Dr. Hugo Slim on Life, Conflict, the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement, and Humanitarianism
Originally published at https://www.nickfabbri.com/bloom/hugoslim
Full transcript below ^_^
In this conversation, Nick and Hugo discuss:
- In this conversation, Nick and Hugo discuss:
- Hugo’s early life and career as a frontline humanitarian worker in Africa and the Middle East
- The bureaucratisation of humanitarian organisations over recent decades
- The magic of young people in humanitarian (and other) organisations
- The experience of civilians in war and conflict, the ‘seven spheres of suffering’, and memorialisation of the dead
- The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Hugo’s term as Head of Policy and Humanitarian Diplomacy
- Recent developments in International Humanitarian Law and warfare
- The impact of COVID-19 on relief work in conflict zones
- The changed ethical landscape that many in western nations now find themselves in as a result of the pandemic.
Dr Hugo Slim recently concluded 5 years as Head of Policy and Humanitarian Diplomacy at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva. Before joining ICRC in 2015, he was Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict (ELAC) at the University of Oxford where he led research on humanitarian ethics and the protection of civilians. Hugo has combined a career between academia and practice. He was Chief Scholar at the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue from 2003–2007 and Reader in International Humanitarianism at Oxford Brookes University from 1994–2003. Between 1983 and 1994, Hugo worked for Save the Children and the United Nations in Morocco, Sudan, Ethiopia, the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Bangladesh. He received his PhD in humanitarian ethics from Oxford Brookes University in 2002. His most recent books are Humanitarian Ethics: A Guide to the Morality of Aid in War and Disaster (2015 Hurst/OUP) and Killing Civilians: Method, Madness and Morality in War (2007 Hurst/OUP).
Dr. Hugo Slim
27 May 2020
00:00 Nick: Welcome to Bloom, a conversations podcast about anything and everything. I’m lucky to be joined today by Dr. Hugo Slim, who is speaking with me all the way from sunny London, nearly 17,000 kilometres and several oceans and continents away from me here in Melbourne.
00:15 Dr. Slim is an academic, policy advisor, and senior executive within the humanitarian and NGO sectors. He recently completed a five year term as head of policy and humanitarian diplomacy at the International Committee of the Red Cross.
00:29 Prior to this, Hugo worked as a senior research fellow within the Institute of Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict at the University of Oxford. His scholarly work has maintained a consistent focus on the experience of civilians in conflict situations.
00:43 Hugo has also had extensive experience in the field as a frontline humanitarian worker working across Africa in the Middle East for Save the Children and the United Nations.
00:53 In this conversation, we cover Hugo’s reflections on a lifetime of working in and thinking about both the humanitarian sector and ethics, major developments in humanitarian law and warfare over the last five years, new ethical landscape that COVID-19 has bought about, and COVID-19’s impact on humanitarian relief work in conflict zones.
01:11 So, Hugo, thank you so much for joining me tonight. It’s a great honour and privilege to be speaking with you.
01:16 Hugo: It’s a pleasure. Great to see you, Nick.
01:18 Nick: So, for our listeners who may not be as familiar with you and your work, could you please provide an overview of your life and career to date?
01:26 Hugo: Yeah, well, I’m British and I was raised largely in the UK and went to university. When I left university, I joined Save the Children. So, I joined Save the Children UK and I worked for a year as a volunteer in Morocco with disabled children. Then, I transferred over to Sudan and Ethiopia into the wars and famines there. I worked for three more years there with Save the Children and then the United Nations as well. Then I came back and I worked for Save the Children on their Middle East desk, became a senior research officer with them.
02:07 Then in 1994 — because this is ages ago, I started in 1983 and this is 1994 then — I got offered a job to help people start a very practical Master’s programme for humanitarian workers at Oxford Brookes University. So, I did that for 10 years and became an academic and loved teaching and writing.
02:29 Then after that, I went to Geneva and went to the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue. I felt I didn’t want to be an academic all my life and didn’t want to wake up in 20 years’ time in comfortable Oxford suddenly saying, “Oh, I meant to do something else.”
02:48 So, I went to Geneva and did four years as the wonderful title Chief Scholar at the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, which was very small and new then, and there I worked on protection of civilians and produced a couple of manuals and a book and worked a bit on peace policy and mediation, policy and mediation training.
03:08 Then, I went into the business for four years and tried to advise big companies like Rio Tinto and British Petroleum BP and G4S on human rights and things like that. Then I went back to academia in Oxford where I focused on humanitarian ethics at the Institute of Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict.
03:32 Then I went to ICRC as head of policy and humanitarian diplomacy where I’ve been for the last five years. Then on Monday, I start back at Oxford again…
03:40 Hugo: … in my old research team in the Institute of Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict.
