Normative Narratives


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Economic Outlook: Getting the International Aid Fiscal House In Order

humanitarian spedning

Mr. Lykketoft [UN General Assembly President], echoed former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who said, ‘there can be no peace without development, no development without peace and neither without human rights.’

As the UN marks its 70th anniversary, the Organization itself is “very much at a cross roads, particularly in the area of peace and security” with the architecture developed over the seven decades now struggling to keep pace with today’s and tomorrow’s threats and geopolitical tensions, in a way that is undermining Member State trust.

…making the UN Security Council (UNSC) more representative and more effective, for example, by addressing the use of the veto in situations involving mass atrocity crimes. But it also includes agreeing budgetary and institutional reforms to prioritize political solutions and prevention across every aspect of the UN’s approach to sustaining peace.

Humanitarian spending generally goes towards natural disaster relief, aiding people in conflict zones, and helping people displaced by both types of crises. As international powers have proven themselves unable to end conflicts, and the negative affects of climate change have become more acute, humanitarian spending has (unsurprisingly) ballooned in recent years.

Investing in clean energy and environmental resilience (preparedness and early warning systems) can mitigate the damage caused by natural disasters, reducing future environmentally-related humanitarian spending. But natural disasters, while tragic, are partially unavoidable–as various sayings go, mankind cannot “beat” nature.

(Do not confuse the inevitability of natural disasters with climate pessimism–the idea that it is too late to prevent the negative aspects of climate change, so why even try? There is nothing inevitable about the current trajectory of global climate change, and there are many actions humans can take to make the global economy more environmentally sustainable and reduce both the frequency and intensity of natural disasters.)

Thankfully, natural disasters generally do not cause long-term drains on aid budgets. While devastating, the natural disaster passes and the affected area can begin to rebuild. Conflicts, however, can be persistent. Persistent conflicts require sustained humanitarian aiddiverting resources from development aid that doubles as conflict prevention.

[The number of] people in extreme poverty who are vulnerable to crisis–677 million. Efforts to end poverty remain closely related to crisis, with 76% of those in extreme poverty living in countries that are either environmentally vulnerable, politically fragile, or both.

There is something particularly discouraging–no damning–about the fact that man-made, preventable, politically solvable issues should divert such a large amount of resources–80 percent of humanitarian funding–that could otherwise be used to deal with unavoidable humanitarian crises (natural disasters) and investing in sustainable human development / conflict prevention.

There will always be strains on development and humanitarian budgets. Donor countries are asked to give resources while dealing with budgetary constraints at home. All the more reason that, if an issue is both preventable and leads to persistent future costs, it should be addressed at its root.

To this end, the international community needs to invest more into poverty reduction and capacity building for democratic governance, particularly in Least Developed Countries (LDCs) most susceptible to conflict. When conflict prevention fails, there needs to be a military deterrent (more defense spending by the E.U. and Germany specifically) and UN Security Council reform, so that conflicts can be “nipped in the bud” and not deteriorate to the point where they become a persistent source of human suffering and drain on international aid budgets.

The idea of increasing investment in preventative peacebuilding and sustainable development as means of reducing future humanitarian spending has gained steam within the United Nations system–this is good news. But failure to end emerging conflicts before they become persistent conflicts puts this plan at risk, because these persistent conflicts consume the very resources needed to make the aforementioned investments in the first place. 

The U.S. could effectively lead the fight for UNSC reform. As the world’s largest military and a veto-wielding permanent member of the Security Council, on the surface the U.S. would have the most to lose by introducing a way to circumvent a UNSC veto (perhaps through a 2/3 or 3/4 UN General Assembly vote). But while the world has become increasingly democratic, the UNSC has has not. This reality has prevented the U.N. from implementing what it knows are best practices. By relaxing its grip on power through UNSC reform, the U.S. would be able to better promote democracy and human rights abroad.

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Conflict Watch: Bypassing Assad To Get Humanitarian Aid To All Syrians

Recent gains by the Islamic State (formerly known as ISIS) in Iraq have temporarily reduced international pressure against the Assad regime in Syria. There is no rebel party with the military capability to counter ISIS, and diplomatic attention in the region has shifted towards trying to keep Iraq together and the Israel-Gaza war.

However, the Islamic State also presents a new challenge to the Assad regime; an organized, battle ready opponent. 700 people died over a two day span last week in fighting between the IS and Assad regime, marking the two deadliest days of the 3+ year Syrian Civil War:

The two-day death toll occurred last Thursday and Friday, with brutal fighting between forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and the IS that centered around a gas field, according to reports released this week from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based anti-Syrian government group that keeps tabs on the war’s dead.

