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The Humanitarian Cluster...

One of the things that I most looked forward to coming to Libya, was the chance to see how all of the things I (over-) learned in Afghanistan apply here.  I can go on at length about similarities and differences, but let me just focus on one thing that I see remaining the same.  There seems to be an inability or unwillingness to accept the meaning of the word ‘principle’ in humanitarian principle and hence an inability to approach the politics inherent in working for an NGO, or for that matter to see the big picture.

Libya is an aid effort in a pretty heavily developed place (electricity and paved roads galore here), and with all that sundry rule of law lying about, the effort seems much more structured here.  The UN and the major donors from the NATO states take the lead and the first-tier NGOs are chasing them about and going to the meetings they schedule.

This leads to a lot of exhausting discussion about rather useless topics (Benghazi or Zarzis take your pick) like which NGOs are too allied with the rebels to support.  And this is where I, the good realist liberal, want to tear my hair out.  See we have this principle of trying to be neutral, but we have to be realistic and realise when we cannot.  There is no civil society behind Qaddafi lines because his quixotic dictatorship has not allowed any to form.  Pretty much everyone trying to help Libya, like the vast majority of those within Libya are supporting the opposition, which allows NGOs to operate freely.  Moreover, if you or your organisation hopes to have any credibility in future Libya, the only question that will be asked of you is ‘what did you do for the opposition?’

So here is why it’s useful that humanitarianism is a principle and not a set list of things.  We can employ humanitarian principles by working with a Libyan organisation who might be pro-rebel but still tries to distribute aid widely to all (again rebels support things like this while the former regime does not).  Sometimes such nascent civil society organisations will say inappropriate things at meetings when included.  That’s okay; it’s how the discussion evolves.  What if we excluded the UN and its employees for every inappropriate thing they did and said?

Just as was my past experience in Afghanistan, a lot of the response to this crisis could get bogged down in NGOs’ self-perception.  Non-profit and non-government are happy coincidences; I’m still encouraging NGOs to think of themselves as non-state actors (and no, that doesn’t mean you need to be armed).  It may be nice to have a few governments recognising an organisation to lend it legitimacy, but we exist outside the state system and our lack of state-based identities make us better and more able to focus on the task at hand.  It also means we’re independent political actors trying to enact our political platform of neutrality.

I came to Libya support liberalism, to support the people here, to get some perspective on the 2011 revolutions.  I did not come here just to implement some lines on a TOR.  Everybody can and should do their work and the immediate task at hand, but I really hope no one loses sight of that bigger picture.

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    The Humanitarian Cluster... - The Global Californian - Scott Bohlinger
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    The Humanitarian Cluster... - The Global Californian - Scott Bohlinger
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    The Humanitarian Cluster... - The Global Californian - Scott Bohlinger

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