The New Humanitarian | Rethinking Humanitarianism


Heba Aly: The world is reflecting on that day 20 years ago, September 11, 2001, when the United States was attacked. Shortly after, the US and its NATO allies invaded Afghanistan, their mandate to topple the Taliban, the Islamist group ruling most of the country at the time and accused of providing a base to al-Qaeda.

US President George W Bush, 7 Oct. 2001

On my orders, the United States military has begun strikes against al-Qaeda terrorist training camps and military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. 

Aly: After the US military invaded Afghanistan, the humanitarian sector descended on the country, ostensibly to help those suffering from the war. But for some watching, they were not solely motivated by humanitarian needs, and soon became – intentionally or not – part of the war effort. We all remember then US Secretary of State Colin Powell infamously describing NGOs as force multipliers for the US government. “An important part of our combat team”, he said. Such agencies work not only to provide aid to affected people, but also to remodel the country into a Western style democracy. And all of this was funded largely by the countries leading the Afghan invasion.

US President George W Bush, 20 Sept. 2001

The United States respects the people of Afghanistan. After all, we are currently its largest source of humanitarian aid. But we condemn the Taliban regime. 

Aly: Twenty years later, the Taliban are back in power, the Americans have left after their longest war ever, and many non-essential international aid workers have left alongside them – just as Afghanistan’s many existing crises are gearing up to become a humanitarian catastrophe. 

Audio news clips, 23 Aug. and 3 Sept. 2021

Before this escalated situation, over half of the population were in need of humanitarian assistance. More than 10 million children, 39 million Afghans are left in Afghanistan, and we estimate that at least half of them are in need of humanitarian assistance. 

Aly: So what should humanitarians take away from these past 20 years in Afghanistan? Has the role of NGOs in the so-called war on terror been helpful or hurtful? Did they give credence to misguided state- building exercises? Have they paid a price for that? And what lessons can be learned? Today, we’re rethinking the role of aid agencies alongside military interventions. Welcome to season two of Rethinking Humanitarianism, a podcast on the future of aid. In season one, together with my co-host Jeremy Konyndyk, we pointed out a lot of the problems in the humanitarian aid sector – from the way money flows to the sector and limits in the fight against climate change, to the colonial roots of aid. This season, I’m going to be hosting solo, and we’re going to try to offer some solutions to those and other challenges by talking to people who are rethinking some of those tired concepts that have plagued the world’s response to crises. In today’s episode, we’re rethinking the role of NGOs in counter-insurgency. But first, let’s go to the capital Kabul to hear about the impact of recent developments on the provision of aid in Afghanistan. As a result of the Taliban takeover, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have halted aid, and the US government has frozen Afghanistan central bank reserves held in the US. This week, the UN raised $1 billion in aid at a pledging conference, but the situation on the ground is still pretty complicated. Take a listen. 

Niamatullah Rahi: The withdrawal from Afghanistan was combined with freezing the assets. Like it is difficult to access cash since 15 August, with bank closures. With limited to no access to cash, it’s difficult for NGOs to pay staff and other operating expenses. Some INGOs and UN agencies have been able to use agents for transfers into the country. However, this most likely will not be an immediate option for national NGOs, whose bank accounts and funds are in Afghanistan. Without national NGOs having access to cash and banking, this will severely impact any humanitarian response. Funding is running out, meaning humanitarian programmes are about to collapse because the delays and discontinuation of the development funds and programmes are leading to gaps in basic services. We don’t know for how much longer we can deliver aid.

