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Diplomacy in Action

The Role of Humanitarians in Government: Perspectives on Advocacy and Impact

Eric P. Schwartz
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration
Brookings Institute
Washington, DC
November 4, 2009


Thank you, Elizabeth. I very much appreciate the opportunity to be here today and to offer some initial reflections on the role of humanitarians in government. And allow me to caveat what I am going to say by saying that obviously there is a much larger U.S. Government humanitarian effort going on than what I – or the Bureau I head – provide. Let there be no doubt: USAID is an important and fundamental partner – and I extremely value their coordination with us and complementarity of effort. But I thought it important to provide, more specifically, my thoughts on my Bureau’s and the Department’s role.

Whatever their rhetoric, national security policy-makers have often viewed humanitarian response as marginal to the international community’s involvement in issues of war and peace. However, the reality is that humanitarian situations have long affected political and security issues. In Pakistan, for example, after conflict in the Swat Valley fueled large scale civilian flight, assistance and support for voluntary return Date: 11/03/2009 Description: Assistant Secreary Schwartz. © State Dept Imagequickly became a political imperative for the government of Pakistan, the United States, and the international donor community. So how do humanitarians operate effectively in complex policy environments? How do humanitarians ensure basic principles, such as protection of civilians, access to populations in need, the security of humanitarian workers, and the effectiveness and impartiality of aid?

I start from the proposition that protection of the most vulnerable must be at the center of policy-making. As I said when I was sworn in many weeks ago, and as I suspect I’ll repeat in many presentations during my tenure, there are several reasons why this should be a guiding principle of policy. First, there is moral imperative – and the simple policy goal of saving lives: the people of the United States, Members of Congress, and successive Administrations have demonstrated unequivocal support for generous efforts to alleviate human suffering. We have a profound responsibility to make good use of the resources they have provided.

Second, the U.S. Government has the strongest interest in sustaining U.S. leadership, the policy benefits of which include enabling us to determine or drive the development of international humanitarian law, programs, and policy like no other government in the world, and to leverage critical support from others.

Third, it is crucial that we build sustainable partnerships with key friends and allies and their populations, as well as the populations of our adversaries, where – although it should never be the only reason why we provide humanitarian assistance – the generous provision of humanitarian aid can break down negative stereotypes and images of the United States and communicate U.S. support for responsible overseas engagement.

And finally, we have the key goal of promoting reconciliation, security, and well-being in circumstances where despair and misery not only threaten stability, but also critical national security interests of the United States.

So if those are our goals, how do humanitarians go about pursuing them effectively – how do we promote and sustain a deep concern about victims of conflict, and put them at the center of policy-making? What strategies make the most sense, and what tactics should we be seeking to implement in pursuing them effectively?

First, let me state the obvious. If you want humanitarian perspectives to influence foreign policy-making, make very sure that the Cabinet officials responsible for foreign policy are receiving ongoing, frank, and up to date information about the humanitarian dimensions of man-made crises. And, similarly, make sure that, at the working level, humanitarian considerations are being embedded into the work of the State Department’s regional bureaus – from Africa to East and South Asia, to the Middle East, to the Americas. My Bureau, Population, Refugees, and Migration, is well-positioned to serve these objectives, as we serve as the principal humanitarian advisors in the State Department, and we owe it to the Secretary and to our mandate to aspire to a broad role in policy formulation and policy implementation on issues involving complex emergencies.

If the Administration succeeds in this effort, we will increase the likelihood that policy-makers will recognize potential humanitarian crises early on, and take preventative measures that may alleviate suffering – not to mention safeguard U.S. national interests. And our engagement increases the chance that strategies designed to deal with man-made crises take adequate account of basic protection concerns, including preservation of humanitarian space critical to the effective functioning of assistance providers.

So if that is the goal – a robust voice in the policy debate – how do humanitarians achieve it? Let me answer this question by offering and explaining seven basic propositions on which I find myself relying as I begin this new adventure as Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration, widely known as PRM.

