Fred Cuny: master and maverick of disaster

Nick van PraagThere are few people who cast as long a shadow over humanitarian relief as Fred Cuny, a larger than life Texan who served in practically every humanitarian operation from Biafra in 1967 until his kidnapping and murder in Chechnya in 1995 when he was just 51.

A couple of weeks ago I took part in an event at American University in Washington DC that looked at the legacy and relevance of this erstwhile master of disaster.

I worked with Cuny in the mid 1980s during the massive exodus from Eritrea and Tigre into eastern Sudan. As for many others at the AU meet up, Cuny continues to influence the modest role I try to play in the humanitarian space. He was a charismatic, iconoclast of a man who did – or seemed to do – pretty much anything he could get away with in his quest to protect and assist those caught up in conflict and natural disasters.

Man on a mission

Man on a mission

How did Cuny manage to navigate the complicated politics of relief and justify his risk-taking to the donors and the organizations that hired him?  There is no simple answer. He was unique in the way he managed to play a role of his own making rather than to follow a formal terms of reference. In other words, he was good at avoiding pigeonholes. What he offered was the Cuny package or brand. Take it or leave it.

In the days before modern communications made it hard to hide, Cuny operated in the fog of the humanitarian frontlines – far from agency headquarters and donors who might interfere. For the most part they knew little of where he was or what he was up to. He was always careful to ensure and guard his room for maneuver. In Sudan he got the US Air Force to fly in his own Cessna. His general rule was to keep his cards close to his chest – something that would be hard to do in today’s more transparent world.

Cuny was a man with a mission. He was dedicated to improving the humanitarian response system that he saw as unaccountable and underperforming. He went about this in his own determined, feather-ruffling way. Does his approach offer a model to those keen to follow in his footsteps? I don’t think so. The Cuny days are over. It is unthinkable today to operate, as he did, in a quasi-autonomous way with what we supposed was the backing of people in high places.

The people in Cuny’s authorizing environment were mostly American and in an age when the US is no longer loved nor feared, that kind of backing comes with less mileage than it did when I worked with him in the Sudan.

There are also many more players and much more defined roles within a vastly bigger humanitarian system. Today people in relief spend hours coordinating with other relief workers. He would have welcomed the idea of greater collaboration but would have railed at the time it takes and the limits it would have placed on his freedom of maneuver.

For people contemplating a career in humanitarian work, my suggestion would be not so much to emulate Cuny’s single-minded ‘agency’ as to pursue his emphasis on local solutions and especially to give more say to the affected populations.

Cuny was way ahead of his time on the need to make ‘beneficiaries’ the unit of account. When we were in the Sudan he pushed to give cash grants to the refugees rather than shipping food supplies from the other side of the world. When this was questioned, he used his plane to check out the local markets and showed that there was enough food available locally to meet the needs of the refugees, as long as they had the money to pay for it. He did not win that battle but I am sure he would now be a champion of accountability to affected people as key to greater effectiveness in humanitarian relief.

Would he be able to achieve as much today? I doubt it. The sheer weight of the system makes it harder to have the kind of impact that was always his goal. Cuny’s legendary chutzpa and experience took him far but I think today he would be considered a risk-taking maverick whose uncompromising views and independent style would rock a humanitarian community that is less embracing of the unconventional approaches that were his stock-in-trade.

Nick van Praag directs Keystone’s Ground Truth programme.

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