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Has rational humanitarianism replaced relational humanitarianism?
Arnaud Dandoy

This article responds to criticism of the Groupe URD Haiti Observatory report on humanitarian organisations and security in Metropolitan Port-au-Prince. It reiterates the main conclusions of the report and underlines the importance of situating the security policies of humanitarian organisations within a specific historical and cultural context; that of increased rationalisation of the humanitarian domain since the Cold War. The article concludes that there is a danger of limiting the question of humanitarian insecurity to technocratic issues of calculation and control.

In October 2013, Groupe URD’s Haiti Observatory published its report about the security policies of humanitarian organisations [1]. The topic of this study was chosen due to the fact that the security measures of the major international organisations, such as United Nations agencies, humanitarian NGOs and donors, were extremely strict and had not been revised since the earthquake of January 12, 2010. The report concludes that the systematic application and de-contextualisation of restrictive security measures, including for movement and mobility, is counterproductive and susceptible to put humanitarian staff in greater danger. Naturally, the idea was not to minimize the phenomenon of urban violence in Port-au-Prince, which remains extremely worrying. However, despite the existence of genuine risk for humanitarians, it is necessary to take a step back from the doom-mongering about insecurity in Port-au-Prince. Indeed, the myth of an endemic and omnipresent threat obscures understanding of humanitarian insecurity and leads to inappropriate security decisions. As such, it seems essential that the issue of security within humanitarian organizations should not be the preserve of those in charge of security. Security cannot be evaluated in isolation. It is profoundly influenced by political, social, environmental and economic issues [2]. The aim of the study is to provide humanitarian organisations who want to revise their security approach in Haiti with elements that will help them.

The publication of the report sparked a great many reactions. Indeed, there is still a great deal of reticence, and even hostility, towards non-mainstream ideas which question the validity and legitimacy of the security policies of humanitarian organizations. The study therefore caused an outcry among certain heads of security who took offence that their work and their authority could be questioned. And yet, by going against the ideas of the small number of “experts” who monopolise discussions about this issue, the report only re-established a certain balance. Indeed, one of the objectives of the study was to give humanitarian workers a voice as they are often silenced on account of their supposed ignorance or immaturity. Considering that humanitarian workers do not spontaneously espouse the views of their organisations in terms of security and often disagree with their heads of security, it is clear why some were unhappy with the report. The fact that there was a strong reaction to the study can only be for the better. The question of security is so important (a question of life or death) that it deserves to be debated and provided with constructive criticism. Not in order to be polemical or to engage in “aid bashing”, as has been suggested, but to help to move discussions forward about the security policies of humanitarian organisations. To talk of aid bashing – a common refrain at the moment – often amounts to putting one’s head in the sand and ignoring problems so that they do not have to be dealt with.

[1] Link: http://www.urd.org/Study-Security-and-Humanitarian

[2] See the work of Groupe URD « Pour une gestion programmatique de la sécurité », 1999, www.urd.org