Conventional humanitarian agencies responding to crises such as the Pakistani floods, are going to have to deal with influential and popular “non-state actors” such as Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the hardline Islamist organisation thought to be a front for Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), which has incredible capacity to provide efficient relief for those affected by disaster.

This poses a tremendous dilemma for conventional humanitarian agencies.

Jamaat-ud-Dawa is reported to have 2,000 members working on flood relief across the north west of Pakistan and down into Pubjab province. LeT is purported to be one of the largest and most active militant Islamist organisations in South Asia and yet the humanitarian sector will be forced to work with or through a growing number of popular non-state networks which are performing a real humanitarian function, perhaps more efficiently than conventional agencies.

The Humanitarian Futures Programme (HFP) at King’s College, London discussed these fundamental changes in conventional humanitarian approaches to crises in a paper, “Seven Issues for Humanitarian Workers in the future” published two years ago.  HFP and has been pressing for years to highlight the need for this fundamental change in humanitarian approach to crises.  Clearly, as predicted, one of these new humanitarian actors is the non-state actor.  We saw this in the Lebanon in 2008 when Hezbollah, a highly politicized movement, became one of the most efficient relief organisations in the Beirut crisis.

It’s interesting to note that organisations that received USAID resources were not allowed by that body to work through Hezbollah.

Now we find ourselves confronted by an even more striking example of the challenges which face all humanitarian workers who will have to deal with the growing number of new types of humanitarian networks.  In this instance it is Jamaat-ud-Dawa in Pakistan, proving it is more aggressive and popular in effectively providing humanitarian assistance to hundreds of thousands of people.

The challenge which conventional humanitarian organisations face is very fundamental and clear-cut.

My first question is, while ostensibly humanitarian organisations abide, are driven and motivated by principles of impartiality, neutrality and independence, to what extent does working with or through a non-state actor such as Jamaat-ud-Dawacompromise these fundamental principles?

My second question is, even if conventional humanitarian agencies did compromise these fundamental principles, to what extent is the more abiding concern for saving lives a more compelling driving force? And hence, to what extent do principles of impartiality, neutrality and independence weigh against the desire to protect the lives and livelihoods of endangered communities.

This issue now has to be addressed in the context of Pakistan. However, it’s not about Pakistan and the tragedy it faces today.  It’s about an issue which the humanitarian sector will find it must deal with more and more as the dynamics and dimensions of future humanitarian hazards affect the world.

How will the conventional humanitarian sector work with a growing number of non conventional networks which purport to be humanitarian?  These non-state actors may not share the same principles but they have the capacity to be effective interveners.  They are organisations which may have a political agenda, or profit motive or the objective of engaging “hearts and minds”.  But, we must focus on the fact that one way or another they have the competence and popularity to deliver the goods.

The conventional humanitarian sector faces a stark choice, to embrace this fundamental change of emphasis in response to humanitarian crises, or to ignore the opportunity to join forces to mitigate human misery in response to present and future humanitarian hazards. That’s the daunting challenge.