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The Politics Of Humanitarian Aid


So we want to talk more about that humanitarian aid that has become a focal point of tension at the Venezuelan border, as you just heard. We're going to turn now to Dr. Paul Spiegel. He is a physician. He is the director of the Center for Humanitarian Health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He's worked for numerous humanitarian organizations over his career. Most notably, he spent more than 14 years working in the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the UNHCR. He's given a lot of thought over his career to the ways in which humanitarian aid can become politicized and, in some cases, weaponized to send a message to those in power and to influence civilians. Dr. Spiegel was nice enough to come down from Baltimore to join us here in our studios in Washington, D.C.

Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

PAUL SPIEGEL: Thank you, Michel. It's a pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: As we just heard, food and medical aid at the border has become a symbol of the struggle between the Venezuelan president, Nicolas Maduro, and the opposition leader, Juan Guaido. So there's no question that Venezuelans need that aid. But trying to set that aside for a moment, as hard as that is to do, is the U.S. making a political statement by parking the aid on the Colombian border?

SPIEGEL: Yes, certainly. I mean, firstly, I wanted just to say that condolences to people who's been killed and injured in Venezuela. But the U.S. has - clearly linking their aid to a goal, which is to - a regime change. And in the humanitarian world, there are humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality and independence. And clearly - and impartiality. And clearly, the neutrality and independence of this aid is not there.

MARTIN: But the argument is that humanitarian aid groups are trying to solve a problem that could have been solved long before by the Maduro government that the Maduro government is - I mean, the argument basically is the Maduro government is the entity that politicized this aid by depriving its own citizens of supplies that they desperately need. And what would you say to that?

SPIEGEL: That there's no question that when there is a big humanitarian crisis and that Maduro and the government and their policies have for the most part caused this problem. But for - to provide humanitarian aid, it should be done in a neutral and independent way. And when the U.S. is linking or other governments are linking aid - and it's not just here in Venezuela - in Syria and Yemen.

And when this occurs, it has numerous short and long-term effects. One of them is, of course, the humanitarian workers themselves become instrumentalized and part of the - say, in this case, those that are working with the U.S. government to be taking a side. And it's very important, even though we all have our own political views, for humanitarians to be seen as neutral and independent.

MARTIN: There are obviously situations that are all, you know, different sort of all across the world. You know, but I think many people looking at it from this end think, how could it be otherwise? I mean, given that people need the aid, it's a very polarized, a very dangerous, very volatile situation. In order to get in there, these groups need to be aligned with somebody.


MARTIN: And what would you say to that?

SPIEGEL: That - I would say two things. Number one is that aid - there is a need for aid both within the country and also to the 3 million Venezuelans who are outside of the country. And I think it's wonderful that the U.S. and other countries are actually providing this aid. But trying to, again, depoliticize to not make it as part of a regime change is hugely important. We're already seeing now, according to Maduro, that now Russia is giving - I think it is something like 30 tons or 300 tons of aid coming in. So it's becoming not just a national emergency, not just a regional emergency but, like we've seen in Syria and Yemen, a global emergency.

MARTIN: So let's take a step back and talk about sort of the system more broadly. You wrote a paper for Lancet - The Lancet, a medical journal, after you left the U.N. And you called out the humanitarian system as not just broke but broken. And I'd like to ask, you know, what makes you say that this is a problem with the whole system and not just the side effect of some very complex humanitarian crises that have come up over the past decade?

SPIEGEL: Yeah. The humanitarian system was developed post-World War II, and it has a very Western, let's say, outlook towards it in terms of giving aid and then dependency. I must say, things are already changing since I've written that article in terms of looking at how humanitarians can get involved with development people and keep it sustainable. But there are a lot of issues still where much of the international aid is through the United Nations and through international organizations. It's not sufficiently going through national organizations. So it's a system that does create - that has problems with sustainability and creates dependence.

MARTIN: So could you just give us some sense - we have a couple of minutes left. Do you - you have time to tell us a bit more about this. What do you envision? Like, what would be, you know, better? I mean, by definition, the people are in these crises in part because they're in civil conflict, and so sort of asking everybody to just, you know, step aside and allow these neutral groups - you know, to keep it neutral, to offer aid too whoever needs it seems optimistic in many of these circumstances. So tell me what this would look like. And maybe you could spend a minute telling me what, if anything, humanitarian groups are doing now to restrategize given the circumstances that we all see?

SPIEGEL: Yeah. Well, there are a lot of different things that are already happening, and many of them are positive. Number one is to reaffirm the Geneva Conventions, which means that warring factions are responsible for taking care of civilians on the borders - on the conflict and on the frontlines.

And we've seen some cases where this is not occurring, such as in Mosul. And we're calling for a Mosul in Iraq, and we're calling for governments and particularly, let's say, the U.S. and the U.K. and others that are supporting other militaries to actually reinforce the Geneva Conventions and make sure that those people - the militaries are trained to take care of civilians that are wounded on the frontline.

Secondly, more and more now, we're moving towards cash-based interventions. So in the past, we were giving aid. We were giving tents, we were giving food, as you're seeing here. When feasible, we're giving cash to the recipients. That, number one, removes the need for having many, many aid organizations. It also helps the local economy because you're actually spending locally as opposed to bringing in from - ships from U.S. and other places.

MARTIN: So we only have about 30 - we only have 20 seconds. Is there any place in the world where this is working as you would hope that it would right now?

SPIEGEL: I'm pessimistic currently, and the reason is also because we're seeing the world changing right now globally. We're seeing an increase in populism. We're seeing the U.S. looking inwardly. And therefore, we're seeing discordance in the Security Council. And therefore, where - if the global powers were able to get together and agree on neutrality and independence, we would have a much stronger way forward.

MARTIN: That is Dr. Paul Spiegel, director of the Center for Humanitarian Health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He was kind of to join us here in Washington, D.C.

Doctor, thanks so much for talking to us.

SPIEGEL: It's a pleasure, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF IV THE POLYMATH'S "SETBACKS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.