Aly: You just heard Niamatullah Rahi, deputy director of the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief and Development, an umbrella organisation for national and international NGOs in Afghanistan. Niamatullah’s comments highlight just how much aid work in Afghanistan has been tied up with the US presence. And that’s just what we want to delve into today. We’ve got two people with us to help us unpack this – and specifically to American aid workers, who will reflect on what they consider a moment of reckoning for American NGOs in particular. Ashley Jackson is the co-director of the Centre for the Study of Armed Groups at the Overseas Development Institute, where she researches the interaction between humanitarian actors and armed groups. And she’s written extensively about the Taliban in particular. She headed up Oxfam’s policy work in Afghanistan in 2009. She has advised the UK Parliament and the US State Department on the Afghan war. She also advises UN agencies, NGOs, and governments on humanitarian access. And today she is joining us from Oslo. Welcome to the podcast, Ashley. 

Ashley Jackson: Thank you. 

Aly: And joining us from Washington, D.C. is Joel Charny. After a 40 year career as an aid worker, he recently retired as executive director of the Norwegian Refugee Council USA. And before that he worked at InterAction, an alliance of American NGOs working internationally. Hi, Joel.

Joel Charny: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it. 

Aly: So let’s go back to 2001 and the invasion of Afghanistan. Joel, at the time you were in Pakistan, with the NGO Refugees International. How did NGOs position themselves after the US went in? 

Charny: Well, I’ve been thinking a lot about this on the occasion, indeed, of the 20th anniversary of 9/11 – a very emotional day and time for everyone in the United States. And what strikes me, in retrospect, is just the NGOs were caught up in the same way, and I’m referring particularly to US NGOs, were caught up in this sense of outrage at the attack on New York. A feeling that, I think, many people felt personally, not necessarily everyone, but many aid workers felt personally, that the US response was justified. And there was a sense of, yes, let’s get on board with this. Afghanistan had been for many a place that they couldn’t go, that they couldn’t work. Now, here was the United States, both removing the evil Taliban and creating an environment in which non-governmental organisations might be able to address both humanitarian needs and development needs. So I guess what I’m saying is there wasn’t any particular hesitation, that pouring into Afghanistan might be the wrong thing to do – quite the opposite. It was, let’s go, let’s respond. Let’s meet the needs of the people of Afghanistan. 

Aly: And Ashley, when you add the funding to this picture, what does that leave us with? I mean, how were these NGOs that were going in without hesitation, as Joel’s describing, how were they funded? And did that muddy the waters even further?

Jackson: Well, you had one side in the conflict funding the entirety of, almost the entirety, of the response. You know, there are 40 odd, different countries that ended up being part of this NATO peacekeeping mission that evolved after that US invasion. And they were funding humanitarian, development, peacebuilding. And they were aligned to what was then the Karzai government. This was a period of, quote unquote, “reconstruction,” this wasn’t a conflict period. Very quickly, the Taliban emerges. By 2006, you really do have an undeniable insurgency. And that’s when the conflict re-erupts. But those patterns don’t change and that need to be there, the narrative of reconstruction. As Joel said, this evil, vanquish Taliban, or that should be vanquished. Even if it wasn’t then making a comeback. They really endure. And they’re very sticky. And it becomes very hard for NGOs, partially because of the funding, but partially because there are a lot of other sorts of things that happened around that initial period. It becomes very hard to shake loose and get distance from the way they’re implicated in the conflict. 

Aly: In 2006, a bunch of NGOs signed a letter calling on the NATO mission to expand. And I mean, you could argue, I suppose that they were advocating for the best interests, as they saw them, of the Afghan people. But Joel, do you think that went a step too far? 

Charny: There was a feeling that the job wasn’t done. That now, as Ashley said, the country’s becoming more insecure, victory had not been achieved. And there was, I think, an overlap or a sense that we, the NGO sector, we need security to be able to do our work. And that’s what was driving it. So you go from maybe something of a triumphalist feeling that we’re going to go in and be able to rebuild in a more or less stable situation, with the Afghan people on our side. To a situation of, wait a second, this is really fraught. And if we’re going to reach vulnerable people – we again, always using the royal we of “we the NGO sector” – we need the protection from NATO to be able to reach the maximum number of people and it’s a continuum. Once you’ve bought into kind of the invasion – and expectation for positive consequences of the invasion – you’re tied at the hip with the United States with other belligerents, and with the overall NATO effort. And if that effort needs to expand? Well, it needs to expand because that’s going to benefit our work, and presumably benefit the Afghan people. 

