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Humanitarian Assistance and Politics - 2002-03-13

A new study looks at the close relationship between politics and humanitarian aid. The London-based Overseas Development Institute says the integration of humanitarian, political and military responses to conflict may not be ethical or effective.

The Overseas Development Institute, the ODI, says the issue is not whether humanitarian aid has been politicized, but how. Joanna Macrae is with the OID’s humanitarian policy group.

She says, "Any attempt to deliver humanitarian assistance to civilians in the context of an ongoing war is a highly political act in the sense that what you’re doing is going against the grain of the conflicts. Conflicts are designed to disempower the opposition, if you like. And what you’re trying to do in providing humanitarian assistance is to provide support for civilians. So, of itself it is a political act."

She says before the 1990’s, there was an implied separation of humanitarian assistance from the partisan politics and foreign policy interests of donor countries. In other words, emergency aid was often considered independent and unconditional.

But she says during the 1990’s, donor countries, the United Nations and non-governmental organizations called for an end to this separation. Ms. Macrae says they believed integrating humanitarian, political and military responses to conflict would be a better approach.

"Poorly managed relief could be making conflicts worse," she says. "And the classic case of this would seem to be in the refugee camps around Goma (in the Democratic Republic of Congo) where the very poor security situation in those camps meant that armed groups were able to co-opt relief resources and were seen to be building up their own military assets on the back of relief efforts. So, there was concern that relief was fueling conflict. And the proposition was if relief could be fueling conflict, maybe we can turn that around. Maybe we could use the provision of relief to actually contain conflict, to reduce it. And to try to turn it around for more peaceful purposes."

But the Overseas Development Institute researcher says instead of seeing a significant increase in diplomatic and military engagement, there was actually a decline. Ms. Macrae says, "What we have is basically a withdrawal of political and military engagement in countries on the periphery. I mean that until 9/11 (September 11th), Afghanistan was really off the international map in any serious political sense."

The ODI study says concentrating humanitarian assistance on conflict reduction and development threatens humanitarian principles. It says that means humanitarian decisions are based less on need. "I think as soon as you start seeing humanitarian assistance as part of a broader political strategy, that role is potentially compromised. And I would therefore argue for a separation between humanitarian responses and, if you like, political and diplomatic responses to try to resolve conflict."

Ms. Macrae says humanitarian assistance is not designed to resolve wars. In fact, she says, aid is now often associated with Western foreign policy.

She says, "Rather than trying to use humanitarian assistance as a lever in conflicts, what we really need to be looking at is investing in political processes and how we do that. And I’m very unconvinced that humanitarian assistance is the right instrument for achieving that."

She says humanitarian assistance is a necessity for many people around the world. "I would argue its primary purpose is a palliative, as a band-aid," she says. "For people who have got nothing else it is the strategy of last resort and it needs to be kept as such. And we shouldn’t forget how important it is for people to have access to adequate food and water and its life saving function."

The ODI study warns that humanitarian objectives may sometimes be at odds with objectives for peace building and development. It says political engagement by donors should not depend on aid initiatives. And it recommends that donors commit themselves to maintaining the impartial nature of humanitarian assistance.