Popular initiatives of International solidarity

“Zoe’s ark”, which comes to the assistance of so-called orphans from Chad, “Operation Romanian villages” and “Common causes” which give assistance to peoples of Eastern Europe who have emerged from communism and many other initiatives managed by “ordinary citizens” feature in a work by Gautier Pirotte and Julie Godin published by Presses universitaires de Liège which analyses projects of international cooperation set up by groups which are not recognized or approved by governments. This is a little-studied phenomenon that is developing rapidly: The Wallonie-Bruxelles Federation of Belgium alone accounts for 620 of these Popular Initiatives of International Solidarity (IPSI). Much more than NGOs…

Enfant AfriqueIn autumn 2007 the world of humanitarian aid was rocked by scandal. Eric Breteau, a fireman in Argenteuil and his companions in the humanitarian organization “Zoe’s ark” were arrested in Abéché by the Chadian authorities when they were caught trying to fly to France accompanied by 103 children described as orphans, the undoubtedly innocent victims of the war in Darfur. The repatriation project failed and the association was accused of “fraud” and “the illegal exercise of intermediary activity for the adoption of minors”. We can all recall the N’Djamena legal saga in Paris involving the participation of the French and Chadian presidents. In their defense it was stated that Noe’s Ark was merely a caricature of the humanitarian model “without borders” created some thirty years earlier in Biafra by the future founders of Médecins Sans Frontières. At the center of this situation were the “victims” who required speedy and efficient assistance from medical practitioners and not from bureaucrats. The legitimacy of the intervention was based on the innocence of the victim as authenticated by media accounts which act as a powerful springboard for humanitarian intervention in terms of public opinion. Within this framework of intervention, respect for the victims’ rights took precedence over the legal apparatus of the state where the intervention took place. This “duty to intervene” in the affairs of others was accompanied by a strident defense of the organization’s autonomy with regard to its own state. Zoé’s Ark adopted the rules of the “no borders” approach, but the humanitarian expedition collapsed into farce and was followed by a settling of scores: “Zozo’s Ark” managed by the “three stooges of the world of humanitarian aid” was seen as the expression of “compassionate neocolonialism”.

These heated reactions seemed to indicate that something had changed in the area of international cooperation. Apart from criticism of the “bungling” or trickery of the managers of Zoe’s Ark, the scandal also signified that the insertion of new operators into the world of international cooperation today, even where the usual archetypes of international aid are adopted, is far from being simple. 

This event was particularly challenging in terms of what it revealed about little-known actors in the area of humanitarian aid and showed that the phenomenon of international cooperation is changing fast by revealing serious irregularities. 

However there was another incident, less challenging but which was also very significant. Gautier Pirotte, a professor at the Institute of Human and Social Sciences of the University of Liege explains: “Our survey led us to the Gare du midi in Brussels where we heard a fascinating account of “Operation Rumanian Villages” by Paul Hermant. He told us about the meeting that took place on the night of 22 December 1988 when he assembled a group of photographer, journalist and architect friends at his home to have a think about how to increase public awareness of the Conducator’s “systemization plan”. He gave an account of the activities of town councilors and their constituents to increase awareness and develop proximity cooperation between our Belgian (and therefore European) towns and villages and Rumanian villages threatened with destruction. Then the December “revolution” of 1989 took place: this event provided the satisfaction of accomplished duty and the excitement of a new era but there was also chaos. The grassroots movement became outflanked and a convoy of trucks brought food, clothing, medicine and toys to the Rumanian people who were deeply wounded by a regime that was both absurd and cruel. But there was not only O.V.R., there was also “Common Causes” (and the mobilization of communes in the conflict in the ex-Yugoslavia), “Citizen Itineraries” and even “the Electors’ daily”. What should have only been seen as an example of epic humanitarian activity was finally revealed to be a reminder of an important truism yet forgotten truism: Cooperation is also an affair of ordinary people”.

Gautier Pirotte & Julie Godin, Coopération au développement. Enquête sur les Initiatives Populaires de Solidarité Internationale, Presses Universitaires de Liège, Collection Essai, 2013.

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