Political literacy and humanitarianism: The need for greater political engagement among the humanitarian community

PHAP member articles are written by members of the association in their personal capacity. The views expressed belong solely to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of PHAP or any other organizations with which the author is associated.
17 February 2016

In the worlds of geopolitics and crisis management, we again and again hear talk of the need for political solutions to current crises. Increasingly, this focuses on the importance of the political taking precedence over other priorities, both at national and international level.

Indeed, the U.N. Secretary-General in his “Agenda for Humanity” stated, “Preventing conflicts and finding political solutions to resolve them is our first and foremost responsibility to humanity.”1

Can and should the humanitarian community continue to maintain its exceptionalist, apolitical, stance in this environment? As the world continues to face complex and interconnected challenges, are we as humanitarians asking enough of ourselves?

Without a more active and politically informed engagement outside of the technically and tactically driven norm, one suspects that humanitarians themselves will not be the ones to answer this question.

Humanitarians need to engage politically

As Jean-Marie Guéhenno, President and CEO of the International Crisis Group and the former U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, has said: “If we do not have a good understanding of the political dynamics of the situation in which we are getting engaged, we are unlikely to make headway. And the biggest weakness of any UN deployment, or any deployment for that matter [...] is the fact that there is not a serious understanding of the dynamics of the country.”2

Even after countless hours of negotiation and conversation, there still seems to be something of a gap in the way humanitarians discuss this issue. If nothing else, the fact that it is regularly perceived that humanitarians are good at what they do, but politically naïve, should merit further internal reflection. A growing call for closer integration of development and humanitarian programming has unfortunately not been matched by a broader conversation to include political interventions.

So many of the consultations that happen at the World Humanitarian Summit, for example, produce discussion that rarely ventures beyond the tactical. Humanitarians are not breaking away from our conventional wisdom. Military interventions are described as if they are outside the broader political agenda. Conversations of the last 20 years are rehashed again and again with little progress other than a reassertion of a self-defined moral superiority. Anything political is almost reflexively seen as dirty, and again certainly implicated as morally inferior.

Yet, when questions of solutions – rather than humanitarian band-aids – are raised, it seems that we all await and rely on a political solution. Humanitarian crises, when we urgently seek the support of donors and the general public, quickly become the purview of political solutions when the hard questions of progress are posed.

Lack of engagement with power brokers

Among humanitarians, the language of neutrality has not nurtured an ability to engage politically. In many crisis settings it has also inhibited the analysis of, and interaction with, relevant power brokers.

Inevitably, this has meant the focus of humanitarian action has been technical. While suited to the background of many of those working in the field, being seen as simply a collection of technical experts marginalises the humanitarian voice. As highlighted in the U.N. Security Council’s June 2015 peacekeeping review: “Lasting peace is achieved not through military and technical engagements, but through political solutions. Political solutions should always guide the design and deployment of United Nations peace operations.”3

If we are to prioritise political solutions, there needs to be a better understanding of what that entails.

For humanitarians, there must be a realisation that stabilisation programmes – which can be integral in enabling a peace process – often incorporate the same activities as they themselves are carrying out. When hard decisions about resource allocation and political negotiation are being made, humanitarians do not contribute usefully if they resort to the too-oft heard preaching that only they have the neutrality and ability to implement such programmes. This assertion of humanitarians’ neutrality provokes everything from passionate defence, to total scepticism, to incredulity that motivations are genuine.

Take as an example the long-hallowed assertion that medical care to combatants on the battlefield is a neutral endeavour. This began in an era when, in reality, none save the very wealthy received such care. Today this division can still be seen, albeit at a community rather than individual level. Developed militaries are intrinsically serviced, while less developed or informal groups are those that receive the humanitarians’ help. One wonders at the number of members of the Afghan national security forces that are treated by medical nongovernmental organisations, as compared to members of the Taliban forces. There seems to be an intrinsic link to insurgent sanctioning and protection of these services to the broader community, as a stabilisation activity of their own.

