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Debate : the end of humanitarianism without borders ?

Rony Brauman

Medical doctor, specialized in tropical medicine and epidemiology. Involved in humanitarian action since 1977, he has been on numerous missions, mainly in contexts of armed conflicts and IDP situations. President of Médecins sans Frontières from 1982 to1994, he also teaches at the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute (HCRI) and is a regular contributor to Alternatives Economiques. He has published several books and articles, including "Guerre humanitaires ? Mensonges et Intox" (Textuel, 2018), "La Médecine Humanitaire" (PUF, 2010), "Penser dans l'urgence" (Editions du Seuil, 2006) and "Utopies Sanitaires" (Editions Le Pommier, 2000).

The article written by my friend Christian Troubé, "The end of humanitarianism without borders?", published by Grotius.fr (June 2009 edition), and based on a description of humanitarianism of ‘yesteryear', strikes a cord with many of today's humanitarian figures. But acknowledged historical facts (the cold war, the democratisation of transport, the boom in television) appear alongside some highly debatable points of view. For example, if the instigators of "without borders" really thought that they were informing the world that "human suffering is universal" , then they were more idiots than idealists, more madmen than dreamers....

The relationship with public opinion via the media played a major role. But credit for this is to be given to the founders of Amnesty, created 10 years before MSF, who saw the importance of press campaigns in helping prisoners of conscience. French priest L'abbé Pierre with his appeal of 1954 was no stranger to the media either, putting it to use to awaken the public's conscience.

The most innovative - and the least visible - idea of the first "without borders" group was to lay the foundations of humanitarian medicine at a time when such a project was of absolutely no interest to anyone. The author however lends the founding "without borders" generation an outlook and intentions based on an interpretation produced after the event, but which are completely missing from any oral or written documents from that period.

It is also worth remembering that the denunciation of "genocide" in Biafra was an act of psychological warfare orchestrated by the French Intelligence Services and the Biafran secessionists, with Auschwitz serving as a backcloth as the Eichmann trial of 1961-62 was still fresh in everyone's minds. I am not questioning the good faith of those involved, but the manipulative aspect of this episode is both clear and long-established.

The debates and reflections on "humanitarian witnessing" and neutrality should take this element into account, namely the potential for propaganda-based manipulation of humanitarian views, rather than indulging in mutual back-slapping. The Red Cross' attitude during the Nazi era should also be noted as no one has been able to say what the ICRC should have or could have done about the death camps at the time.... But that's another story.

Be that as it may, the founders of MSF never supposed that they would be tackling the creation of a new Humanitarian Law any more than they would be "imposing a universal right to humanitarian interference", a concept that only appeared some 15 years after the setting up of MSF (the founding conference took place in 1987). As for the idea that every speck of humanity" had become accessible due to the growth in communications, and that each and every victim deserves attention, this dates back to the creation of the Red Cross, not of the "French Doctors".

From a more political perspective, during the 1980s the issue of totalitarianism played a key role in French humanitarianism. It allowed the humanitarian leaders of the time (and I count myself among them) to put communism in the same category as Nazism. The "without borders" movement was driven by an "anti-totalitarian" stance, in other words an anti-communist one, and was thus, contrary to what Christian claims, a cold-war humanitarianism with French organisations taking a leading role.
Why did the boat people incite such a huge reaction, and not the Haitians, the Somalis and countless others who perished at sea in similar conditions? Because they were fleeing a regime that symbolised, more than any other at the time, communist violence in the third world.

The "fuzziness of action"

If we want to understand the changes in humanitarianism during its recent history - important in better understanding the present - we should start by shaking off this saintly past, with its prophetic acts that wipe out all traces of doubt, error and calculation, in short the fog of action in progress. A past that renders "yesteryear" - the last 25 years of the XXth century - an a-historical, homogenous entity, uniformly characterised by the transgression of all kinds of borders. Using terms such as these makes today's generation of humanitarian workers look like mere executors compared to the supposed strategists that preceded them. This is not only wrong, but discourteous to boot. Most importantly, it also forgets all the conflicts and countries that were completely or mainly closed to humanitarian workers during the 1980s, from Timor to Mozambique, Angola and Central Asia, among others, not to mention the 1970s Indochina war.

