September 24, 2004

by Nicolas de Torrente, Executive Director MSF-USA

Excerpted from article published in Ethics & International Affairs, Volume 18, No.2, (Fall 2004), published by the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs. Click here for the complete article.

In recent years, there have been concerted efforts to ensure that the different components of the international response to crisis-affected countries, whether conducted under the banner of the United Nations or not, are integrated in pursuit of a stated goal of comprehensive, durable, and just resolution of conflict. This includes a drive to purposefully make humanitarian assistance to victims, one of the principal forms of outside involvement in crisis situations, supportive of the "international community's" political ambition. The implication of the coherence agenda is that meeting lifesaving needs is too limited in scope, and that the principles of impartiality, neutrality, and independence that have typically characterized humanitarian action should be set aside in order to harness aid to the "higher" goals of peace, security, and development.

There is no doubt that, beyond immediate survival, peace, political representation, justice, and socioeconomic development rank high among the wishes of people attempting to survive amid conflict and crisis–leaving aside for a moment the very different meanings they may give to these broad and ill-defined concepts. However, transforming humanitarian action into a presumptive tool of conflict resolution is unjustifiably and unnecessarily detrimental to people who suffer the ravages of war. First, the assertion that meeting essential needs can go hand in hand with promoting peace and development is belied by the conditionality and selectivity that characterize the actual deployment of humanitarian assistance under the coherence model. In reality, aid is often either deployed as a reward or denied as a sanction in the name of a brighter future, which results in many avoidable deaths. Second, sacrificing or sidelining the humanitarian imperative of immediately saving lives based on assessed needs for future unproven benefits is not only ethically untenable–it is also unnecessary. This is because the role of aid in conflicts is misunderstood. The use of aid as an incentive in conflict zones does not promote peace any more than aid directly provided to those in need fuels war. Third, to link purposefully the deployment of aid to the broader international response to crises as a matter of consistent policy requires a leap of faith–or rather a willful denial of reality–that actual international responses serve the interests of conflict-affected populations. In particular, it overlooks the fact that deliberate neglect–aside from the selective allocation of aid–is often the main form of international political engagement.