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A response to Andrew Cunningham and Chris Lockyear’s review

Michaël Neuman

Director of studies at Crash / Médecins sans Frontières, Michaël Neuman graduated in Contemporary History and International Relations (University Paris-I). He joined Médecins sans Frontières in 1999 and has worked both on the ground (Balkans, Sudan, Caucasus, West Africa) and in headquarters (New York, Paris as deputy director responsible for programmes). He has also carried out research on issues of immigration and geopolitics. He is co-editor of "Humanitarian negotiations Revealed, the MSF experience" (London: Hurst and Co, 2011). He is also the co-editor of "Saving lives and staying alive. Humanitarian Security in the Age of Risk Management" (London: Hurst and Co, 2016).

Co-editor of "Saving Lives and Staying Alive. Humanitarian Security in the Age of Risk Management", Michaël Neuman responds to Chris Lockyear and Andrew Cunningham's review of the book.

We very much value and appreciate Chris and Andrew’s informed response. It is precisely because we believed that the discussion was not seriously happening, including at MSF, that we’ve conducted our research and eventually published the book. We are now very happy to provide the authors with a response to their review and critic. The following responds to their comments, more or less in the same order.

We started with a real grudge against “professionalisation” itself, which we have discarded with no regret. Because the word “professionalisation” is empty of any specific meaning. MSF has vowed to become a professional organisation since the nearly 1980s (as written in chapter 2). How could one not want to act professionally? Our target, precisely, is not “professionalisation”; it’s about the way the sector has professionalised itself; it's about the shaping of that professionalisation.

We acknowledge the limitation of the ethnographic fieldwork. However, we would challenge your opinion that we have not looked at practice. Looking at practise is precisely the theme of the 3 cases studies included in the book (in the context of C.A.R., Syria, and kidnapping management). We are de facto relying on interviews and archives, which certainly make them solid enough. We do observe for instance how impossible it is to conclude to the ‘bunkerisation’ of MSF field teams in Syria and C.A.R. Simultaneously, we observe how much the HQ weighs in, when it comes to security decision, often not in a positive manner. And we certainly explore in depth what are the dangers teams and patients are exposed to.

We don't dismiss “the external realities of legislation” but wish to put them at their right place, and not panic, as do HR and legal departments, with operations following suit. We do not ignore, nor neglect, Steve Dennis’s case – and actually mention it as a potential turning point. We are, however, convinced that the Norwegian court judgement is actually balanced. We would argue that we should not yield to the pressure of externalities simply because NRC was blamed for gross negligence. The judgement should be seen as a reminder that employers should, among other things, respect their own rules, fight against confidentiality and a chronic lack of transparency (including within MSF).

Nice try with the plane metaphor, but we would again dispute your view that the book does not deal with threats. What it is not however is a book about threats. We have not attempted a typology. But again we believe that our “history” chapters and case studies give concrete examples of the various situations MSF aid workers have been confronted to. Opposite to this are the “good practise manuals”, the different trainings implemented in the sector, in particular those about kidnapping management in which discussions about actual cases are often prohibited, and are virtually never used in the development of these sessions (including at MSF). Your critic of the book in that particular area is actually very similar to the one we have been addressing to many colleagues – it is precisely the reason why we have selected the four cases studies. In that case however, we see the critic as misplaced.

On the quantification issue now. We do not dispute the fact that quantifying can be useful, or even necessary – how many people were detained, killed, wounded; what is the value of the goods stolen, are important information if only in terms of accountability. There’s a legitimate social demand for that information. We do however certainly argue about the way statistics are built, and about their use, both in the aid sector in general and at MSF in particular. We believe they are indeed very much counter productive and primarily serve an advocacy – campaign purpose that is very remotely related to the better protection of humanitarian work. Chris and Andrew are defending the use of number while totally ignoring their actual use by observers of the aid world, NGOs and their campaign (ACF, MSF…). Well, reminder: this is actually happening. Should the authors support the idea that ACF “Protect aid workers” and MSF “Not a target” campaigns actual conly contribute to the improvement of security in the field and that they're worth better than specific denunciation of these attacks, well then, we’ll be happy to disagree! We do not see how quantifying can actually help you manage incidents… In that regard, the author’s argument ‘for’ numbers is not convincing.

In no case, we wish to have our “heads buried in the sand”. Chris and Andrew are opposing arguments that have, in that case, nothing to do with one another and are not opposed in the book. Discussing specific threats, problems, building a risk analysis is not something we see as evil, rest reassured… We are certainly wary of the frameworks used to conduct these analyses, though. Which the authors seem to have no problem with. But we would argue that using the concept of “acceptance” or the risk analysis matrix poses a real danger. Risk-management inherently normalises risks; it is precisely one of its functions.

We are not looking forward to getting rid of all procedures, norms, tools. Or planning. Even less calling for their eradication. But there certainly are a number of problems with the ‘products’ – to use Chris and Andrew’s word. We are very keen to acknowledge that MSF has been drafting protocols for many years, or use “products”. Contingency planning when it comes to identify emergency medical structures to where evacuate staff, or roads that one might take in case of an evacuation, check lists establishing the “what not to forget” are certainly necessary.

And we would go as far as to agreeing that not all ways are good! But how to choose the right way? We are hoping that the balance can be shifted towards human judgment, and not purely that ad hoc, unilateral, human judgement should be the sole guide of decision making when it comes to security decisions. Not a single time in the book are we talking about “ad hoc guesswork”. That is precisely why we insist on the role of companionship, of training, of feedback: the baggage of knowledge (as illustrated by case studies) carried by the various people involved is key. There’s room for process – a process that takes the form of a collective discussion, when people share their experiences and trust their judgement and not feed a matrix that was precisely invented to circumvent human judgement. The world has changed, the size of teams have increased, sociology of volunteers has been altered? Fair enough. Not a reason to forget that the underlying ideological biases of the neo-liberal bureaucratic security framework and its consequence on humanitarian work.

To cite this content :
Michaël Neuman, “A response to Andrew Cunningham and Chris Lockyear’s review”, 3 mai 2016, URL : https://msf-crash.org/en/blog/war-and-humanitarianism/response-andrew-cunningham-and-chris-lockyears-review

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