Humanitarian Crises: The Dilemma Behind Cross-Border Interventions

Featured image: Ghanaian UN Peacekeeper in Liberia (Photo: UN)

By Sasha Thomas

“Yemen…is plagued by widespread violence, poverty, malnutrition and cholera, amounting to one of the world’s most severe humanitarian crises.”

That’s how the International Rescue Committee starts off its blurb about the Middle-Eastern nation, before professing its lifesaving assistance and emergency aid. This is only one of the crises on their list of “Top 10 Crises the World should be Watching,” which is itself only one of the lists aggregated by humanitarian organizations around the world. Each of these lists describes various conflicts, from Venezuelan refugees escaping to Colombia to over 1.4 million internally displaced people in Ethiopia. In other words, there is a consensus that our world is not lacking in humanitarian crises. There is not a consensus, however, on how the international humanitarian community should respond to such crises.

The dilemma of humanitarian aid and intervention has been long debated by scholars and practitioners alike. Crossing borders to intervene in political situations and conflicts is a consequential act. From past experiences in countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Nicaragua and Libya, Western intervention undoubtedly has underlying political motives that can exacerbate conflicts. With this in mind, NGOs and other humanitarian organizations are often seen as a better solution. They typically claim neutrality in their attempts to provide civilians with protection from genocides, wars, and other disasters. This allows them to seemingly cross boundaries without bringing overt state motivations. However, this neutrality does not answer the question of how to address and resolve a humanitarian crisis. In an article for Foreign Policy, Jason Cone, the Executive Director for Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders in the U.S., neatly sums up the moral quagmire in a few words: “This is the humanitarian’s dilemma: How to alleviate the suffering of a population while not enabling the powers at the root of the pain.”


MSF Health Worker Examining Child for Malnutrition in Ethiopia (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

There has already been progress towards this alleviation of suffering. NGOs around the world provide medical care, food and supplies, and short-term infrastructure. The UN sends peacekeeping forces to protect civilians, observe events, and broker peace. And from those interventions, we hear powerful stories. Cone describes a moment with a psychologist working for MSF where he was able to counsel a mother to “talk about her fears without breaking down.” NGOs also provide aid when states refuse or cannot support citizens. In one scenario, human rights journalist Peter Gourevitch narrates a tale in The New Yorker about how only NGO responses provided medical supplies and food during the siege in Biafra in 1968. Without government help, humanitarian groups organized an airlift over several nights because Biafra was otherwise inaccessible and under constant fire from Nigerian forces. Yet, centering back on our dilemma, David Rieff, another journalist specializing on humanitarian issues, wrote in the New York Times Magazine that “in the end these interventions have to be about regime change if they are to have any chance of accomplishing their stated goal.” He asks the question that plays in everyone’s minds: “How can the people of Darfur ever be safe as long as the same regime that sanctioned their slaughter rules unrepentant in Khartoum?” Does the work of humanitarian forces become futile without structural change?

Dr. Unni Karunakara, the former International President of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) or Doctors Without Borders, also attempted to break down this dilemma. He started by telling the The Yale Globalist that the “delivery of humanitarian assistance is a balancing act between being principled and being pragmatic.” He said that first and foremost, aid is about the people in need. “The very first principle is that of humanity, the core belief that all people have the right to live a life of respect and dignity,” Karunakara emphasized, and continued on to say that it is difficult to make subjective decisions when delivering aid, as the very act of Doctors Without Borders deciding to provide assistance in a particular location is in itself a political act. At any point, stepping over borders and partaking in actions with or against a state is inherently political. The difficult part, as we have seen, is to decide whether to “call states out on practices that lead to structural inequality or structural injustice” or to use neutrality to “gain access to these populations living in remote parts of the world, where [states] might provide you with the security you might need to provide assistance,” says Karunakara. This perspective brings a new light to the dilemma, illuminating that even before thinking of regime change or government modifications, NGOs and humanitarian organizations need access to people in need.