Aly: Ashley, I see you kind of rolling your eyes. 

Jackson: Well, yeah, because also when I came to Afghanistan in 2009 it was right before the big surge that [US President Barack] Obama ordered to turn the tide. You know, the Taliban at that point, had stretched right throughout the south and the east. It was, if in 2006, the security issues were more complex, you have the resurgence of the Taliban, but you also have just no government in a lot of places. And these sort of strong men, former Mujahideen figures, who are also posing a threat to NGO security and the ability to do reconstruction or help people. But by 2009, it’s really this insurgency, and you really see the roots of what becomes a civil war taking place. But even then – and I was in a policy and advocacy role on the ground with Oxfam – there were debates and NGO coordination meetings in the protection sort of working groups about should we endorse this, like we did in 2006? Is this push for stabilisation a good thing? And there are a number of NGOs that shall remain nameless, who thought it was a really good thing, and we need to write a letter, we need to issue press releases, we need to try and get out ahead of the surge, and publicly try and influence it. And others who were just aghast because they saw what was happening in the south and the east, they saw the nature of what was happening with the conflict. They felt very strongly that the surge was like pouring gasoline on what was then just embers really. You had real levels of violence in the south and east, but they felt like the more you expand these troops, the more you put them in a combat role, the more you are pushing this into a point of no return. Those voices, however, those really strong humanitarian voices who were pushing for a return to neutrality and impartiality in 2009, were the minority. They really were the minority, because all the funding, and all of the infrastructure of the humanitarian and development communities – which weren’t really that separate by the way, they were kind of merged – it was all geared towards this reconstruction supporting the government, etc, etc, etc. 

Aly: And what was the impact of that on how agencies were perceived by the Taliban? Would it be fair to say that they became a symbol of the occupation?

Jackson: So, I just released a book on life under Taliban control. And that was an opportunity to talk to Taliban fighters and commanders and leaders about their positions toward aid agencies. And they were unequivocal. What these Taliban leaders and field commanders on the ground said was that, you know, in 2014, when troops sort of drew down, they stepped back from a combat role, they saw aid agencies on their own terms a little bit more. They saw how they could be useful. There was a real shift between 2010 and 2014 in the Taliban’s view, and part of that was, because aid agencies did try and lean in more to neutrality, tried to negotiate with the Taliban, tried to divorce themselves from this image. But there’s no doubt talking – and I’ve talked to scores of these guys on the Taliban side – there’s no doubt that that shaped their perceptions, it made it allowable to target aid workers and aid projects and all those kinds of things. 

Charny: I want to stress a point that Ashley made at the outset, which is just the key role of funding, and put that in a broader context, linking it to Iraq. I’m sitting in Washington, D.C., part of a humanitarian advocacy community. And unfortunately, one of the main things we do in the humanitarian advocacy community in Washington is advocate for – guess what – more funding for humanitarian work. And between Afghanistan and Iraq, there was an annual war supplemental because, not to get too arcane here in terms of US funding mechanisms, but there’s like ‘the budget’ and then both the Bush and Obama administrations got into the habit of funding the war through supplemental funding. And NGOs became quite expert at building humanitarian funding into the war supplementals. I’ve never done the research. But I mean, the increase in funding that was flowing into the NGO sector between 2000 and 2010 was astronomical, both for Afghanistan and Iraq. But even for a place like Darfur. I remember, you know, it was like genius to say: Well, here’s the Iraq supplemental, let’s get funding for Darfur inserted into that supplemental. I don’t think it’s too extreme to call it a Faustian bargain that the NGOs made in the US political context, of kind of not criticising the war. Willing to be part of the effort, both in Afghanistan and Iraq. And the payoff is astronomical increases in our collective bottom line. And that’s one of the things that really troubles me in retrospect. We weren’t engaging at the level of “Does this war really make sense? Does this war really make sense from the standpoint of the people of Afghanistan or the people of Iraq?” We were basically saying, “Sure, you do your war thing, as long as we get our humanitarian funding, and then we’re all happy.” 

