Humanitarian instinct against humanitarian bureaucracy

26 May 2022 – Mukesh Kapila

Last month, I visited Romania and the border region with Ukraine towards Odesa, in my role as Special Adviser to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Mediterranean (PAM), accompanying its President Hon. Gennaro Migliore and Secretary General Sergio Piazzi.   

PAM is an international organisation of the parliaments of the countries around or near the Mediterranean Sea. It is a unique and much-respected “platform for political dialogue and parliamentary co-operation in the Euro-Mediterranean and Gulf regions”.  It brings together 34 member parliaments to face critical issues, such as regional conflicts, security and counter-terrorism, humanitarian crises, economic integration, climate change, mass migration, education, human rights and inter-faith dialogue.

As I have seen for myself, PAM really does work, especially when other channels of international co-operation hit a brick wall. That is because it’s members bridge diverse peoples and communities and, while they are well-connected and command huge influence with their own governments who they elect, national legislatures are usually independent of them.  So, PAM is often used for backdoor and parallel diplomatic efforts.

I may write more about PAM’s endeavours on future occasions  but back to Romania  which is, happily, a PAM member. If any justification for this is needed, it is that Romania enjoys a coastline on the Black Sea which connects with the Mediterranean through the Bosporus Strait.  

More significantly, Romania is a frontline state in relation to the Russian war on Ukraine. The purpose of our PAM delegation, invited by the Romanian Parliament, was to express the solidarity of sister parliaments, and to develop mutual support measures.

It was my first visit back to Romania after my 1990s mission there, on behalf of the UK Government humanitarian assistance programme, in the immediate aftermath of the post-Soviet, post- Ceaușescu collapse of the country. The horrors of those days are still fresh in my mind: cavernous hospitals with no medicines or water and electricity, uncomprehending patients tied to their beds in psychiatric wards, old people begging on the streets, their faces haggard with hunger as their pensions became worthless, and orphanage-after-orphanage full of emaciated babies.  Beyond the tyranny they had already suffered for decades,  the further price paid by Romanians in overthrowing their dictatorship was truly horrendous.

Many of my own ideas around the handling of post-crisis transitions came from that earlier Romanian experience. Especially, what not to do as outsiders – when we trigger or accelerate political, social, and economic change in a troubled country.  I was to draw on those lessons (not always successfully) in my subsequent work in Africa and Afghanistan, for example. (As a side thought, I was gratified, if somewhat mystified, that many years later, a Romanian publisher had thought it worthwhile to buy translation rights to my first book, Against A Tide of Evil; amazingly, copies in Romanian are still available).

A mix of such memories came flooding back as  we sat with the President of the Romanian Parliament in his glided room at the Palace of the Parliament, apparently, the “heaviest”, “most expensive”, as well as “the second largest administrative building in the world”. Truly, it must have been a source of pride for all bureaucrats everywhere.  A direct legacy of the despotic Ceaușescu who used soldiers and ‘volunteers’ to build it, it is now used for all types of public events and social gatherings.  And it is a great tourist attraction if we overlook its origins, somewhat like Egypt’s pyramids built originally by serfs and slaves.  

Modern Romania is now a confident and bustling nation of nearly 20 million people, whose fortunes were transformed as direct consequence of membership of the European Union. There is much to criticise in the EU but the revitalisation of its borderlands, bringing democracy, stability, development, and peace is surely its greatest achievement. For this alone, the European project is fully justified.

No wonder, the EU flag flies everywhere in Romania (prudently nowadays alongside that of NATO).  Certainly, from its experience and that of other former Warsaw Pact countries such as Poland and the Baltic republics, it is a no-brainer that Ukraine’s future rests on EU membership – whenever that happens.

Meanwhile, Romania has seen the influx of  nearly one million of the approx. 6.7 million refugees fleeing Ukraine to date. Talking to them near the border – nearly all were women and children as men must stay behind to defend their country – was profoundly moving. All had harrowing tales to tell about travelling for days across a shattered countryside  gambling on the humanity of soldiers at numerous checkpoints, alongside random or deliberate bombing and sniping en route.   What struck me was not the shared woes of so many,  but the uniqueness of each family’s struggle to reach safety. It is indeed true that  while millions may be similarly affected, each one suffers in their own way.

Romanians responded instinctively as local authorities, organisations and volunteers swung into action without anyone telling them what to do and how to do it. This was the ‘humanitarian instinct’ at its best, guiding good Samaritans to do what felt right and natural.

And then it got complicated as national authorities sought to control and coordinate, and international aid agencies drove into town. Providing humanitarian succour was suddenly big business  with at least US$1.7 billion sought to help at least 12 million refugees and displaced. That is not an unreasonable ‘ask’ considering the magnitude of the needs  but, inevitably it is accompanied by ‘humanitarian bureaucracy’.

Speeding down the mighty Danube towards the Black Sea across which lay the disputed territory of Crimea, I thought of Florence Nightingale, the nurse turned humanitarian/statistician/activist. It was she who gave birth to the scientific humanitarianism we know today, amidst another war some 170 years ago, that also involved Russia and some present-day NATO members.

The sixteen volumes of Florence Nightingale’s Collected Works  show that  the clash between ’humanitarian instinct’ and ‘humanitarian bureaucracy’ stems from the earliest days  of the modern humanitarian endeavour. But is it inevitable because of the nature of our humanity and how we organise ourselves?

Coincidentally, ‘Nature Human Behaviour’, invited me to pen a few thoughts on humanitarianism around Ukraine.  This journal asks questions such as: how do humans perceive, think, feel, decide, and act? How do they interact with their environments and others? How do they vary among individuals, groups, and cultures? How are they shaped by socioeconomic and political factors? How are they affected by disease or deprivation? What interventions can influence individual behaviours or outcomes?

These are mighty questions that go to the core of our humanity. Perhaps, only our Creator can truly address them?   But s/he would need a subscription to the journal first. I would recommend doing that if s/he can afford it.  

Meanwhile,  my more earthly insights on “humanitarian instinct against humanitarian bureaucracy” are freely available via this open link authorised by the kind people at Nature:  Please do read, if you have a moment.  

Published by Mukesh Kapila


2 thoughts on “Humanitarian instinct against humanitarian bureaucracy

  1. Many of my own ideas around the handling of post-crisis transitions came from that earlier Romanian experience. Especially, what not to do as outsiders – when we trigger or accelerate political, social, and economic change in a troubled country. I was to draw on those lessons (not always successfully) in my subsequent work in Africa and Afghanistan – This is the critical ingredient Mukesh. It is one where institutions have not learned to structurally develop bringing staid ‘solutions’ to problems rather than looking to the opportunities these crises present


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