Humanitarian Space???

Another oldish one I wasn’t able to post right away…

It appears we are approaching the end of innocence.  In a world where development in all its manifestations economic, political, and social is growing increasingly complex and dangerous, I don’t see the era of pure human altruism and aid lasting long into this century.  Despite our best motivations and our deepest moral causes, the real impacts of our work upon the systems in which we operate can no longer be hidden under our mask of altruistic desires no matter how real and sincere they may be in our hearts.

Development in today’s world is becoming a dangerous game and this is no less undermined by the recent arrest/kidnapping at gunpoint of another prominent Western development worker, Mr. Weinstein, in his home in Lahore, Pakistan and the thousands of other development and aid workers throughout the world who find their work and their very existence threatened on a constant basis.  Despite their attempts towards the most noble of human causes, that of selflessly helping their fellow human being, they can no longer hide behind their own altruism and good will in order operate safely outside of the currently established political and social powers of the day.

The erosion of humanitarian space is seen by many as a great tragedy of the modern world amid its plentiful pockets of insecurity and backward and inherently corrupt if not blatantly violent political systems.  And there is no shortage of finger pointing by the development community towards the security community in terms of the politicizing of aid amid complex security and violence structures.  While the security community, in particular the policies of the United States security establishment over recent decades has certainly had an adverse effect on the operability of aid agencies in violent areas, it is difficult for me to see these policies as an actual cause rather than simply a catalyst for the changes occurring within the aid community.

Still, a great tension exists between those who chose to enter violent regions armed only with a pure heart, a little bit of money, and the hope of creating sustainable change, and those who will only go with mine-resistant vehicles, automatic weapons, and attack aircraft coverage.  As long as one’s ability to effect change is based first and foremost on his ability to keep himself alive in the first place, aid will always be dependent on the security situation on the ground.  And this is in turn dependent on the participation of violent actors and the level of societal development within the area of operations.  A key task for the military which has gained a lot of support within the recent development of counterinsurgency doctrine has been the creation of “humanitarian space”.  That is, the ability to effect the security situation to the extent which aid agencies can operate without becoming targets of violence.  And yet, does not allying oneself with a violent actor—which any military force will always be in any situation regardless of any humanitarian mandate—actually make one a potential target for violence by opposing forces?  And even when the operating environment in not a full, declared warzone does structural rather than physical violence within a system not warrant the same type of paradigm?

Even at their best, aid and development agencies must combat the forces of structural violence in order to have any long-term impact within societies.  Yet changing violent structures requires a form of violence in and of itself and while it may not come in the form of weapons and physical destruction, it can be just as dangerous nonetheless and any systematic change will unleash a backlash from those empowered by the status quo.   As aid agencies naturally attack such forces of structural violence within societies, they will thus continue to naturally make themselves a target for physically violent backlashes regardless of their purely humanitarian mandate.  Yet if it impossible to depoliticize aid and development amid the forces of structural violence, what does that say for the utility of these practices as a whole?  If everybody in a region is inherently a political actor what level of protection should be granted to those who wish only to help their fellow human beings?

Ultimately, the cold reality appears to be no special level of protection can or should be granted at all.  As much as it tears at my soul to think of my friends and future colleagues in the aid and development community as “legitimate” targets of violence in the same sense that I am a legitimate target for my decision to carry a weapon and join a military, the realist in me sees our work as one in the same.  While we engage in attacking different manifestations of violence, we are attacking violence nonetheless and that brings with it inherent, accepted risk.  The amount of which we choose and/or are forced to accept is purely dependent on our own causes, ideals, and the value we place on our life over our work.

The paradox of security in itself is one of the most interesting in the human psyche.  We can hide behind great walls manned by sentries with automatic weapons and pre-planned engagement areas, and yet we can be killed easily from within these walls or struck down the moment we choose to venture out into the “Indian country” of our own creation.  In the same sense, we can build no walls at all, immerse ourselves entirely in the societies we hope to change with nothing to protect us save for our own wits and our foreign bank accounts yet still meet a similar fate.  It is said that oftentimes the more secure you force yourself to feel the less secure you truly are.  But sometimes when you try to appear unsecure and vulnerable you are simply presenting and easy, soft target for violence.  In the end, I have come to accept the fact that security in itself is an illusion and more of an emotional crutch than absolute reality.  With reality being that none of us who choose to change the world will ever be truly secure all.  We have all given up our right to life in the pursuit of offering our children a better world, whether we are there to enjoy it with them or not…

In our time, we must acknowledge the fact that progress is slow and it is no way a straight path.  We must not forget our Western concepts of development and progress took centuries to be fully realized and are even today remain a painful manifestation of imperfect systems and “just good enough to function” societies.  Thus, our expectations of bringing change and progress over night or even within our productive lifetimes must be tempered by the realities of overcoming the deeply-entrenched violent forces within our societies.  Those who chose to work for change must accept the fact that they easily be overcome by these forces.  And yet, their cause is truly just enough to warrant this risk and it is truly a blessing that there are so many people still willing to shoulder this burden…

So are we entering the end of the era of humanitarian space?  In a world where ever action has dramatic second and third order political effects can any action really innocent?  I feel we are still too early on in the game to tell and the complex and unoperationalized concept of structural violence is still in its intellectual infancy and far beyond the scope of this or any other half-coherent rambling of a post I may be able to produce on a calm, Afghan night.  Change amid a violent world is still an inherently dangerous game and while it tears deep at my conscience as a human being to lose anyone in the quest for real, sustainable change I cannot hide the feeling that, just as I have chosen this life and accept any outcomes from my decision, they knew what they were getting into.  I just thank God every night that there are still people in this world who are so willing to give up their illusions of personal security to work for towards the goals our generation must accomplish.  We will certainly need more of them if we wish to build a future for our children.  And while many of us may fall in this quest for change, at least we will keep moving in the right direction…

Peace be upon all of you,


15 AUG 2011, 0045 AST, Orgun-E, Paktika, Afghanistan


About briangdonnelly

I'm pretty much a random traveler and free thinker. Right now I live and work with the Army in North Carolina. I grew up in Missouri but am from the northeast US and have traveled a lot with the Army and life in general so I can't say I really have a "home" except where I chose to catch a few hours or rack each day. Overall, life is pretty awesome and I'm looking forward to changing the world. Hit me up if you care... Peace, Brian
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