It is true that the 1990s were years of multilateralism and "NGOism", but this relative decline in state sovereignty in parts of the third world did not last. "Today", writes Christian Troubé, "the dream is far harder to live, because all the borders are being recreated". Geographical borders are closing down. We are entering countries covertly less and less."

This representation of a better past masks the adaptations and in-depth transformations that came about over that period. As it was, there was no lack of "existential" questions, given the manipulation of aid in Cambodia, Ethiopia and Sudan, to name but a few of the most striking examples I myself witnessed. The romantic dimension in transgressing certain borders in the 1980s is not in question (and I'm not the last one to have succumbed...). But a few medical teams scattered over Afghanistan should not conceal the political scene of the time. At best, we were kept to the margins of the conflicts and were often prohibited and powerless.

This practice was abandoned in the 1990s, for the reasons given above and there were a few years when it was possible to go almost everywhere. All the signs are suggesting that this interlude is drawing to a close: on this point we agree. Yet we must not forget the questions, concerns and even despondency of humanitarian workers at the time, faced with "military-humanitarian" deployments and the thorny issues of political positioning.

The "Arche de Zoé" incident was not counterfeit humanitarianism

It is a fact that we used to hear unanimous praise of NGOs'. They counterbalanced inefficient and corrupt governments; they were the authentic voice of civil society, a manifestation of a new world conscience, and so on. These illusions of grandeur have largely crumbled in recent times: this we definitely agree on. But I would like to point out that in their short history, the "without borders" concept and its missions alike have undergone considerable and constant change; it is thus misleading to compare the methods and stakes of "yesteryear" with those of today.

So we should ask ourselves: Compared to just when in the past is NGO independence receiving less and less recognition? Or since when has the idea of emergencies not clashed head on with the long-term? These issues, along with NGO legitimacy, their relations with political authorities and the freedom to act, were just as relevant back then as they are now. Yes, the contexts they relate to have changed, which is why we must continue to raise them. But there is no reason at all to see only the negative side of change.

Thus in Sudan NGOs were expelled from Darfur as a retaliatory measure following the indictment of the Sudanese president. However, as I write six months later, the situation seems stable; other NGOs have come in, and most importantly of all, public health and social structures have been put into place, following on from the biggest relief operation in recent times. This last point seems of interest to nobody, as if it were an annoyance. Yet should this State commitment prove lasting, it is essential.

If the Darfur people really are at the centre of our concern, we should be taking note of this reality, instead of victimising the expelled NGOs, unless their presence is considered a good thing in itself. On the contrary, it is important to question the consequences of this illusion of all-powerfulness that underpinned appeals for interventions, the "Responsibility to protect", and the repeated accusations of genocide coming from the humanitarian world in general.

This is not about absolving the Sudanese regime of its responsibilities, but rather weighing up our own and considering their limitations.
To this effect, the Arche de Zoé is not "counterfeit humanitarianism", but reflects a well represented trend in French-style humanitarianism that I mention at the beginning of this article. It is easy to see that the team acted illegally, but we should also try to see that it acted just as "professionally", with an equally "humanitarian" approach as many others. If we merely settle for excommunicating the perpetrators out of hand, then we are missing the point.

NGOs speak out; it is understandable that they are willing to appear as "moral entrepreneurs". But it is debatable that their presence in the field can be considered to be a moral victory in itself. Christian Troubé is right to point out that "borders are being recreated", but he is wrong to urge us to see this as an obvious regression.

To cite this content :
Rony Brauman, “Debate : the end of humanitarianism without borders ?”, 6 octobre 2009, URL : https://msf-crash.org/en/blog/humanitarian-actors-and-practices/debate-end-humanitarianism-without-borders

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