Conflict zones have long required a mix of political, security, and humanitarian responses to achieve the most stable and effective resolution.

In the past, however, government humanitarians have struggled to gain a seat at the table alongside their national security and political colleagues. On November 4, 2009, the Brookings Institution’s Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement hosted Eric Schwartz, Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration, to discuss the challenges of implementing humanitarian programs and affecting policy in government. This event was held in Brookings’ Falk Auditorium and was attended by approximately 150 representatives from the government, NGO, and academic community.

The Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM) serves as the principal humanitarian advisor to the regional bureaus within the State Department. According to Secretary Schwartz, the PRM’s duty is to “aspire to a broad role in policy formulation and policy implementation . . . .” To that end, Secretary Schwartz’s discussion focused on how he intends to effectively implement humanitarian goals, both internally within the State Department and externally with other government agencies and organizations to encourage “reconciliation, security, and well-being . . . .”

Achieving these goals, however, will take a calculated, strategic plan, an area that humanitarians within government have often lagged behind their political and national security counterparts in establishing and following. Recognizing this need Secretary Schwartz laid out seven key propositions that he intends to follow at PRM during his tenure to achieve the robust policy voice that humanitarians have thus far been struggling to achieve.

1. Humanitarians must define their mandate broadly and break apart from traditional issue silos.

Secretary Schwartz stated that the daunting problems humanitarians are currently facing require integrated approaches that go far beyond the traditional issue areas and bureaucratic boundaries within which humanitarians typically stay. Using the situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo as an example, Secretary Schwartz declared that enhanced coordination between US and UN agencies and NGOs on the ground is critical to address not just the current circumstances but the root causes of humanitarian crises.

2. Humanitarians must not shy away from engagement on political, law enforcement and security issues that may affect the humanitarian agenda.

Humanitarians must engage deeply and be willing to take the lead on policy development in political, law enforcement, and security issues. These are areas where the humanitarian perspective has traditionally been a mere afterthought. As an example, Secretary Schwartz explained his experience on the National Security Council during the Clinton Administration. At the time, he was asked to supervise possible security responses to illegal alien smuggling activities taking place across the US borders. While he had not taken the job expecting to devise strategies to protect the United States from unauthorized migration, once he proved himself knowledgeable on the enforcement side, policy-makers were prepared to defer to his judgment on many humanitarian protection issues.

3. Protection strategies must include active humanitarian diplomacy and robust humanitarian advocacy.

Secretary Schwartz stated that too often humanitarians are uncomfortable with crossing the line between humanitarian access and human rights advocacy because they are afraid that criticizing the government may destroy their ability to feed, clothe and save the lives of the most vulnerable people. The reality is not that simple, according to Secretary Schwartz, and “silence by donor governments in the face of humanitarian deprivation not only risks implicating the donor in abuses, but often represents a missed opportunity to promote positive change.” He mentioned that if it is within an agency’s or organization’s ability to impact the situation by presenting a case to the government, its media, or the state’s society, then that agency or organization has a duty to pursue such recommendations.

4. Humanitarians in government must raise the profile of their work.

Public awareness of humanitarian issues is the critical way to build political support for international humanitarian objectives. Secretary Schwartz stated that humanitarians in government must engage in more vigorous public affairs and public diplomacy, along with information-sharing with Congress and the NGO community.

5. The human resource capacity of humanitarians in government must be strengthened.

To play an effective policy role, humanitarians must be able to dedicate the time necessary to ensure their work is of superior quality. Secretary Schwartz mentioned that PRM has had to manage an increase in assistance to refugees and conflict victims of nearly 60 percent over the past few years. In 2009 PRM will have allocated nearly $1.8 billion dollars in assistance, which requires enormous human resources devoted to its management, monitoring, and evaluation. More resources must be made available to achieve the high quality results expected, especially if the same employees are to not only manage the funds, but engage in necessary policy discussions at the same time.

6. Government must sustain the effectiveness and magnitude of current assistance.

Following on his fifth point, Schwartz indicated that PRM’s credibility and effectiveness as a policy advocate comes from the expertise of its staff and the effectiveness of funded programs. Without economic resources, however, a seat at any policy table will be lost.

7. Humanitarians must choose their priorities and not advocate for everything.

Secretary Schwartz’s final point focused on the need to wisely choose specific policy priorities and to aggressively lobby for changes in the areas chosen. He stressed that to be effective in the policy arena, a person cannot advocate for everything. Secretary Schwartz stated that areas of greatest regional focus for PRM will include Central Africa, the Horn of Africa and Sudan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Sri Lanka, Iraq, and the refugee crisis in Palestine.

Moving Forward

While the above principles are sound policy and strategic objectives, the challenge will be in their implementation – especially when dealing with agencies outside of the State Department. After his speech, Secretary Schwartz was asked specifically about what the humanitarian policy or relationship should be between PRM and the Department of Defense. Schwartz answered that while there is broader consensus between both departments than most people think on the basic principles of when there should be a military versus humanitarian response, the issue is how such lines are drawn in practice. He mentioned that when policy-makers are unable to immediately find the capacity to implement their goals in civilian agencies, they understandably turn to the military. Moving forward, the State Department is looking into strategies that can increase both the effectiveness and the immediacy of such capacity through various initiatives such as the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review launched by Secretary of State Clinton.