Aly: So what do you think have been the long-term consequences of that? 

Charny: I find myself now landing, much more so than I may have been even 20 or 25 years ago, back in the kind of “let’s try to be pure humanitarian” camp. And what that means to me in a place like Afghanistan, I really questioned the idea of taking such massive amounts of funding from belligerents. I think that’s one of the fundamental things. Humanitarian principles, they’re thrown around so easily. I mean, I was critical, from long distance, of agencies that were taking tens of millions of dollars from the United States in Afghanistan, saying that they were adhering to humanitarian principles. And then the first time that maybe their staff got into trouble in a remote location, asking for those staff to be saved by the US military. I mean, it’s just a total contradiction. I mean, are you acting within an independent and neutral framework? Or are you really fundamentally, by definition, part of the war effort? And I do think it’s impossible to square that, that circle. It’s kind of one or the other. It’s virtually impossible to be so dependent on funding from a belligerent in a place like Afghanistan, and claim to be acting within the framework of humanitarianism. 

Aly: The challenge is, though, that the United States and the UK and many of the others that invaded are among the biggest humanitarian donors in the world. So, when you refuse money from them, can you operate? 

Charny: This is a challenge to the entire sector, we need more funding from individual donors and private donors. We need more agencies who can support themselves along the lines of MSF or World Vision, for example, has an absolutely amazing fundraising machine globally from private individuals. Maybe the idea shouldn’t be to be the largest organisation in XX place, but it should be to be the most effective organisation based on what the objectives and values are of that organisation.

Aly: But people point to MSF and the International Committee of the Red Cross – ICRC – as the two aid agencies that are the most pure, that are the most tied to humanitarian principles, neutrality, impartiality, etc. And even then, if we switch to the Iraq context, of course everyone remembers the bombing of UN headquarters in Iraq in 2003. But shortly afterwards, there were suicide bombers who attacked the ICRC in Baghdad, which really sent shockwaves throughout the aid community. Because if the ICRC with its strong record of principled humanitarian action wasn’t immune, who was? And so I guess I’m wondering, when you take a step back and look at all of these contexts linked to the war on terror – Iraq, Afghanistan, and beyond, Libya, Somalia, etc. – is there still a space to provide impartial humanitarian aid?

Jackson: Should aid workers be immune? How could they possibly be immune in a conflict zone?

Aly: But Ashley, there’s a difference between aid workers being caught up in the crossfire versus, in this case, being specifically targeted. Which to my mind is clearly linked to their wider positioning in these conflicts.

Jackson: It just is part of what often happens, we know this. The tying oneself up with the political objectives at one side or another in a conflict increases the risk of that kind of targeting happening. There’s degrees in terms of funding and the ways in which you ally yourself with one side of the conflict or another. The US is a massive funder to ICRC, it’s just that that funding doesn’t have the same kinds of conditionalities that a CARE or a Mercy Corps or an Oxfam faces. And in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Syria, the funding that those NGOs go after is often tied to securitisation objectives. Implicitly, vaguely, whatever. In Afghanistan, it was working in certain provinces, where US or other countries had troops. So the Dutch NGOs all worked in a place called Uruzgan because that’s where the Dutch troops were. And that’s where the money was. And very few people disputed that premise at the time. Money drives so much in the NGO sector. And it’s very hard to be a voice in the room saying, “No, we’re not going to take that money, it’s not principled”. I think you just don’t win in those arguments when it comes to sort of organisational survival. 

Aly: Was it about money, though? Or was it also about, as we mentioned off the top, this vision of creating a better Afghan society. And that the Western way was the right way? 

