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Professor Talks Darfur and Humanitarianism


Published: Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Updated: Wednesday, November 9, 2011 01:11

Courtesy of Wikimedia

Professors and students discussed problems faced in Darfur, including war and the lack of clean food and water.

The conflict in Sudan's Darfur is a subject that has been overshadowed by other news such as Occupy Wall Street and the 2012 presidential elections; however, on Nov. 3, Dr. Alexander van Tulleken's riveting lecture entitled "The Functions of Humanitarian Assistance: Darfur Case Study," brought the issue into the light. Van Tulleken, a professor of International Humanitarian Affairs, discussed the worsening situation in the western Sudanese province of Darfur, despite a vast and hugely expensive humanitarian response.

"The conflict in Darfur is one of the largest humanitarian operations in history [...] it has undergone much publicity and scrutiny but by almost any metric it has worsened since the conflict began in 2003," van Tulleken said.

Darfur is of particular interest to van Tulleken, because it was the first place he went as a humanitarian aid worker and practicing physician. The majority of the audience had no particular penchant for Darfur, but rather was interested in humanitarian issues in general. The lecture was a part of the International Political and Economic Development (IPED) graduate program weekly lecture series, organized by Michelle Virgin, a student in this program.

Amongst the sea of graduate students were also some of van Tulleken's loyal undergraduate students.

"I'm so excited," Catherine Paul, FCRH '13, said before the speech even began. 

She had reason to be excited, as the approach van Tulleken took to address the issues in Darfur seemed counterintuitive. He argued that humanitarian aid has the potential to do harm as well as good, particularly in a context as complicated as the conflict in Darfur.

Van Tulleken suggested that there are two potential problems that can occur in the delivery of humanitarian aid. The first is bad practice by poorly trained aid workers. He gave the example of a badly dug and contaminated well.

It is a "poorly regulated field," van Tulleken said. 

The second problem is the fundamental impossibility of addressing the root causes of suffering because of the impartiality and neutrality of humanitarian aid organizations.       

"Humanitarian aid is an apolitical response to a political problem [...] which limits what we can achieve," van Tulleken said.

He highlighted other problems as well: For some nongovernmental organizations there are huge financial incentives to remain in Darfur because of the large quantity of donor money available.

"Incentives for NGOs to stay working in Darfur are very extreme," van Tulleken said. "They remain even when it gets too dangerous to do effective work."

While humanitarian aid may not be an effective solution to the conflict in Darfur, some form of help is needed. Oppressive governments such as those in Sudan and Burma are sophisticated in their ability to manipulate their populations and the international communities attempts to assist these populations.

 Governments like the administration in Khartoum are able to undertake gross abuses against their people and cause chaos, without ever using physical force, according to van Tulleken. For example, the government can take resources away, so their subjects starve on their own. The government also has the power to cover up and skew facts, creating a cloud of confusion and blurring the public's perception of the extent of harm done.

One camp in Darfur that Van Tulleken referred to was Kalma Camp, which houses about 100,000 refugees whose villages have been burned. NGOs come to Kalma Camp to help and provide resources. Van Tulleken displayed an image of Kalma camp and an area surrounding Lincoln Center, showing the drastic difference between the dusty-red land of Kalma camp juxtaposed to the green and lively New York City.

Van Tulleken compared the activity of NGOs in Kalma Camp to emergency room doctors: "In the E.R., you patch up the drug addicts and homeless people and you send them back to the streets. As an emergency room doctor you're not able to address root causes; you leave that to other people."

"A fundamental question of humanitarianism is what to do once you've saved someone's life," van Tulleken said. "Aid is not a substitute for political action [...] you can't stop a genocide with doctors."

Van Tulleken invited the audience to think as if they were the leaders of an abusive government, and to consider how they might manipulate the humanitarian agencies and their populations. The students reached an agreement  that the government would pit the various stakeholders against each other by withholding resources from some and exclusively offering peace talks to others.

The government would cause violence in the camp, causing the NGOs ultimate evacuation.

With this in mind, after the lecture, graduate student Dominic Monley, GSAS '12, expanded upon van Tulleken's analogy.

"People from the outside of the hospital are trying to stop peace and [...] other forces are not on your side," he said.

To view humanitarian aid as a more complex phenomenon than simple charity,  but as a force with the capacity for harm as well as good, and as an endeavor that is essentially limited, is initially mind boggling, but van Tulleken's argument familiarizes this idea.

"I found this to be a more balanced and realistic view of aid which is not something that will solve all your problems," graduate student Katie Jajtner, GSAS '12 said.

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