03:48 Nick: Is it your first week, this week, is it?
03:49 Hugo: It’ll be next week, June the 1st.
03:51 Nick: Next week, okay.
03:54 Hugo: So, in many ways, it’s a hugely erratic and unreliable career.
04:25 Hugo: Yeah, well, first of all, we didn’t call it humanitarian action in those days because that was still a sort of French-Swiss term which was fairly narrowly used by ICRC and MSF, really and UNHCR. So, we just talked about relief and development work, largely development work.
04:45 I wanted to do it because I’d come from a sort of international, you know, colonial Imperial British family, so a lot of them have lived their lives and careers overseas in India and the Middle East.
04:57 So, I wanted to get out into the world too. I felt I’d been in England far too long. You know, I wanted to do something I felt was good and involved working with and helping people and a bit of adventure.
05:11 So, off I went, but I was in a complete minority then. It wasn’t very common. You know, a few people volunteered, you know, temporarily for a year or two, and then would go back and go into mainstream work, but there wasn’t this sort of humanitarian culture then. There was a much more sort of political activist culture.
05:29 I was — I think I was one of — you know, of all my sort of peers that I knew at university, I think I was the only one that went off and did this. Really, maybe there were a couple of others I didn’t, you know, know very well. So, it wasn’t the same quite then.
05:43 Nick: Right. So, what were some of the formative moments from your 10 years in the field with Save the Children and the United Nations, so when you were just setting out in your career? I suppose also, how did you make a call about who to help and where?
05:58 Hugo: I’m not sure I really made those calls. I just got sent to places because I was young. In Morocco, I think, you know, it was a residential school for disabled children from which we operated a sponsorship scheme for disabled children as well across northern parts of Morocco, trying to get them equipped and integrated into mainstream schooling, the ones that weren’t with us in the residential school.
06:25 So, the thing I really learned and experienced there was sort of face to face contact with people and learning how to work with them, try and understand them and get alongside them, I suppose, in a way.
06:45 I suppose that age, you’re also beginning to understand your sort of strengths and weaknesses as a person. You know, I’d been sort of conventionally educated and I knew I could sort of do exams and things like that, but I wasn’t sure at all whether I could be tested in a difficult situation or work in a different culture and so I learnt those things a bit.
07:08 I suppose I — you know, I learnt also to respect different cultures and different places and different histories where human societies that have evolved differently through different challenges, different landscapes, etc.
07:24 Nick: Yeah, wonderful.
07:26 Hugo: Yeah, I mean, moving over into the famines in Africa, it’s a much more full on sort of humanitarian role so then it really is quite testing and you’re seeing a lot of suffering in a very different way, rather immediate suffering. That was testing too and physically exhausting as a lot of frontline humanitarian work is.
07:48 Nick: Where were you in Africa, sorry?
07:50 Hugo: So, I started in a refugee camp on the Sudanese Ethiopian border where lots of you know hundreds of thousands of Tigran’s were pouring in from famine and war in northern Ethiopia. Then, I went to the top of Ethiopia into northern Wallow — it was called Wallow then — to Corum, which was a very famous camp at that time because it was the sort of epicentre of where the media story had broken about Ethiopian famine. I worked in Wallow and Gonda for 18 months after that. So, that was really my sort of relatively small sort of, you know, sharp-end period.
08:27 Nick: Yeah. Yeah. So, ‘Reflections of a Humanitarian Bureaucrat’, the piece I mentioned before, isn’t simply filled with wonderful, nostalgic remembrances as I might have given the impression of to our listeners, but you compare the charismatic age of humanitarian action with the sector’s contemporary bureaucratisation, identifying eight key challenges that you’ve observed over the last couple of decades. So, can you expand on some of those challenges that the sector is facing and reflect on ultimately what drove you to write the piece?
09:00 Hugo: Yeah, I mean, first of all, I suppose, you know, there’s nothing wrong with bureaucratising. You know, you don’t have to stigmatise the term. You can say it’s a really good thing that a public good is getting bigger and extending its reach and everything, you know, in the same way that, you know, with the National Health Service. Yeah, we would say today, we are very glad that it did expand, deepen, widen and bureaucratise in a certain way, but I think there are always challenges. There are challenges when things are too small and start happy and charismatic and there are challenges when they are bureaucratic as well.