Charny: I think that varies tremendously from agency to agency. Some agencies fully bought in: “Sign me up, we want to be part of the project to completely transform Afghanistan.” And then others were, probably in retrospect, were more cautious. They really did go in with fundamentally humanitarian objectives. But because of the need to get funding, and because of the overall atmospherics at the time, inevitably, there was spillover of the larger project into their operations – depending on where they were working. I just think you’d almost literally have to go agency by agency to say, “Well, how much was this organisation just 100 percent behind the transformational effort, and how much maybe was this other organisation at least trying to keep it at arm’s length a little bit?” 

Jackson: If you went in with the best intentions, slowly the situation deteriorated, and you found yourself in a situation where the system was constructed in such a way where you had to fundraise to keep your staff, to keep going. And this was the only funding available or you were caught. And I think it was very hard for individuals, and for indeed whole agencies, to feel like they could fight back. 

Charny: Ashley, I’m curious. You spent a lot of time in the country. Was there any way to have a sense of what the popular Afghan agenda might have been? Because that’s one of the things that I’ve been reflecting on with the complete collapse of the government and the crashing down of this entire 20 year project. I mean, were the aid agencies, were we just too remote from Afghan people and what they really wanted? Or was the environment such that it was, in a way, impossible to really engage meaningfully? From the outside it just looks like the aid effort was just so remote from, or divorced from, the reality of the majority of Afghan people, but maybe that’s too harsh? 

Jackson: Ultimately, Afghans at this point in the conflict are so exhausted, even if they had hopes after 2001 for something different. Part of the problem was, aid agencies stuck to areas kind of under government control, and so only got, I think by and large, part of the story. But then as time goes on, people are more cloistered, especially internationals. You can’t engage with communities as much. You can’t move in these places because of security restrictions, because of the attacks on aid workers, and just the volume of violence in these areas. And you see aid communities slowly, slowly, getting more detached from the reality on the ground. But also something interesting happens, I think around 2016, 2017, the aid community – both humanitarian and development actors – really start moving back to humanitarian principles. Really start seeing just how bad things are. Try to reclaim some sort of space. But that’s of course after the majority of US forces have left and after most of that money that you were talking about earlier kind of disappeared. 

Aly: So if we take a step back now and look more broadly than Afghanistan, at the broader war on terror – and we’ve mentioned a few of the other places in which this dynamic is also at play. Since 9/11, how have these interventions changed the perception of neutrality of NGOs, their ability to operate, and access areas of need, the degree to – which as Joel was just referring to – they really responded to a local agenda in their programming? But I guess more fundamentally, their values and how they see their place in the world? When you step back 20 years on, what’s the main takeaway? 

Jackson: I was a university student when 9/11 happened, I haven’t known aid work in a non-9/11 era. I haven’t seen what it might have been like before. My first job was with the Red Cross working on the Indian Ocean tsunami. There were politics but nothing like what I experienced in Afghanistan, and then moving forward after that. And you know, to see how things played out in Syria later and elsewhere, this is what defines the parameters for action. This is what defines what aid agencies are about to say, how they secure funding, this whole stabilisation framework. And these narratives of counter-terror, of the terrorist threats of particularly Islamist groups, all of these things have had such a deep framing effect on what humanitarians can do. Certainly what development actors can do, and the funding and operational frameworks that very insidiously kind of shape the work that’s meant to be driven by need, and is often really just not.

