Humanitarian action, neutrality, and the “strategic corporal”

Posted: July 6, 2012 by Rex Brynen in new items and opinion pieces, UNRWA
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Humanitarian assistance is difficult work, especially in politically-charged environments. Both for ethical-philosophical reasons (namely, the belief that aid ought to be given on the basis of human need, and not on grounds of ethnicity, religion, or political views) and for practical ones (to avoid entanglement in political disputes that would imperil both personnel and their mission), humanitarian agencies often promote some version of impartiality or neutrality. Indeed, the concept(s) are implicitly or explicitly embedded in the code of conduct of the world’s largest humanitarian NGOs, as well as in the agreed principles of good humanitarian donorship. For UN agencies, operating on behalf of an international community that itself contains a diverse range of global viewpoints, the principle of humanitarian neutrality is particularly important.

But what is neutrality? Who decides? What is the intended audience , and how does the multiplicity of local, regional, and international audiences complicate things? Does neutrality require that one stay silent on the sources of injustice or deprivation (so as to avoid antagonizing key actors)? Does it require speaking out on behalf of the marginalized and oppressed (even at the cost of confrontation)? Can material resources ever be provided into a social environment—especially an environment characterized by latent or ongoing social and political conflict—without somehow having an effect on the course of events?

A great many books, articles, best-practices guides, and so forth have been written on the topic. They almost all boil down to some version of “it’s damn complicated, so pay attention” and “try your best to do no harm.”

The notion of the “strategic corporal,” by contrast, comes from a very differ point of origin: namely, the complexities of modern peacekeeping and counterinsurgency operations. As coined by US Marine Corps General Charles C. Krulak, it referred to the influence that even relatively low-level personnel could have on the strategic outcome of conflicts, whether by showing appropriate leadership and adaptability or by acting incorrectly in a way that antagonized local populations, generated adverse media coverage, and/or damaged the reputation and hence capacity of their larger organization.

The potential effects of the “strategic corporal” are further amplified by the modern information age. As I have argued elsewhere, the internet makes it possible reports of alleged deeds or misdeeds to reverberate internationally at an unparalleled rate.

All of which brings us to the latest controversy about UNRWA humanitarian operations, namely a charge (made in a blog that is often hostile to the agency) that refugee children “learn about Islam, Jihad, martyrdom – at UNRWA schools.”

There are two parts to this critique. The first—which is rather easy to dismiss—is the complaint that UNRWA schools (which largely follow host country curriculum) teach Islam, and that is somehow a nefarious thing to do. A great many countries teach an official, state, or majority religion as a compulsory class: I took very Protestant religious education courses as a school child in the UK, and Jewish religion and culture is a compulsory subject in Israeli state schools (indeed, a great many public schools in Israel are religious ones). Islam was even taught in Israeli-controlled Palestinian schools in the West Bank and Gaza from 1967 to 1994. While (as a secularist) I find this model of religious education less than ideal, it is hardly uncommon. To complain that UNRWA students “learn about Islam,” therefore, seems to reveal more about the anti-Muslim bias of the accusers than the actual educational process for Palestinian refugees.

The more serious charge relates to the content of some official UNRWA school websites in Gaza. These indeed contain some posted material (extolling jihad, for example) that is problematic. It is hardly surprising, of course, that forum discussion in deeply religious and socially conservative Gaza contains particular religious views and representations, and it is certainly the case that postings appear to represent the personal views of individual staff rather than the official position of the Agency. However, much as the “strategic corporal” can take micro-actions on the battlefield that have much larger implications for policy, so too the “strategic teacher” can take actions that have broader impact on the Agency. In this case, a handful of inappropriate postings on a school web forum can echo around the internet for weeks, months and (likely) years—contributing to an inaccurate portrayal of the Agency as somehow in league with Hamas and an obstacle to peace.

How does one deal with this? Leaving aside the immediate issue of what UNRWA does or does not do in response to the recent accusations, there are issues of personal training and procedure that are relevant here—and not just for UNRWA but for all humanitarian agencies. Humanitarian agency personnel need to act as if their actions are under  microscope—as indeed they are in an increasingly wired world. If the parent organization indeed embraces  concepts of impartiality or neutrality, these need to be internalized by all personnel as a core service values, and not just something that senior staff will deal with. Staff also need to understand the complex prism through which different constituencies may judge their actions—including, that is, constituencies that may hold very different views and political goals, but which nonetheless may act to affect or impede the delivery of humanitarian assistance.

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