When the court jester crosses the Axis of Evil


Starting with the Biafra conflict and ending with the fall of the Berlin Wall, « the twenty glorious years of humanitarian action» saw NGOs taking a special place in the minds of our co-citizens and imposing themselves as actors that cannot be ignored in international relations.

Nigeria, May 1968. That is the region where a new way of doing humanitarian aid was born. Biafra, a province in of one of the biggest African countries, had declared its independence one year before. The Nigerian government refused to accept their decision, wanting to keep total control of the area, as it was full of petrol. They subsequently encircled Biafra, provoking the starvation of 8 million people. The first media reports exhibiting the horror of these emaciated children were then shown to the world. But the UNO was paralyzed and one more time, countries ignored their moral duty to bring assistance to populations in distress in the name of national sovereignty and its consequences: the non-interference in the internal affairs of another country. France was one of those states, too busy taking care of “its own” May 68. Signing their involvement contract with the International Committee of the Red Cross, a few men and women decided to speed to the bedside of these “Damned of the Earth”. But when they saw the horrors perpetrated in Biafra, some ignored their oath of neutrality and discretion, which had been the cornerstones of this hundred-year-old institution. Some of those doctors, including Bernard Kouchner, expressed their intuitions that would later form the base of this new humanitarian aid: the necessity to testify, the political dimension of medical aid and the claim of the right to interfere. “Who forced us? Nobody. And it is just that which gives us our rights. Human tragedy must never stay hidden by politics” stated Michel Foucault, often quoted by Bernard Kouchner to explain the momentum of a few people that gave birth to the French movement “without borders”.

Based on a strong sense of their own identity, and after challenging the guardian figure of the ICRC, the “French doctors” then joined their English elders who had been brought up under the influence of a different type of philanthropy, originating from across the Atlantic.

With an alliance of various traditions, the modern humanitarian movement started its development. In France were born Doctors Without Borders, Handicap International, Doctors of the World, Action against the Hunger and many other organizations which lined up, without really succeeding in competing with them, beside Oxfam, Save the Children or Care.

The demand for humanitarian action was strong in the public, numerous crises were springing up and the states were ready and willing to count on the NGOs. The latter were becoming more professional and were seeing their budgets increase, and subsequently ended up spearheading a booming civil movement.

But the new era, which opened in 1990 following the fall of the Berlin Wall, launched a new configuration of international relations and has seen major changes affect the NGOs. The cards are now redistributed in favor of new alliances, leaving those inherited from the opposition of the two East-West blocks conflict largely changed. The wars of extermination, where the primary purpose of the combatants is to eliminate a portion of the population (Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Darfur) have multiplied: civilians are becoming the first victims. The very shape of these conflicts  has also become increasingly blurred, sometimes varying from a regular army to a force of rebels (Sudan, Angola, Sri Lanka), while at other times pitting opposing factions against each other in a context where the state is incapable of stemming the violence that is tearing its country apart (Somalia, Liberia, Sierra Leone). And more and more often, the ‘traditional’ actors face competition from elements on the sidelines (militias, mercenaries, troops from neighboring countries, mafias, etc.) which make alliances more precarious, obscure the rules and jeopardize the safety of humanitarian workers. Complex and numerous conflicts of relatively “low intensity” – as they are sometimes called – often escape media coverage, such as in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, while NGOs are struggling to raise funds for their actions. Conversely, some conflicts –such as in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq – have seen great military and economic powers intervene in these countries to hunt the terrorist threat (real or actual), to defend or establish ademocracy or even to save a population from a humanitarian disaster that these interventions often cause or worsen.

Facing these excessive and overblown demonstrations of strength, relief agencies – bound by their mandate to provide assistance –encounter enormous problems in their efforts to define their proper role, caught up between denouncing injustices or saving people’s lives. This situation calls us back to essential debate needed to define humanitarian principles, international law on civil assistance and access to war injured. Is humanitarian action still independent, as it would like to believe? Does it have to accept being “used” by states and governments in the name of a superior interest for victimized populations? Or should it refuse to join any type of official programme, to avoid the risk of a mockery and find itself scoffing at its own goals?

Between the early seventies and the beginning of the nineties, at a time when states were giving up on humanitarian affairs by leaving international solidarity associations in charge, relief workers were the mavericks of democracy. Patronized by the “great” world leaders, put on a pedestal by the people who saw in them the last heroes of a sick society, relief workers were playing the part of the “joker”. Modeled after the court jester who was employed to entertain the king, he was able to utter any truth without fear of being condemned, as long as he did not contest his lord’s authority.