Charny: This gets into my passion project in the latter part of my career, which is the impact of counter-terror measures on humanitarian action. You know, the Patriot Act passed in the enthusiasm and fervor after 9/11 in the United States. And the counter-terror resolutions that were put through at the United Nations have just had such a corrosive effect on the ability to do independent humanitarian action. Whether it’s in Somalia, or Nigeria, or Syria, or Afghanistan, or… The weight of the world, the Western world, the Western democracies, with all this emphasis on the counter terrorist struggle. It’s really put the humanitarian sector between a rock and a hard place. We’re dependent on the funding. But do we sign these agreements that we know in our heart of hearts are basically asking us to violate humanitarian principles through vetting requirements or asking questions of needy people for fear that they might have some association with terrorism and so on. I think it’s been really corrosive. I was happy that I spent five years with the Norwegian Refugee Council, which really pushed back against these measures and did not accept these measures. And tried to work around them, at times considered turning down funding and so on. But the sector as a whole, we’ve allowed this to happen to us. We’ve allowed the deterioration in the commitment to humanitarian principles, we’ve allowed that to take place again, I’m afraid, fundamentally out of expediency, both funding and the idea of: If we don’t accept these terms, we won’t be able to work with people that we, in fact, do need to and want to work with. We need a revitalisation. We really do. We need a stronger sector-wide pushback against the framework of the war on terror. And I’m afraid I’m going to put it in the past tense now: I was hopeful in the United States, with the 20th anniversary of 9/11, that voices questioning the whole premise and consequences of the war on terror would be amplified and listened to. The interesting thing about the collapse in Afghanistan is there are a few people asking the tough questions. But the general environment now is, almost hysterically: “What a defeat for the United States. How could we allow this to happen? And let’s kind of double down.” Not that we made X, Y, and Z mistakes. But, this is a catastrophe for the role of the United States in the world. And this is not exactly an atmosphere that’s conducive to asking the questions that need to be asked. But nonetheless, I think we need to be asking them. 

Aly: And do you think that that reflection is taking place within agencies now? 

Charny: No, honestly, no. I’m not involved day to day in the sector at the moment any longer. But maybe agencies are doing internal reflection. I hope they are. But the limited stuff I’ve seen on Twitter, and some of the discussions that I’m seeing in Washington – for example, a former colleague yesterday sent me the announcement of, I forget all the agencies that were involved but I know at least Human Rights Watch and Human Rights First are involved, in a D.C. discussion of “Where did we go wrong in the last 20 years, in terms of our own advocacy from a human rights perspective?” That’s a really useful public conversation to be having. I’m not seeing any similar effort being launched on the NGO/humanitarian side. 

Aly: Ashley?

Jackson: I guess there’s some irony in the fact that the state of Afghanistan, this post-2001 state, has run on aid and NGOs. They implement the healthcare system, they support the education system, the World Bank pays for all of the salaries for the teachers and the medicine and the clinics and everything. And all of the sort of sanctions and this post 9/11 regime, you know, it kicked in the minute that the Taliban took power. And it shut all of that down. And the real victims of all of this are not going to be the NGOs, it’s not going to be the politicians who suffer, it’s gonna be the Afghan people. And the fact that aid agencies aren’t asking these questions, as Joel says, is really, really problematic. I think agencies on the ground now in Afghanistan, the number that I’ve talked to or I work with, understand perfectly how this situation came to be, how the Taliban came back. And that, absolutely, that they need to continue. And they need to find a way to work with the Taliban. Because it is the Afghan people who will suffer. And I guess, it’s gonna be the people in these countries who are subject to military action, who are supposed to benefit from this aid, who are now once again suffering the consequences. And I just find it really difficult that they’re not at the centre of these discussions. They’re kind of passive, passive victims that we need to save from the airport or whatever else. But the full story of how they suffered and how they’ve been caught up in all of this isn’t being told and isn’t being centred in these debates about what, quote unquote “what went wrong” because I think they have a much more complicated perspective on what went wrong, that would challenge a lot of our simplistic narratives about what we were all there to do, and what we actually did, and how things unfolded. 

Aly: So what happens next for NGOs trying to figure out what lessons to learn from all this or how to engage today. What would you tell them? 

