At What Cost? Ethical Dilemmas for Humanitarian Funding

Publication Date: 
Monday, June 27, 2016
© Saudi Press Agency

Médicines Sans Frontièrs (MSF) announced on the 17th of June that it would no longer be taking funds from the European Union and member states “in opposition to their damaging deterrence policies and intensifying attempts to push people and their suffering away from European shores.”  This move came in the same week that two other funding and ethics issues were in the spotlight.

First, Saudi Arabia was removed from the UN ‘blacklist’ concerning child rights violators. As the justification for this decision, Ban Ki-moon candidly cited the threat of Saudi Arabia withdrawing its funding for the UN and its consequential impact on child protection. Second, Save the Children received criticism for accepting a donation of $29 million dollars from a foundation set up by Saudi Arabia’s Prince Alwalee, a close ally of the Saudi government. Due to the current conflict in Yemen, some see acceptance of this funding as a step that ultimately weakens respect for international humanitarian law (IHL) due to the hypocrisy of potential IHL violators fuelling a humanitarian crisis but at the same time looking to improve the global humanitarian situation through humanitarian funding. Others have responded by saying that “humanitarian funding is often tainted and there is no clear reason why Saudi money in particular is subject to scrutiny.”

Whilst each case is different, with its unique dimensions and dynamics, such cases do warrant a degree of reflection on the question of ethical standards concerning funding of humanitarian and human rights work.

MSF, the EU, and Refugees

MSF cited the recent EU-Turkey deal—as well as the European Commission’s unveiling of a new proposal replicating the EU-Turkey approach across 16 countries in Africa and the Middle East—as the central reasons for their decision on EU funding. This decision also comes fresh off MSF’s withdrawal from the World Humanitarian Summit, a decision made based on MSF’s perception that, amongst other reasons “The summit has become a fig-leaf of good intentions, allowing these systematic violations [of law], by states above all, to be ignored.”

The EU-Turkey deal has rightly been subject to criticism, in particular from human rights groups, who see it as representing “a disturbing disregard for international law covering the rights of refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants.” Whilst this blog will not delve into the specific problematic aspects of these deals (see a previous blog from ATHA on this subject), the move by MSF with regard to funding and the EU does address a growing concern related to ethics and funding. This challenge speaks to the checks and balances humanitarian actors should have when it comes to making ethical decisions about donorship. Similar challenges arose in regard to the Save the Children project due to the disparity between the aims of the project and the nature of the donor.

In such cases, there are two initial questions need to be considered:

  1. Are the examples of the Saudi foundation and the EU exceptional?

It is important to reflect on the question: why is it that funding from certain sources is particularly problematic, whilst funding from others is less so? For example, when looking at the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, one could easily argue that the role of the United Kingdom and the United States in this conflict should lead to similar questions of ethical funding. Without a clear and consistent approach, it is difficult to identify clear lessons moving forward.

  1. Does an ethical line exist, and if so, where does it lie?

Sadly, adherence to the basic norms of human rights (IHRL), IHL, and refugee law within the current political landscape appears to be a far too arduous standard. At what point on a “violators scale” do we pause for thought? For example, is the basis for declining donor funds unique to conflict-related behavior and violations of IHL? The danger of this approach is that violations of IHL would inherently be given more weight than systematic human rights violations occurring outside of armed conflict.

An attempt to prioritize the importance of what are already fundamental rights is, at best, a challenging exercise, but some hierarchy does exist. For example, “gross human rights violations and serious violations of international humanitarian law” are considered to be the apex of egregiousness, so when funding is linked to entities responsible for such conduct, this should indeed be a clear red line. Failure to start serious discussions about how to actualize and ensure the practical implementation of such a red line would be a travesty.

Over-reliance on state funding?

It should be noted that MSF, whose main funding streams are from private donors (92%), clearly has a greater ability than other humanitarian organizations to make tough, principled decisions while still retaining the ability to maintain the majority of its humanitarian operations.

In contrast, many non-governmental organizations rely almost exclusively on highly competitive state funding. Can organizations be expected to take a coherent and consistent principled position and reject funds, in particular from groups and states that violate, or are implicated in, violations of international law—notably refugee, human rights and humanitarian law? Can we morally justify the consequences that may lead to patent suffering?

Perhaps one solution to provide organizations with more space to consider making such difficult decisions is to try to broaden humanitarian funding streams and engage with more private donors. As demonstrated by Bernie Sanders in the US Democratic presidential primary race, effective private fundraising doesn’t necessarily mean relying on individual millionaires. Indeed, perhaps more of a ‘small donation, large spread’ approach is needed. UNICEF USA has shown this can work, as exemplified by them receiving donations from over 400,000 individuals in 2013. The challenge here would be how to effectively and sustainably engage with members of the public on global humanitarian issues on a consistent basis.

Donors using leverage to bypass human rights accountability: Crossing a line

When funders use their position of power to influence important global protection initiatives—exemplified by Saudi Arabia and the UN child rights ‘blacklist’—there is clearly an even bigger problem. In attempting to justify this decision of removing Saudi Arabia from the list, Ban Ki-moon stated:

I … had to consider the very real prospect that millions of other children would suffer grievously if, as was suggested to me, countries would defund many U.N. programs. Children already at risk in Palestine, South Sudan, Syria, Yemen, and so many other places would fall further into despair.

This degree of candor should certainly be welcomed, but such decisions blatantly undermine mechanisms of human rights accountability. It has yet to be seen whether or not this public list of naming and shaming the most serious child rights violators yields tangible protection, but the fact that states are so keen to leverage their way off the list suggests the list does have some impact. Caving into such demands can only perpetuate the ongoing absence of accountability, and consequentially, undermine child rights protection in the short and long term. There must be some red lines that universally override the practical realities of operations, even if difficult to define and maintain. For example if a state donor is idenitified as committing such serious violations, this should then trigger immediate steps to seek out alternative funding sources. Simply allowing basic accountability measures to be eroded due to funding concerns is a dangerous and unpleasant precedent and one that must be challenged and avoided before it repeats itself. 

Final thoughts

Moving forward, there are significant questions to address, and the need for honest and open debate amongst the humanitarian community on this issue is clear. Opening up a dialogue on potential red lines requires a sector and agency-wide professional consensus in order to address what is or is not acceptable (and why). It will be important to track whether or not the move by MSF, in particular, leads to positive leverage and over time, contributes to an identifiable positive policy change. Whilst organizations such as MSF lead the way, is it important that a broad coalition of humanitarian actors come together to see to what extent MSF’s lead can be followed. Additionally having a serious conversation around applying a basic bottom line standard, for example, that those that commit gross and serious violations of IHRL and IHL should be barred from providing humanitarian funding, is an essential starting point. Such a position will help to avoid situations in which organizations compromise themselves and their credibility. Hopefully such an approach can lead to more credible and sustainable humanitarian action.


Sharif's picture

Thanks the good analysis of a difficult topic. I believe the criteria for red line you are suggesting - not taking funds from only those who commit serious IHL/IHRL - may be a good starting point but certainly not going far enough. There needs to be much more stringent measures, also against the larger western donors.

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