Features & Analysis

The price of humanitarian principle


Jonathan Spector, MD, has worked for MSF in Darfur, Sudan and in Angola.

Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)

For a long time, aid organizations have faced many ethical dilemmas about where it is better to draw the line when negotiating with armed forces when delivering aid to vulnerable communities.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) puts some of these dilemmas on the spot in its new book titled ‘Agir à tout prix? Négociations humanitaires : l’expérience de Médecins Sans Frontières’ (‘Acting at any price? Humanitarian negotiations revealed: The MSF experience’). MSF’s collection of essays was launched to mark the 40th anniversary for the medical aid agency.

Besides being an anniversary book, ‘Acting at any price?’ provides the most detailed and self-critical insight into the deals aid organizations have to negotiate so they would be able to continue their work. Negotiations are often with groups and regimes which abuse human rights.

The book highlights the debate on the practices of contemporary humanitarian actions and the goals of these actions. At the same time, ‘Acting at any price?’ discusses the political transactions and balances of power and interests that in the end allow humanitarian activities to move forward. However, these are often masked by the haughty rhetoric of ‘humanitarian principles’.

‘Acting at any price? Humanitarian negotiations revealed’ offers a rare portrait of some of the most difficult recent operations conducted by MSF in Somalia, Burma, Gaza and Sri Lanka, among others. The reader can have a very clear picture of how humanitarian aid organizations work and the price they have to pay  fulfill their aims.

Bribes, corruption, using combatants to ensure safety of the organization’s team and convoys are also part of the negotiations and compromises aid agencies are willing to do when the aim is to get the job done. These actions may have unintended consequences which lead us to the main question the book intends to ask: What is an acceptable compromise for MSF? And what is an acceptable compromise in humanitarian aid?

The book shows clearly that there are no criteria for determining the legitimacy of the humanitarian action and that even if aid actors claim they are above politics the reality shows the contrary.

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