BRAD EVANS: Your extensive career working for international aid organizations has meant coming face to face with many of the world’s crises. How has the humanitarian terrain changed over this period, and in particular, what have been the greatest political challenges you’ve faced?
GARETH OWEN: My experience of humanitarianism began at the tender age of 24 in Somalia in January 1993, soon after the arrival of international troops under the US-led “Operation Restore Hope.” I went out to help distribute food to the starving masses and in doing so became an unwitting participant in one of the most extraordinary and hyper-masculine aid operations in history. Reflecting on this in later life has been a painful experience. The son and grandson of university professors, I was a privileged, middle-class Western kid looking to find myself on a road less traveled. I was a naïve, idealistic humanist, with a postcolonial guilt complex. I saw myself going out there to make amends for my own country’s violent history by doing good in the world. I was going to war not holding a gun but carrying the olive branch of humanity. I had no sense of the political activism in which humanitarian action is rooted. I was merely acting out a rather self-indulgent fantasy. I was driven more by foolhardy impulsiveness than courageous determination. I left Somalia soon after the Black Hawk Down incident that signaled the disastrous endgame of an operation meant to “Restore Hope.”
Within days of leaving Somalia, I was embroiled in another of Africa’s most brutal civil wars. I was sent to the besieged city of Malanje in Angola to help establish an emergency feeding program for starving children. I had no humanitarian training and knew little of the rules of the Geneva Convention or the norms of International Humanitarian Law. What I encountered there was anarchic lawlessness and extreme violence in a culture of near total impunity. It was like living life in a really bad horror movie minus the suspenseful soundtrack. Somalia had been a strangely enjoyable adventure, but Angola damaged me greatly. I came home from there in the summer of 1994 broken by trauma, a forever changed person.
Arriving home, I watched the Rwandan genocide and the ensuing Goma refugee crisis unfold on my television screen and felt a tremendous sense of collective failure. Western powers, distracted by the conflict in the Balkans, had been loath to engage militarily, despite the desperate calls from UN peacekeepers on the ground like Canada’s General Roméo Dallaire. It was a monumental failure that had a profound effect on the humanitarian aid community too. In the immediate aftermath of the Rwanda genocide, international NGOs began to question action based solely on the humanitarian imperative and unregulated volunteerism. This critical reflection ushered in a new era of humanitarian professionalism that sought new standards of conduct and accountability.
Appreciating the international political dimensions to interventions, how might we see the changing nature of liberal order through the lens of humanitarian interventions?
The short decade of liberal humanitarian interventions came to an abrupt end in the Kosovo crisis at the turn of the new millennium, though there was a brief final fling by the British under Prime Minister Tony Blair in Sierra Leone. Then 9/11 happened and the geopolitical calculus changed completely. George W. Bush’s Global War on Terror had a hugely blurring effect on the perceptions among recipient communities toward the motives of international humanitarian agencies. Unwillingly co-opted toward an agenda of regime change in the Western-led military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, these humanitarian agencies were now viewed with increasing suspicion by the local population. Hitherto, it had largely still been possible to operate in accordance with the conventional humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality, and independence in order to gain the acceptance of local communities in need of aid. Humanitarian agencies had the luxury of believing that these humanitarian principles created the space and trust they needed to work, and most Western humanitarians saw themselves as ultimately protected by their good intentions. But that was now gone. A new identity politics was emerging that viewed all Western-based institutions as potential enemies. The number of aid workers being killed in the line of duty spiraled upward as a result, with terrorists the world over viewing aid agencies as legitimate “soft targets” in their ideological struggles against the Western Liberal Order.
Over the past decade, since the advent of the Arab Spring, there has been an upswing in the number of countries experiencing protracted conflict, for example the Syria conflict is now approaching its 10th year. Between 2000 and 2017, 27 countries had more than five consecutive years of crisis. In 2018, there were 16 counties that fell into this bracket. This has led to the largest number of refugees and internally displaced persons since World War II. In 2018, their numbers had risen for the seventh year in a row to 70.8 million (a three percent rise from 2017). They are forced to endure a perilous, semi-stateless existence in soulless camps or crowded urban ghettos for years on end, or embark on the long, uncertain migration road to “freedom” in the West.
Violence has always been the root of humanitarian crisis, but together with climate change, it has caused a huge growth in humanitarian need this century. At the same time, starting with the US Patriot Act, most governments have, in the years since 9/11, introduced a raft of restrictive legislation aimed at strengthening national security. This inward-looking agenda has made mounting international humanitarian aid operations in complex conflict settings ever more challenging, as agencies are now required to meet stringent anti-terrorism, anti-fraud, and data protection regulations designed to meet domestic statutory legal requirements in their home countries. Meanwhile, almost perversely, increasing amounts of humanitarian aid money has been offered by many of the same governments as a weak alternative in the absence of the international political will needed to collaboratively resolve conflict. This has led to a vast expansion of the number and type of aid actors in the humanitarian sector and an increasingly bloated and bureaucratic aid enterprise. In 2018, 206.4 million people in 81 countries needed humanitarian assistance, and international humanitarian assistance from governments and private donors reached $29 billion, increasing by a third since 2014. However, despite the dramatic growth, to the “old school” humanitarians like myself, it feels like the halcyon days of our noble cause are behind us, just at a time when it is clearly needed more than ever. Maybe it’s just “gray-bearded” nostalgia, but the bureaucratization of humanitarian agencies has undoubtedly made our work more cumbersome. The collective cause hasn’t really changed that much. Humanitarian agencies are still full of incredibly talented and dedicated people, it’s just that we seem to allow what Michael Power called “the risk management of everything” to get in our own way a lot more these days.
