Pitfalls and Potential

May 15, 2010

Ethnic conflict is rarely a simple matter, and yet, when violence breaks out in the world, international humanitarian organizations tend to follow a predictable pattern. After, and even sometimes while, the fighting is still going on these organizations rush into place to begin the relief effort. Increasingly these relief agencies find themselves under fire for failure to understand local conditions and for being insufficiently independent of the international government actors who are often involved militarily in the working out of conflicts. States can use their inordinate funding power over humanitarian actors to direct their actions. So when images of humanitarian crisis are seared into the collective consciousness of Western citizens instead of governments sending in troops they can send in humanitarians. This has a dual effect. First, they are not seen as militaristic; second they are seen as sensitive to the problem and active without risking the lives of soldiers.

In pursuing the interests of their international donors, humanitarian agencies may miss the opportunity to aid in the stable rebuilding of a post-conflict society. This paper will examine the pitfalls that many humanitarian relief organizations face in the current world of international aid and intervention using the frameworks provided by the work of Hugo Slim and Roberto Belloni. Having understood this point, the case studies of Ashutosh Varshney, Roman Krzarnic, and Camilla Orjeula in India, Guatemala, and Sri Lanka respectively point towards a need for international humanitarian organizations to focus on the work of rebuilding post-conflict societies’ organs of civil society. This work will prove useful in building and sustaining lasting ethnic trust and peace with post-conflict areas.

In the beginning humanitarian organizations were careful to distance themselves from politics. Organizations like the Red Cross still do this, enshrining in policy the idea that they are to be totally neutral, even when events around them are not. What this did, though, was circumscribe some efforts. Humanitarian organizations operating under these guidelines could not intervene on behalf of women’s right to vote, for example, because to do that would be to politicize their efforts. “All international orders have winners and losers and thus require their quota of victims. Humanitarianism interrupts this selection process by saving lives, thus reducing the number of sacrifices. However, it does not aspire to alter that order; that is the job of politics.” Just as this classical humanitarianism does not seek to alter politics, its stance serves to render politics unable to alter it. Political considerations are (allegedly) absent in classical humanitarian undertakings. ”In the 90s, though, some relief organizations started to work alongside states in certain situations, and states began to operate their own pseudo-relief organizations. The line blurred. “Humanitarian principles were completely shattered in places like Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq, where many agencies were funded by the very governments that were combatants and thus partly responsible for the emergency.”

Some see the changes in humanitarianism and the expansion of humanitarian efforts as part of a Western rejection of the legitimacy of war. “For Keegan and others, the international community’s new emphasis on humanitarian action is part of a deeper and increasing objection to war itself.” John Keegan, aforementioned, says that in cases like Somalia the “effort at peace-making is motivated not by calculation of political interest, but repulsion at the spectacle of what war does.” More cynical people would suggest that increasing humanitarian intervention gives states and international actors like the UN an excuse for not getting more intimately involved in the conflicts across the world. Still others hold that humanitarianism is a stand-in for sustainable development and that the first world has given up on dreams of universal development and now wants to simply contain discontent with an international welfare state. Mark Duffield and others argue that humanitarianism is now nothing more than a front for the spread of liberal democracy by states and actors who have limited understandings (at best) of the societies they are attempting to work within.

For example, international borders do not accurately reflect the areas in which power is exercised in many cases. “There is strikingly little innovation among diplomats to try to revise current international legal practice to take account of the failed state phenomenon.” One must also understand the political economy that determines the funding of humanitarian agencies. States and corporations derive benefit from being seen to support worthy causes, and in some cases aid agencies work towards the same goals that states want to see achieved and are able to do so more cheaply than a state would be able to. The legal environment changed also, as states began demanding structural changes from countries they intervened in. Conflict states were now expected to adopt democracy and market economies and the rule of law. These changes opened the door for various agencies to step in and help conflict societies make the transitions. Belloni orients his criticism of international humanitarianism and its current state around eight theses:

1. “Humanitarianism simplifies too much.” Belloni argues that humanitarian actors refuse to acknowledge the complexity of human existence, instead reducing people into victims and perpetrators. In doing so, humanitarianism closes itself off to the complexity of the issues it enters into.

