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Humanitarian action and state-building in Conflict?

Bruce Jones's picture
   Photo © Arne Noel / World Bank

The past few years have seen the revival of an old debate about the relationship between humanitarian action, military/peacekeeping intervention, and state-building. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the military, humanitarian and development actors are working together in new ways, have raised concerns in each community.

Humanitarian actors worry about the loss of perceived impartiality and access to vulnerable populations. People in the military worry about their effectiveness if not backed up by humanitarian and economic assistance. Development actors worry that military actors are undertaking state-building functions without adequate understanding of the implications of their actions.

Given that the renewed debate derives from Afghanistan and Iraq, the argument is probably overplayed, since it is highly unlikely that the specific mode of engagement in those two cases—grounded in large-scale U.S. military deployments—is likely to characterize the predominant form of response to humanitarian crises or fragile states in conflict. Nevertheless, changing forms and patterns of violence will pose new challenges to these communities.

It is worth recalling that the debate is not new. When state failure, crisis and genocide in the Horn and Central Africa generated massive peacekeeping and humanitarian interventions in the 1990s, the humanitarian, development and security communities found themselves rubbing shoulders and often tripping each other up. Thousands of hours of consultations and conferences, and an equivalent quantity of scholarship and study, went into addressing these differences.

Eventually the three communities overcame a good deal of their mutual suspicions by acknowledging that they share broad goals that are best met through capable states that respect human rights and provide security to their people. And if their different short-term goals lead to tensions, these are best resolved through better communication and coordination. Some humanitarians still rail against coordination by strategic actors.  But most now recognize that the political and security communities are not seeking to impose security goals on humanitarian actors and that coordination is not the same thing as control.

The likely scenarios for the future suggest we will be confronted by humanitarian crises and conflicts in which violent attacks on humanitarian and development workers are the norm.  The need for some form of relationship with security providers will become ever more important.

Moreover, emerging data shows two things: a rise in post-settlement violence and an increase (perhaps temporary, perhaps not) in sub-national and trans-national violence. In many contexts, the UN and the rest of the international system have engaged not to end civil wars but to respond to deteriorating governance.  Haiti is a good example. In these contexts, state-building and violence are likely to proceed in parallel.

The UN increasingly recognizes that an important part of the doctrine of the ‘responsibility to protect’ is helping national governments implement that responsibility.  Ironically, in some contexts this may mean putting international forces at the disposal of national authorities as they try to quell violent uprisings or contain spoilers who threaten state and human security. In these circumstances, development and humanitarian communities are likely to find themselves on different sides of the policy debate more frequently.

Still, the same basic realities hold now as did in the 1990s: the best guarantee for long-term human security is a state that protects human rights. And state building, properly conceived and implemented, is a huge contributor to the humanitarian agenda. Approached with mutual respect and open communication, development, humanitarian and security actors still have more to gain than to lose by working closely with one another.