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United Nations: Official Says Humanitarian Aid Needs Political Help

  • Julie Moffett

Washington, 22 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A senior United Nations official says that in order for humanitarian assistance to be effective around the world, it must be backed up by actions in the diplomatic, political and security spheres.

That was the conclusion reached by Kevin Kennedy, Director of the Emergency Liaison Branch of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs at the United Nations. He made the comment Monday in Washington at a press briefing on world humanitarian crises sponsored by The Brookings Institution, a research organization.

Brookings said it held the briefing to draw attention to what it said were numerous and growing humanitarian hot spots around the world. Kennedy gave the main address. A panel of experts offered additional insights and answered questions from the press.

Among the panelists were Julia Taft, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration; John Prendergast, Director of Africa Affairs, U.S. National Security Council; and Roberta Cohen, a guest scholar at Brookings.

During his address, Kennedy said that too often the UN and other major humanitarian organizations have made the mistake of permitting relief operations to go forward without parallel actions to actually bring the crises to an end.

Explained Kennedy: "Without a comprehensive approach, the actions of the United Nations ... the non-governmental sector, and international and bilateral aid organizations are analogous to a young boy trying to put out a fire with a water pistol. It is well-intentioned for sure, but limited in reach and effect."

Kennedy said that most of the world's humanitarian emergencies have political root causes. He said the offerings of humanitarian agencies such as food, clean water, medicine and shelter, are only effective in treating the visible and superficial symptoms of a much deeper and larger problem. He said that more than humanitarian aid is needed to protect people's lives.

Kennedy said valuable lessons in dealing with humanitarian crises have been learned, especially from the situation in the former Yugoslavia.

He said the international community essentially put on hold the massive and expensive relief effort there until decisive action -- as manifested in the political and military actions that led up to the Dayton Accords -- was taken and implemented.

Kennedy said that by stressing the need for political resolution in humanitarian crises, he isn't downplaying the important role that relief agencies play in saving lives and contributing to peace and stability.

He explained: "Certainly we have seen the value of humanitarian intervention in contributing to political settlements. But this can only happen when humanitarian action is part of a larger strategy to resolve what are essentially political crises."

One danger now facing those victims of international crises, said Kennedy, is that some humanitarian organizations faced with complicated crises and no foreseeable end are facing so-called "relief fatigue."

Said Kennedy: "Donors are, understandably so, increasingly frustrated with the progress and have greater difficulty justifying expenditures for situations that have no end in sight."

Moreover, Kennedy told reporters that humanitarian workers are becoming increasingly fearful for their lives. He said that in just one week over the past summer, the humanitarian community, including UN agencies and non-governmental agencies, lost seven people in three difference locations around the world.

Kennedy said UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan told him last week that for the first time in the organization's history -- the UN had lost more civilians than military peacekeepers.

Yet in spite of these facts, Kennedy said the U.S. continues to be, by far, the world's leading donor to humanitarian crises both to the UN and to the many international non-governmental organizations.

Cohen of Brookings agreed with Kennedy, saying that humanitarian workers now fear for their lives in many parts of the world. It is fast becoming "the most dangerous job in the world," she said.

Taft said the American government channels considerable money and resources into humanitarian aid because it really does care about the terrible plight of those affected by crisis and war.

Said Taft: "Really, (the U.S.) is the most generous donor to these causes. But we all know that money doesn't always buy us the results we would like to see."

Kennedy said that overall, there is no lack of energy or resolve on the part of humanitarian organizations to mobilize resources, deploy people and meet the immediate needs of those affected by a conflict. What is lacking, he said, is a worldwide political imperative to be carried out with the same intensity and dedication as the humanitarian efforts.

Explained Kennedy: "(Instead) these issues are left to drag, to be put off, to be the subject of inconclusive Security Council discussions, among others, without resolution and without action."

Kennedy offered three suggestions for the international community to consider when dealing with humanitarian crises around the world:

-- Work to strengthen regional organizations and cooperation.

-- Engage all the leaders of the affected region in a full-time effort at resolving the issues on both a political and humanitarian level.

-- Focus on sustainable development in these regions, so that the people can carry on long after the relief agencies have gone.

Concluded Kennedy: "For it is the political action that will bring the humanitarian action to a swift and speedy conclusion and allow people to get on with their lives."