The Lost Humanitarian Principle

WFP Assistance_blog post

A oddly arranged picture from some of the UN’s promotional material which prompt questions: Who are these 90,000 people? Do they actually need the food? Why a picture of an old woman in a traditional cloak who could literally be anyone’s grandma?

I’ve found myself reading quite a lot about Gadhafi’s early days of rule and the vision he had for Libya. Growing up in an anti-Gadhafi household meant that I was never able to see past his brutal regime, but in the wake of Libya’s destruction I have found myself questioning so much of what I used to believe, and that includes a more nuanced and critical view of the Gadhafi era. What I found most notable was his passion for a country that was completely autonomous, one that meaningfully tried to heal from its colonialist legacy. I believe that many Libyans who today long for the days of Gadhafi are most nostalgic about that feeling of true sovereignty and independence away from the meddling of outside actors.

This interference has become the target of a growing wave of anger and discontent from Libyans at the way embassies, development organization and NGOs are conducting work in and about Libya. It is dawning on many citizens that the political stalemate in the country is being prolonged by various nation-states who have competing interests in Libya, as the country has become the site of a proxy war. This can also been seen in the type of programs implemented by international cooperation agencies and where they do (and don’t) work.

It can also be witnessed in the “Twitter diplomacy” of some countries. No one can easily forget the bizarre antics of the American ambassador “Safira Debora” of a few years ago, who posted teenager-style tweets from within high-level diplomatic discussions. And the current Italian ambassador and embassy frequently write very ham-fisted tweets, including how the days of Italian occupation in Libya were a glorious time for the country, ignoring the fact that Libyans were dying in Italian concentration camps during that same period. Indeed it appears that the Italian policy in Libya is to blatantly step all over the nation’s sovereignty.

Recently it has been the work of aid organizations that have enraged Libyans across the country. Pictures of UNICEF distributing light-blue backpacks emblazoned with their logo were circulating last week, with objections coming from all sides. Most people lamented on the depths Libya has reached that we rely on international organizations to give our children backpack. But others still were angry at the prominent size of the logo and the demeaning way in which the photo op was conducted. Among other things, the depiction of beneficiaries as weak and helpless is frowned upon in NGO circles. But in the case of Libya, it is also creating resentment among a nation of proud people towards these agencies and their hand-outs.

Another inflammatory picture by WFP depicted a young boy in what appeared to be a camp, with the caption (I’m paraphrasing here) “We asked why this young boy wears his Eid clothes during food distribution days, and his mother said it was because these are days of celebration!” While one can debate the size of logos and importance of documenting aid distribution, the above example cannot really be justified. To depict a family as being so happy to get food distribution that they dress up for it is not only humiliating and demeaning, it also erroneously portrays food security as an issue in Libya.

I might need to put up some disclaimers here. Firstly, I come from a middle-class family from Benghazi, and the extent of my knowledge is obviously limited when it comes to Libya’s marginalized groups living under the poverty line. I also worked with an international NGO, and we weren’t perfect when it came to our programming and communication either. However, after working with and various groups across the country, I can say that we never encountered food security to be a prominent issue, for several reasons. The first is that local charities, the zakaa system and the CSR office of national companies already covers the basic needs of vulnerable groups. Secondly, basic food items are subsidized in Libya, making it still relatively affordable. But more crucial than all of this is the fact that WFP has been trying to import food assistance to Libya since 2014, and it has usually come in spoiled and unfit for human consumption, and is routinely thrown out. And yet, despite this massive inefficiency in management, Libyans haven’t starved without their assistance.

There is always the constant speculation over what is gained by such depictions in the communication material of these agencies. Libya is definitely suffering from severe problems including infrastructure failure, a weak education and healthcare system, but these are problems caused by a corrupt and mismanaged administration, not lack of money. Instead of addressing these key issues, why deliver bags of food? The unsatisfactory answer is that it’s easier to employ band-aid solutions than to spend years addressing root causes. The easy answer is that the aid industry relies on this system in order to provide jobs for thousands of expat workers. But there may still be a more insidious answer in the realm of conspiracy theories on how a weakened Libya serves certain interests.

In any case, the growing anger is leading to more and more NGOs and agencies being denied a license to work inside the country, and could potentially put their employees at a higher risk. More discretion, and a return to the principles of humanitarianism, are definitely required.