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Long live the (humanitarian) crisis!

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).

According to Wikipedia, "a humanitarian crisis is an event or series of events which carry with them a critical threat to the health, safety or wellbeing of a collectivity, usually over a wide area.  Armed conflicts, epidemics, famine, natural disasters and other major emergencies are humanitarian crises or can lead to them."

This definition consecrates the use of a journalistic formula that humanitarian organisations, including MSF, have taken up for their own purposes. Its merit lies in its capturing in one catchphrase a number of different events that all relate to a single challenge : the pressing need for massive assistance. So it is understandable that it has entered into common parlance, and by now has become such a commonplace that one wonders how anyone managed to describe these same situations prior to its having been coined. Can it really be the case that speaking straightforwardly of wars, displaced populations, massacres, earthquakes, famine etc, has now become obsolete?  Why did we stop using the specific words that best describe such events in favor of a formulation that is at best a generalization?

If we look at its first "insititutional" use, we begin to see the outines of an answer. This occurred on 22 June 1994 when the Security Council adopted Resolution 929 authorising "Operation Turquoise" --- the despatch of a French-led armed force to western Rwanda. The linguistic politics were an open secret: at the request of the White House the word "genocide" had to be avoided, and it was. It was then that the phrase "humanitarian crisis"  gained real currency at the highest levels of power as a means of referring to something that could not be named. Its most fundamental attribute --- the one that guaranteed its subsequent near universal adoption --- was that it functioned as a way of concealing things. The Clinton administration later tacitly acknowledge this, having had no desire to be drawn into any intervention in Africa just a few weeks after the humiliating retreat of the last GIs from Somalia. And throughout the 1990s, various usages and variants of the formula appeared and, as the rhetoric of humanitarianism became commonplace to the point of banality, so much so that by now "humanitarian needs," "humanitarian situation," "humanitarian crisis or catastrophe," and other, similar formulations have now become part of everyday vocabulary.

Thus, in the midst of the Gaza massacre last January, commentators were heard asking whether - or not - there was a humanitarian crisis, and enquiring about the Gazans' humanitarian situation, while Israeli spokespersons - using the same words - were challenging the existence of any humanitarian crisis, arguing that because 'humanitarian trucks' were able to make their 'humanitarian trips' to 'humanitarian warehouses,' etc., no such crisis existed. The political stakes were both clear and high: the Israeli authorities wanted to underscore what was not happening in Gaza - there was indeed neither epidemic outbreaks nor famine in enclave - so they could avoid talking about what washappening there.

Propaganda is not always the primary motivating factor. Even if one restricts oneself only to recent cases such as Burma after Cyclone Nargis, Zimbabwe during the cholera epidemic, or Sri Lanka during the Columbo government's murderous offensive against the LTTE, what international NGs, the media, and concerned governments spoke of were their fears of that a "humanitarian crisis" had already started, or was about to start., etc.. But...then what? It is hard to say, because it wasn't description, it was labelling. To put it another way, it was a question of bringing diverse events together under a single rubric that was as exotic (humanitarian crisis = a country far, far away) as it was emotionally charged (humanitarian crisis = many victims to be saved), just as the Wikipedia definition of humanitarian crisis suggests. If one were being consistent, on this principle one should use the term "traumatological crisis" to describe vehicle pile-ups, pitched battles, bombings or pogroms, while rapes should be "gynaecological crises since each of these events moves us, and many of the people involved will end up in health care facilities.

The June 2009 edition of the bulletin of INA (the French National Audiovisual Institute) notes "a spectacular increase [on television] of stories showing victims" --- "467 in 1995, 1007 in 2000 and 1990 in 2008." The report links it to the "explosion [in the coverage] of sensational, lurid news items" on television news broadcasts during the same period. Be it a bombardment or an earthquake, a population displacement or a train derailment, the term 'humanitarian crisis' can make it seem as if they are all part of nothing so much as the international equivalent of the same sort of coverage the INA report decries. It may not be possible to halt this development but at the very least one can refuse to join in. Oh, and by the way, dear web surfer, how is the humanitarian situation in your neighbourhood?

To cite this content :
Rony Brauman, “Long live the (humanitarian) crisis!”, 22 juin 2009, URL : https://msf-crash.org/en/blog/humanitarian-actors-and-practices/long-live-humanitarian-crisis

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