The Journal of Humanitarian Assistance

Title: Beyond Administering Misery
Cite this document as:
Document Posted: 29 October 2002

Beyond Administering Misery

A review of Arthur C. Helton's The Price of Indifference. Refugees and Humanitarian Action in the New Century, Oxford University Press, 2002. ISBN: 0-19-925031-6. Price: US$ 19.95. 314 Pages)

Sreeram Chaulia

‘Can a deeply reactive humanitarian system be transformed into one that is more anticipatory and effective?" (p.299). The challenge and the way forward to reforming refugee policy, in the eyes of Council of Foreign Relations Fellow Arthur Helton, is to think creatively ‘outside the box,’ and come up with comprehensive and proactive mechanisms on forced migration which would forestall the need to pay much greater costs later. For too long, humanitarianism has ‘muddled along’ on an ad hoc basis and, in the words of one former UNHCR chief, done nothing beyond ‘administering misery.’ The Price of Indifference is the first full-length book offering structural changes in the humanitarian order that will save more lives and cost less in the long run. Over and above their heterogeneity, governmental, non-governmental and UN experts on coerced displacement converge on a common minimum denominator: the need for ‘doing much better.’ Helton has transgressed this vaguely professed wish and floated a set of concrete measures for improving the planning and execution of refugee policy.

Why Refugees Matter: Idealism and Realism

Refugees are of great importance from both a human rights and a statecraft point-of-view. ‘In personal terms, we care about refugees because of the seed of fear that lurks in all of us: it could be me.’ (p.7) The uncertainties and fears of coping with the future are universals that get graphically represented by those exiled from their homes. Refugees are also increasingly prominent for reasons of state since the end of the Cold War, as foreign and military policies of major powers intertwine with humanitarian crises, be it during the scattering of 3 million Russophones after the demise of the USSR or the recent Kosovo and Afghanistan wars.

Mockery of ‘Protective Prevention’

Reams of text have been written and distributed on how the international community can prevent recurring refugee situations, but the track record of the 1990s is quite abysmal. ‘Safe havens’ for Kurds inside northern Iraq and for Bosniaks in erstwhile Yugoslavia, cross-border UN relief operations from Kenya to contain Somalis from crossing the border, controversial French military intervention for establishing a ‘humanitarian corridor’ in post-genocide Rwanda, ‘humanitarian evacuation’ of Kosovar Albanians from Macedonia and many other actions were all narrowly preventive and sometimes worse than that. In Helton's parlance, prevention is not merely preventing refugees from entering neighbouring countries, but actually redressing the proximate and underlying causes of displacement and building states with order, stability and justice.

State Building: Groping in the Dark

In the former Yugoslavia, the laboratory for innovative but piecemeal refugee policies, Helton notes how tenuous post-conflict state building is. ‘UN civil police deployments have been dismal failures.’ (p.33) Bosnia is ‘failing’ and ‘de-evolving’ into an artificial entity holding together separatist forces; and Kosovo is ‘not over yet.’ After a visit to Sarajevo in 2000, Helton laments that refugee repatriation is ‘incongruous in a situation in which normality and the rule of law were remote dreams’ (p.39). Absence of  understanding of the role of civil society and impartial justice systems make emergence of a functioning Bosnian state that can retake refugees ‘decidedly uncertain.’

Ethnically motivated killings litter Kosovo - an ‘ongoing crisis’ - long after the lenses of CNN cameras have decamped. Lack of military-humanitarian coordination in the 1999 war worsened instead of mitigating refugee outflows and now, ‘if KFOR left, Serbs would be killed’ (p.59). Albanian judges are unwilling to sentence ethnic Kosovar defendants and are unfairly punishing ethnic minorities.Unfair judgements on property claims is the major complaint of minorities, cries for equity which are not helped by poor court infrastructure and a low level of human rights expertise. Return of properties or compensatory agreements for repatriating refugees are also not underway in Serbia proper, where previously productive and enterprising exiles are growing more and more marginal and socially invisible.

Repatriation and refugee solutions are central to state-building in Cambodia, but non-restitution of lands to refugees coming back from Thailand has multiplied Phnom Penh's teeming urban slums. Human rights violations are pronounced and fear of government suppression is ‘below the surface’ of every mind. In Haiti, the spectre of a new refugee emergency is looming as boat departures increase in proportion to random criminal activity, indiscriminate police excesses and a systemically weak judiciary. East Timor, the newest member of the United Nations, is deeply insecure with the existence of camps in West Timor from which the anti-independence Indonesian militia launch raids. Had the US and Australia mounted a pre-emptive international deployment on the eve of the Timorese referendum, the abuses of today may have been averted. Land rights questions and uneven spread of grassroots development NGOs could make  future conflicts more likely here too.

Old Laws, New Problems

Helton caustically says there are ‘more gaps than structure’ in the international legal architecture relating to forced displacement. Conventions and treaties on universal human rights are pathetically non-enforceable due to state sovereignty constraints, except for rare cases where ‘coalitions of the willing’ enforce conformity. Debates inside the UN on delineation of responsibilities towards IDPs have been ‘a pretty sad story’ (Richard Holbrooke) and unless a common minimum understanding is reached on the ‘right’ and ‘duty’ of humanitarian military intervention, more Operation Turquoises and third world suffering will follow.

