With recent claims from several quarters of the dangers of aid being mixed with military operations and the UK’s coalition government, currently putting DfID through a thorough review, dallying (or not) with bringing the two closer together, it is perhaps worthwhile spending a little time looking back at the short, but important, history of ‘military humanitarianism’.
The words neutrality, impartiality, independence and humanity pepper the pages of the manifestos, mandates and remits of humanitarian organizations and the volumes of academic and government discourse on humanitarianism. Yet, since the debacle of Rwanda in 1994, these classical core values have been under threat from a political ideal, that of ‘new humanitarianism’ which focuses upon a rights-based approach, as opposed to a needs-based one, is oriented towards long-term political goals of ‘liberal peace’, places humanitarianism within the ‘grey zone’ of a relief-development continuum, and is increasingly crowded with, supposedly integrated, political actors as it develops into a serious facet of international relations. The Kosovo crisis exemplified, both good and bad, the practical manifestation of ‘new humanitarianism’, but it remains a feature of contemporary humanitarian relief operations.
However, the post-9/11 environment has encouraged the militarization of ‘new humanitarianism’ towards political and security objectives, further straining the core tenets of humanitarianism.
Three major themes can be identified. Firstly, the public perception of the threat has changed, which has affected donorship; secondly, there came the ramifications of a new strand of political imperative, namely anti-terrorism and, thirdly, due to the nature of high profile conflicts, the conditions on the ground for humanitarian actors have been transformed, notably through the severe impact upon perceptions of neutrality and the hazards entailed.
Generated by a sudden sense of threat, donations to appeals for humanitarian crises were curtailed post 9/11, especially in the US, because of the notion that such funds were in effect aiding populations in which a threat resided. Further, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) sponsored the idea that the work of the US administration and humanitarian NGOs together ‘is now perceived to affect the national survival of the US’. Donor security in the minds of the US administration and the public became enmeshed with humanitarianism, encouraging a degree of selectivity as to where or not such aid should be disbursed and consideration of conditionality if seen necessary to bolster that security. Development aid has suffered a similar conflation.
US foreign policy, being at the forefront of the counter-terrorist agenda, dominated the foreign policy concerns of the West in general and therefore, to varying degrees, the humanitarian stance of the leading global donors. Policy focused upon the threat of terrorism. Like Kosovo, the promoters of major conflicts in this war, both the US and Atlanticist Europeans, have not shied from employing a humanitarian raison d’etre, mixing a political crisis with a supposed humanitarian one, motivated by political necessity
But the ‘with us or against us’ approach of such policy has taken the politicization of humanitarian aid, and the overt acknowledgement of it, to new heights. Impartiality has long been under threat as the aid figures from the mid-to-late 1990s have demonstrated, indicating a strategic skew away from what might be termed ‘forgotten crises’, representing something of a dual-track composed of strategically important crises and those less so. The very basis of the political imperative, centred on direct threats, has maintained such a strategic skew although shifting policy focus to new zones. This has had further profound implications for humanitarianism, not least for the basic tenets of neutrality and independence.
Afghanistan had long been seen as a protracted humanitarian crisis and therefore the humanitarian imperative could be more easily dovetailed into the political and military response to 9/11. However, Iraq was much more contentious, with neutrality being compromised early on in the lead up to its invasion. Many major NGOs, especially European ones, stated their opposition to the forthcoming war, their spokespersons not only commenting upon possible humanitarian scenarios but also their stance towards military action. The historical tendency for US NGOs mostly to align themselves with the incumbent administration reduced such an anti-war tendency but was indicative of their already lower levels of neutrality. The Europeans had shown that they could support military intervention on humanitarian grounds (see page 23) but their stance over Iraq illustrated their resistance to the conforming of humanitarianism to a political agenda. However, the availability of massive aid funds and contracts after the war’s end resulted in a reverse swing in terms of effective, or perceived, allegiance. While many NGOs, including US ones, initially declared their unwillingness to receive Coalition funds for work in Iraq, many eventually agreed to accept such ‘partisan’ resources. As such, in Afghanistan and Iraq, many NGOs are no longer seen as independent agencies but rather as subcontractors or, as Colin Powell claimed, ‘force multipliers’, in the humanitarian field. This perception enhances the notion of the privatization and militarization of humanitarianism.
The counter-terrorism agenda has raised further some significant questions regarding humanitarian policy. Many decry the merging of humanitarian policy with international security policy, even though it has been largely recognized that development and security are intertwined, with the former suffering due to a lack of the latter. But the new post 9/11 security environment has led to a much wider interpretation, leading to accusations that the humanitarian motives of donor governments and institutions have been hijacked by the underlying needs of their political and security agendas.