2. “Humanitarianism misinterprets reality and delays effective intervention.” Humanitarianism often takes crises and events as discrete things that have happened incomprehensibly. Agencies are constantly reacting to events rather than understanding and anticipating conflict. Because of this many humanitarian organizations are ill equipped to actually intervene in an effective way when conflict flares up.

3. “Humanitarianism induces minorities to raise the level of violence.” If belligerents know that assistance will come if they cause trouble, then they are incentivized to cause trouble.

4. “Humanitarianism prolongs war and misery” Humanitarian rhetoric often slows down peace negotiations. “Critics of humanitarianism argue that the expectation that respect for human rights must be part of a peace settlement complicates the work of international mediators who cannot endorse, or be seen to endorse, political solutions which cannot be justified in human rights terms.”

5. “Humanitarianism is not altruistic.” The actions of modern humanitarianism are more often than not designed to negate the effects of conflict on the west. Furthermore, in situations where the West might have to take on a risk, humanitarian organizations insulate them against this risk.

6. “Humanitarianism is organizationally dysfunctional.” Many humanitarian agencies share similar make-ups to government agencies and international actors. NGOs in these positions of interconnectivity are often unable to speak truth to power in any significant way because of conflicts of interest and connections that they cannot risk offending.

7. “Humanitarianism reinforces the predominance of local warlike elites.” It is all too easy for warlords and conflict wagers to take advantage of the money and supply that rolls in as a result of humanitarian efforts.

8. “Humanitarianism reproduces the very same cleavages it tries to overcome.” Very often international humanitarian intervention perpetuates and entrenches the separations that contributed to the outbreak of violence and conflict in the first place. “Once again, the Balkans offers an important illustration. While the international presence has been justified in humanitarian terms to overcome fear and divisions, it has endorsed and perpetuated the very same cleavages it sought to address.”

Having identified these problems, the experts disagree on the ramifications. Stephen John Stedman says that in every post-Cold War conflict critics have retrospectively claimed that the tragedy could have been prevented if only steps X, Y, and Z had been taken. There is certainly an air of truth to this, but perhaps only because conditions in conflict zones are rarely understood due to lack of attention until after the fighting has died down. If resources were devoted to identifying potential trouble spots and working to diffuse them, might this problem be addressed?

Accordingly, Belloni recommends a focus on prevention rather than on reaction. More study to identify potential trouble spots and work to diffuse burgeoning conflict will reduce the eventual outlay in monetary and human costs to fix post-war societies and will greatly reduce human suffering. Claims and actions, particularly by state actors, need to match up, for one thing. The US is one of the largest donors to humanitarian causes in the world, but it could be argued that its position as the world’s largest arms manufacturer contributes to the very causes it helps clean up. Alice Ackerman would agree, further stipulating that when discussing the scope of conflict prevention it is useful to separate preventative measures into two categories, direct and structural. Direct prevention focuses on immediate threats to peace, while structural prevention seeks to address the underlying causes. Direct prevention can be thought of as first aid, while structural prevention is surgery. Research into conflict analysis and early warning can help people situate conflicts within rough frameworks to help them understand what they are facing and what the underlying factors are.

In post-conflict situations international actors generally impose democratic forms upon societies after intervening in conflict situations. Beatrice Pouligny notes the burgeoning literature showing that simple reliance on democracy is not enough to ensure the continuation of peace. “PCPB (post conflict peacebuilding) projects have traditionally focused more on economic and physical infrastructures or on formal institutional processes, but have tended to forget that wars destroy not only buildings but also trust, hope, identity, family and social ties.” Here is where an acknowledgement of the role that civil society plays within post-conflict zones becomes important.

