‘Where is everyone?’ We’re standing right next to you
July 8, 2014 by Bob Kitchen
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) released their report, "Where is everyone? Responding to emergencies in the most difficult places," on Monday with an accompanying and eye-catching op-ed in the Guardian by popular aid-contrarian Ian Birrell. MSF certainly knows how to lead off a spirited debate by issuing a report that single-mindedly criticizes the way in which emergency humanitarian aid is delivered to the many acute emergencies the world faces right now.
The report gets a few important points right. There really has never been a time in recent history when the aid industry has been needed more. The world hasn’t seen as many refugees since the Second World War as it does now; today there are more than 16 million refugees. And that’s just those that have been forced to cross international borders — a further 33 million people have been forced to flee their homes due to conflict or disaster while managing to cling on to their own countries. These numbers are massive now, and are only likely going to go up as the percentage of the world’s extremely poor find themselves increasingly surrounded by fragile, war-prone states — indeed the World Bank reports that by 2015 one-half of the world’s poorest people will be living in fragile and conflict-affected states.
So the spirit of the report is absolutely right and I agree that we should all be thinking and debating how to increase the funding, manpower and focus that drives the global business of saving lives. The issue then is not the intent, but the implication that is easily derived from the title of the report "Where is everyone?" — MSF seems to suggest that they're the only ones working out there. A troubling message to me as the International Rescue Committee’s emergency team continues to launch programs today in and around Syria and Iraq, the Central African Republic, South Sudan and most recently in response to an outbreak of Ebola in Sierra Leone. Indeed, I’ve just returned from visiting with the IRC’s team in Somalia — a country so violent that MSF itself has withdrawn, while many other aid groups continue to stand and deliver in the face of chaos and mounting humanitarian needs. And it’s not just the rhetoric; I also have real concerns about the methodology and research behind the report, and so the IRC will, in the coming weeks, consider a more formal response.
Of course we should embrace the well-intended spirit to drive forward a debate about how the humanitarian community can be faster, better and meet the needs at a scale we’ve never seen before.
At the IRC we’re willing to juggle concurrent emergency responses, as well as a meaningful engagement in that debate, and we will do so. In the meantime I really hope my colleagues at MSF are willing to open their eyes, look around and acknowledge that we’re standing right next to them and wanting to achieve the exact same humanitarian goal.
Bob Kitchen is the director of the emergency preparedness and response unit at the International Rescue Committee.
On the IRC’s Acting, Fast & Slow blog, IRC and invited experts analyze the effectiveness of aid — from funding to delivery — and explore the tensions between acting immediately to address pressing problems and acting slowly to build an evidence base. Fast & Slow posts also reflect on how to apply these lessons to different contexts, mitigate unintended consequences and shape policies.
These posts represent the personal views of contributing individuals and do not represent formal positions of the International Rescue Committee.