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States of fragility: Stabilisation and its implications for humanitarian action

Time (GMT +01) 12:00 14:00


Samir Elhawary - Research Fellow, Humanitarian Policy Group, ODI

Dr Robert Muggah - Research Director, Small Arms Survey

Professor Ken Menkhaus - Professor of Political Science, Davidson College

Dr Jonathan Goodhand - Reader in Conflict and Development Studies, School of Oriental and African Studies


Vickie Hawkins - Head of Programmes - Medecins sans Frontieres-UK


Dr Sarah Collinson - Research Fellow, Humanitarian Policy Group, ODI

The event marked the launch of a complementary theme issue of the journal Disasters, which focuses on stabilisation and its implications for humanitarian action.

Sarah Collinson set the scene by highlighting that stabilisation is rooted in the idea that in today’s inter-connected world conflict, underdevelopment and instability represent threats to international peace and security. In this respect, stabilisation is a short term and narrow agenda concerned with mitigating threats such as terrorism, illegal drug flows and organised crime. Yet to succeed it has become conventional wisdom that there is also a need to transform these societies by strengthening governance and the delivery of basic services. Stabilisation is therefore a short and long term endeavour that sees humanitarian assistance, alongside early recovery, peace-building, development and state-building as a means to improve security.

In order to ensure complementarity and bring together traditionally distinct policy spheres, stabilisation promotes an ‘integrated’ or ‘comprehensive’ approach. This is problematic from a humanitarian perspective, as it co-opts their efforts towards the broader interests of stabilisation, ­­with negative implications for humanitarian access, aid worker security and adherence to core principles of humanitarian action. Yet, in practice, many humanitarian organisations are not strictly ‘humanitarian’ and have expanded into other spheres of action that overlap with stabilisation such as development and peace-building. So why then are there so many tensions between stabilisation and humanitarian action?

The research findings suggested that one response is the failure of stabilisation to deliver what it has promised, with stabilisation efforts actually generating greater conflict and insecurity in places such as Somalia and Afghanistan. Another is the fact that whilst humanitarian agencies have expanded into other spheres of action, the discourse continues to espouse adherence to principles of humanitarian action. There is no coherent paradigm that merges humanitarian action with wider transformative agendas that could help navigate these tensions. Whilst much attention has focused on the proximity of humanitarian agencies to military actors, the bigger challenge is how humanitarians engage with politics.

Ken Menkhaus presented the key findings from the Somalia case study and highlighted the difficulties in reconciling the tensions between humanitarians and political and security actors. This is because they all have compelling narratives: humanitarians emphasise the importance of saving lives and safeguarding access through adherence to principles, state builders have an equally powerful argument in that they are addressing the underlying causes of conflict and security actors point to the imperative of neutralising armed groups connected to al-Qaeda. The call for greater integration, both within the UN and amongst international governments, raises questions as to whose objectives will be prioritised and whose will be subsumed.

Whilst state-builders and security actors have invested significant efforts in supporting the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), it has failed to achieve territorial control and is weakened by a lack of political will and corruption. Furthermore, since 2007, most of the country has come under the control of al Shabaab. For humanitarian actors these developments are of concern as they have little choice but to work through al Shabaab, yet face pressure to work through the TFG to shore up its capacity and legitimacy and are potentially faced with legal action as al Shabaab is a proscribed organisation. This has meant that humanitarian actors are always perceived as taking sides.

International actors have failed to acknowledge the unavoidable trade-offs and confront the question of prioritisation. This issue raises the question of how confident the international community is in the success of any one set of priorities. In terms of state-building and counter-terrorism, strengthening the capacity of the TFG is unlikely to succeed as it is a government that is both unable and unwilling, which is problematic from an ethical point of view, as it makes humanitarian action dependent on a failing agenda and means that none of the three objectives are likely to be achieved.

Ken concluded by discussing the legal implications of engaging with al-Shabaab and claimed that if the political will exists, the question should not be whether humanitarian funds had been diverted but whether those funds are decisive in their struggle with the TFG. If this is not the case, then it is difficult to argue for the suspension of humanitarian assistance. 

Jonathan Goodhand started his presentation by noting that Sri Lanka presented quite a different picture as the government is not ‘fragile’, nor is there any international military presence. Instead, it is an example that demonstrates the importance of domestic political interests, of a government imposing its own version of stabilisation, demanding that international actors, including humanitarians, integrate themselves into this approach.

In 2004 a new Parliament and President were elected and adopted a radically different approach to Norwegian sponsored peace process. Premised on the centralisation of power and the military defeat of the LTTE in East, they pursued a “victor’s peace” which drew upon the post 9-11 Global War against Terror discourse. Support from India, China, Pakistan and Iran weakened the leverage of Western donor governments to influence these stabilisation efforts.