Post-conflict “social capital” is destroyed. According to Robert Putnam’s definition, “’(s)ocial capital’ refers to features of social organization such as networks, norms and social trust that facilitate cooperation for mutual benefit.” Social capital is built slowly over time as successful collaborations between people and groups create contextual, local templates for continued, broadened cooperation. As these templates spread throughout society capital is built up increasing the solidarity felt by those in the area. Post-conflict the rebuilding of social capital is critical. Yet many international humanitarian organizations make it a point to administer their services from a distance. The power that state donors have over their recipients also plays a role in this. For example, in Iraq humanitarian actors who wished to receive funding from the United States had to fly the American flag. This has two significant consequences. First, it removes any sheen of impartiality from the humanitarian organizations rendering aid and allies them with foreign powers. Second, it shuts local actors out of the process of relief, since the efforts are now explicitly linked with foreign states.

Civil society is a difficult concept to pin down. One idea holds that civil society should be understood to “attend to the cultural, social, economic, and political needs of the citizens.” Another requires “that the associations be modern and voluntaristic, not ascriptive.” The most important thing that civil society does is encourage and facilitate communal engagement. “Empirically speaking, whether such engagement takes place in associations or in the traditional sites of social get-togethers depends on the degree of urbanization and economic development, as well as on the nature of the political system. Cities tend to have formal associations; villages make do with informal sites and meetings.”

Varshney argues that civil society, be it interethnic or intraethnic, has two dimensions: organized and quotidian. This is, on the surface, a banal observation, but it is important to break things down in this way because formal, organized ties between ethnic groups may be strong, but if informal, “quotidian,” ties are not, then interethnic interaction will be more strained. The two must be understood as simultaneously separate and whole. The role of civil society in multi-religious cities is important in India for two reasons, “(f)irst, by promoting communication between members of different religious communities, civic networks often make neighborhood peace possible… (second) If vibrant organizations serving the economic, cultural, and social needs of the two communities exists, the support for communal peace tends not only to be strong but also more solidly expressed.” According to Varshney’s research cities that feature high degrees of segregation these mechanisms are not present and the risk of conflict is greater.

In Indian cities with poor civil society organs, politicians and gangs are able to stir up trouble and induce people to move from ethnically diverse neighborhoods to ethnically homogenous neighborhoods. This creates “an institutionalized riot system.” In cities with vibrant civil society, politicians and criminals are not as able to stir up tensions. Varshney calls this “an institutionalized peace system.” Civil society acts as a sort of immune system for ethnically diverse societies.

Two cities in India make Varshney’s point rather dramatically. In Calicut 83% of Muslims and Hindus eat together socially, that number is just 54% in Aligarh. 90% of Hindu and Muslim children play together compared to just 42% in Aligarh. 84% of Hindus and Muslims in Calicut regularly spend time together, while in Aligarh the number is just 60%, “and not often at that.” Calicut’s social capital is much stronger than Aligarh’s, and this is reflected in the number of cross-religious groups. But it is not as simple as just having strong social capital. Individual ethnically motivated societal groups can have large amounts of social capital, but unless that capital is able to move across ethnic and religious boundaries it will have little effect on ameliorating ethinc and religious conflict. “Trust based in interethnic, not intraethnic, networks is critical.”

Camilla Orjeula’s research in Sri Lanka shows the difficulty that results when the interethnic issues present in Aligarh are scaled out to an entire country. Orjeula’s article was written before the recent victories by the Sri Lankan government over the Tamil Tigers, nevertheless her research is pertinent to this topic. In Sri Lanka civil society tends to be top down, with the state dominating large portions of social space. What remains is often taken care of by international and local NGOs that are not very responsive to the grassroots. In Sri Lankan history, most civil society groups that do exist have been formed on an intraethnic basis, with the first being anti-Christian, and more recent ones being anti-Tamil.

