Reconciling the irreconcilable? Humanitarianism & peacebuilding The decision by Médecins Sans Frontière (MSF) is symptomatic of the complexities and contradictions engendered by the growing fusion of humanitarianism, developmental interventions and peace-building says HAB Editor Demessie Fantaye

Photo: World Humanitarian Summit

The upcoming World Humanitarian Summit scheduled to be held on the 23rd and 24th of May, 2016 in Istanbul Turkey, and the deliberations leading up to it, encompass one theme, ‘serving the needs of people in conflict’ which in theory engages with the nexus of peace-building and humanitarianism. However the theme and the issues raised by it, are framed in very general terms and do not explore the multiple complexities and challenges inherent in the marriage of the two notions.

The recent announcement by Médecins Sans Frontière (MSF) states that it is withdrawing from participation in the World Humanitarian Summit due to concerns at the continued violation of international humanitarian law in relation to refugees and conflict situations by state actors, and its fears the Summit will do little in holding states to commitments that are made during the Summit.[i]

The decision by the MSF is symptomatic of the complexities and contradictions engendered by the growing fusion of humanitarianism, developmental interventions and peace-building. The desire by certain actors (states, multilateral actors and humanitarian organizations) for a more expanded and robust mandate in relation to conflict induced humanitarian emergencies is understandable but at the same time overlooks the problems inherent with an expanded mandate.

The desire for an expanded and robust fusion of peace-building, humanitarianism and development interventions ignores the growing politicization and militarization of humanitarian interventions especially in the Global South. It also plays into the growing tendency to challenge the norm of state sovereignty. The publication of the 1992 United Nations Report An Agenda For Peace is a landmark event in questioning, and in hindsight, in eroding the notion of state sovereignty. The principle of Humanitarian Intervention and the reformulation of sovereignty in terms of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ have expanded the space for humanitarian action for a whole range of humanitarian actors:  from states to civil society organizations to businesses.

On a more prosaic level, integrating peace-building and humanitarianism is easier said than done. Efforts to reconcile humanitarian action and peace-building on the ground especially during conflict-induced humanitarian crises are fraught with tensions and challenges. These are compounded by definitional problems and operational paradoxes, including the sheer ambiguity of the humanitarian agenda, the nature of humanitarian space, and competing agendas.

The issues and questions that arise are of more than theoretical interest. They have profound practical significance for peace-builders and humanitarian actors in the field. The issues and questions are even more critical for the Horn of Africa, the site of many conflict induced humanitarian emergencies. the 2015 Global Humanitarian Overview (UN 2015), five out of the 12 ‘countries in focus’ in terms of their humanitarian need are in Africa and all of them are crises induced or exacerbated by conflict. Of these five African countries (Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Central African Republic), three are in the Horn of Africa.

The articles submitted for this issue of the Horn of Africa Bulletin interrogate and explore many of the contradictions alluded to earlier in the fusion of peace-building, humanitarianism and developmental interventions.

The article by Jens Pedersen is an incisive and critical theoretical engagement and interrogation of the tendency to fuse peace-building, humanitarian and developmental interventions. He cautions against the tendency in favour of an expanded humanitarian mandate and urges for the usefulness and practicality of respecting ‘boundaries’. Elias Opongo’s article offers a critical theoretical overview of CSOs engagement in conflict induced emergencies and peace-building and offers recommendations regarding peace-building initiatives. Both authors are critical of and caution against the fusion of developmental interventions, peace-building and humanitarian mandates. The article by Lailatul Fitriyah offers a convincing argument for the incorporation of an intersectional gendered perspective in humanitarian emergencies in response to Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV). Martha Bedane’s article on the other hand takes a different position on the fusion of peace-building and humanitarian interventions. Her article argues that in spite of the problems that might arise, there are inherent synergies between peace-building and humanitarian interventions and that they are not mutually exclusive. She rounds off her article by elaborating on how one form of humanitarian intervention in conflict induced humanitarian interventions can actually lead to dividends in the peace-building sphere. The last article by Eyob Asfaw explores the inter-linkages between peace-building and humanitarian interventions by focusing on the recent attack in Gambella.[ii] The article argues that the attack should be understood as emerging from the chaos of a stalled peace-building process that did not encompass local level political and security issues.


[i] http://www.msf.org/en/article/msf-pull-out-world-humanitarian-summit

[ii] The NewYorkTimes.  2016.  ‘Deadly Ethnic Strife Convulses Ethiopia-South Sudan Border’. 25APRIL 2016 in http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/26/world/africa/ethiopia-south-sudan-nuer-highlander.html?smid=tw-share&_r=0