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When under attack – we need to trust our values and each other

August 22, 2019

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Tim Boyes-Watson

Associate Consultant, UK

It’s great to hear today that Trump has pulled back from the extreme cuts to USAID’s budget that were threatened in recent weeks. Should we congratulate ourselves for winning this battle and protecting aid that is vital to millions of people around the world?

Some punitive actions are still expected, which will be used to underline that aid decisions are increasingly political and that certain countries are no longer worthy of support. Part of me wonders whether that was the real objective of this second attempt at rescission of the USAID budget, to ‘other’ certain people and possibly to trap the humanitarian sector into opposing the cuts in such a way that they too would be ‘othered’. I agree with Sam Worthington, CEO of InterAction, when he said, “We might win the battle only to lose the war by pushing foreign aid into a high-profile social media storm that then really hurts our bipartisan approaches.”

I have seen from the UK how dangerous it is for humanitarian organisations to get trapped by attacks in the mainstream press and on social media, for weeks at an end. Once we are caught by such an attack, all rational arguments can be characterised as defensive, and the organisations and their leaders will be attacked for having elite vested interests. They get ‘othered’, although in a very different way to how refugees and other marginalised groups get ‘othered’.

Of course, these attacks gain more traction because we as humanitarian organisations are far from perfect.  We are too often led by people with privilege, rather than people more representative of who we are seeking to help, and there is racism, sexism, and abuse of power in our sector. While that is also true of many other sectors, the anger directed towards NGOs is all the greater because of the whiff of hypocrisy: “Those in glass houses should not throw stones.”

Our sector, and membership communities like Humentum, are working hard to combat these abuses of power. As we do so, it will be part of the challenge that we want to live in glass houses, as transparency is one of our core values. The #CharitySoWhite that trended in the UK on Twitter this week illustrated the challenge of confronting difficult issues under the gaze of all. This hashtag was started by leaders in our sector to provide encouragement and an opportunity for those who have suffered racism to speak out. As they did so, it was clear that there were many examples of where racism had not been acknowledged or called out by bystanders. Yet, meanwhile, trolls used the hashtag to share racist tropes and describe the campaign as the last nail in the coffin for their willingness to support charities and NGOs. This underlines what the stakes are in the current context.

Humentum’s conference this year, focused on trust, demonstrated that we can openly talk about difficult topics and be vulnerable. We can invite in the diversity of views necessary to create new solutions and ways forward to change our culture as organisations, and as a sector. Operations staff showed the bravery and humility needed to accept that humanitarian organisations are not always oases of good in a corrupt world. We can be part of the problems we seek to solve, as well as part of the solutions.

As we carry on this good work, with good intentions and a focus on values, we should not expect that we won’t face continued attacks.  In a world where populism and nationalism are on the rise – humanitarians will be seen by these forces as a target. This is not because of the good we do, but because the very core of humanitarianism is to do good for those who are being ‘othered’.

What most inspired me when I joined the first NGO I worked for, Save the Children, was not just the great work they did, but that they were founded by Eglanytne Jebb who was arrested in 1919 for protesting against her own government. She was distributing leaflets in Trafalgar Square that bore shocking images of children affected by famine in Europe, and the headline: ‘Our Blockade has caused this – millions of children are starving to death’.

InterAction, Bond, and the International Civil Society Centre organised a forum today for CSOs and CSOs networks to share concerns and ideas and explore ways we can adapt to this challenging context, now and in the future.  Stephanie Draper, CEO of Bond, told us about the trap set by one European far-right politician that said of NGOs, “the world is being divided into patriots and globalists.”  Such polarising frames are almost impossible to escape if we allow ourselves to get sucked into them.

When I went on to work at Christian Aid, I was inspired by their strapline “we believe in life before death,” and their vision that “All shall be included in the feast of life.” For the moral of the Good Samaritan was not only that we should help strangers, but that we should not ‘other’ those in our society that the majority may seek to hate, like the Samaritans at that time. Sam Worthington was discussing similar values in the forum mentioned above, when he described the campaign that some of InterAction’s members are running on what it means to be a good neighbour.

The learning that came from our community when we discussed Trust will drive much of how Humentum will address the challenges we face now, and in the future. We as leaders and as organisations are being called to be more transparent and inclusive. Such brave and vulnerable works starts within, but much courage can be gained from our peers. We will achieve so much more as we harness the power of collective action by building communities of civil society organisations and professionals that are connected both locally and globally. The final call to action from our members is probably the most challenging in this fearful and risk-averse context: “Build a culture of trust by being willing to trust.”  As NGO leaders, organisations and networks, now is the time we are being called to trust each other.