“Mobilizing people to demonstrate against the war has proved rather difficult.” Despite this fact any peace protests are singled out by ultra-nationalists as dangerous, which gives an insight into just how tenuous the situation is. Even a small amount of protest could conceivably have changed a lot in Sri Lanka. Peace activists have made efforts to change school curricula so that Sinhalese children do not learn that the Tamils are invaders and come to see them as “other.” Instead the revised curricula focus on the mutual mistakes that all parties have made during the course of the conflicts and the recent history that has spurred much of the island’s polarization. Another strategy is to devise ways in which Sinhalese and Tamils come together and interact with each other. One such effort was a joint appearance of Sinhalese and Tamil artists at an event in Jaffna. This networking of artists is one way to begin creating links between the groups. Over time, ideally, these links will strengthen and multiply.

“In Sri Lanka a war economy has developed, making continued military confrontations profitable for a wide range of people.” The political economy of war serves to undermine efforts to create functioning, insulating civil society. This is an area in which humanitarian intervention could be seen to work; the interdiction of drugs and weapons traffic and the creation of alternative economies might help marginalize the power of war economies. In Orjeula’s view another way in which international actors can help spur the peace process along is to assist in the judgment and punishment of those who have committed war crimes. This is obviously a delicate subject that is different in every societal context, but the public administration of justice can go a long way towards healing societal wounds.

As a final case study, Roman Krzarnic’s examination of the peace process in Guatemala provides an interesting look at the ways in which civil society groups can both work towards greater social cohesion and work against cultural reconciliation. In the late 80s, Guatemala held peace talks discussing security and peace issues, but the most important rebel group was banned from attending, the most significant economic organization, CACIF, refused to cooperate with the talks, and some of the delegates to the talks had their rights violated. As a result the talks did not accomplish much. In the 1990s the outcome of final peace talks was the creation of Asamblea, a group of eleven sector of civil society organs designed to come together to discuss matters of national unity. Unfortunately, CACIF withdrew from Asamblea contending that many of the groups involved in the umbrella organization were nothing more than façades for narrow interest groups. “Many ASC (Asamblea) proposals for reform of the state and civil society appear in the final record, such as the recognition of Guatemala as ‘multiethnic, pluricultural, and multilingual.’” Asamblea’s efforts on land reform were much more limited, and even their small gains were bluntly refused by CACIF.

One of the great successes of the Asamblea was its incorporation of marginal groups within broader Guatemalan society into an integrated civil society framework. The inclusion of a women’s sector in the Asamblea was seen as a marginal choice at first, with the women pushed to the periphery. But the fact of their inclusion meant that they were always in close contact with the other groups and in communication with them. This meant that before too long women’s issues were included in the Asamblea’s agenda.

In opposition to the Asamblea, CACIF’s main interests lay in the economic arena. This explains why it, perhaps shortsightedly, ignored the societal reforms for the most part. Larger societal change could end up backfiring on CACIF and undoing their work in the economic sphere. Nonetheless, as Guatemala operated under the typical post-conflict liberalized economy, the delegates of CACIF wielded a disproportionate amount of influence in the economic sphere. Any thing that was bad for them was immediately nixed.

These case studies show the necessity of strong organs of civil society to prevent civil unrest in the first place and to knit societies back together after conflict. In the changed world of humanitarian intervention, relief agencies need to be able to adapt their strategies to meet these requirements, but first they need to be given the latitude to do so by their donors. This requires understanding the societies before entering them and allowing a degree of local control and flexibility that many organizations are unwilling to cede. In their study of ways that states and donor agencies can improve civil society in post-conflict zones, Axel Hadenius and Fredrik Uggla note that economically and socially heterogeneous institutions are “more likely to strengthen popular influence on decision making.” That is, these institutions carry greater moral weight within their societies. Furthermore international actors seeking to build civil society must take into account already existing forms of “horizontal cooperation.”

The authors insist that in order to build strong, stable societies, states must allow space for civil society to form and function. International actors looking to foster this kind of growth need to be aware of the ways in which civil society can impinge upon the privileges of the powerful and look at ways of convincing these power brokers that it is in their best interests to let civil society do its work and not interfere. This work is not simple, and in post-conflict situations the rebuilding of social capital is an arduous process. But if relief agencies and international donors ignore civil society and implement the forms of democracy and market economies absent real attempts to rebuild societal trust the forms will remain empty, and real recovery will remain elusive.


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