Today, states have decided to take back the control of humanitarian aid and reintegrate it into world governance, all the while hoping to continue to be the main players. The United States of America exemplifies, in a rather grotesque way, this desire to get back in control: they created a black list of countries known as the “Axis of Evil”, starting a war of vengeance in Afghanistan, and then a “preventive” war in Iraq. But it is easy to blame the USA when many other countries are playing the same game, though perhaps hidden and more quietly. And what about the NGOs in all of this? When the court jester crosses the Axis of Evil…

All these issues and many more are hot and ongoing subjects, widely discussed in humanitarian circles. They all boil down to one thing: what role can or should relief agencies play on this new geopolitical chessboard? Relief agencies differ in their relations with the states, depending on their Anglo-Saxon or French-inspired philosophy. The former have always worked very closely with state power whereas the latter considered themselves alternatives to the action of the state, which they judged too limited by strict diplomatic rules. Henceforth, coming from divergent traditions but motivated by common objectives, how do 21st century relief agencies position themselves in the reorganization of a fragmented world?

The tsunami in the Indian Ocean at the end of 2004, a shocking event that had planetary repercussions, is still considered today as a milestone and a very instructive counterpoint. Whilst the conflicts we referred to earlier (Darfur, Sierra Leone, Liberia, etc.) were hardly echoed in the media, in public opinion or among donors, what lesson can we learn from the tremendous demonstration of solidarity that ensued after the tidal wave?

Without a doubt, the fact that it was a “natural” and “brutal” event largely contributed to that unprecedented drive. The “fatality” attached to it lent it a sort of “purity” which undeniably helped citizens around the world lose their inhibitions to dig into their pockets. Actually, everything went like they felt absolutely no restraint in this very specific case, whereas they otherwise feel “suspicious” when helping victims of wars due to political skullduggery, often difficult to explain and exploited by contradictory and unclear explanations. In a way, it points out the hurtful purity of mother nature versus the oft-lamented ambiguity of human nature…

The massive reflex that occurred worldwide also taught us something else: NGOs are viewed by citizens of the world over as an obvious and essential response in such situations. They were the unarmed and pacified representatives of those who would have liked to do something, but could not. In such a tragedy, they were the Wild West outpost of our not-quite-asleep conscience. It is a beautiful lesson, reassuring the thousands of new volunteers who engage in relief work each year, but…

But, and this is the third lesson, NGOs are constantly struggling to make their voices heard and to define their limits, suffering from the ambiguity of being trapped by their good image, aware that it becomes tarnished at regular intervals. And sometimes they are even cowards; they don’t say that they can’t rebuild a country, caught between the desire to do their best and to admit that they can’t do it all.

This over mediatized social object – the NGO – is also one of the least known. The main teaching of the tsunami, for what concerns us here, is that it is important to inform the public about the present day reality of NGOs. Over and above that – and the principal aim of this work is to contribute as best we can – the public should take back this object, which in any case was theirs to begin with. We must understand its dreams and its limits, its strengths and its weaknesses, so that we can continue to support it and if need be, scold it when necessary. To help us better understand how NGOs work, we have asked eight writers to work on four major humanitarian issues today:

– The maturity crisis, or how French and Anglo Saxon NGOs live the changes they go through.

– Evaluation of humanitarian action, or how it is possible to subject NGOs to performance criteria obligations

– The role of NGOs on the geopolitical chessboard, or how international solidarity associations fit into the global political upheaval.

-Humanitarian aid and religion, or how the spiritual and the temporal coexist, one way or another, in humanitarian action today.

The authors who have set themselves this task are French and Anglo Saxon humanitarians and academics, eager to analyze each of these four themes, with their views, their experiences, and their expectations. It is quite probably one of the first times that French and Anglo Saxon humanitarians will interact on a common subject. An interaction that we hope will bring some valuable insights into the similarities and differences between these two approaches from different traditions, in a context of reinterpretation of world balance.

(Traduction: Zohra Chaabi, Stéphanie Genteuil, Pulchérie KM, Chloé Montfort, Jay Christelle Ralitera)


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Karl Blanchet est chercheur à la London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine et ancien directeur de Handicap International Royaume-Uni. Il a mené des missions d’urgence et de développement principalement en Europe de l’Est, en Afrique occidentaleet orientale. Il est également photographe professionnel. Boris Martin est rédacteur en chef de la revue française Humanitaire, éditée par Médecins du Monde-France. Il est également éditeur indépendant et auteur de plusieurs essais et récits .......................................................................................................................................................................................................... Karl Blanchet es un investigador de la Escuela Londinense de Higiene y Medicina Tropical y ex director de Handicap International del Reino Unido. Encabezó misiones de emergencia y desarrollo, principalmente en Europa Oriental, África Occidental y Europa del Este. También es un fotógrafo profesional. Boris Martin es editor de la revista francesa Humanitaire, editado por Médicos del Mundo-Francia. También es editor independiente y autor de varios ensayos y cuentos .................................................................................................................................................................................................. Karl Blanchet is a researcher at the London school of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and former director of Handicap International UK. He has led emergency and development missions mainly in Eastern Europe, and in West and Eastern Africa. He is also a professional photographer. Boris Martin is the editor-in-chief of the French magazine“Humanitaire”, edited by Doctors of the World - France. He is also an independent publisher and author of several essays and stories.