The post 9/11 environment has further encouraged the drive, apparent since the late 1990s, towards an integrated approach to crises, exemplified by the UN’s Brahimi Report of 2000 which formalized a coherent approach to crisis management, endorsing the ‘integration agenda’ whereby diplomatic, military, political and humanitarian elements would work to meet the same objectives. Further, the use of force, or even a benign military involvement in crisis response, has raised the spectre of humanitarian agencies operating, or being perceived to operate, alongside belligerents, with obvious concerns arising over the security of those humanitarian agencies.
Western governments that are involved in the war on terror agenda are also the main financiers of humanitarian funds. In this they do have leverage over humanitarian agencies and NGOs, which, at bottom, are resource-driven and compelled to search for funds, and to a degree over humanitarian policy.
Whereas Kosovo exhibited ‘new humanitarianism’ employing extensive military means, the last decade’s counter-terror agenda has been claimed as the harbinger of true ‘military humanitarianism’, on the back of political and security concerns.
Of note is the fact that while discourse around the subject of military humanitarianism was energetic during the first few years of this millenium, sparked by Iraq and Afghanistan, that conversation has waned over the last few years. But a quick examination of ongoing conflicts involving both military and humanitarian activities reveals that ‘military humanitarianism’ continues, for good and bad.
 http://hwproject.tufts.edu/new/pdf/minear-arden.pfd , p. 4.
 Andrew Natsios, USAID administrator, cited in Stoddard, A. Humanitarian NGOs: Challenges and Trends London: Humanitarian Policy Group (Overseas Development Institute), July 2003, p. 5.
 Rieff, D. A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis London: Vintage, 2002, pp. 234-5.
 ‘And I want you to know that I have made it clear to my staff here and to all our ambassadors around the world that I am serious about making sure we have the best relationship with the NGOs who are such a force multiplier for us, such an important part of our combat team.’ US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, 26 October 2001.
 Nickolls, J. Limits to Neutrality in Iraq Humanitarian Exchange No 25, December 2003. (pp. 7-9)
 Duffield, M. Global Governance and the New Wars London: Zed Books, 2001.
Even in these times of economic uncertainty, the public of the rich West will still dig into their pockets to donate funds to charities and NGOs working to alleviate suffering in the most desperate and war-ravaged areas of the planet. Indeed, whilst Greece burns and threatens livelihoods, many still understand that great swathes of Africa and Asia equally burn, threatening lives. People still give generously to help those in need. And NGOs will gladly take this money and pour it into numerous brave and noble development and humanitarian programmes. Equally these NGOs will ensure that those giving are not only made aware of the needs of those suffering but also of their own tireless and challenging work to relieve that suffering. And it seems like a fair deal – we’ll show you the bad stuff, you give us money, we’ll try and sort out the bad stuff and show you what we’re doing.
However, taking a realist perspective, when the developed world floods a war-ravaged country with funding, the vast majority of it ends up not with those most deserving of it but in the hands of whichever corrupt elites happen to be fighting for control, and thereby inadvertently financing the conflict’s continuation. Even when money is provided directly to those in need, circumventing corrupt middlemen and warlords, via direct provision of necessary equipment, food, aid etc, local environmental economics kick in. Sheer poverty gives items such as medecines, medical instruments, shelter material, wheelchairs and the like their own special market value – fetching sums of money which will be more valuable than the actual item themselves. Such items end up back in the economy, providing for those with less need of them.
This reality will come as no surprise to anyone who has been involved in international aid at the business end, especially working with NGOs in the field. However, of those millions of donors who regularly fund these NGOs, the sheer brutal truth of what happens to their money is mostly hidden. To a degree a conspiracy of silence is maintained lest these donors learn of the ultimate destination of their charitable donations and henceforth refrain from giving.
From a utopian perspective, all aid would be orchestrated by those beyond reproach, guided by their best instincts in implementing programs for those most in need. Each and every one of us would take seriously our accountability to local communities and to the donors providing the wherewithal to get the job done. However, experience reveals that humanitarian programmes, with large amounts of cash flying around in a frantic maelstrom, often encourage fast and loose approaches to inflowing funds. Given the haste with which aid programmes are often thrown together, controls on the use of funds are often a bit less rigorous than in development programming, which can demand more rigour and transparency.
The sad fact is that many conflicts in which huge amounts of donor aid is forthcoming, via a huge and growing number of charitable NGOs, are often fuelled by, if not engineered to encourage, that very aid and the environment within which this aid is opertating merely provides oxygen for corrupt or lackadaisical accounting. This moral dilemma becomes a major issue for NGOs who have genuine desire to assist those in need and also for governments, who can hardly remain on the sidelines when the media are handily driving their publics to demand that something be done.
Thus ensues a vicious circle of humanitarian assistance and conflict – one familiar to aid agencies and NGOs. It provides particular challenges to those working in the field, not least those involved in campaigning and communication. Ethical questions abound. Knowing the potential attrition rate of aid funding as it approaches its final destination, as vast amounts are hived off by various players, is it morally right to deny this harsh truth to those willing to contribute? Knowing that $300 is just as likely to end up purchasing thousands of rounds of 7.62mm ammunition as it is supplying stocks of antibiotics, is it morally right to conceal such possibilities from those donating? Knowing that host nation ‘partners’ often have accounting practices which leave much to be desired, and allow for a lot of creative accounting with donated sums, is it morally right to maintain a façade of successful and efficient partnerships?