For several months, the Assad government has held the upper hand against Syrian rebels, which have become increasingly fractured. That reality was underscored Tuesday, when the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition said it had voted to force out its “interim government” and form a new one within a month.

Attempts to form a viable government-in-exile for Syria’s opposition have been hamstrung by internal rivalries and by its inability to establish itself inside Syria.

So long as the opposition remains divided, a number of analysts have suggested that besides benefiting the Assad government, it may also bode well for IS prospects in Syria.

“The potential for ISIS [another name for the Islamic State] to engineer a similar resurgence in Syria [as Iraq] is real,” wrote Noah Bonsey, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, in the Huffington Post.

“Should it succeed, ISIS would be well-positioned to present itself to Sunnis in the region at large as the only remaining force with the strength to oppose reviled regimes in Baghdad and Damascus.”

Western powers have stated they would help the Iraqi government counter the IS, on the condition that Iraq creates an inclusive government. It would be hard to imagine any situation in which the Assad regime would be extended a similar offer (unless of course he offered to step down, but if 3 years of war and 150,000+ deaths haven’t convinced him, the IS will not). This new enemy, alongside his recent victory in Presidential “elections”, has only further embolden Assad, even as the humanitarian situation continues to devolve.

While deadlocked on the idea of taking punitive military action against Assad, the UNSC finally took concrete steps to address the world’s most pressing humanitarian crisis:

Despite objections by Syria’s government, the United Nations Security Council voted 15 to 0 on Monday to authorize cross-border convoys of emergency aid for millions of deprived Syrian civilians in rebel-held areas, without prior approval by the Syrian authorities.

Nearly half of Syria’s population — 10.8 million people — need assistance because of the war, and roughly half of them live in rebel-held areas.

The government of President Bashar al-Assad had insisted that all international aid be channeled through Damascus, the capital, and very little, if any, had been getting to civilians in areas not controlled by the government. Mr. Assad’s political opponents said the inequity of aid distribution was part of an effort by him to use the assistance, including medicine, as a weapon of war to sicken and starve rebel-held areas into submission.

Under the resolution, which is legally binding, United Nations convoys can enter Syria through two crossings in Turkey, one in Iraq and one in Jordan, all of which are beyond the Syrian government’s control. United Nations officials had previously identified these crossings as important routes for getting aid to isolated civilians.

Sylvie Lucas, the ambassador from Luxembourg, said the Syrian government’s denial of aid to rebel-held areas was the main reason for the resolution. In remarks to the Council after the vote, she said the resolution’s sponsors had been “forced to seek other means, other ways to ensure that humanitarian aid is provided to more Syrians, wherever they may live.”

Under the resolution, she said, “the consent of the Syrian government will no longer be necessary.”

A group of 34 nongovernmental organizations that have worked with the United Nations in trying to help Syrian civilians, including Oxfam and Save the Children, also welcomed the Security Council resolution. In a statement, the group called it “a diplomatic breakthrough that must translate into real change on the ground.”

The Assad regime has withheld aid as a military tactic, hoping to break the will of pro-rebel groups by depriving them of basic needs. This is a diabolic act, in blatant violation of international humanitarian law.

With recent gains by the IS, what was once a matter of “will” (the Assad regime not wanting to deliver aid to rebel areas) has also become an issue of “capacity” (the Assad regime is likely no longer able to reach certain areas with aid). This confluence of factors has forced the UNSC, including Russia, to allow aid to be delivered to the 10 million+ Syrians who need it without the Assad regime’s approval. After 3+ years of fighting and untold human suffering, human rights have finally triumphed over “national sovereignty” in Syria.

Assad may be more confident now, but this confidence is further evidence of his delusion. Syria is fragmenting around him, while he trumpets a victory in a sham of an election. 

 

 


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Economic Outlook: An Ounce Of Crisis Prevention Is Worth A Pound Of Cure

So why do the international community and national governments under-fund crises prevention initiatives? (Especially given that there is no singular “cure” for various crises).

The rising scale of needs, a collective inability to resolve protracted crises, and the interplay of new factors such as climate change, are making it harder for Governments and aid workers to effectively respond to humanitarian challenges, the United Nations today reported, stressing that development aid must contribute to managing crisis risk.

The report, World Humanitarian Data and Trends 2013, authored by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), highlights major trends in the nature of humanitarian crises, the underlying causes and drivers, and the actors that participate in crises prevention, response and recovery.

“Climate change, population growth, rapid and unplanned urbanization, and food and water insecurity are leaving more and more people at risk of crisis,” write the report’s authors, listing some of the new factors facing the humanitarian community.

