BOOK REVIEW Dispelling the myths of humanitarian aid International Organizations and Civilian Protection by Sreeram
Reviewed by Sudha Ramachandran
In 2009, the world watched in horror as hundreds of thousands of Tamil
civilians in Sri Lanka's northern province were prevented by the Liberation
Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) from fleeing relentless bombing by the Sri Lankan
Shocking images and accounts trickled out of the war zone of the government
bombing homes and hospitals, and of the LTTE using civilian shields. These drew
world attention not just to the callous treatment of civilians by the two sides
but also the abject failure of
the international community and humanitarian organizations to protect them.
This failure is neither recent, limited to the final stages of the Sri Lankan
civil warm nor unique to Sri Lanka. Indeed, the depressing message from
conflict zones across the world is that humanitarian organizations, contrary to
their grand claims, don't do enough to save lives. Instead of pushing
assiduously to end war, most prefer to prepare for it with food and medicines
despite the proliferation of humanitarian organizations and human-rights laws
in recent decades, civilian vulnerability to violence and abuse in armed
conflict situations remains high. This issue is explored in International
Organizations and Civilian Protection: Power, Ideas and Humanitarian Aid in
Conflict Zones by Sreeram Chaulia, a regular contributor to Asia Times
Online and professor at the Jindal School of International Affairs in Sonipat,
The book provides fascinating insights into the behavior of humanitarian
organizations in conflict zones and their relationship to the violent
international system. Drawing on his field research and civilian peacekeeping
experience in two countries - Sri Lanka and the Philippines - Chaulia seeks to
answer whether the behavior of international humanitarian organizations towards
civilians is driven by material pressures and the inducements (power) of
donors, the host state and violent non-state actors or by the internal culture
of these organizations and their bureaucratic understandings (ideas).
Chaulia examines the working of five international humanitarian organizations
active in Sri Lanka and the Philippines over a five year period, 2003-08. These
were the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the United Nations
Development Program (UNDP), the International Committee of the Red Cross
(ICRC), Save the Children and OXFAM-GB .
In Sri Lanka, he found that UNICEF was the most proactive regarding protection
of civilians, followed by ICRC, OXFAM-GB, Save the Children and UNDP. In the
Philippines, however, it was OXFAM-GB which topped the list, followed by ICRC,
Save the Children, UNICEF and UNDP.
Chaulia is systematic in studying the impact of "power" and "ideas" on
humanitarian organizations. He describes the intensity and nature of
inducements offered and pressure applied on them by donor states, host states
and non-state actors to lower emphasis on civilian protection.
Such pressure from donors while low in Sri Lanka was high in the Philippines.
The Philippines' frontline role in the US's "war on terror" was the most
important "power" factor pushing humanitarian behavior. Donor states are wary
of humanitarian organizations raising civilian protection issues; hence the
high pressure on them to hush up civilian abuses by security forces in
What explains UNICEF's greater proactiveness when compared with UNDP in Sri
Lanka? Both are UN organizations and enjoy roughly the same amount of material
inducements from donors to emphasize civilian protection. Pressure on UNICEF
was milder than that on UNDP, but the difference in "power" pressures they
faced is not marked enough to account for the huge gap in their proactiveness
on civilian protection, the author argues. UNICEF drew the Tamil Tiger's wrath
with its campaign against recruitment of children and came equally under fire
from Sinhala hardliners and the government for refusing to endorse the latter's
claim that an orphanage it bombed in 2007 housed LTTE fighters.
Turning to the impact of "ideas", Chaulia points to the "deeply
state-subservient and opportunistic culture" of the UNDP and its preoccupation
with a "peace" that focuses on "development". UNICEF too was conservative, he
observes, but the radical and successful interventions by grassroots
organizations like Nonviolent Peaceforce (the non-governmental organization
where the author volunteered) pushed UNICEF to become "more assertive and
proactive instead of blithely documenting complaints [on children forcibly
recruited into armed outfits] and building databases", as it had done in the
past. "Ideas", he says, "caused UNICEF to leap years ahead of UNDP in
Unlike in Sri Lanka where UNICEF leads the five humanitarian organizations in
proactiveness, in the Philippines it ranked second from bottom. What explains
the gap between two branches of the same humanitarian organization? Besides
donor pressure and material inducements, UNICEF Philippines is developmentalist
in its culture, Chaulia points out. "The assumption that Mindanawons need
development much more than protection is cast in stone in the minds of UNICEF
officials. It is no wonder then that they never bother to inculcate protection
conscious in their vast network of local implementing partners."
