Last week I took part in AidEx 2013 hosted in Brussels, where the great and the good of the humanitarian and development world were displaying their shiny toys and gadgets - all intended ostensibly to provide life-saving relief to those stricken by 'disasters'. It was all a very surreal experience!
Of course, my first thought was that every single stall should have packed their wares into containers and shipped them off to the Philippines instead. But the conference went ahead anyway. Thankfully, the Philippine Ambassador spoke up during the opening panel, and provided a sobering reminder to all gathered what exactly the point of this song and dance was.
Resilience after floods and conflict
I spoke on one of the panels at the event - on whether the Sustainable Development Goals - which came out of the 2012 Rio Summit - were a relevant mechanism to engage with the resilience agenda. I spoke on the concept of resilience – the ability to withstand sudden shocks like conflict or floods.
Specifically, I asked and attempted to answer two questions – resilience for whom, and resilience to what? ActionAid’s approach to resilience through a human rights approach framed my intervention, and I reflected on the challenges for the UN process and negotiations moving forward…. You see, pretty un-controversial.
After the panels, I walked around and browsed the various displays. There were admittedly some great examples of innovation, such as communications equipment, water purification systems, medical supplies and technologies, and shelter/housing - but two things stuck with me.
Model example of a temporary hospital
First was the lengths to which the humanitarian lexicon was being appropriated to showcase the products on display - all for sale mind you, no freebies here. The makers of solar-powered lanterns used statements like “A light to empower women: safeguarding women and children from abuse, theft, and disease” to showcase their product.
I'm partial to a superlative every-once-in-a-while, but this type of advertising felt disingenuous. I admit I remain unconvinced that this lamp in itself is the cure-all solution/remedy to violence against women and children.
Second was the nagging feeling that conflict profiteers had encroached on this humanitarian space. Some of the displays would have been far more ‘at home’ at the London arms fair – DSEI. For instance, I spent a fair while trying to figure out what the sellers of the Police Armoured Personnel Carriers were doing at AidEx.
The role of the private sector in humanitarian work
In fairness, the sellers claimed that this particular APC “could be converted to an ambulance…” Ditto for the bullet-riddled bright-orange pick-up truck showcasing armour and armoured glass for humanitarian vehicles! Whereas traditional humanitarian actors would have routinely avoided these products, is the assumption that modern-day humanitarians are not so rigid?
A police armoured vehicle at AidEx
If I had to sum up my impressions of AidEx 2013, I would have to borrow the title of a hit song from the early 1990s: “Things That Make You Go Hmmm..."
On one hand, there were many great examples of innovation that sought to meet the daily needs of people living in un-imaginable settings of devastation and loss. These need to be showcased, and celebrated – as AidEx appears to be doing.
There were also a number of clear tensions in the way in which the humanitarian enterprise is moving. The growing formal engagement of the private sector introduces a whole set of assumptions and values that have not yet been reconciled with the humanitarian imperative to provide life-saving relief.
Like I said before – Things That Make You Go Hmmm…
Photo: @Deepayan Basu Ray/ActionAid