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Interview with Antonio Donini, on Manipulation and Independence in Humanitarian Action


"Working in conflict has become the norm," said Antonio Donini, editor of the recent book The Golden Fleece: Manipulation and Independence in Humanitarian Action. "It used to be that humanitarian agencies worked mainly outside the context of conflict… but now, we see that in all situations, there is an attempt by aid agencies to be present, or desire to be present. And, of course, that means we're dealing more directly with belligerent forces, and sometimes with abusive authorities."

Mr. Donini, a senior researcher at the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University, said that humanitarian action used to be a small activity on the margins of crisis and conflict, but it has grown over the past 20 years to a $15 billion/year endeavour, resulting in more professionalism but also more institutionalism.

Mr. Donini said his book is about "the relationship between humanitarian action and politics, and how, in different contexts, many different actors may want to take advantage of the assistance that is being provided for their own goals." Asked about his phrase "manipulation is the DNA of all humanitarian action," he said, "In all contexts, there is this tension between the principles of neutrality, impartiality, independence, and, of course, humanity, which is the most important of all principles, and the reality, the realpolitik, on the ground. Humanitarians have to learn how to navigate between these shoals of politics and instrumentalization."

Mr. Donini detailed some of the challenges of working in Syria and Afghanistan. In one anecdote, he told of a friend in the Helmand province who was receiving messages from the Taliban that they were unhappy with his NGO project.

"He was invited to see the Taliban representatives, and he went to a house where he found two guys behind computers, so he said 'What are you guys doing?' and they said 'Oh, we're checking the budgets of the NGOs because we want to know where the money's coming from.'"

“So you can't fool the Taliban anymore, or other groups in other countries. People now have an unparalleled access to information compared to the past. I think that decisions that are taken sometimes with good intent, like clearly having an integrated mission, was supposed to be the way the international community was going to promote durable, sustainable peace in Afghanistan.

"But these decisions have legs to come back at you when things don't go the right way. I think we often tend to privilege solutions that look good on paper, but don't necessarily correspond to the reality on the ground."

The interview was conducted by Jérémie Labbé, Senior Policy Analyst at the International Peace Institute.

Originally published in the Global Observatory