Humanitarian diplomacy is not activism

Publicado: 25 julio 2016 9:00 CET

In 2013, the Malawi Red Cross Society decided, for the first time, to add humanitarian diplomacy to its agenda. Entering unknown territory, the National Society teamed up with a local non-governmental organization which specializes in advocacy.

“Advocacy is not easy,” says Aaron Bryce Chawiya, almost immediately after being asked to reflect on his collaboration with the Malawi Red Cross Society on humanitarian diplomacy.

Chawiya is the programme coordinator at Catholics in Coalition for Justice and Peace (CCJP), a local non-governmental organization which specializes in advocacy. Together, the two organizations wanted to influence decision makers at the district level in an attempt to put an end to illegal child marriages.

A key part of the programme was the training of Red Cross volunteers who, at the beginning, were skeptical. They had only heard about CCJP reading the newspapers or listening to the radio. Was it really the role of the Red Cross to speak up?

The laws should be enforced
“We talked to the volunteers about demanding that the people in power, the duty bearers, live up to their responsibility. Some got scared of the thought and asked: Can we demand a dialogue with our local leader or even the politicians?” Chawiya recalls.

But humanitarian diplomacy is not activism. It is demanding that existing laws are enforced, such as those which govern child marriage. The law in Malawi states that it is illegal for a girl under the age of 18 years to get married, but it still happens. This is where humanitarian diplomacy comes in; how can the Red Cross, as a leader in the community, influence community and traditional leaders to stop looking the other way and take responsibility as duty bearers?

Patience and informal meetings
During the training, the volunteers voiced concerns about how they should approach the decision makers, as it is not something the Red Cross in Malawi has done extensively in the past. The volunteers did not think they could exert much influence, and many questioned, “Will the traditional leaders really listen to us? Can we actually get a meeting with the local authorities?”.

And Chiwaya would confirm, “You can get them to listen and you can get a meeting, but be patient and think in informal meetings. The people of power will often dismiss you if you go to their office. Perhaps you can meet them somewhere else. They might go to the same church as you do.”