Humanitarian Debate Draws Capacity Crowd, Spirited Discussion
More than two hundred people packed the India International Centre (IIC) last night for a stimulating debate on the various dynamics shaping medical and humanitarian action in India. It is the first in a series of topical conversations that Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders (India) has launched under the banner, “MSF Presents …”
Convened by MSF India and IIC, the event included a keynote presentation by MSF International President Dr Unni Karunakara. That was immediately followed by a panel discussion including Dr. Karunakara as well as Nisha Agrawal (CEO, Oxfam India), Dr. Usha Ramanathan (Independent Law Researcher) and Dr. Muzaffar Ahmad (Member, National Disaster Management Authority. Amrita Tripathi, Health Editor & Senior Anchor CNN-IBN, moderated the debate.
Dr. Karunakara launched the evening with a compelling and insightful overview of some of the challenges humanitarian organisations like MSF are facing, particularly reaching people who need assistance, and providing them with appropriate and good quality treatment.
He clearly articulated that, “Humanitarian action is not economic development, human rights, or peace. Its singular priority is about delivering assistance to people in crisis, solely based on need.”
He continued, “Humanitarianism is founded on principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence. Without these, it is impossible to provide needs-based assistance.”
Graphic recording of the debate © Chitra
The relentless growth of inequality, intensifying climate change and the limited ability for various actors to respond to “everyday” natural disasters emerged as a key theme for the debate. According to Nisha Agrawal, “Disasters are going to get worse but our approach to facing them has not changed. It is focused on response, not preparedness.”
Dr. Ahmad agreed, suggesting that, “Our main challenge with disaster management is how to empower the community and how to coordinate various government departments with the NGO community.”
The distinction between humanitarian aid and human rights emerged as a focal point for the debate. Dr. Ramanathan underscored that human rights issues frequently become politicised whereas humanitarian action is agnostic – it only considers need, not taking sides. She also raised concerns about the role that corporate interests are playing, particularly the privatisation of health care in India and the way in which that is compromising the very “access to health care principles” of MSF.
With a well-known journalist moderating the session, the discussion also turned to the role of the media in raising public awareness and the inherent complexity of the issues. Lack of meaningful media coverage was cited as a key barrier to change.