On the 24th of January, the CGHR held the first lecture of this year’s practitioner series with Sandrine Tiller, Programmes Advisor for Humanitarian Issues for Médécins Sans Frontièrs (UK). On her way to Berlin, Tiller passed through Cambridge to talk about her career in humanitarian aid and policy, as well as share her thoughts on the current state of the profession. Tiller began her career by working at the ICRC and afterwards at the British Red Cross. Amongst her diverse working locations are Jerusalém, Beirut, Eritrea and Tanzania. The discussion Tiller led was absorbing, for she described her personal experience with a critical point of view, even steering the discussion into the role of development versus humanitarian aid.
Tiller started her career working in rural development in Venezuela. As she explained, it was hard to separate this activity from its colonial shadow. Individual development goals are on a losing stance right now. Development policies, such as women’s empowerment, used to be considered neutral in the past, but nowadays, the negative consequences of these actions are being assessed. These policies are taken as political goals introduced by Western countries, possibly representing a patronising relationship. Tiller, therefore, stated her preference for humanitarian principles, which guide her as personal values. She feels that the notions of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence, for instance, become most poignant in the current political context. As Tiller put it, while humanitarian issues are at the top of the international agenda and are mentioned daily in the news and throughout social media, this popularity for humanitarian matters is not supported by meaningful political action. We have unfortunately observed lack of action on current humanitarian crises such as the Syrian conflict, the Ebola crisis, cholera in Haiti or peacekeeping operations in South Sudan. The number of people who are meant to be reached by humanitarian aid has increased, and yet the assistance provided is massively insufficient. Amongst modern obstacles to political action are the continuous politicisation of humanitarian aid, the lack of funding, the generalised lack of confidence in international organisations such as the UN, and the well-known rise of authoritarian nationalism.
Lastly, Tiller addressed the question of whether international solidarity was dying. The modern approach to humanitarian aid is based on transactions and shifting resources from international organisations towards local movements. Although the empowerment of local actors is relevant, Sandrine fears that this shift might lead to a future scenario in which merely sending money supplants actual personal and social aid. In war scenarios such as the one currently seen in Yemen, it is difficult to foresee whether this new version of humanitarian aid will actually make a difference, or whether it will merely serve as a means to avoid interference in critical matters and to shift the burden entirely to domestic actors.
Beatriz Esperanca works on the CGHR Student Group as an LLM student. Sign up for future CGHR talks.