The subsequent military offensive, framed by the government as a humanitarian war, resulted in the defeat of the LTTE. The counter-insurgency strategy was premised on strong military presence to the East of the country, with paramilitary factions carrying out policing functions and clearing the area of any remnants of the LTTE. Elections were held to consolidate its legitimacy and a major reconstruction package was announced, framed as a peace dividend. Donor governments were invited to a pledging conference, with the government signalling that it required support towards recovery and reconstruction rather than humanitarian relief or peace-building/reconciliation projects.

Jonathan concluded by commenting that Sri Lanka’s stabilisation model in the East has been more effective than those pursued in other contexts such as Afghanistan. An important lesson for international actors is that they need to be more attuned to domestic politics and understand how legitimacy is constructed in these contexts.

Samir Elhawary discussed what stabilisation means in Colombia and pulled out lessons that can be learned. He focused on three periods of stabilisation:

The first is the Alliance for Progress (AFP), an aid package launched by US President Kennedy in 1961, in response to the threat of communist revolution in Latin America. The rationale was that development aid, accompanied by modest reforms, could be used to promote stability and avoid support for more radical change.

Yet, the Colombian President at the time was unable to carry out those modest reforms due to opposition from powerful political constituencies. At the time, there was a fragile political settlement between the two main opposing parties and reform would have required building a broad based coalition. Despite these failures, the US continued to support Colombia through the AFP although dropping the reform agenda and focusing on short term stability through macro-economic management. Whilst, there was no communist revolution in Colombia, this period did see the rise of left wing armed groups that challenged the state. These failures highlight the difficulties of pursuing stability without an inclusive political settlement.

The second period of stabilisation covers Plan Colombia and former President Uribe’s ‘democratic security’ policy. This period was marked by a change in conflict analysis in which the guerrillas are no longer deemed to have political objectives and therefore tackling the drug trade would resolve the conflict. This is a simplistic and ahistorical analysis of the drivers of rebellion in Colombia and as a result stabilisation had its limitations, particularly in addressing some of the drivers of conflict such as agrarian reform and the lack of state institutions in rural peripheries. It did reduce the levels of violence although Samir highlighted the importance of distinguishing between improved security and protection. Stabilisation in this period, despite using a discourse of protection, prioritised the former over the latter. A lenient approach was taken towards demobilised paramilitaries since they were never a threat to the state and the conflict was branded as a ‘war on terror’ so as to limit government criticism, deny the application of International Humanitarian Law and reduce the space for traditional protection and humanitarian activities. Furthermore, Uribe sought to demonise and link those involved in defending human rights with the FARC. This was particularly dangerous given that one of the largest protection threats is association with a party to the conflict.

The third period of stabilisation, building on thinking in Afghanistan, seeks to better integrate military and civilian interventions. Yet, difficulties have arisen due to tensions between different policy spheres. For example, focusing on countering narcotics has hindered people’s livelihoods and economic opportunities and their focus on promoting investment in cleared areas has hindered the displaced’s ability to recover their land. In conclusion, Samir highlighted the overall disconnect between the discourse and practice on protection but that advocating the importance of protection for achieving lasting stability could be a means to affect change.

Vicki Hawkins noted the large variety of challenges raised in the presentations for humanitarian actors, although these differ according to where humanitarian agencies sit on the scale between humanitarian and development activities. Furthermore, in a globalised and inter-connected world, decision in one context can affect another. For example, agencies should work with the US military in Haiti and think they can maintain their neutrality if they do not do so in Afghanistan. They need to ensure they understand the potential repercussions; what might be an effective approach locally might not be good for an organisation’s global reputation.

Vickie also highlighted the trend of using the discourse of terrorism and labelling armed groups terrorist organisations. This has a tendency of rendering International Humanitarian Law void, it criminalises contact and dialogue with these groups, even for humanitarian purposes, which is essential for establishing agreement on humanitarian needs and access.

Trends in stabilisation have also affected the ability for humanitarians to speak out.  MSF for instance was traditionally outspoken in the 1990s but is more cautious due to the risk of its messages being manipulated or propagated by either side in a conflict. MSF’s web sites are scanned by both state actors and non-state armed groups, and there have been instances where it has been asked to sign communication clauses with donor governments that are keen to use the work of humanitarian agencies as a positive counterforce to bad news emerging in the media. 

