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.

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The Curious Incident of the Plane in the Night-Time

The average person occasionally wakes to the sound of birds in the morning. I woke up to the sound of a drone, lazily cruising through the skies of Benghazi. This was significant for two reasons; 1-We haven’t been paid a visit by the drone in a long time, since the capture of Abu Khattala in fact. 2-There were airstrikes in Tripoli this morning. 

The latter point is significant in itself because this is the first time planes have hit targets in Tripoli since 2011. But back then they were NATO planes. Whose planes were these? 

The Libyan Parliament, who convened in Tripoli on August 4th, voted recently on asking the international community to intervene to protect civilians. As soon as we heard about the planes, the first thing that came to mind was that foreign forces had entered the country. The Italian ambassador denied his country was involved, followed by the French Foreign Affairs Ministry and NATO. 

The Libyan Interim Government released a statement saying they didn’t know who was behind the strikes, which wasn’t exactly reassuring seeing as they’re the guys in charge. Just when we were beginning to wonder if it wasn’t a UFO or maybe a good Samaritan country who felt bad and decided to scare the militia, Heftar’s forces (i.e. the East Libyan Air Force) made a claim to the airstrikes. 

Which makes sense, in a way. They’ve been hitting militia bases in Benghazi for months now. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that they had somehow managed to get planes to fly over Tripoli. 

Except that the Air Force Chief of Staff released a statement saying that the planes were foreign and not local.

Huh. Curiouser and curiouser. 

It could mean that Operation Karama forces managed to get their hands on new equipment, or that they’re getting assistance from other countries. They have been active in Benghazi with recent clashes, but this would be their first operation in Tripoli. 

As baffling as these air strikes have been, they have very serious implications for the militias on the ground. The Parliament has been clear in their demands for the militias to dissolve, being a major threat to civilian lives and the authority of the state. As strong as they claim to be, their disorganized structure make them easily susceptible to systematic aerial attacks. 

It also brings up the question of what will happen if the militias are bombarded. We don’t want a repetition of 2011, where we neutralize the immediate threat but leave ourselves exposed and unprepared for future regrouping and attacks. There are currently more weapons in Libya than there are citizens, and our army is unprepared and under-funded to deal with this catastrophe. 

And then there’s the issue of the country’s political schism. The city of Misrata has gained notoriety throughout much of the country because of their support for the current operation by their militias in Tripoli (named Operation Fajr). Last Friday there was a large demonstration in the city against foreign intervention, and their Parliament members (as well as a handful from other cities) have refused to go to Tobruk, claiming that holding sessions there is ‘unconstitutional’. But with the clashes in Benghazi and Tripoli showing no sign of stopping, the Parliament will not be moving out of Tobruk anytime soon. 

Instead of moving forward, Libya has taken several steps backwards. 3&1/2 years after the revolution we are still in a transitional stage and we haven’t learned to communicate and compromise. Political parties and extremists groups have taken the country hostage and are fighting to the death for power. At this point many people are sick of bickering about political ideals, not when innocent people are dying. If air strikes can at least stop the militias in their tracks, Libya might still have a chance at making it out of the ‘failed state’ category.