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Occidentalism and the Future of the Humanitarian Emergency Management

Jakarta Post 13 April 2010, http://www.thejakartapost.com/paper/2010-04-13 but strangely not available online. the version that appeared in Bataviase.co.id is based on an automatic scan which misses many spellings.. here is the shortened version with 900 words from the original 1600 words.

Occidentalism and the Future of the Humanitarian Emergency Management

Jonatan Lassa*

Globally, there is a claimed statistic as mentioned by James Paul (Global Policy Forum, June 2000) that NGOs grew from 400 a decade ago to 25,000 at the end of the 20th century. This number is re-quoted again in the paper “When NGOs beget NGOs: Practicing Responsible Proliferation” written by Jocelyn Kelly in the International Journal of Humanitarian Assistance a year ago. If the figure above is correct for 2000, the 2010 figure must have been higher than that of 2000, given the fact that there is apparently new faces not seen nor heard a decade ago but now everyone heard new names, such as Clinton Foundation, Eastern Congo Initiative by Ben Affleck etc.

In Indonesia, within the first decade of 21st Century, new humanitarian players emerged at the national level such as the Indonesian Society for Disaster Management (MPBI), Dompet Dhuafa, including some faith-based organizations working in the field of disaster emergency and management. The increase in the number of humanitarian NGOs in the countries like Indonesia can be read as a local response to the increase of insecurity and risks triggered by many big natural hazards and human-driven natural hazards during the last decade from the Eastern to the Western part of Indonesia.

While most of the national humanitarian NGOs live on the grants from their international counterparts, there is a positive sign as a few NGOs grow with creative in-country fundraising strategies and therefore become more “independent” in many ways: money, paradigm, values, ideology, technical standards, their own perception and standard on basic rights (on clustered needs such as food, health, nutrition, water, shelters etc).

Since there is no legally binding humanitarian disaster response law (please not to be confused with the Law of War which is also known as International Humanitarian Law) for non-state actors working in humanitarian clusters, the civil humanitarian emergency is arranged by “rules of the game” that is a set of non legally binding rules and voluntary standards such as Humanitarian Charters and Sphere Standard (or Standard of Humanitarian Emergency Relief). In many cases, the luxury of independence gained by NGOs which have no links with the international mainstream players may create gaps without no risks – given the context in Indonesia where there is no accreditation system developed to control the quality of services to the people at risks.

The worst scenario is that the field of humanitarian response may be flooded with a diversity of approaches and may end up in “Hobbesian Anarchy” – no clear authority nor clear governing body or rules and the worst can be seen – differences in standards on basic rights – for instance, gender-sensitive shelter facilities, that recently become a hot issue among humanitarian players which pro international standards which is already acceptable to the national authority but not adopted by some of the actors.

The coming of new players with their own “ideal types” and perspectives – distanced from the established standards may create an unnecessary clash. The established practices on humanitarian emergency service and the compliance of INGOs, UNs and national NGOs to standards such as Sphere Standard and Humanitarian Charters can easily be ignored and narrowly considered as “Western” standards. The embedded values in the Sphere and Humanitarian Charters such as humanitarian nature, neutrality, justice, non-discrimination, and non-partiality, with a strong intention to protect the marginal groups (the aged, children, girls/boys, men/women, disabled persons etc.) can be easily (See the Code of Conduct of the IFRC http://www.ifrc.org/publicat/conduct/code.asp.

In my observation, mainstream actors may (or may not) miscalculate what is so-called as “Occidentalism” critics which tend to suspect the embeddedness of “Western values” set behind such international standards. This is a global phenomenon and it is about the negative construction of the West by its “enemies” in the field of humanitarian emergency, the proponent of this view tend to suspect the United Nations and INGOs are propagating the dominant culture of the West. It is equally valid to argue against the danger of the embedded “Orientalism” that may (or may not) exist in the standards.

Check and balance in humanitarian emergencies in all sectors is much more needed today than ever before as the sector is getting bigger in scale than ever before. However, the “check and balance” exercise is a voluntary exercise with the noble purpose to improve the quality of services to the people affected by disaster risks. Nevertheless, it can create tension among actors – between those who do respond and those who dedicated themselves to monitoring the quality of the responses.

Creative enforcement of the standards through creative engagement is needed through several strategies. Should a conflict arise because of the dynamics in the check and balance between actors, it is the government’s role to mitigate the negative effect of the conflict. The media should be engaged in ways where they can communicate the standards set to fulfil people’s needs and rights. The proneness of humanitarian emergency to media controversy which coupled with the Occidentalism can be exacerbated by weak emergency governance context due to poor leadership of the government as well as lack of emergency managers with adequate diplomatic skills especially when ones try to communicate the voluntary standards even though those standards may have been already indigenized to the national standard.

*Co-editor Journal of NTT Studies, Member of MPBI Jakarta. Writing up PhD dissertation with a focus on Institutional Vulnerability and the Governance of Disaster Risks at the University of Bonn, Bonn, Germany


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