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The tragic disappearing of humanitarian neutrality

UPDATES (latest 3/13 2:42 pm New York) — please read to bottom of post

From today’s NYT:

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Six Pakistani employees of the American Christian charity World Vision were killed Wednesday and seven others were wounded in an attack on the aid group’s offices in a remote village in northern Pakistan.

The Seattle Times on the same story:

When suspected extremists armed with assault rifles and a homemade bomb burst into a World Vision office in northwestern Pakistan this week, killing six employees of the Federal Way-based relief organization, it was the latest example of the escalating violence that aid groups increasingly face.

In the past 10 years, attacks have risen, with some 122 humanitarian workers killed around the globe in 2008 alone, according to InterAction, the largest coalition of U.S.-based international nongovernmental organizations.

UPDATES: World Vision on its web site conveys the grief and horror:

No threatening letters were received prior to the attack. World Vision’s relief and development work in Pakistan is conducted by local citizens, and local leaders have strongly condemned the attack. World Vision sees the attack not only as an attack on its own local staff, but on the Pakistani people themselves.

World Vision remembers those staff who have died as dedicated people seeking to improve the lives of people affected by poverty and disasters.

Since 1992, World Vision has primarily focused on relief interventions in Pakistan…. After the devastating October 2005 earthquake, World Vision expanded its operations in Pakistan.

And lastly, the Jim Wallis evangelical blog:

When was the last time you felt gripped by crushing fear? Like the kind that might take over as you listen to friends and co-workers being killed? This is what members of World Vision’s staff faced Wednesday in Mansehra, Pakistan, as their office was attacked.

Six people working to address the poverty and need of their own country. Six pairs of ears ringing from gunfire, six bodies torn apart by bullets, six families and neighborhoods left to grieve the loss of people they love. When it comes to death and violence, six is not a small number. Nor is one.

….So, what if the cost of less war, of progress and peace, is self-sacrificing courage? Today, humanitarian workers all over the world will choose this as they head to work. Is it a price more of us are willing to pay?

UPDATE 2 (3/13 2:42PM New York)

Change.Org Global Health today has a new thoughtful post on dangers to humanitarian workers. The timing makes it seem motivated by the World Vision attack, yet oddly enough it never mentions the World Vision attack.

When you decide to dedicate your life to humanitarian work in the field, remember this: Not everyone wants you to succeed. As an affiliate of the United Nations or a non-governmental organization, many people won’t think of your work as simply providing security, distributing food or teaching children. Though most of the communities served are extraordinarily grateful for the humanitarian assistance they receive, there are plenty of individuals and groups who are not. Accordingly, humanitarians face the fear of kidnappings, hijackings and attacks every day.

Take the peacekeepers who were abducted by gunmen in Darfur just a few days ago.

It’s often a mistake to read too much into a non-mention, but I’m wondering if Change.Org NOT mentioning World Vision reflects some of the controversy in the comments to this post whether World Vision is really neutral.

(@transitionland just suggested that the post might have been written before the World Vision attack because of delays in approving Change.Org blog posts)

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  1. Justin Kraus wrote:

    Did “humanitarian neutrality” ever exist? Cold War era Aid was anything but neutral. If anything, with (as this article shows) the exception of Iraq and AfPak, I would tentatively argue that humanitarian neutrality is probably a lot higher today than it has ever been, although that is not saying much.

    Posted March 11, 2010 at 10:38 am | Permalink
  2. Nathan wrote:

    World Vision is hardly neutral, at least by the standards that currently exist in Pakistan.

    They are an dedicated Christian organization, a fact which doesn’t escape the fundamentalists in Pakistan.

    The fact that they are Christian does not excuse the violence inflicted upon them, but to call them “neutral” is ignorant and naive.

    There are no “neutrals” here.

    Posted March 11, 2010 at 4:17 pm | Permalink
  3. HH wrote:
    Posted March 11, 2010 at 5:13 pm | Permalink
  4. Tania wrote:

    World Vision is an easy target and doesn’t get much sympathy bc it’s very much not in vogue to be evangelising in 2010.

