Answering the Tough Questions 1: humanitarian solutions vs. political solutions

I read an article today in the New York Times with Filippo Grandi, the commissioner general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the UN agency created for Palestinian refugees. Grandi makes several important points throughout the article, but I nearly missed his best message when I skimmed quickly over the end. The last line of the piece says,

“‘We need to keep sounding this warning,” Mr. Grandi said. “A political solution needs to be found.'”

This is a terrific message and it brings me to my first post in a series (hope I’m not setting expectations too high for myself here!) on answering the tough questions. As an advocacy and communications professional, I constantly face tough questions about the work of the organization I’m representing. Why did this happen? Why didn’t you prevent it? What are you doing to help? Why is this issue you’re telling me about important?

A very tough question that humanitarians in particular face is about humanitarian (i.e. aid) solutions for political problems. When people suffer as a result of conflict, the temporary solution may be provided by humanitarians: medical assistance, food, drinking water. But the real solution — the lasting solution — will always be political. The challenge for humanitarians, of course, is that we actively seek to separate ourselves from political agendas in order to retain our neutrality and independence. So how do we talk about humanitarian crises that have a political solution?

Hence Mr. Grandi’s excellent message in the New York Times. First he lays out what his (humanitarian) organization is doing to respond to (humanitarian) needs. But then he makes a clear point that that’s just alleviating suffering; it’s not really solving the bigger problem. He doesn’t make judgments or try to offer a political solution — that’s not his role as a humanitarian — but he draws attentions to both human needs on the ground as well as the glaring fact that only political efforts will truly put an end to the suffering.

In summary, in response to the tough question “what is the solution for this problem?”:

1. State what your organization is doing to respond.

2. Note briefly but clearly that the crisis requires a political solution.

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