Issue 43 - Article 8

Are humanitarians fuelling conflicts? Evidence from eastern Chad and Darfur

July 12, 2009
Clea Kahn and Elena Lucchi, MSF

For aid organisations working in eastern Chad and Darfur, theft and banditry are among the greatest impediments to the effective implementation of programmes. Vehicle hijackings and attacks on compounds have led to enormous material losses and delays and reductions in services to conflict-affected populations. The issue has been widely discussed by the humanitarian community, and one studyon advocacy in Darfur cited insecurity for aid workers as the third most common subject in press releases issued by humanitarian organisations. However, despite solid evidence to show that stolen humanitarian vehicles, equipment and cash are being used to fuel the war economy, few have asked whether humanitarian principles are being challenged or even undermined.

This is not a new question. In 1995, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) made the very difficult decision to withdraw from the heavily militarised refugee camps in Goma in eastern DRC, rather than allow assistance to be manipulated. In other cases, notably Somalia, Liberia and South Sudan, the humanitarian community has been forced to confront its relationship with armed actors and war economies and take measures to mitigate the negative consequences of aid provision.

This article does not attempt to analyse the overall financial impact of humanitarian operations on the war economy in eastern Chad and Darfur. Instead, it examines some of the trends and, by looking at the financial indicators from one organisation, identify key issues which need to be addressed.

Principles at stake: ‘do no harm’ and neutrality

Do no harm

The ‘do no harm’ principle is derived from medical ethics. It requires humanitarian organisations 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.

One of the crucial elements in assessing harm is looking at the extent to which humanitarian assistance contributes to the overall economy of the conflict. Prior to the expulsion of aid organisations, it was estimated that the cost of providing assistance in 2009 in Darfur alone was a billion dollars. The complexity of the economic dynamics in eastern Chad and Darfur makes it impossible to see exactly how resources may have been diverted, manipulated or incorporated into the strategies of parties to the conflict. That said, this kind of investment is inevitably a catalyst for change, both positive and negative.

Over time, analysts have identified a number of ways in which assistance can be diverted or manipulated in conflict. What is particularly interesting in Darfur and eastern Chad is the extent to which these patterns have, in many respects, been reversed.

Humanitarian assistance confers legitimacy. For rebel groups or armed insurgents, when humanitarians negotiate with them for access to people living in their areas of control, this interaction can be used to demonstrate that they are legitimate, or ‘recognised’. In eastern Chad and Darfur, this has been turned on its head: in both areas, power and legitimacy are derived not from fostering positive relationships with the humanitarian community, but through demonstrations of brute force. The result is a ‘Toyota war’, in which the seizure of vehicles by force from humanitarian organisations confers legitimacy. In Darfur this pattern is particularly clear, as the parties that are invited to the negotiating table are generally those with the greatest military strength, and asset targeting peaks just prior to peace talks. Theft increases as rebel groups with ever-decreasing accountability to the people they claim to represent aim for a seat at the table.

Humanitarian assistance as an asset in itself.The most common example of manipulation of assistance is its diversion – particularly in the form of food and non-food items – from the civilian population to armed groups. Although it is clear that, in at least some locations, rebels are using IDP and refugee camps as bases, this does not appear to be the norm. Certainly, in Chad or Darfur this kind of manipulation is not comparable to the wholesale control by rebel forces seen in Goma’s camps, for example. Moreover, although theft and attacks have resulted in losses of food and other relief goods, the acquisition of these supplies rarely seems to have been the explicit intention.

However, aid has a greater economic value, and this can give considerable power to governments and armed actors that are able to influence where, how and to whom it is provided. Management by government or rebel groups of where aid can be delivered can reinforce locations of strategic military interest, for example, or can build support for one side or the other by giving rewards to allies, while denying them to enemies. Humanitarian access maps (available at graphically illustrate this trend.

Crime and the economy of war. One of the more frustrating aspects of working in Chad and Darfur is that it is virtually impossible to identify the perpetrators of crimes, including theft from humanitarian organisations. The fragmentation of armed groups and the tendency of parties to the conflict to use proxy militias or to form alliances with local or tribal groups make it very difficult to attribute responsibility. In addition to identifiable rebel groups, there is also a plethora of bandits and thieves, apparently operating independently. Criminality is also responsible for much of the looting experienced by humanitarian organisations in Chad and Darfur, and hence is part of the wider war economy. Criminality flourishes because of impunity: bandits are not apprehended and punished not only because this is difficult, but also – and perhaps especially – because there is no interest in doing so.


The commitment to neutrality is generally understood as a conscious choice not to take sides in a conflict. The principle of neutrality essentially imposes two obligations on neutral parties: (i) maintaining a distance from hostilities, that is abstaining from actions that would help or hinder one party or the other; and (ii) taking no part in political, racial, religious or ideological controversy.

Neutrality is not only ideological: it also has practical implications. Neutrality requires humanitarian organisations to work in such a way that their action does not provide support to either side of the conflict, or is perceived as doing so. Working in this way allows humanitarians to negotiate access to conflict-affected populations by assuring parties to the conflict that assistance will not be provided in a way that unfairly gives one side an advantage over another.

In order to assess the extent to which neutrality is affected by looting in eastern Chad and Darfur, a small sample of losses was examined. The figures that follow were calculated from lists of looted assets provided by MSF OCA in 2008. Their financial value was calculated using the MSF standard purchasing pricing list, and items that were looted and subsequently recovered are not included in the assessment.