    However, it should be a huge wake-up call – today it’s WV, tomorrow it could be any organisation promoting values that fundamentalists don’t like (gender equality, girls education, equity, freedom of religion, human rights, child/women’s rights). Of course this is already happening in places like Afghanistan but it is pretty horrifying to think of it spreading. I don’t think those of us promoting secular values will eventually be seen as much different from those promoting Christian/religious ones. Ultimately we are still saying “we think we have a better way”.

    I wonder if this type of trend continues and escalates if Western aid will be forced to return to more basic-needs type aid that is less offensive….

    I hope I’m just being a bit alarmist.

    Posted March 11, 2010 at 5:48 pm | Permalink
  5. Agnostic wrote:

    The attack was a criminal, horrible, despicable act of violence for which there is never any justification or excuse. But in order to understand why it happened it is helpful to know that World Vision is seen in Pakistan and elsewhere as an evangelical organization as much as a humanitarian one. As others have said, that is not a neutral position. (Also worth knowing that when former WV CEO Andrew Natsios was USAID Administrator, they won a pretty big contract to implement a democracy promotion program in Pakistan that had so many problems that USAID took the exceptional step of canceling the contract once Natsios left a year later.) Their evangelical character is made clear by the qualifications for employment with WV’s parent organization:

    All applicants for staff positions with World Vision United States will be screened for Christian commitment. The screening process will include:

    * Discussion with the applicant of his/her spiritual journey and relationship with Jesus Christ;
    * Understanding of Christian principles;
    * Understanding and acceptance of World Vision’s Statement of Faith and/or The Apostles Creed.

    Pursuant to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Section 702 (42 U.S.C. 2000e 1(a) World Vision U.S. has the right to, and does, hire only candidates who agree with World Vision’s Statement of Faith and/or the Apostles’ Creed.

    World Vision staff share our faith, hope, and Christian values through Christ-like living and caring actions. To this end, the organization as a whole is committed to uphold the Statement of Faith as stated in the Articles of Incorporation.

    Statement of Faith

    * We believe the Bible to be the inspired, the only infallible, authoritative Word of God.
    * We believe that there is one God, eternally existent in three persons: Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit.
    * We believe in the deity of our Lord Jesus Christ, in His virgin birth, in His sinless life, in His miracles, in His vicarious and atoning death through His shed blood, in His bodily resurrection, in His ascension to the right hand of the Father, and in His personal return in power and glory.
    * We believe that for the salvation of lost and sinful man, regeneration of the Holy Spirit is absolutely essential.
    * We believe in the present ministry of the Holy Spirit by whose indwelling the Christian is enabled to live a godly life.
    * We believe in the resurrection of both the saved and the lost; they that are saved unto the resurrection of life and they that are lost unto the resurrection of damnation.
    * We believe in the spiritual unity of believers in our Lord Jesus Christ.

    Posted March 12, 2010 at 3:44 am | Permalink
  6. WP wrote:

    Perceptions are certainly important here.

    Some of the writers here conflate things in a very unhelpful way, such as Christian faith and evangelism. Nothing presented about World Vision US demonstrates that they are evangelical. The writers seem to assume that being Christian means the organization necessarily is using aid to evangelize. That simply isn’t so.

    The media also unhelpfully labels World Vision as an American organization, also untrue. It’s a multinational federation of organizations around the world.

    I can demonstrate that such accusations are false; but that’s not the solution. The solution is to prevent such misperceptions from occurring, which is clearly the challenge for World Vision. World Vision clearly has a problem with how people perceive it (American evangelicals; instead of international, Christian motivated, humanitarians). They have to make sure that they do ensure that bad examples are prevented (with 90+ countries and 40,000 employees there is bound to be examples of bad behaviour); they have to work hard to explain in countries they operate in that they aren’t there to convert people; they particularly have to do a better job of trying to prevent American dominated media from portraying them as American rather than international, but perhaps the hardest problem they face, as Kristoff pointed out last week, is with rabidly anti-religious voices of what he termed ‘Western liberals’ who simply can’t seem to accept or allow people of faith to organize themselves to do good and seem to want an atheist monopoly on helping people.

    Posted March 12, 2010 at 7:12 am | Permalink
  7. Looboy wrote:

    It might also be helpful to keep in mind that all of the victims of the attack in Pakistan were Muslims, not Christians. Much to the suprise of many people, World Vision will hire those of other faiths when it makes sense to do so.

