The humanitarian future

Paul Currion writes: I became an aid worker in the 1990s, just as the break-up of Yugoslavia and the genocide in Rwanda cast a long shadow over the humanitarian sector. Those highly visible political failures were a major influence on my decision. I was possessed of a distressingly youthful belief that we could do better in the core humanitarian mission of saving lives, feeding the starving, healing the sick, and sheltering the displaced from natural disasters and armed conflicts.

I worked on co-ordination with the United Nations and non-governmental organisations (NGOs): identifying gaps and overlaps in the delivery of aid, then persuading humanitarian organisations to avoid those overlaps and fill those gaps, a slow and frustrating process of herding cats. Co-ordination had become increasingly important as the humanitarian sector expanded dramatically following the end of the Cold War. In Kosovo, after the NATO bombing campaign of 1999, we registered one NGO for every day of the year. A decade later, after the 2010 earthquake near Port-au-Prince, an estimated 3,000 NGOs descended on Haiti.

It wasn’t just the size of the humanitarian sector that was increasing – the scope of humanitarian work was widening as well. In the post-Cold War world, humanitarian organisations were increasingly enlisted as government sub-contractors in a larger political project: the post-conflict reconstruction of entire countries. After Kosovo I found myself in Afghanistan, where Secretary of State Colin Powell referred to NGOs as a ‘force multiplier’ for the US military; then Iraq, where Andrew Natsios, then head of US overseas aid, asserted without apparent irony, that NGOs were ‘an arm of the US government’. [Continue reading…]