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A brief history of a new “suffering and caring community”

While I was in Geneva carrying out my ethnographic research on the humanitarian agencies in charge of protecting the IDPs, and after discussing with a Medicine Sans Frontières officer in the same city, in 2007, the organization’s humanitarian impact on climate change, I was compelled to interrupt the conversation and ask

From the "suffering stranger ” to the IDP 215 directly: Since when and how does MSF deal with IDPs? The officer stared at me for a couple of seconds before he laughed and answered: “MSF has never dealt with IDPs”. I remained silent, thinking to myself: Is he joking? Is his answer part of the sarcastic humor typical of this French-born organization? After sensing my perplexity, this official explained what he really meant by saying that “MSF has never dealt with IDPs”. His explanation became a key element that brought light to the almost obvious difference between human rights and humanitarian genealogies, which I hadn't considered before.

What he told me was that for MSF, the IDP is an irrelevant category for their humanitarian operations. As he explained, the long debate over the usefulness of this category is “a non-debate” for the organization’s interventions and operations in the field. According to him, MSF operations are not based on this category, but on the fact of the basic needs of the suffering population. If the members of these populations are IDPs or not, was of no consequence to them. Their type of engagement, following Redfield’s analysis on the history of the concept and practice of ‘neutrality’ within MSF, was not predicated on the basis of sovereignty’. This organization is concerned about those who suffered, those who needed clean water, or mental therapy, during or after a crisis. As simple as that.

I obtained the same answer later that afternoon while interviewing an officer of the ICRC. In a similar vein, I asked about the ICRC’s role in relation to IDPs. For the officer, the Geneva conventions and the 1977 Protocols had already defined the agency’s focus on protecting civilian population in the middle of any international or internal armed conflict. Even more, with a sarcastic tone similar to the one used by the MSF officer, she told me that right from the agency’s beginnings in the nineteenth century, they had already worked with victims of internal conflicts, including displaced individuals. Actually, in both interviews, I could sense some suspicion over the usefulness of the IDP category and all the recent debates it has triggered both in the academy and the human rights and humanitarian community. The MSF officer made it clear: “the starting point of the [MSF’s] intervention is about the needs, and then the status of the person may have an impact on the way we perform our duties, or prolongation of our work, but that comes after” (Personal Communication, June 2007). What matters are those suffering bodies and the profound concern with maintaining and protecting their lives. The human, before a citizen, an IDP or a refugee, was a living entity whose life had to be protected and alleviated before anything else. Needless to say, although I didn't mentioned it, the ideas used in these interviews about suffering bodies, basic needs, and most of all, the human as such, must be considered problem areas full of frictions and open to debate, in which historical legacies and genealogies must be uncovered and also problematized (Fassin, Humanitarian Reason-, Fassin y Rechtman; Fassin and Pandolfi; Feldman y Ticktin).

 
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