A friend and colleague raised a challenging question today. In much of our work providing humanitarian assistance, we work in areas with various levels of political or social restriction or repression. She refered to a recent assessment mission to help rural communities affected by the war-fighting currently taking place in the valleys of northern Pakistan. A team was sent into a community to identify what the people’s key needs were, and because the needs for men and women differ (and because men do not known what women need, which is patently reflected in many different areas of life around the world), the team wanted to speak specifically to the women of the community. (This is standard practice). Because these areas are highly conservative and it is inappropriate for men and women to mix, and because there is a mistrust of foreigners, this portion of the assessment team was made up entirely of women, and Urdu-speaking Pakistani women at that. Upon arriving in the community and requesting to speak to the women there, the village elders (all men) forbade the women staff from speaking to the women of the community, and informed the team that they were not welcome to return- the implication being that if the women staff came back to that community, they would be at risk.
The implication of this in emergencies is several-fold. First off, it means that women don’t get their needs properly assessed and met. That would cause enough problems even in a country like Australia, if only the men were consulted on a family’s needs (aw, yeah, we’ll take a slab of VB and some snags for the barbie, thanks). In conservative rural Pakistan, where issues of women’s health and wellbeing are largely taboo, it can leave women and girls lacking essential support. Secondly, it reflects a general oppression of women within society. I’m not having a go at different cultures, and certainly not at different religious worldviews, but this habit of secluding and isolating women is not just some quaint overprotective foible- it relates to controlling women as posessions, and as a second tier of people who do not receive the same freedoms and rights as men do- in contravention of all manner of international statements on human rights and gender equity.
My colleague’s question was, and I’ll quote directly from her here:
“whether there is a point where humanitarian aid workers should refuse to provide aid unless x, y and z happen. What happens when the humanitarian imperative conflicts with broader issues of justice? Do we help people who themselves are cutting off part of their own community from getting appropriate assistance?”
This may read as a somewhat shocking question. It smacks of tied aid. It also smacks of a neo-missionary worldview where assistance is only given to those who ‘convert’ to a human-rights-centred worldview in which all people are equal.
But it needs to be asked.
I give another example. In another country suffering from a war-driven humanitarian crisis, people displaced by fighting have ended up in relief camps. The government, ostensibly fearful that there might be rebels hiding in the displaced population, has sealed the camps with military guards and won’t let people out. They are also frightened that if aid workers go into the camps, they might hear from the displaced people that war-crimes or human rights abuses took place during the conflict, which would make them look bad, so they stop a lot of the aid workers from getting in, and restrict their movement so that they can dump aid supplies, but they can’t do assessments or talk to displaced people.
The same question got asked. Do aid workers, by delivering aid under these conditions, actually undermine their ethical position as ‘neutral’ and ‘impartial’? Do they betray the people they are supposed to be helping by implicitly supporting the government’s [internationally illegal] position by effectively locking up a swathe of their own citizens in glorified concentration camps?
The two examples are at opposite ends of the response scale, but they highlight the same issues.
If we give assistance into a situation with an unacceptable level of injustice such as this, do we make ourselves complicit in that injustice? Do we effectively support it?
If we do deliver aid in these situations, can will it be used effectively?
Do we compromise our neutrality and impartiality in doing so?
But if we withhold aid, what will the humanitarian consequences be? Will people die? Will we be responsible for that, or are the perpetrators of injustice to blame?
By withholding aid, are we actually making ourselves part of the politics of the situation, and in fact are compromising our neutrality and impartiality anyway? Can we ever truly be neutral? Does the fact that, as NGOs, we engage in public advocacy make us politically biased entities to begin with?
And if we try and change the situation, will the people we want to help suffer more? How can we know, with so much insecurity and paucity of information in these situations? How are we supposed to know what decisions to make at all?
I don’t have any easy answers. Placing restrictions on aid is, as my friend observed in her message, the start of a slippery slope. It begs the question under what circumstances of injustice you start placing the restrictions, and who decides, and using what benchmark?
One thing that does have to be recognized, is that as humanitarian operatives, no matter what we try and say on the outside, we are agents of social change. Cultures change, societies change. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle states that the observer affects that which they observe. Although it was devised in the field of particle physics, it’s never truer than in sociology and anthropology. Simply by being present, we aid workers will alter a culture and a society.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There are some things that are simply wrong, and which should be acknowledged as such around the world. Treating women as though they are on a lower tier than men is one of them. Female genital mutilation, the practice of cutting the sexual organs of girls which still happens in some countries, is another. Leaving unwanted infants out in the open to die of exposure is a third. Discriminating against people because of their gender, race or political views, yet another. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights lays out a pretty comprehensive list of other things which most of the world, from vastly different ethnic, religious, historical and national backgrounds, have all signed and agreed to.
So our question then, as aid workers, is how do we respond in an ethically appropriate manner when we meet these things in the field. Do we ignore them in the name of service provision, and risk compromising our ethical purity and possibly reinforcing a bankrupt system? Or do we make them an issue, shooting down our neutrality and stepping in deliberately as agents of social change- but with what agenda, and what right?
If you have opinions on any of this, I’d love to hear from you. And while a few of you who read this blog are humanitarian workers yourselves (and I’d be interested to hear your thoughts), plenty of you are not and I’d value your perspective as well.
An ongoing discussion…