It’s Getting Difficult for Humanitarians
More and more people flee conflicts all over the globe, but the hands of aid workers are being tied more firmly.
It was a warm sunny day that made it hard to believe that it had happened. In a village in Afghanistan, Abdul Wali* was shot and killed, alongside others, in a crossfire between government forces and an anti-government armed group.
A series of conflicts that followed the invasion by the former Soviet Union led Wali and his family to decades-long exile in neighboring Pakistan. After he established a base there, supporting himself through small trade, content to send his children to school, he and his family were forced to return as part of “voluntary repatriation” due to political tensions between Pakistan and Afghanistan. At “home,” which he yearned for, but had no worldly attachment to, he found he had to start from scratch.
Our NGO constructed water wells in communities including his and provided people with well maintenance training that Wali participated in. He was motivated and encouraged to take the lead in maintaining the water supply for his people, building a new life for him and his family.
According to the United Nations, some 68.5 million people are forcibly displaced worldwide; of these, 40 million are internally displaced persons (IDPs), 25.4 million refugees and 3.1 million are asylum seekers. The top three countries from which the biggest numbers of people are displaced are Syria (6.3 million people), Afghanistan (2.6 million) and South Sudan (2.4 million). Many people are forced to leave their home due to conflict, which is now the main driver of refugees. Just as in Afghanistan, conflicts involving non-state actors have been increasing all over the globe: There were almost none in 1989, and in 2017 there were more than 80.
In these conflicts, governments fight armed opposition groups, or what they call “terrorists.” On the other hand, humanitarian and development actors like NGOs reach people at the grassroots level to offer emergency support during and immediately after the conflict, helping them alleviate grievances that might move them to sympathize or side with the militants.
Some governments may find it hard to “distinguish” ordinary people from those supporting armed opposition groups or those actively involved with them. For this reason, governments in some cases are cautious about and want to control NGOs’ activities. Some countries I worked in were suspicious about NGOs’ links with militias and support for militiants in their financial sources and supply, and this implemented scrupulous procedures for granting visas and work permits to aid organizations.
While our work is being put under tougher control, our vulnerability as being a target for armed groups is still high. The number of attacks on aid workers reached its peak in 2013 with 265 incidents and 156 fatalities, but these still occur regularly across Afghanistan.
Narrowing Humanitarian Space
More and more people flee conflicts all over the globe, but the hands of aid workers are being tied more firmly. We have to not only be accountable and transparent, but also be more strategic, skilful and tactical in order to respond to people’s dire needs.
So can we do everything to a high enough standard? Unfortunately, the prospect is not a bright one. Humanitarian needs are expected to grow in the coming years. Factors such as population growth (especially in Sub-Saharan Africa), climate change (resulting in water scarcity and reduced crop yields) as well as consequent widening inequality and protracted fragility in volatile states contribute to increased conflicts, according to The Future of Aid INGOs in 2030 report.
As for political implications on aid, the report predicts the following trends. First, governments of affected states will be more inclined to resist external intervention and will prefer more localized approaches. Second, humanitarian crises will become increasingly political — in an increasingly interconnected world, crises can have severe and widespread implications. With increased media attention, humanitarian issues are taken much more seriously today than in the past decades, and governments are under greater pressure to address them. Mishandling humanitarian crises, or even the perception of mishandling can result in administrations losing power. Where aid comes from, and to whom it goes, are increasingly political issues. Donor and recipient nations are also held accountable by their constituents for their perceived complicity in dealing with unpopular states. Third, humanitarian assistance is going to continue being used as a geopolitical instrument, with complex emergencies and humanitarian crises gaining political centrality. Finally, rising impediments to NGO interventions are being witnessed, and a resurgence of state sovereignty is making NGO interventions more difficult.
These trends are not all bad in terms of capacity building of aid recipient governments. But it will be worrying if any political arbitration is inserted into responses based on inequality, disparity and discrimination among people and geographical areas.
Efforts in Vain?
So, is responding to growing needs with limited means a useless effort? As someone who has worked in the aid sector for nearly 20 years, I believe not. Each individual life is unique and precious, and requires to be treated with dignity. No one must feel left behind — otherwise this world would be nothing but hell. Even though circumstances around those who suffer may resemble a strong stream that casts them adrift, our work should be to gently catch them with open arms as an unbroken net against the current.
One of the biggest manmade tragedies is the global displacement of people and accompanying violence due to conflict. The best way to minimize human suffering is the prevention of conflict. It is recommended to include national actors to address risks and grievances and form coalitions among national and international actors when dealing with conflict resolution.
In the aftermath of a conflict, the nexus of going from humanitarian assistance to recovery aid to development aid is necessary to help the survivors and returnees retrieve their livelihood and rebuild their societies. But in reality, these scenarios are elusive in many cases due to deep-rooted corruption. In cases like Afghanistan, where there is a complexity of conflict, geopolitics are hard to tackle. Global citizens’ advocacy must be raised and kept up. But it should never be a “white savior” kind. Aid workers must be sincere in seeking ideas and advice from collaboration with locals in order to plan and implement meaningful and effective assistance, to lessen the governments’ suspicions and effectively partner with them.
Abdul was one of the victims in the toughest of situations. It’s hard to imagine being in his place, and hard to fathom his family’s loss and deep sorrow. I can never wish him anything but a simple thing — to rest in peace. Others must keep surviving and the number of people asking, “Why me?” must be diminished. We must keep walking along with them with strong compassion and solidarity in difficult times.
*[“Abdul Wali” is a pseudonym and details have been slightly distorted to avoid identification of the people concerned in order to protect their safety.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.