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Speaker Events - Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Holmes on the Reality of Relief Aid

“People fail to understand that what we’re saying is something intensely practical and down-to-earth and not something rather theoretical and ivory tower,” said John Holmes, author of the book, The Politics of Humanity: the Reality of Relief Aid, at an IPI Beyond the Headlines event on May 8th.

“It can come across as a bit dry and a bit theoretical and a bit political,” Mr. Holmes continued, “but actually, what you have to understand is that behind this is the story of individuals facing the most appalling circumstances you can imagine.”

Speaking to an IPI audience, Mr. Holmes discussed his personal experiences as UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator and described the problems humanitarian agencies face as they try to deliver aid impartially.

Compelled to write the book after experiencing the intensities and difficulties of working in the humanitarian field, Mr. Holmes said that he hoped the book would help others to understand the challenges humanitarian actors face, the attitudes of the governments they work with, the dilemmas between political and humanitarian considerations, and a belief in the value of humanitarian aid.

“I wanted to explain why [humanitarian actors] are doing what they’re doing and the importance of respecting these basic humanitarian principles: humanity, independence, neutrality and impartiality,” Mr. Holmes asserted. “You’re trying to do something very non-political, very apolitical, in highly politicized circumstances.”

Mentioning one of the recommendations in the book, Mr. Holmes said, “There’s a need to move to a new model of humanitarian action which is more focused on prevention and disaster risk reduction and more focused on local capacity building and less on the classical international response,” he argued.

Mr. Holmes went on to illustrate three specific situations he experienced during his years as under-secretary-general.

The first place he visited when he began his post was Darfur, which at the time was the single biggest humanitarian operation. He explained that the situation there was “a messy, violent stalemate,” with two million displaced—many in camps—and a third of the population in need of assistance.

One of the major issues facing the operation was the government in Khartoum, which he said held an “extremely ambivalent” attitude towards the humanitarian actors. After President Bashir of Sudan was indicted for war crimes, he expelled thirteen significant NGOs from Darfur in what Mr. Holmes described as a “brutal [and] damaging fashion.” Regardless, the humanitarian community continued to stay, renegotiating the conditions for their work, which he asserted was the right decision.

In Myanmar, after Cyclone Nargis hit in 2008, the humanitarian community faced resistance from the government, which, in the midst of a tense political situation, refused entry for humanitarian actors. Mr. Holmes explained that the humanitarian community managed the difficult task of persuading the government that their intentions had nothing to do with politics, and in the end mounted a decent humanitarian operation in the Delta.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), he explained there were two dilemmas. One was how to interact with the UN peacekeeping force MONUSCO, which was being criticized for being ineffectiveness in preventing atrocities, and the second was in dealing with the rebel group, the Lord’s Resistance Army, or LRA, all under the context of working with a weak government.

Touching on Syria, Mr Holmes explained, “The absolute need to provide humanitarian aid both to the refugees outside Syria and inside Syria is genuinely an imperative, but politically doing that, without getting sucked into the politics, is extremely difficult.”

“These dilemmas are still there,” he concluded. “They’re going to be there. We need to learn how to deal with them and keep on working out how we respond to them in such a way that we do preserve the humanitarian imperative and we don’t lose our political balance.”

The event was moderated by Warren Hoge, IPI Senior Adviser for External Relations.

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