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Humanitarian Interdependence

Like neutrality, humanitarian independence is a role responsibility designed to enable impartial humanitarian action in a deeply contested political and military atmosphere of mistrust in which many people’s desire to win is stronger than their desire to be humanitarian. Once again, independence is not being put forward as a universal human virtue. Independence—as freedom of will and action—is a good in itself, but it is never considered as an absolute good. None of us sees a life of total independence from others as a good life or even a possible life. We all depend on other people for various things, to varying degrees and at different times in our lives, and we all compromise with power. In truth, we are all interdependent and enjoy others being important to us and being valuable to them in return. Significant autonomy is important to us but we know that our independence is never total and that total independence would in fact be isolation.

Humanitarian independence shares this mix of autonomy and mutuality in practice. Humanitarian agencies need significant independence in humanitarian action—a genuine operational autonomy that allows them to move around, make humanitarian choices and act upon them. This is the sort of operational autonomy and independence from political interference that enables an agency to visit a community, weigh and measure malnourished children, assess economic needs and listen to people describing the conduct of the war and what they need to be safer. With this knowledge, agencies can then make informed, impartial and neutral choices about how best to assist and protect people. But in doing all this, agencies are of course heavily dependent on others: the goodwill of the warring parties to give them safe access; people’s consent to discuss their situation and have their children examined; and then the generosity of donors to finance the necessary humanitarian activities. Realistically, high levels of interdependence are inevitable and desirable in humanitarian action, and much “balancing” of principle on the ground involves difficult judgements about optimal levels of independence and interdependence.

So, while independence refers most usefully to freedom from outside interference, humanitarian autonomy must not be understood as going it alone and acting autocratically. Humanitarian action is always cogenerated by a variety of different actors, and a humanitarian agency is always dependent on their goodwill or, at least, their tolerance or acceptance. Organized humanitarian action on a large scale is a joint enterprise born of negotiation and cooperation. It is seldom the single-minded dash of the all-powerful, self-sufficient and heroic rescuer. When it is, it is likely to be a disastrous act of humanitarian hubris because, as we shall now see, humanitarian action morally requires the inclusion and cooperation of others.

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