    Posted March 12, 2010 at 1:14 pm | Permalink
  8. Matt Richmond wrote:

    Yeah, it makes a lot of sense to require all employees in the US to be Christian if you have no focus on evangelical works. Agnostics, atheists, jews, muslims, wiccans, etc. are just bad at helping people. Just like “mission trips” have nothing to do with preying on those people most susceptible to their teachings, the poorest of the poor, those faced with the most tragic of situations. I love listening to Christians going to Africa with their church who like to pretend like people just “come to God” merely through the act of them bringing them food. Christian food, apparently, is just better for you than food provided by secular organizations… they couldn’t HELP but find God after tasting that Jesus Bread!

    No christian organization is neutral when they’re operating in a society where they are the minority, otherwise they would be a secular organization. Why label yourself as Christian if you have no alternate ambitions?

    I got into a huge argument with someone once who was in a christian sorority handing out free cookies to passersby. They put up a sign saying, “Random Acts of Kindness.” I thought it was a nice idea, then I found out they were handing out the cookies with bible verses on them. Still a nice idea, no longer a random act of kindness. For whatever reason, the members of the organization vehemently refused to acknowledge that fact. I find this hard headedness pervasive throughout all religious organizations offering charity, from simple soup kitchens all the way up to the largest charity organizations. It’s ok to hand out soup at your church while saying a prayer, but don’t pretend like you’re just handing out soup.

    The ultimate goal of WV may not be to convert, but it IS one of their goals, there is absolutely no denying that. They are not neutral, not even close, not in a country as grounded in religion as Pakistan is.

    Of course, like everyone else here has said, that doesn’t excuse the horrible acts that took place. But to label them as neutral is inaccurate.

    Posted March 12, 2010 at 3:08 pm | Permalink
  9. Joseph wrote:

    I agree with Looboy here. I’m not completely certain of WV’s Pakistan’s hiring practices, but I believe that only a few of its country offices (such as WV USA) require applicants to be Christian. It’s perfectly reasonable that WV Pakistan hired a number of Muslims. What I DO know that they prohibit all their workers from proselytizing, Christian or not.

    Furthermore, an ODI report found that the faith background of an NGO doesn’t necessarily raise its risk of an attack. Unfortunately, militants are targeting non-Christian NGO’s in Pakistan too:

    Posted March 12, 2010 at 3:34 pm | Permalink
  10. IW wrote:

    Should we not, the Western atheists, agnostics, progressive Christians, or secular Muslims, etc., not display a bit of humility in our condemnation of faith-inspired aid?

    The atheist or the agnostic among us would do well to remember that he/she is in the extreme minority globally. Most people worldwide see a faith commitment as a central part of their identity and lives. To, then, claim – as some seem to – that faith is not a valid rhetoric of compassion or, even, a valid means of finding connections and sharing lives, is to display a remarkable arrogance and narrow sightedness. Are we, the secular West, in honesty, prepared to say that we, among all others on this planet and throughout history, have found the one truth and that all other interpretations or presentations of reality should be looked upon with scorn? That we are, in effect, the enlightened elite and that the rest of the world is just too poor and backwards to understand? I hope not…

    Such being the case, I would ask that we be prepared to recognize that faith-based/-inspired groups and individuals have valid and valuable roles to play. Missionaries – for all the flak they have (often deservedly) received for their colonialist agendas and dubious evangelistic techniques – have been, throughout history, some of the most effective and self-sacrificing “aid workers”.

    While I do not in any way advocate returning to those days of traditionally-conceived ‘missionaries’, it would do us well to recognize that people of faith do effective and impacting work, not only in spite of their faith commitment but also because of it.

    For one, they are often better able to understand the vocabulary and motivations of the people they serve and partner with – who likewise take their primary identity from faith. They are often willing to stay longer, under harsher conditions, and develop the linguistic and cultural knowledge which will often, in the long run, make them more effective in their assistance.

    In no case should aid be tied to the acceptance of a particular religious creed, but let’s be honest about what is really going on in the world, get to know those who are different from us, and restrain ourselves from painting them in caricatures which bear if anything pale semblance to reality.

    I likewise recommend Kristof’s column of 27 February as a relatively balanced attempt at pointing out the good being done by many on the entire spectrum of secular to evangelical organizations.

    Posted March 13, 2010 at 8:17 am | Permalink

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