Peter Van Arsdale is the director of the Josef Korbel School's Humanitarian Assistance program, as well as of the African Initiatives Program. In this piece, he contemplates the complicated relationship between moral obligation and pragmatic humanitarianism with regards to his field experience in Darfur, Sudan.
"What can you do for me?"
We had been working on a water reconnaissance survey outside the town of Zalengei, in Darfur, during November of 1979. After having provided me with a great deal of useful information about local water resources, my informant confronted me with this statement as I was about to leave. His words are what caused me to being wrestling with the notion of "obligation." This wrestling match, for me, has been going on ever since.
This particular fieldwork had brought me into contact with both mobile and sedentary peoples. Some of those whom I had thought would have access to more resources (land, water, livestock, and produce) had fewer, and some of those whom I had thought would have access to fewer resources had more. Some shared resources, some fought over them. Some were assisted by government agencies (one of which my team worked with), some were marginalized or left out all together. The situation in Darfur was complex and confusing. What were the most pressing needs for those who were marginalized, dispossessed, or displaced? What resources were at their disposal? How did external agents of change assist without imposing? How did indigenous people contribute, and indeed become empowered as they helped one another? Did those with more resources have a moral obligation to help those with fewer resources? In particular, what was the relationship between "obligation" and "humanitarianism"?
Underlying a theory of obligation is a single foundational assumption: There exists a moral imperative to assist the structurally dispossessed and functionally abused. This assumption should not be controversial. Humankind benefits from the compassionate aid afforded to one another; a greater good can be achieved. Even if viewed strictly from an adaptive perspective, a society benefits long-term as resources are expanded in assisting those in need. Through this process they become more "fit" members of that society.
Pragmatic humanitarianism is the actualization of this theory of obligation. It focuses on what works, on-the-ground, as change agents engage those in need. It rests on the (perhaps controversial) real-world assumption that change and change agents must be non-neutral. It encompasses the notion of deep justice, i.e., the requirement that the ethical principles of justice, autonomy, benevolence, and non-malevolence be kept at the forefront as assistance is delivered. They key elements of the approach can be summarized as follows:
- Moral imperative, i.e., a belief that change that addresses the felt needs of beneficiaries is "the right thing to do." The underlying values of beneficiaries, change agents, and other stakeholders must be articulated as the intervention is undertaken.
- Benign intervention, i.e., a belief that intervention conducted in concert with beneficiaries can be both effective and non-damaging to their socio-cultural and natural environments.
- Liberal tradition, i.e., a belief in the power of the individual to effect change, particularly in the context of well-organized NGO, IGO (Inter-Governmental Organizations), and PVO (Private Volunteer Organization) initiatives. (This is to be distinguished from "liberalism.")
- Integrated solutions, i.e., multiple agents working in concert to effect change. These agents usually represent different disciplines, working with local counterparts.
- Incremental change, i.e., successful change occurs "bit-by-bit," over time. It is rarely dramatic, usually cumulative.
- Learning environment, i.e., interventions that work are regularly used as "learning devices" by those involved. These learnings are regularly shared with other change agents, interactively.
- Facilitative empowerment, i.e., change agents must work to create an environment wherein beneficiaries not only can assume leadership positions, but can thrive.
Pragmatic humanitarianism recognizes that notions of human rights are evolving. It recognizes that needs and rights are complementary categories, by no means mutually exclusive yet by no means similar in definition. At the broadest level, as humanitarians attempt to assist those dealing with natural and human-caused disasters, a theory of obligation and pragmatic humanitarianism provide a framework for understanding the "why" of outreach and service to others.
Note: This article is adapted from a portion of Chapter 8 of my book Forced to Flee: Human Rights and Human Wrongs in Refugee Homelands (Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2006).