Among other trends, the report shows that today’s major humanitarian crises are protracted “with few signs of improvements over the long term.”

Of countries that had an inter-agency appeal in 2012, eight had an appeal in eight or more of the previous ten years, including in Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Somalia.

When not protracted, the crises are often recurrent, occurring as a result of shocks – climate, conflict, price – to chronically vulnerable people.

On these factors, the report concludes that humanitarian assistance is still overwhelmingly focused on response and development aid often fails to target the most vulnerable.

“Less than five per cent of humanitarian funding and less than one per cent of development funding is spent on crisis preparedness and prevention,” according to figures provided.

Just as one human rights violation enables others, one humanitarian crisis often leads to future manifestations of the same or related crises. The intractable / recurrent nature of humanitarian crises highlights the need to focus on a preventative approach to building resilience to humanitarian crises. Programs which build resilience to humanitarian crises are essentially poverty reduction / sustainable human development programs (think I am oversimplifying? The United Nations Development Programme’s motto is “empowered lives, resilient nations”).

Least developed countries (LDCs) do not have access to private sector credit (at affordable rates), particularly in times of great need (like after a major crisis). Therefore, an essential component of crisis preparedness are counter-cyclical fiscal policies. Many LDCs rely on natural resource rents for financing government programs. Counter-cyclical natural resource funds, such as the Nigeria’s Sovereign Investment Authority (which draws on excess oil rents), can be powerful tools for crisis preparedness.

Responsible use of ODA / natural resource rents relies on “good governance“. Corrupt leaders can easily embezzle ODA / public savings, and send that money offshore where it can never be recoveredFinding the right balance between prevention / preparedness and crisis response is a difficult task even for the most well intended governments / organizations.

However, it is obvious that spending only 1 % of official development assistance (ODA) on preventative / preparedness measures is a short-sighted strategy (although using a broader definition of “preventative action”, as I have, may encompass a larger portion of ODA). Further exacerbating the problem, there is a large gap in ODA commitments from the worlds wealthiest nations. Dedicating a bigger slice of a bigger pie to crisis prevention / preparedness is needed to strike a responsible balance

There are obvious reasons why the vast majority of ODA goes towards crisis response. Failure to respond to a humanitarian crisis can create breeding grounds for disease, human rights violations, violence/terrorism, and/or lost generations of economic growth. In addition, it is generally easier to mobilize resources in response to a specific incidence (which is seen as unavoidable), than it is for under-development / extreme poverty (which people often unmistakably attribute to laziness). However, it should be the job of development organizations to direct funding to the avenues which will have the greatest impact.

The democratic governance based approach to sustainable human development helps overcome common development issues. By emphasizing political rights and accountable governance, donors and citizens can be confident money is going (or in the case of preparedness, staying) where it is “supposed” to go. Farsighted “good” governments, whose capacities are fully developed with adequate resources (a combination of public savings / ODA), can achieve the simultaneous goals of economic development and resilience to crisis. By emphasizing human rights and environmental sustainability, humanitarian crises are addressed preventatively.

There is no one “road-map” for Sustainable Human Development. Every country is unique and has to build its own path–what Dr. Jeffrey Sachs refers to as “differential diagnosis“.

However, there are some common steps all LDCs should take if they wish to be on the path to sustainable human development: 

1) Draft Poverty Reduction Strategy Plans (PRSPs) that take into consideration the indispensable role of human rights and accountable governance; 

2) Legislate the human rights accountability from all relevant stakeholders (governments, civil society, NGOs, private sector, IGOs, etc.);

3) Mobilize a greater share of resources for sustainable human development programs to prevent / prepare for humanitarian crises.

Update: The UNDP-EU just released interactive maps detailing their joint projects over the last 10 years. One of these maps focuses on crisis prevention and recovery projects.


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Conflict Watch: Geneva 2

After a brief snafu over Iran’s presence, the Geneva 2 peace talks are set to get underway tomorrow (1/22). While it is difficult to be excited about the possibility of meaningful change coming out of this conference, the fatalism surrounding the talks is downright counter-productive:

It has been 18 months since a previous international peace conference in Geneva ended in failure, and all other diplomatic initiatives have also proven fruitless.

“At best, Geneva 2 will reconfirm agreements made during the first Geneva conference, call for ceasefires, maybe prisoners swap and so on,” said one Western diplomat.

“At the same time, those taking part in the talks are de facto giving legitimization to Damascus. They are talking to Assad’s government on the other side of the table.

“And so the show would go on while Assad stays in power.”