Additional costs, such as import taxes and transport from the purchasing site to the final destination, were not included in the calculations. However, in order to provide a fair assessment, taxes and other fees paid to the government have been included. The governments are parties to the conflict and have access to funds received from humanitarians directly. While governments often waive fees and exempt humanitarian agencies from taxation to facilitate maximum support for populations in need, this is not the case in Sudan. The government has instead created additional administrative and bureaucratic obstacles to access, most of which have a financial value. Including government fees captures some of the financial impact of these impediments. The figures do not include charges that could not be directly attributed to the government – water and electricity, for example.

The overall proportion of looted assets and fees paid was 2.84% in Chad, and 4.47% in Darfur. While neither the proportion nor the total sums are shocking, the contribution to the war economy is nonetheless substantial. It must also be considered that the total resources either looted or paid to the two governments in taxes, visas and fees by NGOs, UN agencies and the ICRC would be much larger, particularly given that many of these are resource-heavy operations, including food and non-food item delivery. It is also important to note that, although only the financial value of assets has been calculated here, vehicles and communications equipment have a value beyond their monetary worth for armed actors, increasing their capacity to wage war.

As it is usually impossible to identify the perpetrators of crimes or their allegiance, we are unable to determine whether our aid helps or hinders one or more parties to the conflict – or, by extension, if these involuntary contributions compromise our neutrality. However, it is clear that the losses – particularly looted assets – constitute a serious barrier to the efficient and effective provision of assistance, and can contribute to the war economy. This raises a serious challenge for the humanitarian community: can humanitarians be accused of fuelling or prolonging the conflict in these two countries?

Final thoughts

Although considerable emphasis has been placed in this article on the possible negative consequences of assistance, humanitarian aid in both Chad and Darfur has played a crucial role in the past five years in mitigating the negative impact of the conflict on the civilian population. Health indicators have stabilised in the region as a result of assistance, and the presence of international actors is believed to have had a positive impact on security for the population.

Given the limited information and analysis available, it is impossible to draw clear conclusions about the extent to which trends in eastern Chad and Darfur are pushing up against the limits of humanitarian principles. It is, however, possible to point to some serious concerns, and make recommendations for further study.

In financial terms, is there an acceptable threshold of loss which allows us to define whether the neutrality of a humanitarian organisation has been compromised? At what stage does the contribution of the humanitarian community to the war economy qualify as ‘doing harm’? In attempting to avoid doing harm, humanitarians must take care not to allow parties to the conflict to dictate the terms of assistance, or penalise civilians by making the aid they need conditional on the good behaviour of armed actors.

The humanitarian community can take further action, in accordance with its obligations under international law, to minimise contributions to the war economy. Article 23 of Geneva Convention IV specifies that: ‘A party shall allow free passage of certain goods through its territory … subject to the condition that this party is satisfied that there are no serious reasons for fearing that:

      a) consignments might be diverted from their destinations

b) control might not be effective

b) a definite advantage may accrue to the military efforts or the economy of the party’s enemy’.

It follows that, unless an organisation can guarantee the above, there is no corresponding obligation on the part of armed actors to provide access for humanitarians to the conflict-affected population. Each organisation thus has an obligation to ensure that it is in full control of its resources, including supervision of the distribution of relief items, verification of distribution reports and spot-checks of warehouses. Moreover, an organisation would have to carry out an analysis of the potential impact of its relief work on the local community. In Chad, MSF is taking increasingly strict steps to reduce exposure to banditry by reducing the use of resources most valued by armed groups: using donkeys and local trucks instead of vehicles, for example, and replacing valuable communications equipment with less attractive gear.

It is important as well that political actors, in seeking to achieve peace in the region, act conscientiously and responsibly. As mentioned above, the legitimacy of armed actors in Darfur in particular is gained through irresponsible behavior, often at the expense of humanitarian operations. While political processes and humanitarian operations must remain separate, political actors engaged in peace processes should take note of this, and try to reverse the trend, making responsible behaviour towards the civilian population and humanitarians as much a prerequisite for a seat at the negotiating table as the capacity to wage war.


Clea Kahn and Elena Lucchi are Humanitarian Affairs Advisors for MSF Operational Centre Amsterdam. This article is written in a personal capacity. Clea’s email address is, and Elena’s is


References and further reading

Kate Mackintosh, The Principles of Humanitarian Action in International Humanitarian Law, HPG Report 5, March 2000.

Nicholas Leader, The Politics of Principle: The Principles of Humanitarian Action in Practice, HPG Report 2, March 2000.

Mark Bradbury, Nicholas Leader and Kate Mackintosh, The ‘Agreement on Ground Rules’ in South Sudan, HPG Report 4, March 2000.

Douglas H. Johnston, The Root Causes of Sudan’s Civil Wars(London: International African Institute, 2004).

D. Thurer, ‘Dunant’s Pyramid: Thoughts on the ‘Humanitarian Space’, International Review of the Red Cross, vol. 89, no. 865, March 2007.

David Shearer, ‘Aiding or Abetting? Humanitarian Aid and Its Economic Role in Civil War’, in Mats Berdal and David M. Malone (eds), Greed and Grievance: Economic Agendas in Civil Wars(Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2000). 


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