09:37 You know, there’s — I think one of the things that happened, you know, over my career is that humanitarian aid has become much, much more elaborate. So, you know, humanitarian workers now and humanitarian agencies are really expected to do everything and take account of everything. That’s grown in parallel with sort of welfarism, the welfare state, the very interventionist state in western democracy as well. So, they’re meant to have handles on every sector from food, agriculture, health, you know, economics, income. They’re meant to have a handle on every dimension of social difference, you know, through gender and class and ethnicity and everything. It’s quite — it’s an elaborate field now, trying to do everything and do well. So that’s very striking.
10:30 I think these organisations are very big now. So, they are bureaucratic in the strict sense that they have layered hierarchies. So, there are layers and layers of decision making. You know, you can spend your whole day in a headquarters and possibly even a field office just, you know, trying to win against your colleagues and trying to get things done through the system of your organisation without even raising your head to look outside. That’s, I think, a difficult thing and to try and reduce those layers would be a good thing.
11:05 Overpopulation. A lot of these organisations have a lot of people because there’s no doubt — I’ve noticed it, you know, in my career, when a new problem is identified, the response is, “Oh, we need to hire new people to deal with that problem.” You know, almost every evaluation if it’s not, you know, cutting an organisation because of budget problems, it’s saying, “Right, we need to develop a new team to meet these new problems.” So, you get an extraordinary overpopulation in organisations too which creates a sort of churn and slowing down of its own challenge and a sort of an internal velocity which can distract from an external philosophy, I think, which is which is a shame.
11:49 The other thing I think that’s always frustrating for bureaucrats, depending on where you are in the organisation, is that you have this big task impact distance, this big distance between what you’re doing in your day job — usually on your screen these days and in endless meetings — and an eventual impact of results; a product, a change in someone’s life from all that you’re doing.
12:14 I think that can be — you know, some people are very gifted and they can see how getting all these things right over weeks and months will deliver a massive impact in the end. Some people find it more frustrating. They just talk about being in endless meetings all the time. It’s not clear that how they’re changing things for people on the ground so [cross talk 12:38].
12:38 Nick: That can be quite innovating and sort of, you know, existentially I suppose troubling in a way as well, you know, because of how you’re spending your time.
12:45 Hugo: I think it is. I think there are a lot of [cross talk 12:47] bureaucrats. Yeah, I have no doubt but there are probably a lot of existentially troubled people in small organisations being led by charismatic maniacs as well. So, you know, it depends but, you know, organisations by difficult people as well, you know.
13:01 Nick: Indeed. So, yeah, ultimately what made you decide to write that piece?
13:06 Hugo: I think largely that I was coming to the end of my time at the ICRC. You know, I hadn’t worked in a big headquarters like that. The last time I’d worked in a big headquarters was in Save the Children in the 90s when it had just upgraded from, you know, working in an old girls school which had been donated to it and moved into a modern office block in London. That was a big sort of culture shift. We were still relatively small. We were probably still our headquarters of 150 or 200 or something.
13:38 So, working in ICRC headquarters which is 1000 people with major big departments was a real — you know, a new experience for me as I knew it would be. It played to some of my strengths and a lot of my weaknesses. So, you know, it was that I wanted to reflect on it.
13:56 I also wanted to see — you know, I worry, you know, are these big organisations becoming full of vested interests, full of preoccupation with their own survival rather than survival of people in their mission statements? I wanted just to look a little bit and just say, “Look, your generation has grown up with these big organisations. It wasn’t always like that. You know, there are choices in the kind of organisations we form, make and run.”
14:29 Nick: I think one of the things that prompted me to get in touch and have this interview is that I think a lot of your writing and publications is really, really original and charismatic, you might say, but it’s sort of outside a lot of the corporate speak or the boilerplate sort of language that’s used to describe these kinds of issues. So, you know, I mean, you want to reflect on that and I suppose the…
14:55 Hugo: Well, I think it comes from two things. First of all, I don’t have a discipline. So, when I became an academic, you know, all I had was a theology degree. So, I haven’t been schooled and apprenticed in an academic discipline full of jargon and I rather decided not to sort of join one and stick to writing about values and ethics and organisations, but also I was very conscious always when I became an academic because I’d only recently stopped being, you know, an operational person.
15:26 They were my audience. I wanted to write for people who were doing what I had been doing. I wasn’t particularly interested in writing for the Academy. So, that I think, means I’m — I want to write simply and excessively. Also, I don’t think jargon helps very much because, you know, you automatically adopt a language which the majority of the world don’t know. So, you exclude people enormously and you end up with a very small readership.
15:56 I could learn from different academic discussions going on but I’ve always wanted to put them into ordinary English, if I could, and talk to people way beyond university life and the Academy.
16:09 Nick: Yeah, but also the humanitarian sector as well..
