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Agency vs. Agencies

Updated: Apr 22, 2020

Djemila Carron on why she is sounding the alarm now about the situation in Kakuma.

By Philippe Mottaz, The Geneva Observer

Monday, April 20, 2020


From her self-isolation in Switzerland, clearly worried about the well-being of her students and contacts in the camp, Djemila Carron monitors the situation in Kakuma continuously. Reached by phone, she explains that she and Paul O’Keeffe, her co-author, “needed to sound an urgent alarm. As academics, having worked in refugee camps in Kenya and Jordan for the last three years, we feel we have a responsibility in speaking up and a stake in what is happening.” Fortunately, so far, the virus has spared Kakuma.

“The inadequate coordination between the agencies and the very poor equipment in the camps could leave the refugees even more vulnerable to the virus.”

Today, Carron and O’Keeffe are afraid that if and when it does, “the inadequate coordination between the agencies and the very poor equipment in camps could leave the refugees even more vulnerable to the virus.” Blending passion and dispassionate research, they are particularly worried about the lack of trust that has been growing over the years between the humanitarian agencies and the refugees and by the reluctance of those agencies to support initiatives led by the refugees. It is not new for them: “The coronavirus crisis has exacerbated everything and laid bare the systemic dysfunctions that we are witnessing our work.” In the summer of 1984, reviewing William Shawcross’ just-published book The Quality of Mercy, a close and unsparing examination of the performance of the international relief agencies in Cambodia, American essayist Roger Rosenblatt wrote “The underlying question the book poses is whether or not the nations of the world that support these agencies genuinely are concerned about those in need or peril, or whether these humanitarian institutions have instead assumed a merely formal and dutiful burden, subject to pressures from conflicting powers. What Mr. Shawcross shows is how acts of care, almost as much as carelessness, can do accidental damage in a politically precarious situation.”

The co-authors fully recognize the achievements of the agencies they observe. “These are very complex issues. For instance, national policies and legislations have a determining impact on what the relief agencies can do. Clearly, we understand now is not the time, though to address long terms issues. The emergency is at hand. But we do believe the bottom-up approach that we have developed at InZone, genuinely supporting and collaborating with the refugees themselves to find solutions that work best for them is the key to ensuring the best response to the coronavirus crisis and a rethinking of the humanitarian system.”

Philippe Mottaz


Related articles and audio:

A profile of Karl Blanchet, InZone director, in French.

An interview with Karl Blanchet

"Nous avons nié la capacité des individus et des groupes a prendre des décisions."