Are humanitarians fueling conflicts?

April 9, 2009
Elena Lucchi and Clea Kahn, MSF

The use and misuse of humanitarian assistance has long been a dilemma for organisations working in conflict areas, where the steady leaking of resources to thieves, bandits, rebels and government raise serious ethical dilemmas. A new study by MSF has sought to examine the extent to which assistance may be doing harm in eastern Chad and Darfur. It looks specifically at one organisation’s financial contribution to the war economy of the region and assesses the results using the core humanitarian principles of neutrality and ‘do no harm’.

The ‘do no harm’ principle requires humanitarian agencies to strive to “…minimize the harm they may inadvertently be doing by being present and providing assistance. Humanitarian actors need to be aware if aid is used as an instrument of war or if aid is an indirect part of the dynamics of the conflict.” Such unintended negative consequences may be wide-ranging and extremely complex.

Neutrality is a conscious choice not to take sides in the conflict; a principle with highly practical implications. It requires that humanitarian actors ensure that their work does not and is not perceived as providing support to either side of the conflict. This, in turn, allows them to negotiate access to conflict-affected populations by assuring parties to the conflict that assistance will not be provided in a way that unfairly advantages one side or another.

For organisations working in eastern Chad and Darfur, vehicle hijackings and attacks on compounds have resulted in enormous material losses as well as reductions in services to conflict-affected populations. More worryingly, there is also clear evidence that stolen humanitarian vehicles and cash resources are being used to fuel the war economy.

In situations where the government is clearly a party to the conflict – such as in Darfur – the operating fees that humanitarian organisations are obliged to pay to government should also be added to the overall assessment of contributions to the war economy. In addition to the high cost to humanitarians of taxes and fees for visas and travel permits, the recent large-scale appropriation of the assets of expelled humanitarian organisations in Sudan must be considered.

The study examines a small sample of losses in 2008, including looting of assets and fees paid to government. At 2.84% in Chad, and 4.47% in Darfur, the overall proportion of looted assets and fees paid were substantial, but proportionally not sufficient to indicate that the negative impact of the assistance outweighed the positive. Nor is there enough evidence of imbalance to indicate that neutrality is seriously called into question. A larger study, which included the contributions of all NGOs, UN agencies and the ICRC might find very different results, particularly when resource-heavy operations, such as food and non-food item delivery, were included.

However, a contextual analysis shows that these assets are used by the parties to the conflict for political gain in more subtle ways; to strengthen rebel groups’ bid for political legitimacy, for example, or to provide economic benefits or disadvantages to allies or enemies. This conclusion challenges both the humanitarian community and political actors to modify the way they work in the region in order to reduce the risk of prolonging and exacerbating the conflict.

This is a preview of a longer article, which will appear in Humanitarian Exchange Magazine in June, 2009.


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