Friday, December 26, 2014

Humanitarian Aid as Part of an Agenda

What is the wrong way to give humanitarian aid in a conflict?

Can aid in a conflict ever be entirely neutral?

I have to admit, these are questions that I had not given much thought to since watching episodes of M*A*S*H as a child, especially the episodes where the members of the unit were treating or even simply interacting with North Koreans.  I used to think about how nice it was that the American doctors were taking such good care of the North Koreans, treating them the way they would anyone else.  I even remembered being surprised that they were treating the soldiers at all, I mean, did that not sort of defeat the purpose?  They were trying to win the war after all and the more soldiers they saved on the opposing side the more they had to go up against.  Of course, now I realise that the soldiers that they saved probably became prisoners of war being that the M*A*S*H unit was a military faction.  So while it was good of "Trapper John", "Hawkeye" and "Hotlips" to save the North Korean soldiers that came into their facility, those that they did were likely ultimately used as bargaining chips in the war effort for the American and South Korean side.

I also now realise that it would probably have been against international law to not treat the wounded of either side.  But of course, this leads me to even more questions, one of which is: when did warring parties start treating the other side's wounded and what documents outline those obligations? Did the North Korean side have the same sort of facilities to treat their soldiers and people or the soldiers they took as captives on their side and what happened if they did not.  Were they as willing as the Americans to treat the opposing side just as well as their own?

The rights of prisoners of war and individuals wounded by conflict (combatants or non-combatants) are outlined in the Geneva Convention, protected under international law and enforced by the United Nations (Draper 1998).  The regulations in the Convention dictate the proper non-discriminatory treatment of all people (including food and water and medical care), should they be captured by the opposing side (provided they are a signatory to the Convention).  After all, individuals who are fighting in a conflict or are captured as civilians are really just pawns in a much bigger game over which the vast majority of them have very little control (Draper 1998).  They are, in essence, just people who have become weapons and casualties of war.

Side note: I would be lying if I said that the Convention was not confusing to me.   From what I understand, it basically states that it is okay to for military forces to kill and wound members of the opposing side but if you do capture them and/or they are no longer able to fight (quite possibly because you have injured them so severely) you are legally bound to provide them with basic standards of care and humane treatment.  That premise seems inherently contradictory to me.  Did Guantanamo Bay not therefore violate the Convention every day that it was operational?  And why is it that military forces are allowed to kill each other (and often civilians in the process) by some means but not others?  Mustard gas and nuclear bombs are not okay but machine guns, grenades and other bombs are because it's okay to kill or maim someone but you have to do it humanely and without torturing them?  You can detain someone but not take hostages?  I'm sure that these rules have evolved over a great deal of time as a result of a tremendous amount of consideration and probably do make some sense in practice.  But, from the outside, it is really difficult to marry the different rules outlined in the convention in my mind.  Moreover, I find it truly disturbing that the human race has established a set of rules on how to be at war with each other.  I do suppose however that if the international community decides to allow war, there should be some lines drawn in the sand that cannot (or at least should not) be crossed without punitive action or recourse.

In more recent times, warring sides have developed alternative strategies and found other ways to utilise civilian populations to fulfil their own agendas.  These tactics are more sociopolitical than artillery-based and involve convincing the civilian populations to not support the opposing forces. Another term used to denote this kind of strategy is "counter-insurgency" (Williamson 2011).  There are two main courses of action through which this can be accomplished: the "carrot-and-stick" method or the "winning hearts and minds" method (Williamson 2011).

The carrot-and-stick method consists of rewarding those civilians who do not help or support the efforts of the opposing side (often referred to as "insurgents") with assistance of some kind, whether it be monetary or otherwise (Williamson 2011).  The other side of the carrot-and-stick method involves using the military to punish those who do support the insurgents (Williamson 2011).  The economists in my life are rather fond of this kind of strategy, believing strongly in the power of incentives, especially financial ones.  On the other hand, whoever can offer the most money is not always the side with the best of intentions so perhaps bribery is not the best way forward...

The second, seemingly less forceful (not to mention corrupt) way of going about it is the winning hearts and minds method.  This involves providing humanitarian aid with the goal of winning over the support, trust and fealty of the civilian populations by showing them how benevolent your side is and how good their life could be if they cooperate with you (Williamson 2011).  The goal is to convince the civilians in the area that your way is better, drain the opposing force of their local resources and in doing so win the battle of wills (not necessarily weapons) (Williamson 2011).

A third option that can be implemented alone or in addition to either of the former strategies is establishing proper governance and contributing to the capacity of the domestic court system to bring the rule of law back into the society and promote justice (Williamson 2011).

