Humanitarian politics

  • Nepal should prepare well for the next disaster, build capacity for aid utilisation

May 25, 2016-

The United Nations World Humanitarian Summit—a two-day conference held in Istanbul—concluded yesterday, with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urging governments, businesses and aid groups to commit themselves to halving the number of displaced civilians by 2030. 

Organised at a time described as ‘the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War’ and billed as the first of its kind, the summit aimed to address a “broken” humanitarian system that has left 130 million people in need of aid. Around 6,000 participants, including 150 UN member states attended the conference. Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Kamal Thapa represented Nepal in the summit. For Nepal, these platforms are a useful forum to question the international aid regime and how best to position itself to utilise the flow of funds to suit its needs. 

It is too early to assess the summit’s success, but critics have argued that it lacked focus and specific proposals. They have said that the global aid system needs more resources, and at the same time, has to bring down corruption and inefficiency that eat up significant humanitarian funds before they reach those most in need. Earlier this month, Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), an international aid agency, withdrew from the summit saying that it was not likely to address the weaknesses in humanitarian action and emergency response. 

Some of the participants also took the conference as an opportunity to voice critical views. For example, the president of the host country Turkey, which houses the majority of refugees—about three million—from the war in neighbouring Syria, argued that the West had done little to help Syrians in need of humanitarian aid.

Despite these criticisms, the summit is a welcome development in that it helped shed light on the challenges that global humanitarianism is facing. 

Although humanitarianism has a longer history, it developed as an enterprise only in the last 200 years. Michael Barnett, in his book Empire of Humanity: A History of Humanitarianism, divides this development in three phases: Colonial humanitarianism, marked by the civilising missions of the Western powers; post-colonial humanitarianism, characterised by the rivalry between the US and the then Soviet Union; and liberal humanitarianism, distinguished by the burgeoning of humanitarian NGOs tied closely with the liberal ideology of spreading democracy, free markets and human rights. Barnett argues that humanitarianism is a ‘creature of the world it aspires to civilize’ and that despite its core principles—humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence—it is inextricably linked with politics. But he does not portray too cynical a picture and balances the self-interest inherent in humanitarianism with the compassion behind it.  

Nepal has been relatively fortunate in that it has been spared too many humanitarian catastrophes. The decade-long conflict and the earthquakes last year took a few thousand lives, but they pale in comparison to the horrors of wars that have wrecked unimaginable havoc in countries like Syria and placed millions of people in need of humanitarian aid. 

However, whenever a crisis strikes, Nepal will become the centre of attention—if only for a brief period—of the world and particularly regional powers. But the much-needed aid from them is also likely to bring in unnecessary interference to the country. In the aftermath of the earthquakes, for example, although the prompt dispatch of international assistance was indeed a humanitarian gesture that saved many lives, it was also viewed critically as a form of disaster diplomacy; some donors seemed more interested in ensuring how the aid would serve their own interest. It is best, therefore, for Nepal to prepare well for the next disaster, build its national capacity for aid utilisation and navigate the flow of aid according to its own interest, not to the whims of the international aid community. 

Published: 25-05-2016 07:59

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