Humanitarian aid and war

Core Issue


Humanitarian aid and war

Over the past twenty years, relief operations to war-torn countries have greatly expanded. In the developed countries, it has become a major political theme, as is shown by its take-over by donor states for diplomatic and strategic purposes. In the West, notably, the fact that governments and public opinions are more and more opened to humanitarian issues has emphasized phenomena that already existed during the Cold War, when aid was seen as another way of promoting national interests. Now, the armies of industrialized countries allegedly develop humanitarian programs, NGOs are consulted by the United Nations Security Council and the private sector is asked to take part in peace operations: a militarization of aid that can lead to preventative wars or wars of aggression.
In developing societies, where most of the assistance goes, relief has also become an important element of armed conflicts. The shortcomings of the system are structurally quite well identified, be they keeping the recipients in a “dependency syndrome”, increasing social inequalities by aiding refugees to the detriment of the locals; or harming the local farmers by distributing free food. The way humanitarian aid supplies a civil war economy is particularly significant.
The hijacking of relief by combatants can be seen at three levels. At the first level, the most obvious one, there is direct predation: four wheels drives vehicles are stolen, food warehouses looted, medicine stolen, refugee tents sold, humanitarian workers protected for money or abducted and freed against a ransom. At a second, more subtle, level, one can find the side effects of international aid. In economies where resources are scarce, NGOs rent houses, employ locals, pay customs duties to authoritarian regimes, “buy” the agreement of warlords with baksheesh, and provide, eventually, a population wholly engaged in civil wars. At a third level, finally, the injection of humanitarian funds and logistics in a conflict allows local resources to be invested in the fight, leaving the provision of the basic public services to NGOs.
This is why it is not possible to know how many lives are saved in the long term. True, it is impossible to anticipate the side effects of humanitarian aid in sustaining the hostilities. But neither is it possible to know, retrospectively, what would have happened without relief from abroad. One cannot be sure that a conflict would have dried out and ended on its own if it had not been stirred up by adding “humanitarian fuel” on the fire, a balm that would only alleviate sufferings for a while. Money is the nerve of war and the introduction of aid resources in a conflict widens the field of competition and the stakes of the predation. This is the main challenge that humanitarian organizations are confronted with.
From the prevention of crises before they break out, to the trial of war criminals by international courts after the end of a conflict, some remedies have been implemented during the hostilities. However, these cannot prevent aid from being hijacked. Among the alternatives, an armed escort is not a satisfactory solution as such a measure denies the NGOs’ apparent neutrality, militarises their actions and turns the humanitarian workers into strategic targets, at the risk of making the attack on supplies more likely; moreover, funding such protection is not different from funding fighters and it makes the expenses dedicated to food or medicine smaller.
In some cases, retreat is unfortunately the only option. The possibility of a withdrawal should be considered as soon as a program is undertaken, if NGOs and their financial backers agree on giving limits to their actions. In practice, it is rarely so. When a western NGO decides to leave, mainly after one of its members has been killed, others take its place in the field. Three main factors explain such “stubbornness”. The first is obviously linked to the insufficient knowledge of the side effects of the aid. It is very difficult to measure scientifically the negative and positive effects of a humanitarian program. And a mathematical logic often leads donors to judging the success of an operation by the number of bags of rice or of tents distributed, without questioning the later use of such resources by the combatants.
Another factor which explains why humanitarian actors refuse to “leave” is the bureaucratisation of the aid, divided into market shares. While NGOs compete to get funds from international donors, ending a program can now be decided independently from the needs assessed in the field, not even mentioning a retroactive control on the usefulness and the quality of the humanitarian aid. Finally, the fact that a co-ordination between NGOs is as yet impossible makes a strategic withdrawal from the most dubious situations impossible. The attachment of humanitarian actors to their independence, the diversity of charity cultures and the different opinions on the hijacking of aid prevent a common front against those responsible for the abuses. Nevertheless, a joint withdrawal would be far more effective since humanitarian operations always depend on the state of the forces involved. It would be better that donors and international organizations support an interruption of aid while the media would point out those responsible for the massacres, the abuses and, consequently, the withdrawal of the NGOs.