The lesson from the ground then is that neither "power" nor "ideas" by
themselves explain the behavior of humanitarian organizations. Rather it is a
combination of the two that explains why some are "muscular humanitarians" that
proactively push for civilian protection while others restrict themselves to a
conservative role of food and blanket distribution.
"Power" and "ideas" do not exist in isolation. They are "offshoots of larger
oppressive structures of patriarchy and the capitalist world-system", the
author argues. He draws attention to how donor states bankroll humanitarian
organizations to further the interests of their commercial capitalist class.
Chaulia's description of a military humanitarian complex underscores the deep
hypocrisy of humanitarian organizations. He draws attention to their calls for
humanitarian military interventions, their willingness to accept funding from
governments that are party to the conflict and to do their bidding.
UNDP Sri Lanka happily participates in rehabilitation packages that involve
re-engineering the ethnic demography of the east and has thus become an
instrument of the Sri Lankan state's majoritarian agenda. A so-called
humanitarian organization is complicit in perpetuating the cycle of violence.
The author demolishes the myth that humanitarian organizations save lives. In
the name of ensuring access to the conflict zone, they refrain from speaking up
about gross rights violations or doing anything to protect people. "Ironically,
for most humanitarian organizations, the business of saving lives does not
include protection of civilians from violence and abuse."
As Chaulia notes in his introductory chapter, the book "transcends Pollyannaish
delusions about aid agencies". Indeed, it paints a rather depressing scenario
of the limited proactiveness of humanitarian organizations.
But the author is not without hope.
"Humanitarian organizations have agency that can skirt the structural
impediments to proactiveness," he writes, pointing to the example of OXFAM-GB
Philippines, which exploited divisions among donor states to expand its
proactiveness. Besides, drawing on the "wealth of knowledge" of grassroots
activists and rights defenders "can do marvels for the proactiveness of
international humanitarian organizations", he says.
Chaulia places hope in the potential of local activists. As evident from the
experience of UNICEF Sri Lanka and OXFAM-GB Philippines, "local peace and
human-rights defenders are agents of change and can transform not only IOs
[international organizations], but also the brutal milieu of war through
coordinated grassroots actions". To make themselves more proactive,
humanitarian organizations need to reconceptualize peace in terms of justice,
rather than chant the peace and development mantra, he says.
International Organizations and Civilian Protection is a valuable
addition to our understanding of how humanitarian organizations function. It
not only provides us with a wealth of information of what is happening on the
ground in two conflict zones, but also enhances theoretical understanding of
The book provides detailed insights into the thinking of humanitarian
organizations, how they view themselves and define their mandate and the
challenges they confront.
It disappoints in not throwing enough light on the work of the grassroots
rights defenders. Chaulia gives the reader a mere glimpse of the work done by
Nonviolent Peaceforce. A more thorough examination of what the organization -
and other proactive organizations - does to protect civilians and how it
managed to survive pressures would have added to the book's value.
Academics often use examples from the field to strengthen or fit into their
favorite theoretical framework. Chaulia, however, has looked to theory for
making sense of what he saw and experienced on the ground. In looking for
explanations he has not limited himself to a single theoretical approach. He
draws on the merits of different approaches to explain his ground experience.
The book will be of interest to scholars and activists working on conflict,
relief and reconstruction. It is essential reading for those who are embarking
on a career in humanitarian work.
International Organizations and Civilian Protection: Power, Ideas and
Humanitarian Aid in Conflict Zones by Sreeram Chaulia, Tauris Academic
Studies (August 30, 2011). ISBN-10: 1848856407 Price US$99, 263 pages.
Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in
Bangalore. She can be reached at[email protected]
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