Necessary Memory: François Jean and Humanitarian Action
For nearly two decades, François Jean practiced humanitarian action based on a deep, pragmatic desire to understand, constant self-questioning, and broad intellectual curiosity. It will be clear to anyone reading his collected works, From Ethiopia to Chechnya: Reflections on Humanitarian Action, 1988-1999, that his writings resonate with dilemmas we face today.
In the essays that start the book, Jean examined the political roots of famines in Ukraine and China from the first half of the 20th century and saw similar forces at work in Ethiopia and North Korea in the 1980s and 1990s. Both regimes prolonged the crises by perversely manipulating the food assistance pouring into the famine-wracked countries. The ideology underpinning these actions allowed for the sacrifice of tens of thousands of people in exchange for the promise of a radiant, future utopia. In such contexts, Jean wrote, it was imperative for humanitarian aid organizations to closely monitor the delivery of assistance lest they “fund a lunatic project of social transformation.”
Fast-forward to 2005 and the central African country Niger. As a nutritional crisis deepened there, development organizations and donor countries initially argued against providing emergency food aid because it might negatively affect long-term projects. Thus, the not-yet-born were privileged over those who were actually dying.
Such calculations would have been obscene to Jean, for whom humanitarian action is, at its core, an act of human cooperation and solidarity—not an ideology. Nor is it a mere technocratic exercise of efficiently stuffing “digestive apparatuses” with food and medicines—such a stance “can breed attitudes of arrogance and contempt.” Rather, for Jean, the humanitarian’s goal should be to help “people in times of acute crisis reestablish their capacities for choice.”
François Jean joined Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in 1982 to establish and run medical surgical programs in Lebanon, and he made an immediate impression on people for his ability to navigate a country convulsed by war. Relying on a nuanced analysis of the chaotic situation, an innate talent for negotiating, and sheer common sense, he managed to pass through all of the checkpoints set up by a dizzying array of warring parties—Palestinian, Christian, pro- and anti-Syrian, as well as factions within these factions—to bring a measure of medical relief to people trapped by the fighting.
He would continue for the next 17 years in the field and at headquarters to make important contributions to the evolution and direction of MSF operations, with people running emergency medical aid programs seeking his advice and insights—from Afghanistan, Central Asia, and Kurdistan,
to the former Yugoslavia, Sudan, Somalia, and Ethiopia. He played an especially key role in helping resolve hostage situations in Chechnya and Tajikistan in the early and mid-1990s.
Jean wrote prolifically during his time with MSF for internal publications as well as for a variety of magazines and journals about the difficulties
and challenges faced by humanitarian aid workers. He helped create and edit the series Populations in Danger, a collection of essays that wrestled with defining the scope and limits of humanitarian action. The series was, according to Dr. Rony Brauman, president of MSF’s French section from 1982 to 1996, “the first attempt by MSF to establish a global framework
of our work in war-torn nations.” Jean also co-founded MSF’s Fondation,
a center for reflection on humanitarian action based in Paris, after being the lead researcher for MSF’s short-lived Liberté Sans Frontières project.
All of these efforts had a clear operational focus: how to overcome the practical constraints to delivering meaningful assistance to people trying to survive crises, particularly in times of conflict. When war broke out in Chechnya in 1996, Jean wrote how the team in Grozny was “trapped by the fighting without much in the way of resources.” Instead of staying on the sidelines, they left the city on foot, trudged medical supplies through fields around Russian checkpoints, and in the end helped hundreds of war wounded to receive treatment even as the city was laid to waste by indiscriminate bombings and intense fighting.
This impulse to act was never reckless, though, and Jean wrote at length about the need to weigh the risks involved in delivering aid. He cautions us to never forget that we are outsiders—carrying a good deal of money, no less—in volatile and fluid situations dominated by nervous armed men, where our own self-preservation is the obvious prerequisite for continued action. Real security, Jean felt, was elusive and not simply evacuation procedures and context analysis, but “the result of day-to-day conduct, of understanding a society, and of being able to size up situations.”
As the shadow of the Cold War receded, the nature of conflicts changed and the aid system itself underwent a serious transformation. Jean struggled to understand this new landscape and MSF’s role within it. Manipulation of aid grew more subtle while conflicts fragmented and revealed the localized antagonisms that had been obscured by East-West proxy battles. There was a massive proliferation of aid groups running programs closer and closer to the center of conflicts. Refugees lost the political significance they had in the West during the Cold War, and now people fleeing conflicts were actively kept in war zones and called “economic migrants.” The diminishing importance of state-to-state interactions in these areas was coupled with the increasing influence of non-state actors—not only nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), but also gun-runners in search of new markets and multinational corporations bent on securing diamonds, oil, and other natural resources.
During these years, the United Nations became much more assertive in deploying military force, often becoming a party to conflicts while consigning relief efforts to a supporting role to political and military objectives. Western governments found that the humanitarian label could pay political dividends while masking political-military actions, or semblance of action. As the lines between military engagement and humanitarian action blurred, Jean saw quickly how aid organizations sometimes helped accelerate the process. By relying disproportionately on government funding to run programs, many groups were simply becoming subcontractors beholden to
the shifting political winds of their benefactors. And the calls from groups, including MSF, for the “international community” to engage in crises often bore strange fruit. In Somalia, “it only resulted in reducing the space for humanitarian action, because the Somalis have consistently lumped NGOs together with the UN army that landed under the humanitarian banner.”
How best to provide emergency medical assistance in these environments? For Jean, the twin principles of independence and impartiality would be our best guides. Not as rigid words to be worn like badges—let alone bulletproof vests—but as values aid workers must wrestle with and put into practice in their daily activities and decisions. Otherwise, our credibility, especially with the people we were trying to assist, would be lost. “The impression we have been able to gather on the ground,” he wrote after having completed scores of field assignments, “would indicate that, at best, humanitarian organizations are viewed as importers of all-terrain vehicles, at worst as a new affluent class. Likewise, everything leads one to believe they are perceived either as agents of their governments or the West—in any event as actors with political agendas and influence.”
We are confronted with similar challenges today … Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan—even some of the countries have not changed. And though Jean’s writings reveal a sharp intelligence, the essays here have an intimate and personal quality, as if he were in conversation with other aid workers—not making academic assessments of institutions and events. His writing bristles with calls for those engaged in humanitarian action to be vigilant in “the capacity for self-questioning.” If not, “self-righteous rhetoric, good intentions, and moralistic posing can become a kind of ambient background noise, dulling our vigilance and deadening our awareness of our responsibilities.”
Aid worker, writer, and, to those who knew him in life, friend. While many of us never met François Jean, the works collected here offer insight into the man, his actions, and his thoughts. Perhaps more important, his astute and lively works continue to speak to the situations we encounter in the field, forming a legacy to be emulated and animating the belief that we can act most clearly in the present when we reflect on the past. After all, as he reminds us, “our ignorance exacts a heavy toll ….”
Kevin P.Q. Phelan,