What of France’s current humanitarian policy ?
In the 2008 Humanitarian Response Index, France was ranked 20th in a league table of 23 humanitarian donors  , far behind the top-ranked countries, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Ireland. The amount of money that France contributes to humanitarian aid is particularly low (57 million dollars in 2007, less than 1% of development aid), which places it in 19th position in terms of generosity.
This ranking clearly highlights the difference between France’s image – a country with a strong humanitarian tradition, whose Minister of Foreign Affairs is a famous humanitarian – and the reality of its approach to humanitarian aid, which is weak both in terms of funding and in terms of strategy.
The current reform of the French humanitarian system (the recent creation of the Centre de Crise and the plan to strengthen the role of the French Development Agency) will hopefully result in better organisation of means, people and ideas and improve effectiveness in crisis and post-crisis situations. There is an urgent need for the French state to openly and unreservedly reaffirm its commitment to the international “humanitarian project” and for it to develop a strategic vision for aid based on fundamental values and principles which is coherent with the action of NGOs, the UN, the Red Cross movement and Europe.
But in order to do this, the sensitive issue of the role of the state in humanitarian aid needs to be clarified. Many NGOs (and French NGOs in general, which were created in opposition to the state) question the legitimacy of “state humanitarianism”. Some feel that, as states are driven by geo-political or economic interests, humanitarian action should be the preserve of civil society.
And yet, it is nonetheless these very same states that drew up the texts of International Humanitarian Law on which humanitarian aid is based and which affirm that every individual, in any situation – including the madness of war – has the right to dignity and security. When they have signed the Geneva Conventions or the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, states must respect them themselves and ensure that they are respected by others. This is no mean task in a world where the battle between the axis of ‘good’ and the axis of ‘evil’ almost wiped the slate clean of 150 years of humanitarian law.
It is also true that when humanitarian aid replaces policy we can lose sight of the real political and diplomatic issues involved in crisis management and the importance of prevention. The visible side of emergency aid covered by the media should never let us forget the real issues which caused the crisis. The different wars in the Balkans showed the extent to which there is a risk of humanitarian aid being used for political ends, whether this is to cover for diplomatic failure, or as a way of justifying military intervention. However, political negotiations, peacekeeping operations, and crisis resolution issues (the fate of refugees, access to land for IDPs, the urban integration of certain neighbourhoods, etc.) are all connected to humanitarianism. The risk of ‘dangerous liaisons’ shows how important it is to develop a strategy for civilian humanitarian action by the state, based on humanitarian principles. To do this, it is important to clarify the interactions between humanitarian action and crisis management instruments and particularly those involving the military.
At the same time, it is difficult to deny that the humanitarian system is almost wholly dependent on state funding. MSF, which primarily uses private funds, can not be used as a model for the whole system, considering the needs that exist and the colossal amounts of money involved. There were 130 million victims of natural disasters in 2006 alone and there are 24.5 million displaced persons in the world… States are responsible for doing all they can to prevent these needs from appearing, but they also have an ethical responsibility to help those in distress and to do all they can to protect civilians, including in places which are not in the media spotlight where private money is less likely to go.
In a world where there are more and more victims of natural disasters and increasing political instability, there is an urgent need to develop a new vision and strategy for France’s humanitarian aid which goes beyond institutional reorganisation and reform of crisis management mechanisms. Such a strategy is essential to deal with the issues ahead. It should neither be naïve nor cynical. There is a real need for the active participation of each nation in the debates concerning the reform of the UN’s humanitarian system and the implementation of the European Humanitarian Consensus. France will only be able to climb back up the league table of international donors by reviewing its fundamental approach, not by juggling figures. This is necessary, not for competitive reasons, but in order to respond better to the needs of people affected by crises.
Véronique de Geoffroy, Director of operations, Groupe URD.