Everywhere : Time for a humanitarian compact

8 January 2003Mukesh Kapila

One aspect of recent, and possible future wars, is the debate on money. How much will it cost? Where will the money come from? In the humanitarian world there is no such process. Of all the major public endeavors — war, welfare, science and so on — the financing of the $10-billion-a-year effort to bring relief to the victims of war and disaster is probably the least sophisticated. It relies on media attention, political self-interest and the goodwill of citizens in rich countries, and most of all on the heroic men and women who have dedicated their lives to humanitarian work.

There is no internationally agreed way of measuring humanitarian needs. Economists can make comparisons between countries through measures such as gross national product. We also now have the Millennium Development Goals and a welcome debate on what they will cost and how to foot the bill. But there is no equivalent measure to guide those who are trying to provide basic human succor.

The absence of quantitative tools masks extraordinary inequities. In 2001, humanitarian organizations spent more than 80 times as much money in the Balkans, per beneficiary, as in the Horn of Africa. More than a billion dollars has been raised for humanitarian operations in Afghanistan in 2002, where it is sorely needed, but lamentably little for the Congo, where the need is hardly less.

The modern humanitarian movement grew from efforts to bring relief to the victims of war. Florence Nightingale in the Crimea, Henry Dunant in the European wars of the 1850s and Clara Barton in the U.S. Civil War were moved by a desire to limit human suffering by the organized mobilization of relief.

Florence Nightingale may now be portrayed as a little lady with a lantern, but she was the first woman to be a fellow of the Statistical Society. Her vision for relieving the horrors of conflict was one of compassion alongside ever increasing professional rigor.

It is technically possible to produce a good-enough objective picture of humanitarian need. But to regain trust in the humanitarian system there would have to be changes — through separating needs assessments by impartial experts from the financing of agencies.

A degree of constructive competition could be a tonic. The mandates of different agencies must not be cover for inefficient monopolies. The objective measurement of agency performance and a universal system of accountability, to both beneficiaries and funders, remains essential. To get the best humanitarian good out of each available dollar is a moral duty.

Part of a humanitarian compact would be to expect the richer world to commit to meeting basic humanitarian needs in their entirety. Not here or there, not now and then, but everywhere and every time. This is a realistic proposition, especially if we widen the donor base from the usual 15 governments to the 35 or so richest countries that are more than capable of sharing the burden. About $15 billion annually should do the job worldwide — half as much again as current humanitarian spending.

There is another reason why it is time for a humanitarian compact. In an increasingly fractured world with much fear and foreboding as to what the future might hold, the values that underpin humanitarianism — common to all the faiths — show remarkable resilience. By showing that we do care — everywhere — we could keep in touch with our common humanity and buy space and time for the world to work out a better way to deal with our differences.

The little lady’s lantern is still shining.

First published in the International Herald Tribune (The New York Times)

Published by Mukesh Kapila

See http://mukeshkapila.org

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