16:13 Hugo: I suppose I just — jargon is unhelpful and you will end up, you know, nodding your head because you hear the jargon. You think, “Oh, he must be right because he’s using the jargon,” and actually think, “What’s he on about? No idea,” you know?
16:24 So, I just don’t agree with that kind of writing. I think communication has to be real. That’s what I try and do, but there are lots of other people that might — also, you know, I’m totally lucky because I write in English and English is a majority language in those professions.
16:40 You know, I so admire people I worked with at the ICRC who were operating in four languages and, you know, when they were operating in English, it was, you know, maybe their second or third language or whatever. You know, I don’t have that challenge. So, I think there’s an obligation on me to write simple English and clearing English.
16:57 I also happen to admire George Orwell. He was a British writer. He is well-known for his sort of dystopian novel, ‘1904’, but actually his biggest contribution was as an essayist. He writes beautiful clear English. They often say he writes the best English and I think we have to write like that. It’s — you know, if we’re privileged enough to have the language and use it, we should write it excessively.
17:21 Nick: Yeah. So, you also are full of praise in your writing for the energy, courage and judgement of young people, referencing them as the great change makers and risk takers. You also remark that some large humanitarian organisations don’t necessarily, you know, encourage young people to sort of be right out in front in terms of innovations or leading on particular things. So, what would it look like if humanitarian organisations and other bureaucracies and other organisations really allowed young people to flourish in a way that you suggest that they sometimes are unable to?
17:54 Hugo: Well, I think it would be great, but I think, you know, it’s not an either-or thing. I made it very clear in the piece that that actually, you know, the gold is made when you have young people using their initiative, their fearlessness, their first sight of the world, and you have older people using their wisdom and their sort of umpteenth sight of the world.
18:14 So, I think you’ve got to have it combined. You know, I think every organisation must let its young people fly and thrive because, you know, that’s how they’re going to learn. That’s how they’re going to bring new influences into the business, into the organisation, into, you know, caring work. You know, they — in many parts of the world, young people are in a big majority, you know, across Africa and parts of Asia and things. So, you know, I think it’s very important that we realise that they’re able.
18:45 It’s also interesting in every crisis — you know, in periods when we were when a site is not particularly at crisis, it tends to develop these bureaucracy, which then become layered, very hierarchical and old people charge and they make sure it stays that way. The moment you have a real crisis, young people have to go to the floor.
19:01 It’s always very interesting. You know, sometimes if you read military history, you read about, you know, Colonel So-and-so or Major So-and-so who led some great battle for the Australian Army or something, and they were 25 or 24. You know, majors at that time were 24 or 25 and a lot of Colonels were 28 or 29.
19:20 You know, that’s a sort of military example but in a lot of crisis — and you see it in the COVID crisis now — young people are coming to the fore. So, you know, they’re not feeling as vulnerable as older people in this crisis because of the pattern of the disease and who it tends to kill. They’re out there organising mutual aid organisations, carrying, you know, relief to people all over the world. That’s wonderful. That’s what we’d expect and that energy and creativity should be kept by organisations at all times, I think, not just in crisis.
19:55 Nick: Wonderful. If we can make a shift to your academic work, I’d just like to maybe talk about your consistent focus throughout your career on civilian experience in war. So, most notably through the book, ‘Killing Civilians; Method, Madness and Morality in War’. Can you reflect on why that text made such an impact and perhaps explain your idea of the seven spheres of civilian suffering? I realise it’s not a very short question, but…
20:23 Hugo: Well, I am preoccupied with the civilian experience, I think, probably for a couple of reasons. I mean, first of all, because it was civilians I saw as a young man suffering first. I wasn’t on a battlefield, watching armies fight and seeing soldiers get wounded. I was on — you know, what happens when that happens somewhere else and certain refugees pour over a border and they die because of the war. They are killed by war or not in war, in a sense.
20:50 So, I was preoccupied with civilian experience in that way because it was the one I’d had. I’d also grown up in a very military family where, you know, as a sort of real — as you know, sort of death and comrade cult, and you’re constantly going into memorial services to remember the dead and to remember the soldiers that have died. In Britain, that’s, that’s a huge thing and you’re, you know, gathering around these things remembering soldiers who died.
21:17 It’s striking that we never really have the same structures of memorial for civilians who died and, of course, many more civilians died in World War Two and still die today in war than armd combatants.
21:32 So, you know, I think there’s a huge asymmetry there in the way we focus on, you know, the young men going into war. They’re not necessarily the people who suffer most in the war, even though they suffer terribly. So, there was that too.
