse organisation be? To critique using binaries of good and bad may be headline grabbing but does it help us really address the genuine challenges and frustrations of this cottage industry at a time when it attempts to grow?

I will confess that I was expecting more and that it is as a friend of MSF that I write this blog. The sector does need a fundamental re-think, its remote control of aid is ethically and technically debatable, its reach is still too limited. In its current configuration the humanitarian sector is not without reproach – it is all too human and fallible – but is this critique the best way to move it forward? I think not. Let’s start again please.


[1] Bertrand Taithe is a cultural historian of humanitarian aid, director of the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute, member of the scientific committee of the CRASH, MSF France.

7 thoughts on “The Poverty of Humanitarian Critique?

  1. Thank you for this wonderful and though-provoking blog post. I fear that you might be very right in pointing out that ‘Where is Everyone’ is too short and shallow to contribute to a meaningful debate in the humanitarian industry, while it is too close to “self-flagellation using the whips of those who would happily end humanitarian aid” to seduce the general public to reconsider its often harsh verdict on the effectiveness of aid. However, I do sympathize with MSF’s attempt to be candid about its limitations and to try and cause a better and more open debate. Whether the publication of this report helps to achieve those goals remains to be seen.


    1. I want to make clear that I believe in the value of humanitarian critique – that I value the MSF critique particularly and that I am in no way defending either the status quo or the UN system. I stand by my blog, however, in the sense that I feel that we need to improve substantially the quality of our analysis. I think this recent attempt was a missed opportunity though I also think that many of the points it raised are genuine and probably grounded anxieties.


  2. My field experience has enlightened me on the incredible resources allocated in developmental programmes and the results obtained. These have been catastrophic failures in most instances. Donors would be better to invest in many countries on infrastructure development even if 30 or 40% of the money disappears in the grubby hands of political figures…better to have some roads, electricity, communications, etc so that local populations have an opportunity to slowly improve and build on their future. Many cycles of violence could be broken if populations were simply given an opportunity to work themselves out of poverty. Humanitarians can provide for people’s daily vital needs in times where they cannot cope on their own.

    Feed a a person by feeding him but shown him how to fish and he will feed himself. That is the axis of most developmental agencies (although they still call themselves humanitarians but critically lack credibility in that front as identified in the Where is Everyone report) but that is a simplistic ideology that fails to understand how economies function. Instead we should be looking at an end result when the fisherman who is able to sell his product at a better price because through the use of his mobile phone he can target regional markets who will pay more and as there are roads, transportation costs are low enough to warrant such shipping. He can slowly build up his house, send his children for higher education which will in turn improve the standard of living of future generations. This is how all emerging countries are transforming themselves.

    I doubt that MSF could address such wide topic as it would lose its credibility since we are not developmental actors and the organization would get lost in an academic debate. As MSF are by no means experts on such matters, maybe engaging with universities and think-tanks that could pull together a team of economists, anthropologists and other experts to measure the (in)effectiveness of such programmes, could continue provoking dialogue and debates which might possibly lead to a transformation of how aid to populations is addressed.


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