Focus on the Need! Exploring The Gaps in Humanitarian Emergency Aid

by Beckie Marsland

Last week, Jeroen Jansen of Médicins Sans Frontières, spoke at the RHID seminar on “Operating in a Gap: Humanitarian Emergency Aid in Complex Political Circumstances”.

He argued that the definition of “complex emergencies” is unhelpful for agencies whose mandate is to focus on the need that these emergencies create on the ground. The most widely used definition is that proposed by the Inter Agency Standing Committee in 1994:

a humanitarian crisis in a country, region or society where there is total or considerable breakdown of authority resulting from internal or external conflict and which requires an international response that goes beyond the mandate or capacity of any single agency and/ or the ongoing United Nations country program.

According to Jansen, this definition is detrimental to the ability of humanitarian agencies to respond to the need of people affected by complex emergencies. Firstly, following the argument of David Keen, defining complex emergencies in terms of a “breakdown of authority” is misleading, both in our ability to understand the emergency situation and in terms of protecting the populations involved. Keen’s argument is that different actors benefit from war – for example both governments and rebels. So, the “breakdown of authority” definition effectively puts governments and other actors out of the picture, leaving them free to take advantage of the emergency situation and even manipulate the humanitarian assistance according to their own agenda. Secondly the IASC definition focuses on the international response, which means that our attention is directed away from the complex picture on the ground.

Drawing on his own experience in South Sudan, Jansen illustrated the gaps that have appeared in the world of humanitarianism. There is the funding gap (closely related to the CNN effect) – money can be designated to cover activities that donors have prioritized, rather than responding to need. MSF had been in South Sudan since 1984 and when the country became independent there was no funding allocated to cover the work that MSF had being doing. The governance gap can mean that a country is effectively governed by international NGOs for years so that when a new government, like that in South Sudan, takes over they have little or no experience. Devastatingly there can be a protection gap: after a peace agreement is signed then both the state and the United Nations can find themselves impotent. In South Sudan in 2009 over 1000 men and women were massacred in Jonglei, and there was no-one to protect them. The UN had no mandate to act and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement who dominated the new government of South Sudan were unable to control their own security forces – the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, which by then had taken in formerly hostile militia (Human Rights Watch Report 2009, “The Way Forward”).

This leads us to what Jansen described as the Meron effect. In the “Humanisation of International Law” (2006) Theodore Meron, the Director of the International Criminal Tribune for the former Yugoslavia, analysed the overlap between international humanitarian law and international human rights law. Jansen explained that international humanitarian law applies only when there is a war and international human rights law begins when peace has been established. The period between war and peace is not covered by either – and only non-derogable human rights apply. This is the space where the gaps are formed. The response of the aid agencies to this is all too often to engage in nonproductive arguments about which system of law applies to the situation, meaning that once again attention and energy is focused on the complexity of the intervention rather than the complexity of the context of the people who need medical and other humanitarian assistance.

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