Miliband and humanitarian independence

Thanks to ongoing online and offline commentary, the dust has not settled on David Miliband’s announcement that he is leaving electoral politics to join the International Rescue Committee (IRC). One highly critical take by Michiel Hofman of Médecins sans Frontières (MSF), has received coverage for the claim that Miliband’s appointment was ‘another nail in the coffin to claims of humanitarian independence.’

Hofman’s piece shows how important the safeguarding of neutrality is for humanitarian organisations whose prime focus is the delivery of relief in difficult contexts. He cites examples of individuals who have crossed the blurry line between humanitarianism and politics, notably Bernard Kouchner. Kouchner was amongst the founders of MSF, and, although he left before the organisation was a decade old, has remained indelibly associated with its work – an association that proved troublesome after his appointment to the position of Minister for Humanitarian Action in the 1980s and from 2007-2010 when he was Minister for Foreign Affairs under Nicolas Sarkozy.

As this example hints, the overlap between political and humanitarian career paths isn’t new. It is also not limited to the last twenty years, with many more examples discernible in a more distant past. For instance, Herbert Hoover, US President 1929-1933, was famously in charge of the Commission for the Relief of Belgium (CRB) during and after the First World War. The CRB provided relief for 9 million people, delivering over 5 million tonnes of food and other assistance. A few years later, the Norwegian explorer and statesman Fridtjof Nansen was appointed by the League of Nations as the first High Commissioner for Refugees. Nansen had been a strong voice in Norwegian politics – although never a politician as such – and had served as the Norwegian ambassador in London prior to the First World War and as Norway’s delegate to the League after it.

It is obviously drawing a long bow to compare either Nansen or Hoover with Miliband; or, for that matter, IRC with MSF. The humanitarian system now is very different from what existed when Herbert Hoover began negotiating for access, and he was negotiating with a very different set of interlocutors. Nonetheless, the influence of politicians hasn’t killed off the system yet, and it is safe to bet that Milband’s appointment, even if you do consider it one more nail in the coffin, won’t be the last one.

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