On linking relief and development aid

Checking old notes I found this one, about resilience mainstreaming and humanitarian goals. I believed I posted it on LinkedIn but can’t find it any longer. The debate about humanitarian goals, opened by David Milliband, has quite never gained real traction. On the other hand, the wider question about the relation between humanitarian and development aid is as relevant as it has always been. And I still haven’t found a real answer to the questions I raised in the piece, so I think is appropriate to re-post it.

The Guardian published the answer of Jonathan Whittall, MSF Head of Humanitarian Analysis, to David Milliband’s proposal of introducing a new set of goals for humanitarian action, on the model of MDGs . The answer resembles to a previous article by the same Whittall and other two MSF analysts about resilience and the risk that a sort of “resiliency mainstreaming” presents for humanitarian action.

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Resilience building, you said?

In both the statements the point is rather straightforward: first and foremost, humanitarian aid is about saving lives, and any other additional action, be it resilience building or adding additional goals, can imply a potentially dangerous diversion from this aim. The articles are well written and, for the issue they raise, should be read and discussed by everybody involved in humanitarian aid. Here are my first impressions – and request for advice on further readings.

It seems to me that Whitall is right in pointing out how “resilience” is a rather vague concept and that Miliband proposal features a certain lack of clarity, and that they present a risk of creating more confusion and diversion, rather than enhancing humanitarian responses. At the same time, it seems to me correct to point out, as Miliband does, that the distinction between humanitarian action and development, as a matter of fact, has become somehow blurred in the last years.

More specifically, several, if not most, of the crisis humanitarians are dealing with are long term crisis where not only life-saving activities (food, shelter, health) take place, but also actions not strictly linked to saving human lives (education, livelihood, and of course “resilience building”). And, in spite of their being not life-saving, it is hard to consider at least some of them (think about education) unnecessary in the context of humanitarian crises.

I am not urging, as MSF experts fear, that we should necessarily “bridge the gap” between humanitarian aid and development, rather, I think we should consider more in depth what happens in long-term crisis, where the distinction between humanitarianism and development work become more blurred.

My impression (but I might be missing some important readings and therefore I am asking for suggestions on this) is that our current frameworks for the understanding of humanitarian emergencies are inadequate in designing only a “short” emergency cycle (preparedness-response-reconstruction-preparedness)  which looks to me only partially adequate for long term crisis like those in Somalia, Syria or South Sudan, just to mention some of them. In all of these crisis, the cycle looks “stuck” at the “response” phase. At the same time, a rather stark dichotomy between humanitarian action and development fails to take into account what aid workers are doing in these situations.

Therefore I don’t think that we should “bridge the gap”, nor I think that applying “development tools” in order to enhance humanitarian action is necessarily the best solution. At the same time, I believe that maintaining a stark dichotomy between humanitarianism and development fails to take into account what already happens in long-term crises, and that we should re-think about how we understand these situations.

What do you think? Do you believe that “bridging the gap” is the best solution, or that we should in part re-think humanitarian aid for long-term crisis? Or the distinction between humanitarianism and development must remain neat? Do you have any suggestion for further readings about long-term emergencies and relative frameworks?

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