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The shared interests which make humanitarianism possible
Michaël Neuman

Is humanitarian space shrinking? Are humanitarian organisations less capable than before of providing those affected by war, epidemics and natural disasters with assistance? In a new publication, "Humanitarian Negotiations Revealed – The MSF Experience", MSF looks at the difficulties encountered by aid organisations from a different angle. Based on the association’s recent experience, it argues that relief activities are not in any way linked to the existence of a humanitarian space which simply needs to be defended on ethical terms against attempts to instrumentalise it. The authors explain that the central question in terms of aid organizations gaining access to a space in which to work is their ability to reach a compromise between their interests and those of the powers in place. Thus, the question is: what is an acceptable compromise in the eyes of a humanitarian organization like MSF?

In July 2004, Médecins Sans Frontières decided to leave Afghanistan after twenty-four years of medical projects in the country. Five members of the association had been killed in June in an attack in the province of Badghis. The Taliban, who had been ousted by the international military intervention three years previously, were not responsible – as we would later learn – but nevertheless claimed responsibility. They explained that humanitarian organizations like MSF served the interests of the United States. For its part, the NGO stated, on announcing its withdrawal, that “independent humanitarian action, which involves unarmed aid workers going into areas of conflict to provide aid, has become impossible” in Afghanistan [1]. A few weeks later, an American academic close to the Bush Administration wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “The principle championed by Doctors Without Borders – that civilian professionals providing medical help to the suffering will be granted safe passage – is now part of our nostalgic past” [2].

In the years following the declaration by Colin Powell that NGOs were “force multipliers” for US diplomatic and military action, numerous aid actors, United Nations agencies and NGOs played into the hands of Taliban propaganda by explicitly supporting the war effort and the struggle to impose democracy in Afghanistan. MSF, which had refused to be associated with the reconstruction and campaigned for the need to maintain independent and impartial humanitarian aid, felt incomprehension. And yet, in March 2003, the murder of a delegate from the International Committee of the Red Cross had already shown that an approach based on the affirmation of the principles of neutrality, independence and impartiality was not enough to guarantee humanitarian organizations access to the victims of the conflict.

[1] MSF Press Release, 28 July 2004.

[2] Cheryl Benard, “Afghanistan without doctors”, The Wall Street Journal, 12 August 2004.