The Politicization of Humanitarian Aid

Is enough aid pledged by the West reaching the Afghan people? (epa)

Is enough aid pledged by the West reaching the Afghan people? (Photo: EPA)

One of the most worrying aspects of the current mission in Afghanistan is the increasingly muddied role of humanitarian aid. Traditionally the stated goal of humanitarian NGOs was to remain neutral in conflict zones. The hope in doing this was to allow aid to remain at arm’s length from becoming politicized, ensuring its delivery was based on needs alone. More and more however, the line between humanitarian aid and military intervention has become blurred, if not erased altogether, as militaries, in the name of an approach which aims to be more ‘holistic’, have begun to incorporate reconstruction and development into this broader rubric.

The end result however, is a form of humanitarian aid which fosters unequal development, is often used for political leverage and deployed strategically in order to undercut enemy support. In short, it is a form of aid which is anything but needs-based. In a recent article by Stephen Cornish and Marit Glad published by the Norwegian Atlantic Committee, they write:

“Aid has become overtly politicized and used as a tool to stabilize fragile states in the name of anti-terrorism. Comprehensive approaches to stabilization, where political, military and development are complimentary instruments, have changed the nature of aid.

Development and humanitarian assistance is no longer based on criteria of need and aid effectiveness, but is used as a strategy to appease communities and win ‘hearts and minds'”.

In other words, ‘aid’ when undertaken in a manor directly linked to military action, has become simply another strategic tool, used to prop up weak regimes or to curry favour when needed. In Afghanistan channeling aid to provinces which are most politically unstable or of military or politically strategic is the norm, and not necessarily to populations who are most in need of aid. Canada, for example, spends a disproportionately high amount of its aid budget in Kandahar yet the relative level of need in Kandahar compared to other provinces is not necessarily taken into account.

This new approach is sometimes referred to as 3D: Defense, Diplomacy and Development; more often than not it is the latter two in service of the first. Cornish and Glad go on to argue that in the post-9/11 security paradigm poverty and under-development are now seen as two of the key originating factors of terrorism. Although this is likely accurate, problems arise when we start seeing aid only through the lens of how it can be used to augment the security strategy of the West and not a as a worthwhile endeavour for its own sake.

The Provincial Reconstructions Teams (PRTs) are particularly striking in this regard. PRTs are military-led reconstruction and projects, and although their mission is development their focus is primarily security strategy. In a sense, PRTs are not simply an example of the line between military action and development become blurred; their are example of its effacement. In a recent briefing paper jointly prepared by eleven NGOs who operate in Afghanistan a number of drawbacks are highlighted:

“(1) Being military-led, PRTs are an inherently unsuitable means to promote development.

(2) Given the particular cultural and social mores of Afghanistan, and mistrust of foreign forces, Western military-led institutions are unable to achieve a sufficient level of local engagement and ownership necessary for effective long-term development.

(3) PRTs divert funds away from Afghan civilian development processes and institutions, whose weaknesses ultimately prolong the military presence: annual funding available to US PRT commanders exceeds the Afghan national budget for health and education.

(4) As highly variable and intrinsically unsustainable institutions, PRTs are an impediment to the establishment of a coherent and consistent national development framework, and have resulted in major geographical disparities in the distribution of aid.

(5) The PRTs’ hearts and minds approach to assistance, drawn from counter-insurgency doctrine, is not only at odds with accepted principles of development, but, given that it is so often ineffective and unsustainable, it is highly unlikely to achieve its intended security objectives.”

Another worrisome aspect of this trend has been that aid workers themselves have become targets as Afghani insurgents no longer distinguish between foreign aid workers and foreign military personnel as both are perceived as merely branches of the same mission. The most striking example of this was NATO’s use of the white SUV, long the symbol of humanitarian interventions. Some NGOs have even suggested that this was a deliberate tactic employed by NATO in order to both confuse enemy combatants as well as provide cover for NATO forces. Thankfully, as reported recently , NATO has bowed to NGO pressure and as of June 1st 2009 is no longer using such vehicles.

Humanitarian aid missions work best when they are given the autonomy to be independent and neutral actors; this independence is the very source of their legitimacy. Thus NATO must be willing to acknowledge the inherent limits of its own military mission in Afghanistan and respect the role played by humanitarian NGOs. Only a rubric which casts them as separate entities will have the legitimacy necessary for lasting stability in central Asia.

Tags: Afghanistan, Humanitarian aid, Marit Glad, Norwegian Atlantic Committee, Stephen Cornish