In Box

Humanitarian Schism

Can humanitarian concerns and states’ national interests peacefully coexist? Rony Brauman, M.D., the former president of the independent medical aid agency Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), and Samantha Power, the founding executive director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University, debated this question in New York on April 15, 2004. ...

Can humanitarian concerns and states’ national interests peacefully coexist? Rony Brauman, M.D., the former president of the independent medical aid agency Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), and Samantha Power, the founding executive director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University, debated this question in New York on April 15, 2004. What follows is a portion of their discussion:

Rony Brauman, M.D.:

It would not have occurred to anybody to label as humanitarian the work of U.S. medical teams with civilians in Vietnam during the war there or, say, the work of Soviet doctors in Afghanistan. I’m sure the doctors were helping people and trying to do a good job, but, nevertheless, such efforts were categorized as a part of psychological operations aimed at winning "hearts and minds." Today, however, these actions would be considered humanitarian. Look at the food drops in Afghanistan at the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001, which were called humanitarian just because the drops were delivering food.

We challenge this idea. Those efforts are not humanitarian action — they are political will, psychological operations, or propaganda. After all, when Hitler came to power the first thing he tried to set up was the distribution of food, clothes, and blankets for the victims of Germany’s great economic crisis. The people who received that help desperately needed it; but meeting someone’s needs is not enough to qualify as humanitarian action.

Samantha Power: 

You’re rightly saying that a lot of the things governments do for traditional, self-interested reasons are now being cloaked as humanitarian. Yet a lot of the work you [MSF] want to do is made possible by government intervention and involvement. For example, if you want to get access to Darfur in western Sudan, you need U.S. President George W. Bush to put pressure on the Sudanese government to allow you access. In many other cases you need international troops to go in first to secure the environment, so that you can get to the people who most need your help. So, I’m wondering if it is actually the appropriation of terminology that is the problem, or if it’s that the world has changed and that you’ve got the interventions you wanted — even though you would never say you want them because you have to pretend you’re neutral. Governments can do things on the military side that you cannot. Although these interventions are only rarely undertaken for humanitarian reasons, they act as a kind of Trojan horse, from which you can spring and do the work that you want to do.

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