Operational at all costs? What are we willing to pay to be humanitarians?
More and more States consider humanitarian actors to be a source of income as legitimate as commercial companies. This is reflected in the field by a proliferation of red tape on imports and for expatriates, whose volunteer status does not mean much in the eyes of local fiscal authorities... All this has resulted in administrative and human costs, as well as increased financial risks for missions and expatriates.
This shift in governments’ behavior vis-à-vis humanitarian actors often increases the need for MSF to be docile to remain operational on their territory, and there is no guarantee that this docility facilitates relations with the authorities...
How can we respond to this pressure? To what extent is it acceptable? How can we preserve our identity as a humanitarian organization in an administrative and fiscal framework that does not recognize us and ensure the consistency of our practices from one country to another?
Beyond the fine principles that would leave any good tax inspector indifferent, on which arguments could negotiations for an exemption be based? And, in the absence of any international convention on the status of NGOs, in what name can we claim such an exemption? Should we negotiate a special status (like the United Nations or ICRC)? What impact could this decision have on our identity as an NGO made up of volunteers? Far from being purely fiscal, these questions bring us back to the basics of who we are and how we are above certain laws...
- Céline Perren (Legal Advisor, MSF Switzerland)