Karunakara agrees that organizations such as Doctors Without Borders are expressions of civil society, a form of solidarity between people going through periods of crisis. Their main purpose, or loyalty, is to the people and not the governments. Yet, he emphasizes that it “does not mean that you can roll into a country and ignore government.” According to Louisa Lombard, a Yale professor of sociocultural anthropology, while “interventions take a lot of authority and sovereignty away from these host countries, on the other hand, they are totally beholden to those host countries’ good will in allowing them to even stay there.” Lombard gave The Yale Globalist an example, mentioning that in Darfur, the government did not want peacekeeping missions to come in to the city. It kept denying visas and prohibiting peacekeepers from taking action and gathering information. Karunakara supported this point, offering the example of Syria, where the government led by Bashar al-Assad had been very clear that Doctors Without Borders was not welcome. In these cases, NGOs and UN peacekeeping forces had no choice but to abide by governmental decisions in order to even enter the country and provide aid. As their primary purposes were to focus on the afflicted citizens, they had to do whatever possible to reach them.

In an interview with The Yale Globalist, Mr. B. Elias Shoniyin, the former Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs in Liberia, offered another perspective on the importance of working with government. “I would think that in recent times, in recent history, Liberia saw the largest deployment of NGOs in a conflict…than in any other country in Africa.” Shoniyin is talking about the series of civil conflicts that took place in Liberia. The first was centered around a coup d’état of a Liberian president led by sergeant Samuel Doe that represented tensions between ethnic African groups and African-American immigrants. The second war was another shift in government from Samuel Doe to Charles Taylor. Both conflicts saw much international intervention, both by multinational organizations such as Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and by NGOs and humanitarian groups. He said, “There was so much money announced internationally to Liberia, but on the ground, Liberians were complaining they were not feeling the impact of those resources.” This prompts the question of whether the presence of NGOs or multinational organizations are actually automatic resources of help and benefits to citizens. Shoniyin described the hundreds of millions of dollars poured into Liberia to intervene in particular sectors, yet concrete improvements were not apparent. In this situation, he suggested that engaging with NGOs and advocating for his people’s needs was what actually made NGO support effective. Shoniyin understands that in fragile states, “there are a lot of questions around accountability and transparency, so many [donors] don’t want to give money directly to the government.” Thus, they channel money through NGOs and humanitarian groups. But ideally, especially when building states up from conflicts, government should have a say. They can have an understanding of how their people live and what they need. Karunakara agrees, adding that while NGOs have to mark independence by forming their own assessments and analysis, a response to the crisis “doesn’t happen in isolation…this can be collective effort.”

Distribution of Water to Children in Sana’a, Yemen (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

It still brings us back to the dilemma: how do we advocate for state or regime change if the government itself is the one inflicting abuses on a certain population? What do we do about institutional transformations? Lombard negates the UN as the sole leader, saying that because “it is a diplomatic organization,” it is constrained and “bound to the power dynamics that exist.” Countries such as the United States and China that provide more money to support UN causes have a larger say in UN decisions, which might make regime changes a political playground for superpowers. Karunakara also says that “it’s not the job of humanitarian organizations to bring about change, their job is to help people survive.” He instead suggests that institutional change falls more on the development side, but states that development cannot be imposed from outside state borders. Karunakara argues that the citizens themselves have to engage with their government and their leaders to develop a society based on their personal visions. In his opinion, “the political vision of how society should be constructed…is a very local conversation, not something you can fly in from Washington or Brussels.” He goes on to cite the examples of Iraq and Libya where we’ve seen negative, unintended consequences because they were attacked or invaded in the name of freedom and democracy. Placing the power of regime change on the hands of outside, often Western countries and organizations, can lead to saviorism and ulterior motives of global governance, even bringing to mind historical issues of colonialism. In other words, advocating for regime change requires prolonged knowledge and lived experience in societies. It is not reasonable to simply rush into a country and advocate for political upheaval from the get-go. Lombard suggests that using more local organizations and people such as peacekeeping troops from neighboring states may help with politics because they care about their communities. Shoniyin adds that in the scenario of Liberia’s crisis, it was in ECOWAS’ own interests to insure peace in the region so that other states such as Sierra Leone and Guinea were not heavily affected. He echoes Lombard and Karunakara’s statements by agreeing that it is better to use local resources, “[Regional organizations] have similar characteristics, they’ve probably got similar politics, in many ways. And it gives some form of legitimacy. They have a stake to ensure peace within the region.”

Crossing borders for international interventions can help to a certain point, but regime change and development of better societies, according to the three experts, needs to take place according to the agency of populations within a state. Karunakara ends the conversation by asserting that what humanitarians can do, if anything, is work with affected citizens to restore their capacity for choices.

Sasha Thomas is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College. She can be contacted at