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Short term memory and Long term needs!
Zubin / Zubin Zaman
Earlier in June 2013, I was part of Oxfam’s emergency response operations in Uttarakhand. The state was hit by one of the worst disasters in 33 years, with thousands reported dead and missing and an unforgiving terrain that was unrelenting in creating obstacles day in and day out for months at end. Every day colleagues risked their lives, to provide assistance to the needy in environments where roads are impassable, villages where no roads reach, and weather that is impossible to predict. This is the story of the chaos, complexity, and dynamism of humanitarian intervention during the acute stages of the crisis and the unending debate on what and how to reconstruct people’s lives in Uttarakhand since the crisis has abated. Even as we responded to the crisis in Uttarakhand, or Odisha or Assam, we clearly understand that the primary duty bearer and the biggest agency providing assistance is always the government of the time. Civil society and NGOs can fill in the gaps and reach out to the unreached and meet unmet needs where gaps exist.
The complexity of humanitarian intervention lies in the painful fact that while humanitarian response addressed the immediate live saving needs of the affected community in Uttarakhand and elsewhere, decisions also had to be taken to understand the dynamics of the community. For example we, had to ensure that relief did not fuel a conflict among beneficiaries and non beneficiaries and create divisions between people. And also ensure that the interventions do not foster dependency among the population, but that our emergency programme would serve long term objectives and enhance the coping capacity of the communities.
And in the midst of all the chaos and shoving and pushing, one of the first questions asked in regard to humanitarian aid is its effectiveness and how it connects itself to long term development needs of a state such as Uttarakhand. Many view humanitarian assistance from the narrow prism of providing relief in any form and shape. Nothing can be further from the truth. There is a multitude of interpretations and misinformation as well as private and public debate over the effectiveness and value of humanitarian action. Despite the debates and arguments, one has to recognise the instinct and impulse to help remains a strong and unyielding natural impulse. In addition, the idea of humanitarian intervention is underpinned by the principle of humanitarian imperative, stipulating that human suffering and life threatening circumstances have the right to protection and assistance. The humanitarian system be it the government or non government as a consequence has the obligation to deliver quality protection and assistance where required.
Now let’s fast forward to June 2014 and understand try to understand the many attempts to link relief to development. The quandary lies in the basic fact that humanitarian intervention is part of the continuum of development work. And that while humanitarian action works on acute situations and urgent requirements of water, food, shelter, protection, long term development actions and agendas ask questions on the very cause of the crisis, its social, political, economic impact factors, that might have contributed to the disaster. And understanding these two dimensions of the work on the same event might help bring some clarity that the role of humanitarian intervention is as critical as any other intervention.
Again, the metaphor of ‘sustainable development’ is usually used in context to Uttarakhand, “We need sustainable development Uttarakhand”? What does it mean? What I began to understand is that it means different things to different people. For agriculturists it meant food security, for environmentalists it means – good stewardship of natural resources and bio-diversity, for economists it meant efficiency and productivity, for sociologists it is about tradition, culture and social values, and for political leaders it is about generating hydro power, promotion of tourism, employment and governance. The importance of the concept is that everyone can say they are part of sustainable development and yet what they mean is all different.
In the ultimate equation, can we with some confidence say that - sustainable development means trying to develop with nature and not against it? If only we could remember this long enough to apply it and following through all the way.
Written by: Zubin Zaman, Deputy Director, Humanitarian and DRR operations, Oxfam India
Photo credit: Oxfam India
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