First, humanitarians must define our mandate broadly, with a willingness to break apart traditional issue silos. I just returned from a trip to Africa, which included the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In the DRC, my focus was the effectiveness of protection efforts in the east – where an ongoing humanitarian crisis has had devastating effects on the civilian population, more than 1.5 million of whom are displaced in the region. Solving these daunting problems will require integrated approaches that go far beyond traditional issue area and bureaucratic boundaries. We in PRM will certainly work closely with our main partner organization, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, to enhance its performance in providing basic services to displaced populations. But that will not be enough. We must promote action, within an inter-agency process, on a range of other fronts. In particular, we must 1) promote enhanced coordination and effectiveness among the many players on the ground involved in civilian protection, from UN agencies to MONUC to NGOs; 2) encourage MONUC and DRC authorities to more effectively promote FDLR disarmament; 3) work to end impunity for human rights abuses and establish accountability in the DRC, especially for the grievous crimes committed against women and children; and 4) strongly support complementary and more effective efforts by MONUC and UN agencies at civilian protection, including efforts to combat gender-based violence and child recruitment. And we will also continue to look for areas where additional targeted efforts might make a difference – even when they are somewhat outside my bureau’s traditional issue areas – such as increased support to MONUC’s Joint Protection Teams, which identify vulnerable populations in need of protection. In short, humanitarians must be part of integrated strategies that also address root causes, and we must be prepared to drive those strategies if necessary.

Second, humanitarians must not shy away from engagement on political, law enforcement and security issues that may affect the humanitarian agenda. In fact, we should engage deeply in such issues and even be prepared to take the lead on policy development when that is feasible and appropriate. During the Clinton Administration, when I served at the National Security Council, I was asked to manage the alien smuggling portfolio. I took on the challenge – not because I had significant background and experience in law enforcement – but rather because the issue was compelling to policy-makers and the portfolio involved key protection concerns. I had not taken the humanitarian job at the NSC expecting that I would be helping to devise strategies to protect our borders from unauthorized migration, but so long as I acquitted myself on the enforcement side, policy-makers were prepared to defer to my judgment on many protection issues. Of course, we didn’t win every protection battle, but I did feel that protection equities – whether it involved Cubans, Haitians or Chinese – were always part of the discussion.

Similarly, during my recent visit to Africa, I traveled to Kenya to promote agreement on the building of a fourth camp for Somali refugees in the Dadaab area, where the camps built for 90,000 are now holding more than three times that number. To encourage Government of Kenya agreement on a fourth camp, UNHCR has already offered them a package that includes assistance for security management in the camps, host community development projects, better registration procedures for asylum seekers and some limited movement from Dadaab to the Kakuma Camp across the country. During my meetings in Kenya, Kenyan officials seemed prepared to move forward, subject to additional assistance on border management issues. The Kenyan interest is obviously driven by security concerns. But we humanitarians have a deep interest in engaging in this discussion, both to promote the humanitarian alternative of a new camp and to ensure that any additional assistance on border management issues retains basic principles of protection.

Third, our protection strategies must include active humanitarian diplomacy and robust humanitarian advocacy. For years, some experts have referred to a conflict between the imperative of human rights advocacy and imperative of humanitarian access. The notion was that groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International could criticize governments for denying their citizens basic rights, but humanitarian organizations – no matter what they might witness – needed to stay silent to preserve their ability to operate, feed and clothe people and save lives.

But, in fact, the reality is not that simple, and silence by donor governments in the face of humanitarian deprivation not only risks implicating the donor in abuses, but often represents a missed opportunity to promote positive change. In addition, governments that reject out of hand the complaints of human rights advocates may well have a harder time doing so when it is the humanitarian organizations that are providing critical resources. As the work of Medicins Sans Frontieres has so clearly demonstrated over the years, there is no necessary conflict between engaging in advocacy and securing critical access. And sometimes continued access simply isn’t worth the cost of staying quiet, but requires a far more sophisticated dialogue.

