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Same aims, different means? Why promoting "coherence" in military and humanitarian goals is a disservice to civilians in need
By Austen Davis, General Director, MSF-Holland
Humanitarian actors seek to serve the suffering and the needy, and cry out for political actors to stop causing misery and death and address the causes of suffering. Humanitarian action demands the development of a more just and humane society. Over the past decade, the West has increased belief in the utility of military intervention to impose peace and alter the balance of power as a means for development of a more just and humane society, locally and globally. (Think of NATO in Bosnia and Kosovo, the US-led coalitions in Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf, and the US in Somalia.) But sharing similar goals – and thinking about humanitarian and military action as "coherent" aspects of the same effort – disguises fundamental differences in the capacities, roles and responsibilities of government and humanitarian actors. They must not be confused.
Should we go to war?
Humanitarian action does not cast a vote on the "justness" of war – but reacts to its dehumanizing consequences. Humanitarian actors believe that, regardless of political context, civilians on all sides in a conflict should be helped when they are in extreme pain or at risk of death. Need is the only qualifying factor. In a world where origin and identity are political statements that often put people on one "side" or another, how else can we try and sustain a value for humanity?
Humanitarian agencies frequently work in war and conflict zones. War is complex, irrational, destructive and regressive, and obviously not a means to develop a just society. The more wars you work in, the more you are confronted with the same analysis: war is complicated; violence is irrational and ultimately unproductive. In every war you hear "there is no military solution to this conflict." For years we have been told that the wars of Sudan, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Colombia, Kashmir and Israel/Palestine cannot be won militarily.
However, the West increasingly sends military forces into conflicts, sending the signal that there are military solutions to societal problems. One reason put forward by Western leaders for the shift is that the new wars waged by the West are "humanitarian" wars, fought by democratic governments with the collaboration of aid agencies to ensure a just and humane outcome.
Working for peace and justice
Under the new militarism, the West claims to intervene for the "good of the world" and for civilians in the affected country. Humanitarian assistance is supposed to be a natural ally to this new military interventionism. After all, don't we have a common goal – a world in which all people live in peace, security and relative prosperity? So, shouldn't humanitarian aid agencies work with Western military forces to secure peace, law and order, and sow the seeds for a more positive future? Our answer is no. While such an alliance in the name of common goals may be useful for governments, it is deadly to the humanitarian mission, and a betrayal of the people who should be served by the aid agencies. Are aid agencies effective political allies?
The means by which we construct peace and security are deeply political processes. For Afghanistan to attain peace, it is not enough simply to overthrow the Taliban and offer a large aid package as long as everyone "behaves." There is a complex process of competition being played out as former warlords vie for prestige and power. The new government being formed is not just an expression of the popular will, but reflects alliances with external states (the US, Russia, Iran, Pakistan) and the balance of military force.
Humanitarian assistance is not a natural partner in this process. We do not have access to backroom bargaining – nor should we. We have neither the skills nor capacities to define the true path for positive social progress and construction of a balanced and just post-war state.
What we do have is the responsibility to care for the dying while crisis remains in the country and to report on the suffering we face. This suffering is an indicator of political failure in this complex process – and we demand redress. We are one important voice – with one important concern, in a critical, complex and messy process. To do this we must be independent from the political process. Following the humanitarian imperative
Yet this independence is not easy to maintain. In order to mount humanitarian operations, agencies must have money. Most humanitarian funding is provided to NGOs by governments. This year in Afghanistan, a lot of money was made available to aid agencies. Agencies rapidly responded by drawing up three-, five- or even ten-year development plans in a matter of weeks after massive political change. But how could they know the challenges and the future? Aid agencies have been conscripted to manage the peace, and their development plans have become blueprints for the situation in Afghanistan.
The most important task is to define policy and keep the money flowing – and that means following the plan. Reality becomes an inconvenient obstruction to the willingly blind. The reality in Afghanistan -- inaccessible people, banditry, robberies, rape, killings and assassinations, new refugee flows -- continues to be ignored or buried. There is very little discussion of how to ensure immediate and essential humanitarian action. Instead, the agenda was defined through political will for the establishment of a modern liberal state, and exercised through the obedient and hungry bureaucratic imperative of the global aid agencies.
