Q&A with Professor Dirk Salomons

Looking back on his career, former track and specialization director discusses his current thinking on humanitarian action

Professor Dirk Salomons, 76, a special lecturer in international and public affairs, has been a SIPA faculty member since 2002. From 2009 to 2015 Salomons served as director of the School’s Humanitarian Affairs track (within the Human Rights concentration) and International Organizations specialization. He kept his position on the faculty and this semester is teaching introductory courses on international organizations and humanitarian affairs.

Read Dirk Salomon’s new op-ed on humanitarian challenges facing the world today

A native of the Netherlands, Salomons describes his long career as a “mix of design and opportunity.” After earning a PhD in comparative literature in 1967, he worked as a literary critic and eventually as a columnist on international affairs, which led to a job with his home country’s ministry of foreign affairs.

In 1970 he moved on to the UN, where he remained until 1997. Among the highlights of his tenure was his service in 1992-93 as executive director of peacekeeping operations in Mozambique, where he coordinated a major new operation.

Immediately before joining SIPA, Salomons worked as a managing partner at an international management-consulting firm. In that role he provided advisory services to several UN agencies and other international clients in the public sector. His fieldwork largely focused on stabilizing countries coming out of conflict, such as Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Timor Leste.

On October 27, Salomons will moderate one of two panels at the conference “Beyond Neutrality: The Humanitarian System at a Crossroads.” The conference—presented by SIPA’s Human Rights and Humanitarian Policy concentration—marks Salomons’s retirement and his contributions to the field.

Earlier this month, Coralie Martin MIA ’17 spoke with Salomons about his career and his current thinking on humanitarian action. A condensed and edited version of that conversation follows.

You’ve said in the past that you entered the field of development with naiveté and innocence. What did you mean by that?
When I joined the UN in my late 20s, it all seemed very simple. The world had gone through a period of decolonization, and many countries had emerged [from that process] with enormous hopes. It seemed a technical problem to build capacities that would allow them flourish. But we found very quickly that technical assistance would run into important blockages: difficulties finding partners to work with, difficulties getting used to governance systems which had no tradition of democracy. In that context, “bringing in development” seemed very naive.

My real insights came later in life, when I was asked to be the executive director of peace operations for the United Nations in Mozambique, in 1992. Before that, I had done a lot of management work, troubleshooting and internal work with the UN. But during and after Mozambique, I saw that we really had to move from thinking top-down to bottom-up in development. We had to start seeing the communities as building blocks for development, instead of governments.

How did you manage to apply this insight to your next assignments?
In my consulting roles and in my years in the UN after Mozambique, I focused very much on developing models to move resources to communities, and allow them to develop merit-based leadership.

It was done mainly by allowing UN agencies to work more closely with NGOs, with a higher level of autonomy from government donors. I have worked on initiatives such as pooled funds, where governments no longer individually manage their own programs. Instead, they give authority to the UN to use their money when there is a particular need. This way, the UN can channel funds to NGOs, to communities. It ties in with simple things such as simplifying contracts. UN agencies have been moving toward new systems where under a certain amount of money, contracts are shorter and can be signed with fingerprints. This removes some of the barriers that usually make small-scale grants impossible.

I spent a lot of time working on small solutions to push aid down to the bottom instead of feeding it into the top.

You have worked extensively on supporting peace efforts in countries emerging from conflict such as Sudan, Kosovo, or the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Could you share an example of successful post-conflict recovery?
A successful example of post-conflict recovery is hard to come by. But I can find a few examples where things would have been much worse if the international community had not made a major effort.

The first examples of situations where the UN helped countries maintain at least basic security and stability date back to the nineties. The UN developed a model in Namibia, which had been a South African colony since World War I, based on a mandate that was no longer valid. Martti Ahtisaari, who later became the president of Finland, made an enormous effort to think through what the UN could do when the country would gain its independence. I was part of the team that gathered information and analyzed the situation. Namibia became a model of setting up elections, creating a response program for short-term needs, developing political parties with their own platforms, and their own conflict resolution models.

With Cambodia, the UN scaled up and managed to maintain some stability in a very difficult context. In Mozambique, I went in with an annual budget of $300 million [U.S.] in 1992. The country was just coming out of a civil war that killed a million people. It gave us a chance to plan elections, mobilize humanitarian aid, analyze where the seeds of development were, how to get markets functioning again.

Those were the beginnings. But what was developed was later carried over to Liberia, Sierra Leone, and the Balkans.

You wrote recently that “Humanitarians are contrarians. They go where reason tell them not to.” What did you mean by that?
The first challenge for humanitarians is that they have to accept that there are no good solutions; otherwise they would not be there. They are working in highly traumatized situations, with severe lack of resources, in environments that are threatening, among people that do not normally trust them. So why go in there at all?

It may be out of some kind of revulsion at the hypocrisy of modern-day politics, which demonstrates one thing: people can know all about human suffering, and they don’t care. I believe that during World War II, if the statistics of the number of Jews gassed had been available, it would not have made any difference in the policies of the Allied forces. We cried “never again” routinely after every major crisis. Every time, we had all the information we needed—like in Rwanda or Congo, where 3.5 million people died.

I really look at my generation, and the generation of the people after me, as the ones who have betrayed humanity. And I look at the humanitarians—the ones who went there, set up tents, dug latrines, looked for water, and looked people in the eyes and said “We are here to witness and to help.” I look at them as the contrarians, those who tried to live out, act out some kind of moral values, knowing well that it is not going to make a global difference.

Have you ever felt a sense of discouragement?
Not discouragement, but rather anger. I get angry all the time. But if you stop getting angry, then you get depressed. So it is better to retain your fury, and acknowledge that uphill battle is still being continued by new generations, who are a minority, as we were a minority in our days.

Look at years and years of UN conferences, and all the people who have come to plea for a better world. It has fallen on the political system like the rain on raincoats. Nothing seems to penetrate the mind of the real power to the point that it is going to make any concession—not in the corporate world, if you look at the way we have been extracting our resources from the global south shamelessly, to this day; not in the political world, if you look at the way we have been empowering and protecting lowlifes pretending to be politicians in the Global South; not in the way most recently the UN pretended that people like Salva Kiir, the current president of South Sudan, or his former deputy Riek Machar, could even be thought of as politicians, despite their record of war crimes. By legitimizing them, we allowed them to lead their countries down into ruins. What were we thinking?

What, then, would be your message to the next generations?
We should continue the battle, even without expecting that the world is actually going to change. As is said in the Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, “If you save one life, you save humanity.” All you can do as an individual is to wonder what challenges are right in front you, and what you can do about them. You might make a marginal difference, but it is still better than just sitting there and do nothing.

My years as a professor at SIPA have given me a lot of hope in the next generation, which I consider as the “last chance generation”. The people who are in their late 20s today, will have to find solutions to the issues of climate change, resource scarcity and poor governance. Otherwise my sense is that we are going to face major consequences.

Now that you’re no longer directing a concentration and specialization here at SIPA, what are doing with your free time?
I am going back to my roots. I drifted into this whole business of international development by accident, when my plan was originally to become a professor of German literature. But now I think it is time to think of what I want to do when I grow up.

I am back reading things that have nothing to do with international issues, back to some of my favorite German authors, trying to revive my Latin and my Greek. I am taking some pleasure in slowly shifting away from international affairs to my own world of literature.

— Coralie Martin MIA ’17