Should relief workers even try to build resilience?

by Paul Harvey | Humanitarian Outcomes
Thursday, 27 February 2014 11:17 GMT

An MSF worker inspects a sick child at a clinic in a camp for displaced people at the airport of the Central African Republic capital Bangui, Jan. 18, 2014. REUTERS/Siegfried Modola

Image Caption and Rights Information

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

MSF says no, but it should be thinking long as well as short term

At first I loved Médecins Sans Frontières' opinion piece on resilience out earlier this month. “The word resilience means everything to everyone. It is a new buzzword of a floundering aid system,” three of the medical aid group’s experts argue.

Resilience is certainly a buzzword and one that’s very tempting to knock down. And MSF are quite rightly critical of a lack of effective response in some recent crises – notably Central African Republic.

But the more I thought about it, the more it annoyed me and the more I disagreed with some key parts of the argument.

The annoyance is probably explained by the tone – it’s a classic example of the MSF tendency towards sanctimonious polemic. This tends to feature MSF as the dogged guardians of pure humanitarianism in the face of a co-opted aid system. From this high moral vantage point (and with the huge advantage of not needing to rely on donor government funding), they pronounce on the failings of the rest of the international humanitarian system.

But tone aside, it’s the substance of the argument that I think can be challenged. MSF equates resilience with state-building and developmental approaches in conflicts and dismisses them all.Humanitarian aid should be left purposely outside comprehensive approaches, integrated solutions and sustainability or resilience objectives,” it says.

So we’re back here to the idea that humanitarian aid (or MSF at least and maybe the International Committee of the Red Cross) can exist in glorious isolation. If only donor governments and other aid agencies would respect the separateness of humanitarian aid, it would be able to get on with heroically saving lives.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for the necessary limits of humanitarian action based on the core principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence. But I don’t think humanitarian action can completely divorce itself from a need to engage with state-building and resilience agendas. Nor are they basically the same thing, although clearly inter-linked.

I was struck the other day by the fact that MSF has been in South Sudan for over 30 years, and no doubt in Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo and many other long-running conflicts for similarly long periods. So the humanitarian action MSF is engaged in is certainly long-term.


For me, this suggests a need to think about systems. The argument in the blog that, “Development is about the system, the long term, and the greater good for the whole; humanitarian aid is about the individual, the short term, and the immediate good for the few,” is where I think I most fundamentally disagree.

Humanitarian aid can’t (much as it would like to) exist in glorious isolation from systems, and it is often long-term. Syria is just the latest example of where it looks like humanitarian action will be needed for a long time.

Given the need to think long-term, humanitarian action does need to engage with states, governments and governance at local and national levels. That’s right both in principle - because states have the primary responsibility to assist and protect their citizens - and always happens anyway in practice.

MSF and other humanitarian actors do have to engage with health ministries and with local governments, work within national health policies and have the permission of governments to operate in countries.

Humanitarian actors need to do this long-term thinking in ways that are consistent with principled commitments to neutrality, independence and impartiality, but MSF does need to have a principled engagement with governments, as well as with resilience and state-building agendas.

And the idea that humanitarian aid is about “immediate good for the few” is deeply wrong – humanitarian and development actors need to be concerned with accessing and assisting as many people as possible. Coverage and scale should be as key to MSF’s metrics as the health ministry’s.

So MSF is right to challenge the rest of the international humanitarian system on its capacity to respond to crises, right to retain a principled commitment to working in conflicts, and wrong in much of the rest of the blog.

It does need to think long as well as short term in many of the conflicts in which it works. It might not find resilience (or development) a helpful term for framing this long-term thinking, but others do. And MSF might benefit from a more constructive dialogue about what role humanitarian actors should and shouldn’t play in supporting the long-term resilience of nationally owned and run health systems.