In short, if pressing the case with governments, the media, and civil society can impact the situations of vulnerable populations, then we have an obligation to press. In Sri Lanka, for example, nearly 250,000 Tamils remain in camps in the north, and the government has thus far failed to meet the majority of its stated targets for permitting them to have the freedom of movement, which is their right under international law. At the same time, we have in recent weeks seen that the pace of releases has picked up considerably. Whether this will continue remains to be seen, but there is no question in my mind that the government’s recent more positive actions have been influenced by the strong expressions of concern from the United States and other donor governments.

Finally, humanitarian advocacy keeps faith with the victims of these conflicts, and keeps news of their suffering in the public eye. For example, in Burma, a recent regime offensive has caused large scale displacement of civilians, but information on their plight has not captured significant world attention. Humanitarians can play an important role in bringing forgotten or neglected crises to light and helping to craft solutions.

Fourth, humanitarians in government must raise the profile of our work – among our colleagues in government, within the Congress, and among civil society and the public at large. Public awareness of our issues is a critical pre-requisite to political support for international humanitarian objectives. We must engage in more vigorous public affairs and public diplomacy, information-sharing with Congress and the NGO community, and travel to regions of the world where key humanitarian issues are implicated. Over the past four months, my senior colleagues and I will have traveled to Sri Lanka, Pakistan, the DRC, Rwanda, Kenya, Thailand, Laos, Iraq, and Colombia, and each of these visits has substantially enhanced our capacity to engage credibly in humanitarian policy debates in Washington.

Fifth, we must strengthen the human resource capacity of humanitarians in government, so they can effectively play a strong policy role. Even as the extraordinary PRM staff is engaged in policy initiatives and debates involving Kenya, Somalia, Congo, Sudan, Burma, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, refugee admissions policy, and on and on and on, they have been expected to manage an increase in assistance to refugees and conflict victims of nearly 60% over the past few years. In 2009, our Bureau will have programmed nearly $1.8 billion dollars, which requires that enormous human resources be devoted to management, to monitoring, and to evaluation. Even for those as talented and committed as the team that serves at PRM, augmenting efforts on policy engagement is a great challenge and we are now actively engaged in considering how we need to strengthen our institutional capacity to do the job.

Sixth, and related to the prior point I just made, we must sustain the high quality, effectiveness and magnitude of the assistance. While I am very eager for our Bureau to play a key role in critical policy debates, I am well aware that PRM’s credibility and effectiveness as a policy advocate comes very much from the program expertise of PRM staff and the effectiveness of PRM funded programs. That expertise “credentials” the Bureau in the policy discussion, and our ability to bring resources to bear helps to guarantee us a seat at the policy-making table. Policy without resources to implement it rings hollow.

Seventh and finally, and perhaps most challenging, we will not be effective in the policy debate if we advocate for everything – we must choose priorities. To be sure, PRM is a bureau with global reach – if there is a complex humanitarian crisis anywhere in the world, chances are that the resources of our bureau will be engaged in efforts to alleviate suffering. But that does not free us from identifying some key areas of focus. I’ve worked closely with my colleagues in PRM to identify priorities based on several factors, including the magnitude of the humanitarian challenge, the stakes for U.S. national interests defined broadly, and the degree to which responsibility and accountability for effective response lies primarily with the United States. While our priority-setting process is not quite complete, it is clear that areas of greatest regional focus will have to include Central Africa, the Horn of Africa and Sudan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Sri Lanka, Iraq, and Palestinian refugees. Our functional priorities will have to include enhanced protection through more effectively addressing protracted refugee situations, improving our refugee admissions program, and highlighting the problem of statelessness.

We are attempting to define tangible progress in each of these areas, and put in place dedicated processes that will help us monitor our performance and accomplish our objectives. I look forward to working with you all in the months and years ahead, as we seek to use the tools at our disposal to promote a brighter future for the world’s most vulnerable citizens.

Thank you.

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