But Shashank Joshi, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, sets a lower bar for success. “We should think of this as a kind of ‘getting to know you,’ as a kind of sounding out the parameters of the possible here,” Joshi says, “what can be accomplished in terms of limited humanitarian access, for example.”

Normative Narratives is a place to discuss what we think “should happen”–there is no room for cynicism or fatalism here. Having both sides at the table (the SNC and the Assad regime), Geneva 2 presents an opportunity to set the stage for meaningful change in Syria. Meaningful change, of course, requires concessions from both sides. In the context of a civil war, agreements needs to be externally verifiable and include repercussion for reneging on said agreements.  Here is how that change could play out:

1) Bashar Al-Assad commits to having open elections on schedule (May 2014, or if that date is not possible as soon as the U.N. deems such elections feasible), allowing for international peacekeepers and elections committees to oversee the vote. Any interested party could run in these elections; the precondition stated by S.o.S John Kerry, that only parties agreed upon by both the regime and the opposition may run, would restrict the field of candidates to non-existent. Let the Syrian people decide what they want, and ensure their voices are heard.

There are logistical and security problems with holding an election in a country mired in Civil War, in which a third of the population is either internally displaced or has fled the country. These are major issues to be worked out by the U.N. between now and when elections are to be held.

2) In return for a commitment to Presidential elections, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) and Bashar Al-Assad agree to a nationwide cease-fire. There are potential problems with this solution; Will both sides honor the deal? Can the SNC retain any legitimacy with the opposition if it agrees to such a deal?

While these concerns are legitimate, they continue a fatal theme that has (in part) allowed the Syrian Civil War to persist. This theme is the marginalization of the vast majority of Syrians (who want a ceasefire and elections), while placing the greatest emphasis on the desires of the most violent parties of the war. By agreeing to a ceasefire, it will become clear which factions of the opposition are committed to a democratic Syrian state, and which factions only wish to seize power / setup an Islamic state.

Assad has reason to agree to a ceasefire as well, even if he is not at risk of losing the war. With a third of the population displaced, and an estimated loss of 35 years of development gains, Assad has a long way to go if he has any hope of becoming the legitimate democratically elected leader of Syria.

3) Assad has used the narrative of “fight terrorists” to justify his brutal crackdown on the opposition. A ceasefire would force Assad to put his money where his mouth is. It can be assumed that ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) would not honor the ceasefire. Let those factions continue to pose a security threat, and force Assad to fight them (instead of sitting back and laughing at rebel in-fighting). This would also put to rest the claim that Assad is actually backing ISIS to undermine his legitimate opposition:

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry accused the Syrian president of trying to hijack the agenda. “Nobody is going to be fooled” by Assad’s attempts to portray himself as the protector of Syria against extremists, Kerry said, “when he, himself, has been funding those extremists.”

It is a charge that the rebels have been leveling for months, that the Assad regime covertly backs the al-Qaida-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as a tactic to undermine any legitimate opposition.

“All of us know that the regime does not attack places held by ISIS,” says a Western diplomat. “There is an alliance of convenience between the two. It makes clear to the world where the defense against extremists lies.”

ISIS would also have to be countered from the Iraqi side in order to push this group to the margins.

4) A cease-fire would compromise the SNCs ability to take up arms again, by alienating the group from many of the opposition fighters on the ground. If Assad reneged on either the cease-fire or holding transparent elections, the SNC would be stuck between a rock and a hard place. It is therefore imperative that this deal is backed up by a commitment by the UNSC (including Russia and China) and NATO forces to intervene in the instance of meaningful deviations from this road-map to democracy.

Without such a commitment, the cost of reneging for Assad would be non-existent, while (as mentioned above) it would be disastrous for the SNC. Furthermore, a U.N. peacekeeping mission would need to be setup immediately to ensure Assad does not punish those opposed to him once they lay down their arms, while also establishing an environment conducive to transparent elections.

Lots of commitments between parties who do not like or trust each are needed in order to make this plan a reality. However, in the context of a “hurting stalemate”, growing regional instability, and gross human rights violations, there is no stomachable alternative. The international community has put in a great effort to make Geneva 2 a reality. The SNC has continued to put its faith in the international system, despite years of empty promises and inaction. The Syrian people cannot afford a meaningless convention, with a best-case-scenario of increased humanitarian access.

The world owes it to Syria to aim big, and make a full-faith effort to establish a ceasefire, expand access to humanitarian aid, and create a road-map to transparent democratic elections. I believe I have mapped out a good starting point, one that requires concessions from both sides and is mutually beneficial. If I can think of these ideas, one can only hope that diplomatic officials could come up with a realistic / workable solution.