Mindful of the complexities regarding containment (not to mention how it plays into overtly politicized narratives regarding sovereignty, identity, and the question of race and its colonial legacies), I’d like to now turn your attention back to the Ebola crises in West Africa of 2014. How do you now look back upon that crisis given the problems we currently face?
It is somewhat odd to be looking back on the West Africa Ebola crisis just as the world is battling to subdue the coronavirus pandemic. I recall my Welsh grandfather telling the story of how he had to bury 60 dead Scotsman in Flanders in 1918, who died of the Spanish flu on the boat across. That was the last time we have faced an outbreak on this scale.
The world was slow to react to Ebola. It was February 2014 when the first suspected cases were registered in Guinea. With a case fatality rate of up to 90 percent, Ebola is among the world’s deadliest of diseases. An outbreak in such parts of West Africa was highly unusual. As the weeks wore on, the areas affected by Ebola in Guinea kept growing and new cases appeared in neighboring Liberia. This too was unusual for Ebola — a disease so deadly that outbreaks normally disappeared quickly due to the human hosts rapidly succumbing before they could spread the infection very far. However, by early June, cases were also beginning to be recorded in Sierra Leone. The Ebola outbreak, far from abating, was just getting going. Though concern was rising, there was insufficient concerted action. It was not until August, when UK Prime Minister David Cameron and US President Barack Obama discussed the outbreak and WHO declared it an emergency, that the coordinated international response really began. It had become a matter of national security. The motive of the West was containment. There was no widely available vaccine for Ebola, due to its rarity as a disease. As such, it was not a viable investment for any commercial pharmaceutical company. But presumably because of concerns over its potential use as a biological weapon, there had been enough scientific research and testing to allow for a fast-tracking of vaccine production. The economics had suddenly shifted now that it posed a clear and present danger to the West.
In any major disease outbreak the focus has to be on prevention of transmission through public health education, effective case management, and strengthening of health systems. My own organization’s response to the crisis reached more than 541,000 people, including over 276,000 children. We ran treatment centers, rehabilitated water and sanitation facilities, and trained community health workers to spread the word through house-to-house education campaigns. We reunified unaccompanied and orphaned children with their families, carried out awareness-raising activities to help prevent vulnerable women and girls falling victim to gender-based violence, supported school reopening, and provided cash grants to vulnerable households. It was a massive effort from a major international aid organization. But it was behavior change among the affected communities that really made the difference. Some of that had to be enforced by government restrictions, as we are seeing in today’s coronavirus pandemic, but much of it happened through peer education within the communities themselves.
Shortly after 9/11, Zygmunt Bauman argued that we shifted from the logics of mutually assured destruction to a mutually assured sense of vulnerability. While this was compelling from the perspective of explicit political terrorism and violence, it perhaps resonated less among the middle classes in terms everyday insecurities — notably food and health (which have been a principal concern for aid workers for a number of decades). These are issues we are now all having to painfully come to terms with. Might this be a case of humanitarianism coming home, so to speak? And what political and social dangers do we need to avoid in the current climate?
I think it is definitely a case of humanitarianism coming home. The sight of Londoners from all walks of life nervously queuing together outside the supermarket door, spread two meters apart by social distancing as they wait to pick over half-empty grocery shelves, is a desperately familiar one. I have organized such food queues the world over, but I have never stood in one myself. It is a humbling new experience. Then I went out for a walk just as the whole country was cheering and applauding our National Health Service. My heart was filled with the joy of our rediscovered shared humanity. That felt like the complete opposite of the moral blindness of modernity that Bauman so lamented. The virus does not seek to discriminate, it merely seeks to replicate. The homeless, frontline health staff, company chiefs, and even the future British king have all felt its grip. But it is still true that the poorest are inevitably always more vulnerable than the richest. So for me, the biggest political and social danger we face is that when it is over, we all too quickly forget what the crisis is teaching us about the enormous societal power to be found in collective compassionate empathy. We cannot allow ourselves to return to our old selfish habits.
In the meantime, with millions of lives at risk, the pandemic represents a threat to the global rules-based order like no other. It’s a tension being felt across all governments as they seek to protect national interests. The organized multilateral aid system therefore needs to function better than it ever has before in support of those national efforts, or we may be about to witness its demise.
In conclusion, given these lessons and the need for better public awareness, what are your thoughts on the current crisis? And what are your hopes for the future of humanitarianism?
Today we are experiencing some of the most challenging circumstances that we have faced in a very long time. The stark lesson of Ebola is that the world has continued to invest very little in being sufficiently prepared for massive emergencies. This was my fear at the time: that the Ebola outbreak would not prove a sufficient fright to jolt the world out of its complacency. With the coronavirus pandemic, we will necessarily see a different attitude emerge. Its economic effects will be so enormous that the world will have to sit up and take proper notice. It is high time that all walks of life the world over got used to the idea that we share the same planet.
Maybe the spontaneous community activism and solidarity emerging in response to the coronavirus crisis will evolve into a new culture of enduring collaborative kindness and optimism as the crisis abates. It's a great leveler. The West have had their love of freedom, independence, and individuality thoroughly upturned by these events. We are starting to feel the kind of pain and suffering that so many have felt at our hands while we have gathered around us such unimaginable riches. Maybe there’ll be more humanity, more international solidarity, more international cooperation, more global leadership to tackle the great problems of the 21st century. These are things that we so desperately need.
Brad Evans is a political philosopher, critical theorist, and writer, who specializes on the problem of violence. He is the founder/director of the Histories of Violence project, which has a global user base covering 143 countries.