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