One might ask: So what, if it works? But it doesn't – because such a process generates false expectations, and false solutions. It is only now that the abstract falseness of the process and the hard realities of Afghan political life are being recognized – but not yet faced. We cannot create peace in the image of aid agencies. Military decisiveness coupled with an obedient aid community is not enough to meet the complex political challenges of a state in crisis.
Multiple examples over the last decade and a half show just how much the attempt to portray coherent military and humanitarian goals has undercut the humanitarian mission. Under the new spirit of Western military interventionism, humanitarian agencies have been encouraged to come in on the tails of the military. Military leaders have already requested that NGOs prepare a "massive deployment of staff and materials" to the region, to be ready to go into Iraq. No wonder humanitarian agencies are increasingly seen as partisan. In Angola, the rebel opposition group UNITA refused aid agencies access to people under its control because it saw aid workers as part of Western support mechanisms to the enemy. The Serbian authorities refused access by aid agencies to Kosovo while NATO was bombing. Western aid agencies withdrew from assisting refugees in West Timor after militia leaders targeted humanitarian workers who they perceived as pro-East Timorese secession. The northern Sudanese authorities regularly deny access to aid agencies trying to work in southern Sudan as part of their political strategy to confront Western power. Saddam Hussein tightly restricts humanitarian access to people in Iraq, despite arguing that sanctions are killing women and children. Opponents to the vision of justice and progress held by the West (and there are many) will see humanitarian action as part of the Western package and therefore part of the opposition. The essential message of humanitarianism is then lost – there is room for cultural, social and political diversity – but we must remember, when we disagree, that we are all human beings and we all bleed when cut.
This year aid agencies also tried to consolidate the political role of aid in the reconstruction of a newly peaceful Angola. After decades of conflict, the end of war offers great hopes for the future. But massive immediate problems remain: a huge proportion of the population displaced and hungry; a shattered economy; no commercial infrastructure; total absence of educated and healthy workers; landmines that litter the land; and no accountability of government to the people. There is a widely shared belief that aid should not continue to be a substitute for the responsibilities of the Angolan government, which has shamefully neglected the well-being of its own citizens during this brutal war (a view MSF shares). With the end of conflict, the aid agencies acted quickly to consolidate their influence, standing together to maximize their leverage for framework agreements from the government on respective roles in the post-war period. But this was at a moment when huge numbers of people were starving to death. MSF refused to become involved in the political jockeying and instead increased aid to affected civilians. Withholding critical humanitarian action at a moment when it is known the government does not have the capacity to act is to sentence those people to certain death. The idea that "smart" aid can be used to promote good governance overruled the instinct to go and feed desperately hungry women and children. Aid agencies cannot encourage a government's responsibility to its own people by displaying callousness and lack of concern themselves. What kind of humanitarian action is it that no longer represents that basic impulse so well understood by the average member of the public – not political, not complex, simply humane?
Doing what you can
It often seems that focusing on helping people in the middle of conflict does not address the causes of the crisis. It is demoralizing to heal the wounded and see them back in the clinics six weeks later. We all want to see peace and justice. But how to get it? Directing or withholding humanitarian relief has little impact on the ability of a regime to hold on to power – but it does serve to undermine the non-partisan character of humanitarian assistance the world over. So politicians think humanitarian aid is part of Western action, and champion it or refuse it. And aid workers become convinced they have the power to design aid programs to further political progress. This achieves little political progress and obscures the responsibility of political actors for that progress. It also runs the risk of losing something very precious. The real importance of humanitarian assistance is to save lives in the heart of crisis, and to demonstrate that caring for people is so important, even in the midst of crisis. Only such a realization can make the pursuit of a future tolerant peace viable.
We are not politicians, but people who morally respond to the needs of ordinary human beings. When humanitarian action becomes incorporated into the political contest, it becomes prey to the political calculation of profit and loss on each side. Whether we support or reject the value of Western intervention in this or that country has no bearing on whether humanitarian action should be incorporated. Humanitarian action that goes hand in hand with Western military intervention will continue to be rejected by opponents to the West and humanitarian assistance will only be given to people living under the political authority of allies of the West. This type of humanitarian assistance is nothing but a civilian quartermaster. It presents no moral challenge to the destruction of war – it does not argue for restraint in conduct of war – it is partisan and merely fuels the capacity for conflict.