Human rights, hypocrisy and a humanitarian summit

Published by The ipaper (23rm March, 2016)

Four years ago United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon announced his idea for a giant summit to discuss the stumbling response systems to global humanitarian crises. Since then, 23,000 people in 153 countries have supposedly been consulted. And now the canapés are being cooked, fine wines selected and podiums prepared as some 6,000 politicians, business leaders and aid groups arrive in Turkey for the world’s biggest talking shop on aid.

Few expect the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, which open this week, to achieve anything. This is, after all, a sector that holds endless conferences. There will be brave talk, backslapping and bold claims, alongside usual pleas for more cash. Already Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) has pulled out, condemning the jamboree as a ‘fig leaf of good intentions’ that will do nothing to protect the planet’s most vulnerable people. Others still attending admit to low expectations.

Yet the event shines a spotlight on the poverty sector, perhaps the only industry to have such a dismal record of persistent failure yet keep getting handed bigger and bigger chunks of taxpayer’s cash. For half a century muddled ‘humanitarian’ interventions have prolonged wars, aided killers, assisted despots, funded conflict and fuelled corruption, all too often backfiring on the poor and dispossessed. Yet they keep talking about smarter aid, better aid, doing aid differently. No-one can accuse this gathering of cautious aims.

Core issues for debate include stopping conflict, respecting rules of war, ending need and addressing forced displacement refugees. Yet for all the fine words that will flow in Istanbul, this is being held in a nation blocking the border with Syria to stop refugees and engaged in battle with Kurdish militants that has left more than 5,000 dead since the collapse of peace talks last year. Turkey’s president has also cracked down hard on media and opposition groups.

Consider also the hypocrisy of the host. The UN has still not properly apologised or accepted responsibility for its blundering response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, when it introduced cholera and unleashed an epidemic that has left almost 10,000 people dead and 770,000 needing hospital treatment. Meanwhile there is a growing scandal over rape and child abuse by its peacekeepers in central Africa, with the organisation’s inadequate response heavily criticised and barely any prosecutions despite horrifying details emerging.

But Ban Ki-moon will make impassioned pleas for a better world. He will be joined by senior British and American politicians while their nations sell weapons to Saudi forces bombing Yemen, one of the world’s most acute humanitarian concerns. Leaders of European Union nations will pontificate about good deeds and aiding refugees even as Brussels makes secret deals with several countries including Sudan, whose leader is accused of genocide, to build detention units for migrants.

The EU’s deal with Turkey to stop refugees has been condemned by human rights groups for infringing international law. This response encouraged Kenya to announce the closure of Dadaab, the world’s biggest refugee camp, and send back several hundred thousand displaced Somalis to their troubled homeland. ‘In Europe, rich, prosperous and democratic countries are turning away refugees from Syria, one of the worst war zones since World War Two,’ said minister of interior Joseph Nkaisserry in justification. So the spiral of deceit continues and refugees suffer.

Meanwhile the aid sector swells ever bigger; this conference has three times as many people going as expected. There is big money in the industry, with £107bn pumped into the ‘aid economy’ annually and sums spent on humanitarian relief rising twelvefold since the start of the century. Much is soaked up by a handful of major players: the World Food Programme employs 14,000 staff, Oxfam 10,000 worldwide. Private firms are also getting in on the act, with major contractors seeing profits, margins and six-figure salaries grow fast.

The Norwegian Refugee Council, a major charity heavily funded by Britain, saw turnover double in just four years. Save the Children has a new boss paid £235,000 a year. Yet as MSF has said, the core issue impacting on emergency relief is often attitude, not cash. When I was in Liberia at the height of ebola, there were just two outside aid groups daring to tackle the epidemic; ministers persuaded another to work in Sierra Leone only with threats to cut funding. Far easier to promote the illusion of spurring democracy and sparking development. So no surprise to see debate planned over corroding still further the divisions between humanitarian and ‘development’ work.

When refugees themselves were asked last year about aid agencies, the verdict was damning. They talked of confusion and duplication, of lack of consultation and disrespect, of failure to protect the most vulnerable. This should be the key issue in Istanbul. For the aid sector has become self-serving, dominated by a small group of global giants often with immense power in places where they operate while wearing their cloaks of compassion. Yet too often – from Biafra half a century ago to many parts of the world today – they end up harming those they claim to help.

Ultimately these Western-based agencies – whether international bodies, private contractors or giant charities – are not answerable to those they assist. And from the UN down they ignore conflicts of interest that would be condemned in any other arena, with the same organisations appraising needs, running lucrative projects and evaluating results. Some are good, some are bad. But collectively the humanitarian sector has calcified into something arrogant, unaccountable and self-aggrandising. Prepare for another chorus of sanctimonious humbug.

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