21:47 I think the other reason I wrote it is that at that time in the 90s, you know, there was a, you know, feeling that the Cold War was over and there was a unipolar world and consensus around what was right and wrong, and that human rights and everything and international humanitarian law was back and we were all going to obey it. Of course, people weren’t. So, there were people murdering civilians and raping them and destituting them all over West Africa and in Europe, in the Balkan Wars and in Central Asia.
22:18 People were just saying, you know, “You mustn’t kill civilians, it’s against the law/ You must stop. You must stop killing civilians. Stop killing civilians,” as if that somehow would work.
22:27 It was clear to me that these people were deliberately killing civilians. They were using this as strategy. They obviously therefore felt: a) It worked as a strategy of war and, b) Ethically it probably wasn’t wrong in view of the importance of their cause as they would see it.
22:46 So, I thought that we can’t just go on ticking people off about it. We’ve got to go and really look at why people do it, the arguments they have for saying civilians are part of a war, they don’t count as immune and, you know, in sort of Foucauldian terms, sort of unveil that logic in that discourse, and say, “Right, why do they do it? If we don’t understand it, we can’t argue with them. We can’t predict what they’re going to do and we can’t protect civilians.”
23:15 Nick: Yeah. Yeah. So, I mean, there’s a pretty direct line from your areas of academic interest, which is quite extraordinarily unique in itself, to your work at the ICRC, so the International Committee for the Red Cross, which is sort of directly involved in these issues. So, can you maybe speak a little bit about your role as head of policy in humanitarian diplomacy at the ICRC and, you know, reflecting on the unique nature of the ICRC as well?
23:46 Hugo: Yeah, well, I had sort of named the ICRC for several years, you know, informally and you know, done talks with them, written for them, been on the editorial board of their excellent journey they review. So, I knew people there and I’d always been impressed by the sort of clarity of their ethics, if you like, and the clarity of their mission and of course, as you say, their unique role with this extraordinary access to all parties and ideally all civilians and wounded in war.
24:19 So, you know, when the job of head of policy came up, I thought that would be fascinating, I wonder if that will work. So, I went for it and was lucky enough to get it. What it involved was a bit of a shift in the ICRC’s own strategy in recent years. They had always focused on law and operations and they had big structures for law and operations and sort of policy work, which they’d done a lot of around weapons and health and things like that — was sort of bolted on and came up occasionally and was welcomed.
24:55 There had been a major decision that the best way to achieve the ICRC’s humanitarian mission was to affect change through law, greater respect for the law, through effective operations which saved people’s lives, and through a very concerted policy push which would try to influence the policies of states, making war states engaging in humanitarian action and really try and, you know, do what a lot of agents have always done which was policy work and advocacy to change the policies around the big spend of money in the world, but the actions of armed forces and therefore achieve humanitarian effect by changing negative policies and encouraging good policies.
25:41 So, that’s what we were tasked to do. The Department of Law became the Department of Law and Policy. I was asked to be head of policy and that meant building up a team in Geneva and trying to develop, you know, a model agile, effective policy work. So, slightly taking some of the deep Swiss rigour out of the policy process and the extraordinary commitment they have to representative democracy, you know, where everybody has a say in everything.
26:14 So, we did a bit of that and tried to keep pace with the policy debates around us, you know, on climate, on SDGs, on everything. It was fantastic five years. Then part of that is humanitarian diplomacy, which NGOs would call advocacy, which meant going around representing our positions to states in bilateral meetings, multilateral meetings all around the world, which was a fascinating privilege.
26:40 Nick: That sounds like a really extraordinarily varied role, but I wonder — you referenced before actually about the sort of interesting relationship between governments, NGOs, corporate partners, and also the people that you’re ultimately trying to serve and help. How did you sort of find working as part of a really, much bigger, I suppose, jigsaw puzzle or sort of constellation of relationships between organisations?
27:09 Hugo: Sorry, within the movement?
27:10 Nick: Oh, within the movement, within, you know, I suppose, in different settings as well?
27:15 Hugo: Well, I think in terms of — you know, the ICRC is very determined to have its own mind and take its own position and then present that position. So, it works very individualistically in some ways when it forms its own opinion and mind on our policy. That’s good, I think, for the ICRC because it has to be neutral and very careful and constructive.
27:39 So, we often, you know, made policy as ourselves as it were, but then we would try and link up and work closely with, you know, any government, any UN agency in other parts of the movement to share those policies. That’s very exciting and the ICRC is incredibly well, networked. So, you know, for our policy and diplomatic work, we had 80 delegations around the world. You know, many of them are very strategically placed in, you know, P5 capitals like Beijing, Moscow, Paris, London, you know, Washington; big regional delegations in Addis Ababa for the AU and New York for the UN and Jakarta and ASEAN.
