Foley, Why the politicisation of aid can be deadly (Aug 2004)

NGOs and Civil Society

Foley, Conor. “Why the politicisation of aid can be deadly.” The Age (27 Aug 2004).>

Bush's America is blurring the lines between humanitarian and military action, writes Conor Foley.

No one doubts that a desperately poor country such as Afghanistan needs humanitarian assistance; but many are asking whether the benefits that aid workers bring outweigh the price that they are being asked to pay. Hearing of the murder of friends and colleagues, of aid convoys being ambushed, or of vehicles booby-trapped has led to growing anguish and anger.

Over the past 12 months about 40 of my fellow aid workers have been murdered in Afghanistan. Virtually every humanitarian organisation has had its staff or offices threatened or attacked. I narrowly missed being caught up in an attack a few weeks before I left.

Much of the country is now off-limits to humanitarian organisations, and in areas where we still operate, there are curfews and restrictions of movement.

Most non-government organisations continue to refuse to accept armed guards or escorts, but the militarised environment in which we work is having an impact on our identity and the way in which we are perceived by others.

One reason most humanitarian organisations pulled out of Iraq was the feeling that we had become identified with an operation that many believe violated international law, so our presence compromised our neutrality.

Humanitarian organisations have long invoked principles of international law to claim "space" within which to operate during conflicts. The US Administration, however, has set many of these principles to one side in pursuit of its own unilateral goals.

In Afghanistan, the US has been accused of blurring the lines between humanitarianism and military action and this was one of the reasons cited by Medecins Sans Frontieres for its recent withdrawal from the country. This criticism is certainly valid, but it is only one area in which American short-term expediency is having a negative long-term impact.

The Norwegian Refugee Council gives advice to returning refugees who are seeking to reclaim property they lost when they were driven from their homes. Many of its clients have found their land and homes occupied by military commanders, some of whom also hold official public positions.

The US military's decision to provide direct military support to particular local commanders in its fight against the remnants of the Taliban in 2002 entrenched many of these warlords and led to the creation of a number of regional fiefdoms. It also convinced many that as allies in the US's "war against terror" they were above the law.

Tackling corruption is a prerequisite for effective state-building but, if this year's bumper poppy harvest is anything to go by, the situation is getting worse not better. There is credible evidence that the Afghan authorities know who murdered MSF staff in June, yet they have made no move to question or detain them. Given the unwillingness of the authorities to act, the International Criminal Court's prosecutor could initiate independent investigations into such crimes. Unfortunately, the US Administration remains unremittingly hostile to the ICC.

Rebuilding a rule of law according to international human rights standards is also essential in creating a democratic state, but again the US is failing to take a lead.

Few aid workers were surprised at recent revelations that "freelance" American security operatives allegedly set up a private prison where they detained and tortured suspected opponents of the Afghan Government. Afghanistan is full of private prisons where people are held without trial.

However, while the US continues to hold large numbers of its own detainees, incommunicado, for indefinite periods it are in a weak position to criticise others. When I asked one Afghan judge why he had made no official complaint after hearing two detainees' allegations of mistreatment in US military custody, he told me, only half joking, that he did not want to end up in Guantanamo Bay himself.

US involvement in Afghanistan is not all negative: it remains the biggest donor and provides the biggest contingent of foreign troops.

The question that remains is whether this makes up for the growing politicisation of aid, the undermining of international law and the weakening of humanitarian principles.

For the colleagues I left behind, this is quite literally a life-and-death dilemma.

Conor Foley was program manager of the Norwegian Refugee Council's legal aid project in Afghanistan from July 2003 to July 2004.