Jackson: I would say that you always, always, always have to talk to all sides. That neutrality and impartiality – even in more development type work – is indispensable in fragile contexts or whatever we want to call them now, if they’re conflict, reconstruction, whatever. We all know that the trajectories of conflict are not linear. Wars don’t end, necessarily. There are always these elements of a conflict that linger and so that you have to balance your political neutrality. And, listen, you can work with the institutions that are there, you can work with the state, you can work with the healthcare system. You should, in fact, build those institutions in whatever you’re doing. But you do have to suspend judgment. You know, I think one of the big lessons of Afghanistan, for me as an aid worker, being there for so many years, and then doing research on it was that, for a lot of people, the post-2001 government bringing democracy and human rights was more terrifying to them, was more abusive to them, than the Taliban had been. That our narratives are incorrect in their view, that what we sought to do, made them less safe, took away their family members, you know, destroyed their, their communities. And that is a really difficult thing, when this intervention started with this idea of his evil, terrible Taliban – who did, in fact, do a number of horrendous, draconian things – that there would be something that would be even worse for the Afghan people. And we would somehow be part of it or be implicated in it. 

Aly: Can the aid sector come back from this, do you think?

Jackson: It has to. All these people are relying on it.

Charny: The aid sector always comes back. There’ve been many crises. I mean, Rwanda springs to mind. Of course, the absolute disaster of the response to the Haiti earthquake in 2010, which I know is a somewhat different situation than the one where we’re talking about. The aid sector seems to be immutable. And that’s one of the problems, I think, fundamentally, is that we’re allowed to mess up, we’re allowed to adopt agendas that are inappropriate. The public doesn’t ask the tough questions, and the donors are happy if things just continue the way they are. And the sector is happy, because as I keep saying, the arrow continues to go up. I mean, as long as you’re showing 15 to 20 percent growth a year, and you’re effective, more or less, within your own frameworks, where’s the crisis? 

Aly: Well, the crisis is now. Now that the Taliban are in power, what are the NGOs going to do, that’s the crisis.

Charny: Some organisations will leave and will be unable to function in this environment. But I’d like to think there are organisations that have learned the lessons of the last 20 years and are going to try and make a go of it. And have a dialogue and build on the contacts that they had with the Taliban previously. And/or build on the relationships that they have at village level and provincial level and try to take it from there. And I think some organisations have the basis and the credibility to make that happen. And some won’t. I’m not very good at predictions, but I would hate to think that the entire aid sector is going to abandon Afghanistan at this point. I’d like to think that there’s a core of agencies that is going to make a go of it. And whether they’ll be successful or not, is very uncertain.The Taliban are, at least at national level, sending some pretty severe signals in terms of the way they’re going to govern. But that’s for the aid agencies to manage and work within and try to function within. 

Aly: If an article that was published in Foreign Policy just a few days before the Taliban took over Kabul is any sign, there are already discussions of a new humanitarian intervention in Afghanistan. So I do wonder if we’re gonna see the same mistakes made all over again. 

Charny: I mean, there’s talk of humanitarian corridors. All I can say is that the responsible agencies – and they know who they are, who have been there for a long time – they need to provide leadership at this moment and figure things out. It would be almost a crime to have a repeat of the thinking from 20 years ago, or the thinking of the late 90s, where we simply abandon the people of Afghanistan. 

Aly: I just have one last question for both of you. If you listened to season one, you’ll remember that we asked guests for their million dollar idea to transform the humanitarian sector. This season, we’re thinking of being a little bit more practical, a little bit more humble. So we want to ask each of you if there’s one implementable thing that aid workers in the context of military intervention could do differently starting now. What would it be? 

Charny: Well, there’s a utopian one, which I alluded to earlier, which is not taking funding from belligerents. That’s easy. I mean, in the sense that it’s a clear idea, it’s a clear ask, I don’t see it happening in the real world. The other idea I thought of, which is somewhat counter-intuitive, perhaps: NGOs just need to be more savvy about their relationship with the military in these contexts. Define upfront what they believe in, and how they as NGOs are going to work in an impartial and independent manner, and then have experienced, at least a focal point but ideally in a place where the military presence is overwhelming, ideally have like a group of three or four people who are able to dialogue with the military from an experienced perspective: Explain what NGOs do, how that NGO is going to act, and why they’re going to act that way. In other words, there’s a line to be drawn between just hopping onto the military project, and being completely in one’s shell. And obviously, we know that ICRC, MSF, they both have regular dialogues with belligerents in the context that they’re working in. And I think that method could be and should be adopted by a lot more organisations. 

