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Humanitarian Aid as Conflict Commodity; How Food can Fuel Fighting


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It is one of the most prominent principles prevailing in the humanitarian sector since its foundation in the second half of the 19th century: the moral obligation to help those in need. Throughout history, this ambition of doing good has served as a justification for intervening in armed conflicts worldwide, whether to treat the wounded or feed the hungry. Apparently, if your mission is to save lives, no questions are asked as to what impact you really have on the ground. However, there are numerous examples of this impact actually being very different from what was initially intended.

One of the major examples of aid going wrong is the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. Among the millions of refugees flooding over the border into Zaire were the very instigators and perpetrators of the killings. The refugee camps popping up around the city of Goma were a safe haven for the Hutu militias; a place where they could recuperate and reorganize. The aid agencies operating in the camps allowed them to reinforce themselves both in number and in strength; all in order to strike back. With the militias pulling the strings, there was little that aid agencies could do to prevent food rations and medical equipment from being intercepted, stolen and redistributed. In sum, the humanitarian organizations at work in Goma were ‘feeding the killers’.

History has presented us with many more examples of aid being corrupted by local actors. Somalia and Afghanistan are perhaps the most prominent examples of this. Estimates of aid diversion for both these countries during the heights of conflict and refugee crisis averaged 50%. With numbers like these, it is difficult to justify humanitarian assistance as an indispensable instrument for improving an emergency situation. In fact, over the years, an academic trend has emerged investigating the abuse of aid supplies and the consequences it has on the situation of armed conflict it is delivered into, all with the conclusion that it might not be worth it.

Many scholars have acknowledged the potential of humanitarian aid to have adverse effects. It can, for instance, sustain “war economy” and, with that, exacerbate and prolong conflict. The pioneer of this argument is Mary B. Anderson", who explains how aid goods hold both economic and political value. The parties to a conflict need this economic and political power in order to pursue their conflict-related goals. As a result, a competition for aid resources emerges, one manifestation of which is the diversion of aidgoods. Eventually, when controlled by unintended recipients, the diverted resources can directly and indirectly fund and prolong conflict. Obviously, in such a case, the most vulnerable people, who arethe intended recipients of the aid, are deprived of these valuable goods.

Some practical examples of the diversion of aid that humanitarian organizations risk include the looting of aid convoys, the raiding of warehouses, the skimming off of rations during transport and distribution, the unfair redistribution of goods, the extortion and taxation of the refugee population, and the bribery of aid workers at checkpoints. Populations that qualify for humanitarian assistance usually do not find themselves in a situation of democratic government. Instead, effective control over the territory is the key factor determining an actor’s power. Being able to exert such control puts warlords, rebel leaders and other local actors into a position where they can act with impunity and, therefore, to divert aid away from intended beneficiaries and into their own pockets without facing justice for their actions.

In this case, is all emergency relief rendered counterproductive and even undesirable due to the risk of humanitarian aid being diverted? Not necessarily. However, it is important to realize that, however good the intentions, assisting those affected by armed conflict can actually do more harm than good. Contrary to popular belief, upholding the humanitarian principles does not automatically mean the aid is delivered well. Aid agencies can do their part by being aware of the fact that the delivery of aid can never exist in a neutral and impartial vacuum. However, one aid agency standing up against abuse is not enough. With another organization ready to take the place of those with the courage to refuse to fuel the conflict, humanitarian aid will not cease to be a conflict commodity. A consolidated policy on aid abuse by the entire humanitarian community combined with the exit strategies to reinforce this policy will be the only thing preventing humanitarian efforts to reinforce armed conflict any longer.

Written by A. Hooijer and published on 26-January-2015




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