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'Bombs and Bread' campaigns and other reasons humanitarian aid workers are at greater risk

By Nick Coatsworth - posted Friday, 9 July 2004

“Missionary?  Mercenary?  Misfit?  Broken Heart?”  wrote Helen Fielding of aid workers in her first novel Cause Celeb.  Whatever it is that drives humanitarians, most of us don’t get it.  And even if we understood why, most of us wouldn’t do it. 

But for those who do, there has always been a reasonable assumption that being part of an aid organisation guarantees an element of safety in war zones.  That assumption has been tested in recent times.

In the past month, five aid workers with the organisation Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) were killed by the Taliban.  At the same time, aid workers in Quetta, Pakistan were confined to their hotels after Al Qa’ida leaders specifically identified them as targets. 


Aid workers are now sitting ducks for Islamic fundamentalists.  The blame for this must lie in part with the neo-conservative spin doctors of the Bush administration in compromising the neutrality of humanitarians in Iraq and Afghanistan.  To understand how this has occurred, we need some historical perspective.

Humanitarian groups operate well when neutrality is preserved.  They offer a limit to atrocities of war, or “humanitarian space” where non-combatants can seek refuge.  In the early 20th century antagonistic governments generally respected the neutrality of humanitarians who worked unfettered and unharmed in conflict environments.

In the late 20th century humanitarianism became an obsession of the West.  It was a counter-point to the excesses of the free market, a manifestation of collective guilt that could be exorcised by attending Live Aid concerts. The old guard of Red Cross and Oxfam would compete with a younger generation of NGOs for the donor market.  Principles were called into question, the mandate and integrity of Aid workers was attacked.  In Rwanda, there were allegations of indirectly causing further bloodshed, and African leaders questioned the political aims of first world donor nations.

Changing conflict patterns, most notably in the Balkans and then Rwanda in 1994 have altered the milieu of aid work today.  Civilian and combatant are often indistinguishable, and the atrocities against civilians have increased as a result.  Neutrality is ignored, humanitarian space lost, and aid compromised.

These conflicts have led to unprecedented introspection on behalf of non-government aid organisations.  They have responded by becoming more professional, more accountable, and better able to deliver aid in difficult social and political climates.

Operating within the war on terror offers challenges above and beyond those of the late 90s, challenges that are less amenable to change from within.


The US has put the very notion of humanitarianism into question by defining it as part of the war effort in the Middle East.  In Afghanistan, Bush proffered the peace pipe on one hand with token drops of Hershey bars and hamburgers, and made war with the other, emphasising that his quarrel was with the Taliban and not the Afghan people. 

History has judged the “bombs and bread” campaign in Afghanistan as a poorly targeted media stunt with little meaningful effect.  See also the ongoing references to winning the “hearts and minds’” of the Iraqi people.

Sheer hypocrisy aside, two problems arise when the military, which is the enemy, and the aid organizations, which are not, are seen to be engaged in the same activity.  First, aid workers can become legitimate targets and are in greater danger because of an inferred association with the occupying force.  Aid groups have been alarmed at the tendency of US Special Forces to operate in civilian clothing, making them indistinguishable from humanitarians.

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About the Author

Dr Nick Coatsworth is completing a Masters degree in International Public Health with a focus on humanitarianism at the University of Sydney. He is currently working with Medecins Sans Frontieres in the Congo.

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