High-tech humanitarianism can help save a suffering world

Polarisation and mistrust is making the job of humanitarian organisations harder than ever

Workers carry sacks of grain in a warehouse of the World Food Programme in Ethiopia. AFP
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I ducked under the thin blue string across the dirt track that demarcated Sudan and South Sudan. It was 2013 and I was there to examine the humanitarian situation in the Nuba Mountains.

The scorched-earth practices of then Sudanese president Omar Al Bashir, indicted by the International Criminal Court for genocidal acts in Darfur, had destroyed food stocks and disrupted planting. As starvation gripped the Nuba, Khartoum blocked cross-line relief provision within Sudan and cross-border from South Sudan.

However, desperation breeds resourcefulness. Nuban refugees in South Sudan skimped from their own meagre supplies to leave food parcels at the thin blue line. Their kith-and-kin cowered in caves, emerging at night to evade border patrols and retrieve life-saving sustenance.

The more courageous humanitarian NGOs joined in. They deliberately inflated refugee statistics in South Sudan to justify bigger handouts knowing that a portion filtered back into Nuba. Donors turned a blind eye to the smuggling.

And so, a peoples’ humanitarian movement sprung up because international organisations such as the UN and International Red Cross and Red Crescent were forbidden to cross the South Sudan-Sudan border even as the UN Security Council huffed and puffed.

I had previously been the UN’s Humanitarian Co-ordinator, including supervising Operation Lifeline Sudan, a huge cross-border food airlift from Kenya into southern Sudan, akin to the Berlin Airlift during the Cold War. I had also managed to get the mighty Nile River reopened to food barges, and some roads de-mined to allow land aid corridors, even as northern government and southern rebel forces skirmished. These cross-border and cross-line humanitarian deliveries were not my personal achievement but enabled by my official position that commanded the respect of belligerent parties and was backed by the authority of the Security Council.

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

I learnt that in another role as special adviser in the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan during a previous bout of internal war that created widescale food insecurity. India’s offer of a million tonnes of wheat trucked cross-border via Pakistan was unpalatable to the latter. Extensive shuttling to build trust between Kabul, New Delhi, Islamabad, Tehran and the Rome headquarters of the World Food Programme followed. This led to swapping India’s gift for WFP stocks held elsewhere that could then be shipped directly into Afghanistan via Iranian ports.

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

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

Crossing an international border raises sovereignty questions. Hence, the consent of both aid-receiving and aid-channelling countries is needed. Where this is voluntarily given, cross-border programming is uncontentious. But when a host country unreasonably withholds consent despite the urgency and magnitude of a humanitarian crisis, only the Security Council can mandate access.

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

That era has passed as Russia re-asserts itself, China and India rise, and national assertiveness grows everywhere. Humanitarianism is no longer trusted at face value. Although humanitarian compassion is universal to all cultures, its diverse forms of expression are not seen as impartial and, therefore, frequently disputed.

The rules of the traditional western-dominated model of humanitarianism and its institutions and rituals are challenged, as never before. That is partly because how conflicts are fought has changed to become whole-of-society affairs not limited to armed combatants. We see this in the grinding Russia-Ukraine war that has also challenged access by the International Committee of the Red Cross under the Geneva Conventions to protect non-combatants.

Therefore, while crises requiring international co-operation have multiplied, new cross-border humanitarian efforts are rarely approved by the highly polarised Security Council. Without such formal mandates, international humanitarian agencies cannot function legally.

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

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

The situation is even more dire for populations that are completely blockaded by their opponents. Perhaps the most catastrophic plight is that of 7 million Tigrayans, whose homeland is in civil war with the Ethiopian state. Pleas for humanitarian relief corridors have been ignored with only token assistance reaching Tigray on a haphazard basis.

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

What is then to be done as humanitarian tragedies multiply? There are some tips and tricks to penetrate otherwise impenetrable access barriers. Technology such as low-flying drones is already in use to deliver medicines to cut-off health facilities. Communications through the internet allow supervisors outside the crisis zone to guide relief actions by local humanitarian staff and volunteers. Electronically transferred cash enables needy beneficiaries the dignity of choice in getting what they need with economy and efficiency while also stimulating local enterprise. The days of lumbering aid convoys stuck at hostile checkpoints should be largely over.

A child works at a wheat mill in Syria. AFP

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

They consistently underestimate the resourcefulness of local crisis-affected populations if they get the chance to build their capacities for resilience. However, extant humanitarian business models hinder that because these are geared towards maximising the intermediation roles of billion-dollar humanitarian corporations.

Various shades of inefficiency, corruption, politicisation and monopolistic or self-serving practices have contributed to rising distrust in the humanitarian endeavour. It plays straight into the ruthless schemes of any warring groups looking for excuses to cut off humanitarian access. This makes sense – even if perverted – in an age where battles are generally not won on the battlefield but via inflicting maximum suffering on civilians on the opposing side.

Undoubtedly, traditional norms that limit warfare are being challenged as war-making accommodates present-day geopolitics through new doctrines and novel, no-holds-barred tactics. Correspondingly greater obstacles to humanitarian access are to be expected. Simply lamenting that reality is hardly a solution.

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

Solutions to boundless conflicts may evade us, but limiting human suffering through borderless humanitarianism is well within our grasp.

Published: August 22, 2022, 4:00 AM
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