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Humanitarian efforts constrained by militaristic aid

War often seen as humanitarianism in globalized, post-9/11 world, barring other methods of relief

Contributing Writer
Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Whether humanitarianism occupies a “shrinking space” in the contemporary world was the question Unni Karunakara, former international president of Medecins Sans Frontieres and senior fellow at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale, posed to a crowd of about 40 in the Watson Institute for International Studies’ Joukowsky Forum Monday.

Karunakara tackled this question by drawing on his nearly 20 years of MSF experience, which began when he set up a tuberculosis control program in Ethiopia in 1995, according to the Watson Institute’s website.

It has become increasingly difficult for humanitarian agencies to gain access to the people who need assistance in a political climate in which “bureaucracy and red tape are not insignificant barriers,” Karunakara said. “What has narrowed is that area ­— that space to find a common ground and to put people on the ground,” he added.

Karunakara kicked off the lecture by describing the history of humanitarianism throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, setting the stage for his analysis of the current state of humanitarianism in a post-9/11 world while also noting that aid organizations have never been entirely unhindered by politics.

His lecture centered on the forces that constrain humanitarianism post-9/11. He argued that modern humanitarianism has been “shaped by the global war on terror” and must now adapt to a world in which security overrides concerns about human rights and sovereignty.

“The world is in a perpetual state of hot war,” he said.

Karunakara recalled an advertisement he saw in a Danish movie theater that equated joining the military with humanitarian work, noting that “war itself is being portrayed as humanitarianism.”

This modern idea of military humanitarianism, he argued, is damaging to international aid work because it “confuses two profoundly different human endeavors,” undermining the trust that allows humanitarian organizations to operate in dangerous areas.

Throughout the lecture, Karunakara cited real examples of incidents in which violence against medical aid agencies, especially hospitals, led to people in crisis being deprived of the medical care they needed. The narrowing of humanitarian space is important not only because of “our concern for the integrity of humanitarian action,” but even more so because of “a pragmatic concern” regarding the destructive impact on those who do not otherwise receive medical care, he said.

Karunakara’s descriptions of instances of violence against humanitarian workers were “very shocking,” said Allison Schaefer ’17, adding that she “didn’t realize quite how little security these MSF people have.”

The ability of international aid organizations to provide medical care to those in need is “predicated on the trust that we are able to build with local authorities,” because organizations like MSF have no armed guards, Karunakara said.

Elena Lledo, a local art historian, attended the lecture because she is “interested in anybody who takes human rights seriously.” It was “hard to disagree with that amount of experience,” Lledo said, but she added that she had hoped there would be more emphasis on the amount of good that humanitarian efforts have accomplished. Activists “have done a lot of good … within this very confusing situation,” she said.

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