High-tech humanitarianism can help save a hurting world


I hid under the thin blue string across the dirt road that demarcated Sudan and South Sudan. It was 2013 and I was there to review the humanitarian situation in the Nuba Mountains.

The scorched earth practices of the then Sudanese President, Omar Al Bashir, indicted by the International Criminal Court for acts of genocide in Darfur, had destroyed food stocks and disrupted plantations. As famine gripped the Nuba, Khartoum blocked the delivery of cross-border relief supplies into Sudan and cross-border from South Sudan.

However, desperation breeds ingenuity. Nuban refugees in South Sudan skimped on their meager provisions to leave food parcels at the thin blue line. Their friends and relatives cowered in caves, emerging at night to evade border patrols and reclaim vital livelihoods.

The most courageous humanitarian NGOs have joined us. They deliberately inflated the statistics on refugees in South Sudan to justify greater aid, knowing that part of it was going to Nouba. Donors turned a blind eye to smuggling.

And so a grassroots humanitarian movement has sprung up because international organizations such as the UN and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent have been banned from crossing the South Sudanese border even as the Security Council of the UN huffed and huffed.

I had previously served as the UN’s humanitarian coordinator, including overseeing Operation Lifeline Sudan, a huge cross-border airlift of food from Kenya to southern Sudan, similar to the Berlin airlift during the Cold War. I had also succeeded in having the mighty Nile reopened to supply barges and clearing some roads to allow corridors for ground aid, even as the government of the North and the rebel forces of the South clashed. These cross-border and cross-border humanitarian deliveries were not my personal achievement but made possible by my official position which commanded respect from the warring parties and was backed by the authority of the Security Council.

I was reminded of this when the Security Council held a heated debate in July to barely agree to a short-term extension of cross-border aid to Syria from Turkey. But respect for official status is not enough if it is not backed by trust and creativity.

I learned this in another role as Special Advisor to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan during a previous episode of internal warfare that created large-scale food insecurity. India’s offer of a million tonnes of cross-border wheat by truck via Pakistan was unpleasant for the latter. Numerous trust-building shuttles between Kabul, New Delhi, Islamabad, Tehran and the World Food Program headquarters in Rome followed. This led to India’s gift being swapped for WFP stocks held elsewhere which could then be shipped directly to Afghanistan through Iranian ports.

The spirit of this arrangement is found in the recent UN-Istanbul-brokered agreement with Moscow and Kyiv to ship Ukrainian grain to alleviate world hunger.

Cross-border humanitarian operations are only considered when it is practically easier to reach geographically isolated populations, or when they are unavoidable because combatants obstruct aid access across internal front lines.

Crossing an international border raises questions of sovereignty. Therefore, the consent of the countries receiving and delivering the aid is necessary. When given voluntarily, cross-border programming is unchallenged. But when a host country unreasonably withholds consent despite the urgency and scale of a humanitarian crisis, only the Security Council can order access.

Cross-border humanitarian delivery used to be quite common. The long-suffering populations of many conflict-torn countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Cambodia, Somalia and Myanmar have received help across their borders for many decades, when global and regional geopolitics were as contentious as they are today. But before then, there was perhaps greater consensus that, despite other differences, mitigating humanitarian crises was a shared moral duty.

Those days are over as Russia reasserts itself, China and India rise, and national assertiveness grows everywhere. Humanitarianism is no longer trustworthy. Although humanitarian compassion is universal to all cultures, its various forms of expression are not seen as impartial and therefore frequently contested.

The rules of the traditional Western-dominated humanitarian model and its institutions and rituals are being challenged as never before. This is partly because the way in which conflicts are fought has changed to become the concern of the whole of society and is not limited to armed combatants. We see it in the bitter war between Russia and Ukraine which also contested the International Committee of the Red Cross’s access under the Geneva Conventions to protect non-combatants.

As a result, while crises requiring international cooperation have multiplied, new cross-border humanitarian efforts are rarely endorsed by the highly polarized Security Council. Without these formal mandates, international humanitarian agencies cannot operate legally.

The Syrian cross-border effort was only renewed because it was a prior agreement. Even then, new constraints were added. Whether this will be extended in six months is a source of acute anxiety for the 4 million Syrians who depend on this lifeline.

Meanwhile, in Yemen, 23 million people depend on humanitarian aid delivered across frontlines and borders. Interfering with this has become a deadly art through bureaucratic delays and disruptions and attacks on aid workers. Turning the humanitarian tap on and off was co-opted as a tool in the decade-long war.

The situation is even more dramatic for populations completely blocked by their opponents. Perhaps the most catastrophic fate is that of 7 million Tigrayans, whose homeland is in civil war with the Ethiopian state. Requests for humanitarian relief corridors have been ignored, with only token assistance reaching Tigray at random.

Civilian suffering caused directly and indirectly by armed conflict is the new normal in our fractured world. A recent analysis by the Geneva-based research group Acaps suggests that humanitarian access is severely or extremely limited in at least 37 countries facing severe crises. Contemporary global and regional politics mean that multilateral institutions and frameworks are unable to rescue on a reliable basis.

What to do then when the humanitarian tragedies multiply? There are a few tips and tricks for breaking through otherwise impenetrable access barriers. Technologies such as low-flying drones are already being used to deliver drugs to isolated health facilities. Communications via the Internet allow supervisors outside the crisis area to guide relief actions by humanitarian personnel and local volunteers. Money transferred electronically allows recipients in need the dignity of choosing to get what they need economically and efficiently while stimulating local business. The days of heavy aid convoys stuck at hostile checkpoints should be largely over.

The irony is that the technologies and devices that have revolutionized warfare, so that it can be fought more accurately from a safe distance, can also transform humanitarian action. The main obstacle to more effective humanitarianism is not just the closing of borders, but the closed mentality of humanitarians themselves.

They systematically underestimate the ingenuity of local populations affected by the crisis if they are given the opportunity to build their resilience capacities. However, existing humanitarian business models hinder this because they aim to maximize the intermediation roles of billion-dollar humanitarian corporations.

National Commentary

Various shades of inefficiency, corruption, politicization, and monopolistic or selfish practices have contributed to growing distrust of the humanitarian effort. This plays directly into the ruthless schemes of all warring groups looking for excuses to cut off humanitarian access. It makes sense – albeit perverted – in an age where battles aren’t usually won on the battlefield but by inflicting maximum suffering on civilians on the opposing side.

Undoubtedly, traditional norms that limit warfare are being challenged as warmaking adapts to current geopolitics through new doctrines and new tactics without limits. As a result, greater barriers to humanitarian access are to be expected. Simply bemoaning this reality is hardly a solution.

Instead, humanitarians need to get smarter than warmongers. They have the tools and technologies to do so, but they need to transform their mindsets, trust their beneficiaries more in the same way they want to be trusted themselves, and reform their processes and institutions to better serve those in need.

Solutions to limitless conflicts may elude us, but limiting human suffering through humanitarianism without borders is well within our reach.

Posted: Aug 22, 2022, 04:00 AM


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