28:21 So, we were able to link up very effectively on the ground with people and cooperate there, wherever we are. That’s what we did. So, in a way, Geneva needs to make good policy and listen to others and then drive it out to the delegations.
28:39 Nick: Yeah, fantastic. So, what were some of the major developments in international humanitarian law and warfare in the last five years while you were at the helm?
28:49 Hugo: Well, I suppose, you know, two are very striking to me. Of course, I was never at the helm of law because that’s run by a brilliant Australian, Helen Durham, you see. You know, she was my boss and I was working for her on policy and then the head of law work to her as well.
29:11 So, you know, I think on IHL, the things that were probably most striking were the urbanisation of warfare and the really important work of understanding what respect for IHL means in urban warfare. You know, the wars of the Middle East in the last 10 or 15 years have seen massive return of aerial and artillery bombardment on largely civilian areas of cities and things.
29:39 So, that became a huge preoccupation. I think the ICRC has done very well there on, you know, increasing people’s awareness and specifying their obligations more exactly on urban warfare.
29:53 The other big issue, of course, has been the question of new weapons and that means artificial intelligence, robotic weapons, cyber warfare. That’s been the other big shift that’s been going on, you know, in sort of ICRC legal thinking and policy thinking.
30:12 Of course, it’s a very difficult time to do that because states are not ready to come to the table because a lot of them want to win that arms race before they come and talk about artificial intelligence and cyber weapons and all these things, but also states are not getting along very well with each other at the moment. You know, we’re back in a phase of great power politics, great power competition and global geopolitical contest, and that pans out regionally as well. So, it’s been a difficult time to get new norms and policies established on new weapons, but it’s a major challenge.
30:47 I suppose one of the other things that’s been, you know, going along with those to — the convention to, you know, prohibit the use of nuclear weapons has been very important. That has been rolling over the time that I was there. I hope it continues to roll and we get more and more signatures and ratifications on the nuclear ban treaty.
31:12 The other thing that was constantly going on, of course, was the challenge of, you know, finding a good and legal way of working between states’ counterterrorism policies and laws and the continuing principles in IHL and the laws and IHL which say that humanitarian action must be allowed impartially, and that organisations like the ICRC are able to talk to all parties in a conflict. So, that was a constant running policy and diplomatic challenge, the counterterrorism one as well.
31:46 Nick: So, on that note, you’ve written a lot about the question of trust in humanitarian action from the perspective of vulnerable people, government and corporate partners, and indeed, trust between agencies. So, you know, in order for the ICRC to be effective, it does depend on trust, but there’s been a bit of commentary of late about the decline in trust we have in humanitarian organisations. I wondered whether you might reflect on why that’s the case and what practical things could be done to restore trust?
32:15 Hugo: Well, I think, you know, again I wouldn’t suggest there was a sort of golden age when everyone was trusted. You know, I don’t think it’s necessary got worse. I think these things are usually, you know, constantly ambivalent and they change for various reasons.
32:30 Certainly, you know, if I think back when I was working in Ethiopia, you know, I was constantly called an English spy. You know, there was — you know, constantly hauled over the coals about it by Communist Party leaders in Ethiopia. So, you know, it’s not that we were trusted before and we’re not now.
32:47 So, I think what’s changed now is without doubt a couple of things. The first one, of course, is the sexual scandals around the NGO sector, you know, which eventually reached it in the way that the ‘me too’ movement and, you know, the proper exposing of you know, misogynistic patriarchal sexual attitudes and habits in organisations also expose the humanitarian sector.
33:18 I think that therefore led to a sort of element of disenchantment in that sector as well which people have had to work hard and they must work hard to re-establish trust on that. So, that was one of them.
33:32 I think the other one was an increasing feeling, you know, by people on the ground in Africa and Asia and the Middle East, you know, who are just watching these huge Western organisations roll in with lots of money and they’re just saying, “You know, hang on, what about us? Where’s our agency in all this? Where’s all this money going? How come you’re deciding everything?” That’s the sort of whole push towards localisation, which you and the Australian Red Cross have been so good at responding to and, you know, changing your business model to, you know, recognise the importance of locally led humanitarian action.
34:05 So, a lot of that was, you know, just saying that, you know, “Why are the banks so big? You know, why are oil companies so big? Why they hell are aid companies so big? You know, what are these guys doing and where are we in all this?” I think that was the second big, you know, concern from ordinary people watching yet another white Toyota with a logo on spin past their house and throw mud and, you know, dust in their face.
34:30 Nick: So, no interview would be complete without a little segment on COVID-19 and the global pandemic. So, how has COVID impacted humanitarian relief work in conflict zones in particular, and what might be some of the lasting impacts of this? I’m thinking about, you know, impacting crossing borders to reach people in need in particular.
