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The delicate diplomacy of delivering humanitarian aid to a war zone

By Russ Grayson - posted Thursday, 24 April 2003

Planning for the war on Iraq confirms that humanitarian aid has become part of the geopolitical strategy of the major powers.

Ever since the Bush government started to plan its military adventure, aid has been seen as a component of the war-fighting strategy, a means of repairing the damage caused by the fighting, particularly collateral damage - that caused to civilians and the civil infrastructure. In this way, humanitarian aid has become part of the campaign to win the "hearts and minds" of people in countries emerging from conflict and of those in the home countries of the humanitarian agencies, the people who donate funds and form the popular constituency of the agencies.

The use - or misuse, depending on your point of view - of humanitarian aid in this context is not new. Australians will recall that the intervention in East Timor carried a component of humanitarian aid because the Indonesian army and their surrogate militias had destroyed the greater part of the country's civil infrastructure. Then, it was understandably accepted as desirable that humanitarian aid be part of Australia's strategy, however the role of post-conflict aid in Iraq has been more controversial.


Nor is the integration of humanitarian aid into post-conflict strategy something new to aid agencies. For some time they have watched the trend with mixed feelings. Understandably, they have seen in it the opportunity to reaffirm the relevance of their agency to the contemporary world. They have also seen it as an opportunity to maintain a presence in global trouble spots. This has had as much to do with maintaining a profile with the public, their members and donor organisations than with the desire to alleviate suffering. A presence is critical to future market share even when it comes to the noble task of humanitarian aid, and it is here that the agency's public relations machines come into play.

Red Cross/Red Crescent and Medicins Sans Frontiers (MSF) are two agencies that have strived to maintain a separation between themselves and larger political entities, although MSF has been politically outspoken on a number of occasions. This has been a difficult task and not without failure. Whether it can be replicated by agencies alleged to have been involved in compromising situations in conflicts of the past - such as CARE, with the allegations about the gathering of information of intelligence value in Kosovo and allegations of assistance to US military and intelligence people in Somalia - remains to be seen where critics have long memories.

None of this is to deny the necessary role of humanitarian agencies in conflict and post-conflict situations. Such is their job and reason for existence. Without them, suffering would be all the worse. It is their institutionalisation into the political and governmental structures in their host countries that sees them absorbed in the geostrategic missions of those nations.

A daring decision

For most humanitarian agencies, embarking on humanitarian missions in post-conflict Iraq with funding provided by the belligerent Anglo-American powers presents no dilemma.

But that is not the case for all. Oxfam-Community Aid Abroad, a politically savvy agency well aware that its membership and broader support base includes people opposed to the intervention in Iraq, has publicly turned down funding from the belligerent powers. They could still provide assistance, but with funds drawn from public donations or neutral sources.

This is a brave and daring decision as it has the potential to reduce the extent of their operations. Whether it will see the divergence of humanitarian agencies into two camps - those that accept funds from all who offer, including powers involved in conflict where aid is being provided, and those which are more slective - is speculation that only the shape of future wars will resolve.


Implications unknown

With humanitarian aid cemented into the matrix of big-power war-fighting strategy, does it have an independent future?

Interestingly, the question parallels one being asked by people working in the media. They say that, with journalists "embedded" with military units and with the increased danger to independent, non-embedded media who have been mistakenly targetted by friendly forces on a number of occasions in Iraq, the future for the independent news gatherer may be open to question. Independent, non-embedded journalists covering the conflict in Iraq claim that they received little by way of assistance or cooperation from US military authorities.

Will humanitarian aid as an independent operation be similarly affected in future conflicts? Given that the military have temporary administrative and logistical power in any post-conflict situation, the question is being asked about their willingness to cooperate with non-approved, independent providers of humanitarian aid. Such an eventuality would severely limit the ability of independent agencies to move about and do their job.

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About the Author

Russ Grayson has a background in journalism and in aid work in the South Pacific. He has been editor of an environmental industry journal, a freelance writer and photographer for magazines and a writer and editor of training manuals for field staff involved in aid and development work with villagers in the Solomon Islands.

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