The most significant challenge is that stabilisation incorporates development in its way of working but this is ultimately driven by national security interests rather than development. In Afghanistan, hospitals had been built as part of a ‘hearts and minds’ strategy but it was empty due to the presence of people in military uniforms, including internationals. People feared seeking medical help due to the risk of retribution.

Vicki concluded by emphasising the need to think beyond the implications of stabilisation for humanitarian actors and focus on affected people and communities.


Conflicting objectives

The importance of understanding trade-offs between conflicting objectives and agendas was emphasised along with humanitarians’ ability to react and respond to these shifting priorities. In Afghanistan, humanitarians were slow in protesting the fact that the failed military strategy was reconceptualised as one of protecting civilians. This may be due to financial and institutional disincentives to react. More concerted efforts to defend principles are needed.

In Somalia three different legal discourses are often used. State builders invoke the rule of law and sovereignty, security actors refer to the Patriot Act or other counter-terrorism legislation and humanitarians highlight international humanitarian law. The problem is that the only legal framework that is enforceable is the Patriot act. And without addressing this issue there will be little progress in de-conflicting objectives.


The issue of unified action was raised in relation to Somalia and whether it would enhance the success of stabilisation efforts. It was noted that unified action in Somalia had been the subject of a long-running debate since the early 1990s. However, UN agencies each had their own agenda as did different military and humanitarian actors and this was the biggest impediment to coordination. In practice, most stabilisation efforts are characterised by an alternative 3Cs, complexity, contradiction and competition. 

Humanitarian needs

The issue of political will for humanitarian action was highlighted and whether this is hindered by a “crying wolf” problem; that is, there are often claims that unless humanitarian aid is provided, millions of people might die, and whilst there are very high levels of humanitarian need in contexts such as Somalia and Afghanistan, people often don’t die as a result of restricted access for humanitarian actors. In turn, restricted access makes it harder for humanitarian actors to make the case for assistance, causing the “crying wolf” problem to build up. Whilst it was clear that humanitarian actors have at times exaggerated needs in order to gain funding, the opposite has also occurred, namely the normalisation of humanitarian crisis with very high thresholds of need become acceptable. In any other country, the levels of need like those seen in Somalia would be a very loud humanitarian emergency.

Multi-mandate organisations

It was argued that the majority of organisations wishing to operate under the label of humanitarianism had forfeited their right to do so by engaging in other activities. Not distinguishing between the two pollutes humanitarian space and they should therefore communicate clearly their broader mandate in a clear and transparent manner.

Role of local and national actors

The issue of whether working with local actors to ensure greater coherence in humanitarian responses was raised. This is a pertinent issue in Sri Lanka since most attention is often on the role of internationals but most aid was provided by the government, the diasporas and local organisations. However, in many stabilisation contexts, work with local actors is often through remote programming which creates distance between agencies and the context on the ground. Also, many local actors have their own political agendas with delivering humanitarian relief as a means of pursuing these.

Internal versus external stabilisation

The disconnect between internal and external stabilisation was emphasised, with external motives, interests and values seen as undermining nationally driven processes. These tensions are apparent in Somalia, with external actors often presuming local populations are passive despite the fact that they are usually active in local governance structures. This is sometimes invisible to state building actors, leading to the “government without governance” syndrome.

The complementary theme issue of the journal Disasters can be accessed at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/disa.2010.34.issue-s3/issuetoc


Launch of a supplementary theme issue of Disasters

The international policy context and circumstances of humanitarian action have seen some significant changes over the past decade. Relief and development agencies are operating in an increasingly diverse array of war-affected and difficult contexts, and there is growing donor and national government interest and engagement in ‘stabilising’ contexts affected by armed conflict and complex emergencies. These efforts typically involve integrating ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ forms of intervention – both military and civilian – implying an explicit securitisation and politicisation of North–South relations. 

This event launched ‘States of Fragility’, the supplementary Theme Issue of the journal Disasters, which considers the implications of stabilisation for international humanitarian action. The diversity, evolution and wide geographical and historical scope of these agendas is captured in case studies on Afghanistan, Colombia, Haiti, Pakistan, Somalia, Sri Lanka and Timor-Leste, with an additional contribution analysing the historical antecedents of stabilisation, and an overarching editorial that captures key trends in approaches to stabilisation and associated challenges for humanitarian action.  

The guest editors and some of the contributors to the supplementary Theme Issue presented the key findings of the articles, critically assessing the discourses, policies and practices associated with stabilisation. They considered whether stabilisation efforts that combine military, political, development and humanitarian responses have reduced ‘humanitarian space’ or, in certain circumstances, might have played a part in improving humanitarian outcomes.

Please click here to view the supplementary theme issue of Disasters