34:51 Hugo: Yeah. So, I think COVID, you know, has obviously affected humanitarian action in the way it’s affected everything else, that you know, that there are lockdowns in place which make things very difficult for people in need and they make it very difficult for humanitarian agencies. So, the whole challenge of working in a social distance way has to be addressed and we have to achieve new ways of working.
35:17 You’re seeing that. You know, so you’re seeing distributions happening differently. You’re seeing hospitals and clinics being managed differently. You know, we’re so lucky in a way with technology and the way that you and I are speaking now, that we can transfer cash to people if they’ve got mobile phones. You know, we don’t have to be there all the time.
35:35 So, there are ways that, you know, the system is having to change in the way it delivers and meet people, but a lot of that is accelerating technological change, the digital transformation that was much talked about that we had in play already.
35:53 I think in terms of, you know, going across borders, it just adds another layer of problem. The disease itself adds another layer of problems on war affected people who are already, you know, perhaps displaced, suffering from a lack of access to their markets anyway, you know, battling with a another caseload of infectious diseases, whether that’s malaria or, you know, other measles and other conditions. So it just adds another layer, I think.
36:27 But the good thing is it could really transform power and relationships in humanitarian aid. We could see an acceleration of localization and locally led humanitarian action where at last a lot of these big organisations step alongside and accompany people in their own response, rather than charge out front and drive an international response. So, it’ll need a nice balance of both but there’s difficulties and there’s opportunities.
36:56 Nick: Yeah, and there are those silver linings as you mentioned which I think a lot of people are trying to emphasise as well. Can you reflect on the changed ethical landscape that all nations now find themselves in due to the emergency situation that COVID-19 has kind of necessitated? So, as you’ve written about hundreds and millions of people have lived in sort of equivalent emergency situations on a daily basis for decades, be it through war, epidemics, famine and extreme poverty, but it’s a new sort of experience for many in the West in particular.
37:28 Hugo: Yeah, I think it’s true in our own societies. You know, you in Australia, me in the UK, I think, you know, infectious diseases are bad for a bit. Of course, we’re the lucky couple of generations that have lived in this blip when we were worried about cancer and heart disease and we weren’t worried about catching diseases in crowded shops or whatever that would kill us.
37:52 We’re now back in that game of infectious diseases and that will change us. What it means, of course, in terms of personal ethics is that we are — and it means this to humanitarian work is going to communities as well — we are potential carriers of diseases as well. S, we can carry things that kill, not just stop them and everything like that. So, that’s complicated and requires a new element of responsibility in humanitarian work and a new element of responsibility in our own role of citizens within society. We have to take responsibility for the fact we can hurt others by infecting so that’s a primary difference.
38:34 I think the other thing we’re going to have to get used to — you know, a process that’s always gone on, which is sort of health and life rationing, which we do array anyway around chronic diseases — you know, how much resources we put into public health and how much we put into caring for people with cancer or heart disease. Now, we’re having to make difficult ethical decisions of distribution and allocation of resources around how much are we going to save the economy and how much are we just going to save human lives?
39:03 These are these are hard, you know, decisions to make but we’re going to have to make all those and understand them. That leads to the third point really is that we must — you know, whether this is a humanitarian organisation working with the community or whether it’s a government working with citizens in Australia or the UK — we have to have what the ethicists call a good deliberative culture. That means we have to deliberate together. We have to think through these problems together. We can’t just have authoritarian solutions to them. We have to say, “Right, we’ve got a problem between, you know, opening up the economy again, before we all go bankrupt and before millions of people lose access to money and jobs and risking health. Can we all agree somehow how are we going to do that? Can we accept the costs, etc.?”
39:52 So, we need a proper discursive political culture inside humanitarian organisations and with communities and inside our own societies. That requires the last thing, which is honest and transparent leadership. We have to have leaders who are spelling out the problems honestly, the difficult choices, owning them up, setting good examples themselves and discussing with people and bringing those people with them and managing this crisis together.
40:58 Hugo: Yeah, I think those are good ones. I think those are good for the movement in particular for the Red Cross and the Red Crescent people. You would want them to focus on humanity. You know, their job is to think about human life and respect for the human being. It’s not their job to, you know, decide what a just society looks like. They are, you know, working with a humanitarian mission, much like a doctor might be. So, that seems a good one.
41:22 Impartiality must be right. We must be fair. We must have no discrimination and exclusion of people in any crisis. You know, we’re already learning that certain groups of people — you know, poor people, ethnic minorities, people with underlying vulnerabilities and health — they’re suffering more in COVID, old people. So, we have to work impartially and work on the basis of need as we always do.