Neither the carrot-and-stick or the winning the hearts and mind method have proven to be very effective and in fact the strategies have caused problems (Williamson 2011).  When implemented by international military forces in the short term, the hearts and mind strategy has been shown to provide only limited and temporary security benefits and has ultimately hindered the success of the military efforts in Afghanistan (Williamson 2011).  The third method however, is useful in situations where the states are in the process of collapsing or have already (Williamson 2011).

The mere fact that the first two methods are problematic highlights what many have started to believe and that is the need for distinct and intentional separation between humanitarian assistance and military factions (Williamson 2011).  While humanitarian associations and military forces need to communicate and develop trust in one another to ensure that humanitarian volunteers are not being sent into particularly dangerous areas, their courses of action should not cross over more than that (Williamson 2011).  Most importantly, humanitarian aid should be politically neutral and have no ulterior motives other than providing assistance to people in need.

I can understand both sides of the argument.  Humanitarian associations do want to see an end to conflict and a re-establishment of stable government so that they can help societies move towards recovery, independence and equal treatment for all of their people (regardless of gender, race, culture, etc).  So in that regard, it does make sense for them to be supportive of the military forces that are working towards those same goals.  The military could also help to protect their volunteers from attacks.  From the military's perspective, helping the communities on the ground can benefit them by reducing the local resistance that they may face.

On the other side, aid organisations are, as one of our lecturers stated, businesses.  They need to protect their reputations and maintain the public's trust in their organisations so that they can continue to:
  1. Receive support and financial resources and
  2. Operate in areas of conflict and tension, offering assistance to those in need.
The goals of military forces can inherently conflict with those of aid organisations in that they are aiming to debilitate the opposing side and in doing so may cause the very damage that aid organisations have to help those societies recover from.  In addition, there have been military actions that once known have not received public approval and have in fact been widely condemned.  For example, some of the deplorable behaviour exhibited by American soldiers in the Middle East brought the American forces a great deal of negative publicity.  That sort of behaviour would have likely damaged the reputations of aid organisations associated and/or working with the American military in that area (and possibly around the world).  This may have consequently interfered with the organisations' abilities to function and possibly even endangered their personnel.

While it may be convenient to share responsibilities in other situations (i.e. natural disaster scenarios), perhaps in the case of conflict settings, aid organisations and military factions should stay their own course so that their goals remain clear in the eyes of the public.  In the "principles of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent (IFRC) Movement and NGOs in Disaster Response Programmes", the IFRC actually states that the aid that it provides "will not be used to further a particular political or religious standpoint" (IFRC 1994).  Frankly, it seems like the right idea to me, otherwise the situation could become quite confusing.

Finally, upon reading the various perspectives on humanitarianism at, it is difficult to not feel a bit despondent and frustrated at the state of the world.  Some people point at the responsibility of human beings to help one another while others criticise philanthropy along the lines of "colonialism" "the white man's burden" (the feeling of needing to step in and fix everything according to what western societies see as the right way) (Inside Disaster n.d.).  The rest criticise the failings of governmental bodies that fail to prevent disasters and/or sufficiently prepare their societies to minimise damages and therefore result in the need for the "band aid" solution of humanitarian action (Inside Disaster n.d.).  It's nothing that I have not heard before or even thought myself, but everything that human beings do and have ever done can be seen as having both a positive and negative side, depending on your perspective.  We are after all, only human and there are honestly no good deeds that I can think of that are entirely selfless or devoid of potential harm.  While it's very important to critically reflect on all of the consequences of our actions (intended or not), being too judgemental and disparaging is more likely to lead to inaction.  I feel that humanitarianism will continue to evolve as our societies do as well and I hope that how we decide to deal with circumstances will only improve going forward, but I sincerely hope that it does not revert back to a state where we simply decide to never take any action.

This is an interesting diagram about donor government decision-making that I found while reading up on the famine in Somalia.  It highlights the various risks that donor governments must consider when deciding when and how to provide assistance to other countries.

(Bailey 2013, pp. 48)


Bailey, R 2013, Managing Famine Risk: Linking Early Warning to Early Action, A Chatham House Report, The Royal Institute of International Affairs, London, viewed 29 December 2014, <>.

Draper, GIAD 1998, Reflections on Law and Armed Conflicts: The Selected Works on the Laws of War by the Late Professor Colonel G.I.A.D. Draper, Kluwer Law International, The Hague.

IFRC 1994, Code of conduct, viewed 24 December 2014, <>.

Inside Disaster n.d., What is Humanitarianism?, viewed 24 December 2014, <>.

Williamson, JA 2011, 'Using humanitarian aid to ‘win hearts and minds’: a costly failure?', International Review of the Red Cross, vol. 93, no. 884, pp. 1035-1061, DOI 10.1017/S1816383112000380.


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