Scant legal deliberation of new forms of displacement, together with reductionist notions of humanitarianism as distribution of material assistance are turning prolonged and indefinite refugee crises into ‘norms by default.’ The downscaling of protection in refugee policy and lack of monitoring and publicity of the quality of asylum are leaving millions of refugees in precarious security conditions and legitimising de facto refoulement. Most worrisome, of course, is that ‘state-oriented migration control policies’ in the West are eroding traditional avenues for the asylum of genuine refugees. Another new nightmare is rising rate of casualties for humanitarian workers, with the UN reporting a total loss of 198 civilian personnel in the field since 1992.    

International Disorganisation

Helton's most acerbic critique is reserved for ‘serious bureaucratic tensions in the UN system that influence the way humanitarian action is organised’ (p.204). The revamping of the headquarters and specialised agencies since 1997 has been cosmetic. One senior staff member told Helton she was ‘oblivious’ to any change. UNHCR ‘does not have the capacity to analyse potential hot spots and envisage or plan for worst-case scenarios’ (p.213). After declaring the last ten years a ‘decade of repatriation,’ UNHCR did not bother to apply new technologies to screen out ‘recyclers’ and impostors until they reached alarming proportions in Afghanistan this year. UNHCR has also been very uncomfortable about partnering with military actors since the Kosovo campaign, even while acknowledging that camp and field staff insecurity is burgeoning. Sanctimoniously conducting ‘Brookings Process’ consultations for many years now, UNHCR is still unable to bridge the gap between humanitarian assistance and long-term development.

Helton has three recommendations to overcome current UN atrophy: a) for a start, UNHCR must be delegated policy planning for IDPs without further wrangling among agencies; b) an interim improvement would be enhancing the standard of OCHA personnel in New York with quality staffing; and c) ultimately, the creation of a consolidated UN humanitarian agency with fully integrated programme and budget (on lines suggested by Maurice Strong to the Secretary General).

America: Getting Past Reaction and Inattention

Helton quotes a former Clinton administration humanitarian specialist that US governmental refugee responses are ‘remarkably ad hoc’ and the victim of bureaucratic rivalries. There is no single inter-agency forum to formulate international humanitarian policy, with the State Department and USAID waging turf battles in crises involving refugees, with the National Security Council hesitantly playing the part of peace-broker. Regional and functional bureaus have better access to the Executive Office than humanitarians, ending in ‘no one knowing who is in charge’ when an overseas intervention has refugees as a key feature.

For breaking the logjam, Helton proposes a new US Agency for Humanitarian Action (AHA), reporting to the Secretary of State and having one primary focal point in charge. The head of AHA must have political stature (Holbrooke is probably the most qualified in the reviewer's opinion) and relate closely to the President. AHA should interrelate military and humanitarian perspectives and save future coordination fiascoes like Kosovo. AHA can also address the ‘public security gap’ by enhancing US ability to train, recruit and deploy civilian police officials and criminal justice resources in state-building efforts.

Toward Proactive World Refugee Policy

Helton sees ‘no excuse for not finding a way forward from immediate needs of individuals in distress to cultivating human security in situations of potential and actual crisis’ (p. 268). His deus ex machina is a new intergovernmental body, Strategic Humanitarian Action and Research (SHARE), acting as an ‘international locus for the manufacture and refinement of the tools necessary for new forms of humanitarian action’ (p.287). SHARE should comprise a small core of expert consultant staff who would advise and complement the work of UN and NGO specialised agencies in refugee policy. SHARE’s tasks would include early warning before crises erupt, ensuring full protection for uprooted persons and planning human security strategies to encourage lasting resettlement of refugees. It could also augment close working relationships between peacekeepers and civilian humanitarian organisations and tide over meagre ‘cross-learning’ between old and new DPKO missions. SHARE must put in place an ‘international justice package’ for applying rule-of-law concepts in post-crisis settings. One early step can be putting together a universal criminal justice package in advance and making it available for deployment in state building in multi-faceted environments.

Helton thinks SHARE should not be located within the UN for fear of red tape and bureaucratic suspicions and already over-stretched budget pressures. Also, important donor governments which have shown increasing  reluctance to fund UN peace operations might find SHARE a more independent and thorough entity to finance. What Helton overlooks here is the fact that the consolidated UN humanitarian agency he moots will theoretically have both the resources and efficiency to host and make best use of SHARE's technical expertise. By positing SHARE as a non-UN body and an alternative non-UN implement for seeding by rich donor states, Helton could be stirring the same jealousy and inter-organisational tiffs that have wreaked havoc in the past.


Backed by blurb commendations from Kofi Annan and Sadako Ogata, The Price of Indifference has fully opened the debate about reconceiving refugee policy in the new century by making the case for fundamental change in institutions, laws and consultative frameworks. Empty shibboleths of reform accompanied by the time-worn routine of ‘organising charity’ will not suffice. Helton's greatest service is to impart a sense of urgency and tangibility to the humanitarian reform debate.