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Dr. Jemilah Mahmood Addresses The Trust Deficit in Humanitarian Action at the 3rd Ireland at Fordham Humanitarian Lecture

February 6, New York- Dr. Jemilah Mahmood, Under Secretary for Partnerships at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, addressed a packed venue of humanitarians, academics, and students alike at Fordham Law concerning the trust deficit of humanitarian action and the necessity of local players for sustained progress. We highlight some of Dr. Mahmood’s insights below in an attempt to do justice to the clarity, nuance, and sophistication of her claims.

Prior to her more vibrant anecdotal accounts, Dr. Mahmood began her talk with a few rather blunt statements expressed to her during her various encounters in the field: “They never listen, so I don’t trust them,” and “you make promises without delivering anything.” Such, at the outset, is the state of humanitarian affairs, a sector where a trust deficit exists, and, as Dr. Mahmood will go on to explain, “we all need to fix.”

Three axioms were presented as preface to the argument proper: 1. Trust involves taking risks 2. Trust is a matter of life and death and 3. Trust is like water — it requires balance. Regarding the first, Dr. Mahmood emphasizes that trust is similar to a leap of faith — it is not “warm and fuzzy” or merely about feeling comfortable. The second principle builds on this, as trust is indeed a matter of life and death. he explains, “if the right people don’t trust humanitarians, we can very literally die, and so can they.” Trust is like water because of its delicate balance. It is certainly needed, but must be accounted for among other things.

The setting that Dr. Mahmood lays for the presentation of her later solutions is subtle but clear. Citing Irish President Michael Higgins, the second lecturer of the , she explains “humanitarianism is basically an idea — a story we tell ourselves — and stories only work if we ‘suspend our disbelief.’” A story indeed, though a story that suffers threats from without. Such threats constantly batter the imagined reality — the story — of which humanitarianism is the central narrative and humanitarians (and, no less, those involved in humanitarian actions) are the protagonists. It is therefore that trust — that which is so crucial (as we shall see) to effective humanitarian efforts — is particularly jeopardized in our modern world.

“We are doing our best to thread the needle between neutrality and standing up — but we know that we will continue to be challenged to do more.” If trust involves a balance, part of this balance is between neutrality and assertion. To remain neutral runs the risk of appearing disinterested and diminishing trust from local populations that are the object of humanitarian efforts. Conversely, a humanitarian message that barely stops short of partisan endorsement might preclude the future trust of certain parties once neutrality is completely disregarded. The individual humanitarian as well as the humanitarian cooperative must acknowledge this further threat to that precious trust that might spell success or failure, life or death. Nonetheless, though it is a difficult juggling act, Dr. Mahmood ensures us that it is not impossible.

Trust from the people we seek to help

Such is the atmosphere within which Dr. Mahmood lays our scene. Now, how important is the trust of those we seek to help? As her anecdotes show, the current status of trust between humanitarians and those involved in humanitarian efforts represents a barrier that must be overcome. Dr. Mahmood first draws our attention to the recent Ebola crisis, and the complex issues that have affected trust in these areas that might not be initially weighed by good-intentioned humanitarians. In part, the complexity of this issue can be understood only from evaluation of local perspectives: “we are in a war zone…we have been killed — so many people, so many times… so why are you coming now?” Similarly, there is the subjective impression that such a frightening illness such as Ebola — with its sudden quarantines, bizarre uniforms, and shocking symptoms — conjures. Trust is correspondingly difficult to build when these perspectives are not accounted for and accommodated.

The issue can not be said to be due entirely to such extraordinary circumstances, however. As Dr. Mahmood elaborates, the lamentations of a group of Iraqi women from local NGOs highlight this theme of sub-par connection and understanding between groups: “they shared some examples on the lack of ability of international donors and agencies to engage, listen to, understand and trust the views of people.” Similarly, Dr. Mahmood cites research conducted by Ground Truth Solutions into aid recipients in crisis settings throughout the world. At surface level, their findings were positive, as over 70% stated that they trusted humanitarians. However, further inquiry qualified these claims, as nearly three-quarters stated that the aid received did not meet their needs — these groups were ultimately “disappointed and disempowered.”