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Transparency Report: An Olive Branch Israel is Obligated to Extend

A Palestinian emergency worker holds a boy on a street flooded by sewage water.
(Thanks to Wissam Nassar, NYT)

 

Israel-Palestine peace talks resumed this past July at the behest of Secretary of State John Kerry. These talks have, until this point, failed to yield meaningful results:

A high-level Palestinian source told Al-Monitor that not even one agreement had been achieved in the discussions so far, not even regarding marginal topics that were not defined as core issues. According to the source, not only has there been no progress, but there has been regression: Israel’s announcements about continued construction in the territories caused the Palestinian public to direct harsh criticism against its representatives in the talks, causing them (the negotiators) to harden their positions around the discussion tables. The highly placed source said that when the Palestinian team complained about this to Tzipi Livni, head of the Israeli team, she expressed her understanding of their perspective, but argued that this [the construction] reflected the Israeli political reality and, nonetheless, a way must be found to make progress.

When the talks were renewed, representatives in the prime minister’s environs promised “surprises” and explained that he is ready to make a dramatic diplomatic decision that would avert Israel’s isolation. Netanyahu agreed to release prisoners with blood on their hands, and his associates said that he was willing to discuss all the issues on the table, including Jerusalem’s status and delineation of the borders of the future Palestinian state. The prisoners were, indeed, released but soon afterward provocative statements were released about building in the territories. The negotiators had not managed to touch upon even one critical issue before the negotiations exploded. Simultaneously, Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett embarked on a media campaign in the United States where he argued that Israel was not an occupying nation because the entire land of Israel belonged to it.

In protracted conflicts such as the Israel-Palestine conflict, there is often a deep level of distrust and dislike between the two sides. Marginal steps like releasing Palestinian prisoners cannot realistically be expected to change public opinion. However, circumstances in the Gaza Strip have created an opportunity for the Israeli government to swing public favor in it’s direction, while also living up to its international human rights obligations:

Raw sewage has flooded streets in a southern Gaza City neighborhood in recent days, threatening a health disaster, after a shortage of electricity and cheap diesel fuel from Egypt led the Hamas government to shut down Gaza’s lone power plant, causing a pump station to flood.

“Any day that passes without a solution has disastrous effects,” Farid Ashour, director of sanitation at the Gaza Coastal Municipalities Water Utility, said Tuesday in an interview. “We haven’t faced a situation as dangerous as this time.”

“You’re asking me why? Ask the world why instead,” Mayor Rafiq Mekki of Gaza City said as he toured sewage-filled streets around the flooded Zeitoun pumping station. “We are under siege, and ask the world which besieges us this question. We called on all international organizations to intervene, but no one cares so far.”

“I blame Israel, the Ramallah government and Hamas for the crisis,” said Mr. Khouli, [a Palestinian baker] referring to the headquarters of the Palestinian Authority. “They should work together and find a solution for this because it’s the people who are paying the price.” 

“Every day, we call the electricity company and they say, ‘It’s not our responsibility,’ ” complained Thabet Khatab, 56, a grocer, who was busy piling dirt in front of his house to prevent sewage from seeping inside a second time. “We call the municipality, but they say, ‘Bring diesel for us so we can run the generator in the pumping station.’ ”

Amnesty International succinctly explains why Israel is responsible for upholding human rights in Gaza:

Israel maintains effective control over Gaza, controlling all but one of the crossings into the Gaza Strip, the airspace, territorial waters, telecommunications and the population registry which determines who is allowed to leave or enter Gaza. Therefore, Israel is still considered the occupying power and is responsible for the welfare of the inhabitants in the strip under international humanitarian law.

Palestinians in Gaza faces their worst humanitarian crisis in recent memory. The Palestinian National Authority lacks the capacity to remedy the problems facing it’s citizens. Inaction fuels public resentment towards the international community in general and Israel specifically. An opportunity has presented itself for Israel to come to the rescue in a time of dire need, while also upholding its obligations under international human rights law.

It would be hard even for the staunchest pessimist / cynic to argue that Israeli humanitarian aid would not improve public perception of the Israeli government, both in Palestine and abroad (where Israel has received much criticism of late due to controversial housing development plans in disputed territory). Palestinians are people just like anyone else, they will not forget who came to their aid in their darkest hour. 

I am Jewish, but I am not observant. However, one aspect of Judaism I have always identified with is the concept of Tzedakah (charity). The Israeli government–in the spirit of Tzedakah, in compliance with international human rights law, and in hopes of reinvigorating stalled peace talks–should come to the aid of Palestinians in Gaza.