NGO Monitor Analysis (Vol. 2 No. 4) 5 December 2003
'Political Humanitarianism' and Medical NGOs
Within the large number of human rights and humanitarian NGOs
that are active in conflict zones, including the Middle East, a
distinct group focuses (or claims to focus) on medical and health-related
issues. Members of this group include Médecins Sans Frontières,
Medecins du Monde, the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, and Physicians
for Human Rights Israel (PHR-I). As will be demonstrated in the
following analysis, the activities and resources of many of these
NGOs are primarily directed towards 'political humanitarianism',
rather than the providing the medical care that is often the focus
of their mission statements.
'Political humanitarianism' has become an important
element of the provision of humanitarian assistance in intense ethno-national
conflicts, particularly in the Middle East. The concept describes
the exploitation of aid relief in order to further narrow political
agendas. Since the days of the Ethiopian famine in the mid-1980s,
medical NGO intervention has shifted from ad hoc emergency assistance
in war and natural disasters to a wider agenda of 'advocacy work'
in conflict management and development. Although certain medical
NGOs, as shown below, strive to avoid the extreme politicization
witnessed at the Durban conference of 2001, their involvement in
advocacy work often treads an ambiguous path.
The best-known medical aid agency, Médecins Sans
Frontières, active in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since 1988, acknowledges
this problem on its, French
website, outlining the sensitivities of the Arab
Israeli conflict. The organization is careful to explain why it
only works on one side of the conflict - Israel's medical infrastructure
is more sophisticated than that of the Palestinians - and continually
emphasizes that there are no 'good' or 'bad' victims.
This NGO, however, is the exception and not the
rule. Médecins Sans Frontières presents an Israeli perspective alongside
that of Palestinian suffering in its 'personal witnesses section.'
An example is the case of Atar, a psychologist, who works both with
Israeli suicide bomb victims - a friend of hers was recently killed
- and with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. See
report. The testimony is also careful to point out that Atar
is an Israeli woman who served as an officer in the Israeli army
and is proud that her son is also serving because she believes that
the army plays an important social function in Israeli society.
This commitment to both sides of the conflict and an honest approach
to the complexity of living in a war zone is an example of a genuine
commitment to universal human rights.
In contrast, other international NGOs are often
not as careful to avoid unbalanced political attacks. Such distortions
are, in part, the result of the heavy dependence of these NGOs on
local groups with narrow political agendas in order to carry out
much of their ground research. The French NGO Medecins du Monde
has produced several reports on humanitarian conditions within the
Palestinian territories. One of its reports is entitled Democide
Bombings (link to NGOM article) included a categorical condemnation
of suicide bombings. Two of its other reports, however, one on Israel's
anti-terror work in Nablus and the other on access to medical care
in the Palestinian territories rely on Palestinian testimonies that
repeat almost word for word distortions in the interpretation of
international law and the official positions of the Palestinian
An example of the impact of unhealthy dependence
of international medical NGOs on their local partners can be seen
in the role of the Union of Palestinian Relief Committees (UPMRC),
See site and Physicians for
Human Rights Israel (PHR-I). Although the mission statements UPMRC,
PHR-I and Médecins Sans Frontières all proclaim adherence to universal
human rights values, the former exploit their position in order
to frame the discourse. Reading UPMRC's reports, one can easily
mistake the NGO for an official organ of the PA.
PHR-I, in contrast, attempts to gain legitimacy
for its advocacy work by emphasizing the presence of Jewish directors.
PHR-I claims to be a grassroots organization (representing popular
mainstream Israeli opinion. Much of PHR-I's clinical work is admirable
and its advocacy would be acceptable if the organization operated
only locally. However, its 'international advocacy work' reveals
a deliberate political agenda of delegitimizing the State of Israel
masked in medical terms and international law and feeding off its
false reputation as an impartial mainstream medical NGO.
The Palestinian Red Crescent Society (PRCS), which
is a member of the international Red Cross organization, also demonstrates
a clear political agenda. PRCS frames its presentations entirely
from the Palestinian perspective and on several occasions, presents
highly distorted reports and images. In one prominent example shown
below, PRCS caption's claim to depict an Israeli tank ramming Palestinian
ambulances. Not only was this incident not related in any news report
from March 8 2002 (raising questions of its credibility), but makes
the false claim that Israel has a policy of deliberately damaging
medical equipment. However, PRCS entirely omits the fact that Palestinian
ambulances have been repeatedly used to transport suicide bombers
and weapons destined for terrorist organizations.
These distortions from local groups are then amplified
and promoted by the international medical NGOs, which are household
names and conduct high profile fund raising campaigns that raise
hundreds of millions of dollars from the general public and governments.
This The United Nations Commission on Human Rights estimates that
20 European and North American NGOs receive 75% of all public funds
budgeted for such intervention. This high profile has given them
the status of authoritative sources in matters related to international
crises and humanitarian disasters.
In considering the impact of the politicization
of medical humanitarian NGOs, it is important to recall the first
rule of the physicians' Hippocratic Oath --"do no harm". Yet the
work of NGOs such as PRCS, UPMRC and PHR-I, venture far from the
principles of medical neutrality with a knock-on effect on the international
NGOs such as Medecins du Monde. It is the responsibility of the
larger NGOs and government development agencies to insure that their
local NGOs partners and to verify that universal human rights work
is indeed being implemented universally.