41:51 Neutrality is important for the Red Cross and the Red Crescent. You know, we have to respect governments, work with governments but we should not just be, you know, organs of government. We should be working impartially and on a humanitarian goal.
42:10 Independence, as much as we can. You know, these are all difficult to achieve in practice as you know but yes, we should try and be independent of policies. If governments are having policies that we think are wrong, we should make that clear and work for our own policies and, you know, decision making.
42:28 I think the one about voluntary service is really important today because in a huge pandemic and the massive economic crisis that’s going to follow it, everyone is going to have to volunteer and help their neighbour and help others they’ve never met before.
42:46 You know, a state can’t manage this stuff on its own. Mutual aid is going to be so important and it is already. We’re all going to have to be volunteers. So, being a volunteer is going to have to be recognised as an important and valuable role to play. We’re going to rely on them more than ever.
43:06 Of course, it would be nice if we could be unified. The movement is not very good at it but it can do it sometimes.
43:35 Hugo: You mean going from one to the other, in and out. I think it’s very [unclear 43:38] pension. That’s the first thing I would say. You know, you’re much better off with a job which has a pension and building that pension up. You know, when you keep chopping and changing, it’s not always great.
43:48 For me, you know, it’s about temperament. For me, I love doing it because — you know, when I was operational, my brain kept saying, “God, I want to take time to really think about this. What are we really doing here? You know, what is our purpose?” You know, so while I was loading a truck, I wasn’t necessarily thinking very hard about the truck, I was beginning to think more about, “What are we doing?”
44:08 So, I needed to go back into a space and reflect but then, you know, when I was an academic for 10 years, I thought, “I can’t really stand up and teach people in a classroom if I haven’t been anywhere for a bit and if I haven’t engaged in real work for a period, and if I’m just drawing on examples from 20 years ago.” So, I felt the need to go back and learn again to refresh my teaching.
44:32 I think, you know, the challenge of policy making and being, you know, near the top of an organisation is important because it reminds me that, you know, life is made from people making difficult decisions and decisions that are not always popular, that don’t always benefit everybody. You need to do that occasionally, to remind yourself that when you write glib, you know, recommendations at the end of a paper or, you know, evaluation report, you know, you’re not sitting there smugly saying, “Well, you know, I could do this. Why don’t they just get on and do it?” because you need to appreciate how difficult it is to work and change things in the world, you know?
45:09 So, that’s why I’ve done it. I’ve just gone in and done the three things because I have to. I think a lot of people do it. I’m aware of a lot of people who remain primarily operational, humanitarian workers who are deeply reflected in thinking. They write things, they think, they discuss and they remain very reflective. I think those are three parts of all of us, you know — acting, reflecting and developing rules for action which is essentially what policy is. So, that’s in all of us, I think.
46:06 Hugo: Well, you know, I think the great thing today — and, you know, I perhaps should have done it myself years and years ago — is that you don’t have to get a slow train, you know, to Marrakesh or wherever to do this and to be playing a useful and important role which you could describe as humanitarian, you know?
46:23 There’s so much to do in our own societies. The world is now, you know, full of — every society has major challenges of poverty and injustice and need, human need. So, you don’t have to go far. You know, it’s on your doorstep as well. So, you know, this idea in the old days, just like feeling out of your realm and only being a humanitarian if you go off abroad and live this adventure, that’s a rather Colonial fantasy, an imperialist fantasy. In fact, we can do things in our own communities that are — and most people do.
46:57 You know, we were locked down here. We moved to London and got locked down immediately so we didn’t know anyone in the area we moved to. I started waving every morning to the chap across the road because he’d sort of get up about the same time as me and we’d open the sort of shutters at the same time. I began waving at him and we waved. Then, you know, after a couple of weeks, I went over and talked to him and we chatted.
47:19 You know, I’d been sitting here doing bugger all except the odd webinar and writing a blog, you know, but this chap manages all the hearing impaired children and the deaf children in this part of London, and ensures that they have the equipment they need and the support they need to integrate into schooling. Now, that’s a fantastic job, that’s a profoundly humanitarian job and he didn’t have to get a suitcase, a guitar and a train and head off to Morocco. He’s doing real things every day and I’m not.
47:48 So, my advice would be don’t feel you have to live this global fantasy. Look down the street and you’ll probably find an amazing role there.
48:14 Hugo: Well, thank you very much, Nick. Thanks for inviting me and good luck to you too, and all in Australian Red Cross. I love being there and good luck to you all.
Originally published at https://www.nickfabbri.com on May 29, 2020.