Humanitarian agencies appointing senior political figures to spearhead their organisations undermines their claims of independence.
The appointment of David Milliband as President and CEO by a major relief agency is another nail in the coffin to claims of humanitarian independence. As a native European who has spent decades negotiating with warring parties around the world, I know all too well the dangers of being perceived as a foreign policy tool of nations involved militarily in conflict zones.
One of the founders of my organisation, Bernard Kouchner, moved on to a political career and was appointed as Minister for Foreign Affairs of France. His tenure coincided with French military involvement in the conflict in Afghanistan. Our efforts to convince the warring parties, including the Taliban, that MSF was independent from foreign political agendas became less credible as a result. Belligerent language by Mr. Kouchner on behalf of the French Government was often accompanied by the line ‘Mr. Kouchner, French Foreign Minister and co-founder Medecins Sans Frontieres.’ Many times the statements went even further with Mr. Kouchner claiming that the French troops and aid organisations were working towards ‘a common objective.’
This muddying of the waters often took weeks or months to repair, during which time essential hospital and other life-saving medical services were unavailable for people caught on the ‘wrong’ side of the frontlines. But at least we could argue thatMr. Kouchner had left MSF twenty years before, and we were not responsible for his decision to become a politician and later foreign minister.
However this can no longer be argued when International Rescue Committee decides to appoint a former foreign minister as its President and CEO, or when Save The Children appoints the wife of a sitting prime minister as their ambassador, photographed wearing their t-shirt and visiting Syrian refugee children. Assertions by humanitarian organisations that they are fully independent and have no hidden political agenda slowly wither away.
MSF is not naive and is fully aware of the cosy relationship between humanitarian organisations and donor governments, with many mid-level staff from the non-governmental sector (including a number of former MSF staff ) eventually moving on to positions in the Department of International Development in the UK or the European Commission Humanitarian Office (ECHO). This is not surprising, as there is often a close working relationship between these governmental aid departments and aid agencies reliant on their funding. But as with Mr. Kouchner, these are individual career decisions over which aid agencies have no control.
But the independent aid sector does control who we appoint as our most visible representatives. I do not doubt that Mr Miliband is an admirable candidate, nor do I doubt Mrs Cameron’s genuine concern for the Syrian refugees. But with each of these appointments, it becomes harder for all humanitarian organisations to negotiate with armed groups like the Taliban in Afghanistan, Al Shebab in Somalia or AQMI in the Sahel, to allow medical treatment for people under their control.
By Michiel Hofman. Photo by D.R. © MSF, 1971.