While progress has been made in better understanding the broader talents, thoughts, influences and needs of communities in crisis, there seems to be an almost ideological block to understanding more traditional power brokers. Ministries’ of health are not a standard path to significant power in any system. That they did not contain the real decision makers, influencers, or power brokers during the Ebola crisis seemed to either be missed or came as a great surprise. Yet those working in health are not alone in needing to engage outside their sphere of technical expertise.

The inevitable response to such assertions is that we need country experts with years of experience and insights to provide the necessary kind of analysis. In fact, if they are tasked and empowered to do so, politically aware and engaged responders can fundamentally change our level of understanding within moments of arrival, without being life-long scholars or intelligence experts for that country. These skill sets must, however, be recruited for, and developed and resourced, in the humanitarian world.

This lack of analytical capacity has been fed by what is often quoted as the British-led push towards monitoring and evaluation. The relative ease of reporting on the things we can physically count, by comparison to the more ephemeral nature of a matrix for understanding, analysis, or relationship development, has an inevitable skewing effect on programme design. The need for indirect measures and indicators is fundamental and difficult.

Our approach to International Humanitarian Law

The second core responsibility of the “Agenda for Humanity” seeks a reaffirmation of international humanitarian law. One must also ask if the humanitarian community asks enough of itself in this area. Currently the focus seems to be on dissemination of the principles of humanitarian law, combined with lobbying those that agree with the existing system rather than to deal with its weaknesses and flaws.

Yet senior Western military officers are increasingly expressing their belief that international humanitarian law is not a relevant or appropriate tool to govern modern warfare. It was developed in another era, and is doing little now but creating an increasingly uneven playing field. The application of this law, and the process of the International Criminal Court, is genuinely – and reasonably – seen as discriminatory in significant areas of the world. It is regarded as a tool for external powers to manipulate internal political processes. In addition, rather than hide their crimes against international humanitarian law, the Islamic State Group use them as recruiting tools. In doing this, they simultaneously underline their power and convictions, as well as the impotence of the Occidental system.

The structural separations and fiercely held fiefdoms that can exist within Occidental political systems often place ministries of defence, trade, development or foreign affairs in competition. This has led to massive investment in integrated or comprehensive government. In more traditionally centrist powers this has been less necessary, and from their point of view can even be seen as something of an indictment of the democratic system. It is interesting to read the Chinese government’s first public defence white paper, published in May 2015, and see within it the commitment to an increasing role for that country’s armed forces in international humanitarian assistance.4

The failure of the Red Cross and Red Crescent’s December conference to create consensus around strengthening compliance with international humanitarian law was not a surprising one. Do we sufficiently distinguish between belief in the concept of international humanitarian law, and a signature to a treaty? Can we identify those lacking the belief, capacity or intention to honour those treaties?

In conclusion

The World Humanitarian Summit points to a need for better resourcing and support, and calls for the humanitarian community to improve technically. Fundamentally, it argues that the humanitarian community must keep doing what it is doing – but do it better. The calls for substantive change are directed externally. A similar outcome by any other community would be called to account for not being either innovative or self-critical enough.

Principles serve us well to frame thinking. Slavish adherence to documents or ideals developed in a different era and context, do not lead to useful outcomes. Without  a timeline, the humanitarian imperative is relatively easy. It prioritises “who needs what today?” And given that resources will always be limited, even that demand cannot expect to be met. Are we, however, too often letting ourselves off the hook by not also including longer-term calculations of human suffering?


1 United Nations (2015) Agenda for Humanity. Annex to the Report of the Secretary-General for the World Humanitarian Summit.
International Peace Institute (2015) Guéhenno: “Much better for the UN to Take Risks.”
United Nations General Assembly Security Council (17th June 2015) Comprehensive review of the whole question of peacekeeping operations in all their aspects.
The State Council Information Office of the People's Republic of China (2015) China’s Military Strategy.


About the author
Natascha Hryckow is an experienced leader of multilateral interventions with a particular interest in conflict and post conflict environments. Experiences across the European Union, Nato, the United Nations and Government have shaped her perceptions of current day interventions.