But then again, morality may have to be tempered with pragmatism. Undoubtedly, when it comes down to it, NGOs and aid agencies can only really survive through such pragmatism – a pragmatism that demands that not only do they communicate the need for aid but market themselves as the provider of choice, sell their idea of charity and brand themselves as angels amidst a hell. All against a backdrop of ethical conundrums.
In truth, communication within the field of international aid is as tough and challenging as it gets – rife with moral dilemmas. Marketing the iPad, selling the latest BMW 5 series or even campaigning for a political party – all are ethical child’s play in comparison.
Interesting snippet caught on Newsnight last night (28/04/09) about energy and climate change issues in the US. Ethical man Justin Rowlatt covered Powershift 09 as part of his series. But the crucial communications aspect of Powershift seems to be that a green activist movement, normally shunned by mainstream governments, is being seen as a method of encouraging and persuading American voters of Obama’s climate change agenda, using activists (seen being trained in how to resist arrest) as ambassadors for a government policy.
Now this proximity of traditional enemies is not new – Shell and BP have taken considerable steps to be seen as green through apparent (and only occasional) connectivity with activist groups like Greenpeace, although emnity is deep and remains for obvious reasons. And there are many political groups who will support political pitches, including that of the incumbent government. But the use of strident activists to promote a government policy against a generally accepted stance i.e. the fossil fuel economy, seems to be a new leap. This is not Astroturf but using genuine activism for policy endorsement.
The circumstances may be unique to the cap and trade issue in the US, but this approach does beg several questions – are there other circumstances where political policy can be matched with vocal activists against a form of accepted, conventional wisdom? And further, are there circumstances in developing and post-conflict countries which can be used in a similar way?
This is not necessarily countenancing covert support to student groups under totalitarian regimes, but where foreign agencies are already engaged (be they UN, NATO etc) do we make full use of grass roots activism (as limited as it may be) to achieve policy goals, or do we still tend to go down the route of mainsteam key leader engagement because it’s easier, more straightforward (relatively!) and more in line with our conventional
Western way of doing things? Are developing embryonic government institutions, struggling with democracy, encouraged to look towards the power of activist groups or are they merely maintaining their traditional opposition towards them? Are they, and therefore we, missing a trick?
After all, most governments have always had difficult relationships with autonomous grass roots organisations, unless, of course, they’re onside already. As ever with trying to improve the performance of public diplomacy and foreign policy communications in a rapidly changing information environment, the above requires some serious unconventional and politically risky thinking.
But that thinking, at the very least, should be done.
Conflict Prevention in the Multimedia Age
3-5 June, Bonn/Germany
Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum
The conference secretariat is busily finalising content and organisational matters – as you can see in the attached programme overview we have about 45 panels and workshops lined up so far. In terms of content the number of events has nearly tripled compared to last year. A topical overview is online available here
Javier Solana, High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, Secretary-General of the Council of the European Union will open the conference (tbc), Ramtane Lamamra, Commissioner for Peace and Security of the African Union has also agreed to join. Moreover we have lined up a number of German politicians and we are still waiting for a decision of the German Chancellor Angela Merkel. We also have asked the Jordanian queen and some other international political VIPs who have not yet confirmed.
In terms of content experts and speakers it looks better and better nearly on a daily basis. Just two colleagues who have agreed to join recently are Howard Rheingold, the Internet visionary and Brian Storm, multimedia guru from New York . Ahmed Salim, CEO A24 Media has also agreed to come. We have started publishing all those names on our website.
An attractive evening programme will give you a chance to enjoy the scenery of the Rhine river and the hospitability typical for this German region.
Partners include (in no special order): German Armed Forces, Stanford University, Reuters, University of Saarbrücken, University of Melbourne, Eyes and Ears of Europe, Intermedia, FoeBud, Chaos Computer Club, Radio Nederland, Media21, Konrad Adenauer Foundation, Committee for the Protection of Journalists, InWEnt, Commonwealth Broadcasting Organisation, FiFF, Interdisc. Fora RWTH, GPACC, SIGNIS, Friedrich Ebert Foundation , DART Centre, n-ost, Thomson Reuters, Oxford University, OECD, UNHCR, Nokia Siemens Networks, IPI, Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union, EBU, Zurich University of Applied Sciences
The conference is generously supported by the German Foreign Office, the Foundation for International Dialogue of the savings bank in Bonn , the State Government of North-Rhine Westphalia, the City of Bonn and DHL
Contact / Conference Secretariat:
DW – MEDIA SERVICES GmbH
53113 Bonn , Germany
P +49.228.429-2142 (Press inquiries: +49.228.429-2148)