Aly: It’s tough, right? Because now everyone’s under pressure to adopt this approach of humanitarian-development nexus and to, frankly, take less impartial approaches. And then you have something like this happen, and that gets thrown up in the air. So, it sometimes feels like you can’t win either way. 

Charny: No, you can’t win. But I mean, I count myself among the top nexus skeptics in the world. What does the nexus have to stand on? What is the nexus proving? It’s a jargon term, that’s accomplishing nothing. I mean, if the NGOs are afraid of the nexus, or being blackballed because they’re not on board with the nexus, well, God bless them. But the nexus has to prove its effectiveness. NGOs don’t have to be slaves to the nexus, no way. 

Aly: “NGOs don’t have to be slaves to the nexus.” That’s my favorite quote of the interview. Ashley, What’s your idea for the way forward?

Jackson: I would fully endorse the idea: Do not take funding from belligerents. As naive as that may sound, I think that is the only way really. But beyond that, do not take conditional funding. Dispute the premise that a donor knows better than you who are on the ground what communities actually need. I guess the real groundbreaking idea, though, I would offer is that you have to talk to all sides. Not at all groundbreaking. That is the foundation of humanitarianism. It simply doesn’t happen. It isn’t the starting premise. And it needs to be. I mean, that’s the only way that you can balance 

these narratives and make sure that you have the acceptance to stay and deliver, to use another humanitarian catchphrase. Even when Afghanistan collapses and the Taliban returns.

Aly: Ashley, Joel, thank you so much for this conversation. 

Jackson: Thank you. 

Charny: Thank you.

Aly: That’s it for this episode. But for more on the latest in Afghanistan, visit our website, Thank you to those we interviewed whose voices you didn’t hear but who helped us shape the content. 

If you’ve got thoughts on what you heard today, we would love to hear them. 

In your experience, has aid managed to remain impartial in counterterrorism operations? What can NGOs learn from the Afghan experience? And what do you think is the right way forward for aid organisations in Afghanistan today? Write to us or you know I love those voice notes at [email protected] 

And before we close I also want to say thank you to all those of you who’ve written to us during and after season one. To Matthew Arnold in Toronto for urging us to remember that the issues facing the humanitarian aid sector are prevalent everywhere. He wrote, “The more we internalise these issues and pretend they’re unique, the more disjoined and absurd the struggle against them becomes.” Thank you to Heather Bourbeau from California, for your suggestion that we bring together climate scientists, humanitarian actors, and ministries of defence for joined-up conversation. To Raheela Amirally in Singapore, for suggesting we tackle impact investing and venture philanthropy in a future episode. To Shantana Shahid, who wrote in from Abidjan, for your detailed feedback on everything from the format to the sound. And to all the others who’ve written in, thank you. I know we can’t get back to each of you. But we are reading with interest and thinking through how we can take your feedback into account as we move forward.

On the next episode of Rethinking Humanitarianism: More than a year after the worldwide movement for racial justice, what progress has been made in the humanitarian aid sector towards greater diversity, equity, and inclusion? We’ll be releasing new episodes every two weeks; you can subscribe to this podcast on all the major podcasting apps. And please share it with your networks and colleagues to help others find it. This podcast is a production of The New Humanitarian. This episode was produced and edited by Marthe van der Wolf. And I’m your host, Heba Aly. 

This week, we leave you with a clip that has gone semi-viral online from Afghan singer Sharafat Parwani singing about his homeland after arriving in the United States. A song that, some say, has become the national anthem for Afghans suffering in recent weeks, both at home and abroad. Thank you for listening to Rethinking Humanitarianism.


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