Uneasy bedfellows? Stabilisation and humanitarian action

Samir Elhawary
Samir Elhawary
28 May 2010
Comment

A renewed donor interest in stabilising countries affected by political violence, armed conflict and chronic poverty – so-called fragile states – should come as a welcome development to humanitarians who have long complained of the indifference shown to large-scale human suffering in these contexts. In some places, at least, it could mean that humanitarian assistance is no longer used for ‘moral absolution' in the absence of serious political commitment to protecting civilians.

Yet humanitarians, as highlighted in a new Humanitarian Policy Group Working Paper, ‘States of Fragility', are not content. They argue that this renewed concern with ‘stabilising' fragile states – driven mainly by powerful states' geo-strategic interests and the ‘war on terror' – is seeking to politicise and securitise humanitarian relief along the way. The emphasis on ‘integrated' approaches, with soldiers, diplomats, development professionals and aid workers working together to enhance ‘stability' is seen not only as a threat to the core humanitarian principles of neutrality, independence and impartiality, but as neglecting the goals and boundaries of humanitarianism. Their discontent is heightened by the apparent failure of stabilisation to deliver what it says on the tin: in Afghanistan and elsewhere, stabilisation seems, if anything, to be generating further conflict and instability. In essence, stabilisation is about the pursuit of a political order that the stabilisers hope, but cannot know (and certainly cannot guarantee) will prove stable. In the meantime, challengers and spoilers may well associate international (or Western) humanitarian agencies with a political project that they reject, and are all the more likely to try to undermine humanitarian action or view aid workers as legitimate targets.

On the face of it, humanitarians are right in that they are not in the business of enhancing ‘stability'. They are there to alleviate the immediate symptoms of crises or instability, rather than deal with its causes. But, in reality, is there really so much that divides the goals of ‘humanitarians' and the intentions of Western governments trying to stabilise crisis-affected societies?

There has been a growing disconnect between humanitarian debate and its practice on the ground since the mid-1990s. Whilst relief agencies remain strongly attached to the core principles of humanitarian action and political neutrality, very few are only ‘humanitarian' or completely ‘apolitical', as seen in the deliberate expansion of humanitarian action across the sector from palliative help to supporting people's livelihoods and recovery, linking relief with development, promoting human rights and supporting ‘capacities for peace'. The actual boundaries and ambitions of international humanitarianism are not as distinct from the ‘softer' end of stabilisation as its core rhetoric suggests.

The HPG working paper, based on case studies from nine countries (Afghanistan, Burundi, Colombia, Haiti, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Sri Lanka and Timor Leste), considers the relationship between stabilisation and humanitarian action. It explores the evolution and content of ‘stabilisation', arguing that, at a minimum, stabilisation is about achieving strategic security objectives linked to counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency and transnational crime prevention, but incorporates broader political ambitions that overlap with other policy areas such as peace-building, state-building and development. Its open-ended nature creates confusion in its goals and implementation. Despite an emphasis on ‘coherence' and ‘complementarity' by the many actors involved, the reality is often one of competing mandates, priorities, interests and capacities.

The paper goes on to consider the implications of stabilisation for humanitarian action. It sees the relationship between the two as highly contentious, not only because of the ambiguities of stabilisation, but also because of deep-seated uncertainties around which principles, priorities and goals should guide humanitarian actors in these complex crises, and how humanitarianism should relate to politics, or more specifically, the transformative agendas that stabilisation seeks to pursue. Humanitarian actors have been preoccupied with the growing engagement of the military in the humanitarian sphere, but it is the engagement with politics that is the bigger challenge.

The paper ends by probing future trends in the relationship. The success or failure of ‘stabilisation' to actually deliver positive change and improve humanitarian outcomes will, ultimately, determine whether humanitarians will retreat back to the ethical ‘safety zone' of a conservative humanitarianism, or compromise their principles to support political efforts to improve human welfare.. Recent experience in Afghanistan, Somalia and Pakistan suggests that we may see more of the former, but this will be tempered by international agencies' continuing financial reliance on the donor governments leading the stabilisation charge.

With thanks to Sarah Collinson for her contribution. A modified version of the working paper and some of the case studies will be published in a Special Issue of the journal Disasters in October 2010. The authors would welcome any comments or feedback on the working paper that might inform the development of the Special Issue. Please email the authors on [email protected] or [email protected] or post a comment on this blog.

Samir Elhawary