But will we trust them?

“This brings me to the flip side of this issue — how can we expect the people we serve to trust us, if we are not willing to trust them?” Following her principles laid out above, Dr. Mahmood goes on to explain trust in reciprocal terms. It is indeed a leap of faith, and this leap must also be taken by humanitarians. To respond and act based solely on one’s own presumptions — however tempered these may be by years of research and field experience — is to violate a fundamental principle of trust. The “autopilot” method is insufficient in humanitarian action insofar as it fails to account for individual perspectives and needs. In the following question and answer period, Dr. Mahmood provided an example of the importance of truly listening and trusting the needs of those involved in humanitarian crises. To paraphrase her own words, she explained that “ultimately, the person decides what is a humanitarian need.” This might mean soap and lice shampoo over food, or earrings for the mother who desires the perfect Christmas gift for her young daughter. Such are not contained in any preset plan — however important these may be — but instead the fulfillment of which relies on a deeply rooted trust from both parties.

Building Trust with Local Civil Society and Governments

The final trust deficit that Dr. Mahmood addresses is that between international and local responders. In doing so, she argues towards an ideal “as local as possible, as international as necessary.” Aside from the implications regarding trust drawn from her previous analysis, Dr. Mahmood explains that “local actors can work much more efficiently in response to emergencies and investments in them build sustainability, by connecting today’s response with tomorrow’s preparedness capacity.” On the “back-end” of humanitarian efforts, local responders create a sustainable environment that has an eye towards the future. On the “front-end” trust between aid workers and local populations is strengthened.

We are now seeing these sustainability outcomes of focused efforts towards localisation, which people such as Dr. Mahmood have labored earnestly to achieve. For example, Dr. Mahmood reports that “just last week…SOS Sahel, an international NGO working for more than 36 years in Sudan and Ethiopia, decided it was time to close down the charity as enough local capacity had been developed to continue the work.” Such matches precisely the formula laid out as ideal.

The Way Forward

Dr. Mahmood concludes her analysis with a directive — the impetus that ought to save her words from the complacent storehouse of memory and solidify them instead in the abiding venue of the heart. As she explains, “going local requires its own leap of faith at a very distrustful time…If we do not take it, we risk losing the confidence of the communities where we work, the people we seek to help, and the governments of affected countries. Losing that confidence can be just as fatal as closing the spigot of humanitarian funding.” Much indeed rests on trust, localisation, sustainability, and humane communication.

Written by Michael Innocenti, IIHA Marketing & Communications Graduate Assistant

Photos by Bruce Gilbert

About the Permanent Mission of Ireland to the United Nations

The role of the Permanent Mission of Ireland to the United Nations is to promote Ireland’s foreign policy interests and values at the United Nations.

About Fordham University

Founded in 1841, Fordham is the Jesuit University of New York, offering exceptional education distinguished by the Jesuit tradition across nine schools. Fordham awards baccalaureate, graduate, and professional degrees to approximately 15,000 students from Fordham College at Rose Hill, Fordham College at Lincoln Center, the Gabelli School of Business (undergraduate and graduate), the School of Professional and Continuing Studies, the Graduate Schools of Arts and Sciences, Education, Religion and Religious Education, and Social Service, and the School of Law. The University has residential campuses in the Bronx and Manhattan, a campus in West Harrison, N.Y., the Louis Calder Center Biological Field Station in Armonk, N.Y., and the London Centre in the United Kingdom.

About the IIHA

The Institute of International Humanitarian Affairs (IIHA) prepares current and future aid workers with the knowledge and skills needed to respond effectively in times of humanitarian crisis and disaster. Our courses are borne of an interdisciplinary curriculum that combines academic theory with the practical experience of seasoned humanitarian professionals. The IIHA also publishes on a wide range of humanitarian topics and regularly hosts a number of events in the New York area, including the annual Humanitarian Blockchain Summit and Design for Humanity Summit.

For more information or media inquiries, please contact: Camille Giacovas, Communications & Research Officer,



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