Bread instead of soldiers

On the front lines of war, humanitarian-aid workers do the work of diplomats -- but some say they should stay away from politics.

By Laura Rozen
Published August 7, 2000 8:00AM (EDT)

As witnesses to the suffering of civilians caught in besieged cities and famine zones, humanitarian-aid workers are very much on the front lines of global conflict. For decades they have tried to get governments to listen to them, and some now say governments have started asking them to do too much.

Few people understood the strategic importance of humanitarian aid until Texas-born relief worker Fred Cuny transformed the business of it. He recognized that the ways aid is delivered -- through what distribution points, to which players, whether food is purchased from local farmers or flown in from abroad, even whether aid is provided at all -- are not just logistical details. Rather, they are highly dynamic levers that influence where refugees amass to collect food relief, for instance, or rebel commanders' decision whether to continue waging war.

Throughout his life, Cuny struggled to make governments understand that fact. In the mountains on the Turkish-Iraqi border, where 500,000 Kurds fled in the wake of the Gulf War, Cuny helped to create a safe area in northern Iraq that allowed the refugees to go home. During the famine in Somalia, he tried and failed to persuade the U.S. military not to use warlord-infested Mogadishu, Somalia's capital, as its distribution base. During the Bosnian war, in which Sarajevans were getting shelled and sniped in daily water lines, he created a water system in a protected tunnel -- a project the Bosnian government resisted, knowing that televised images of shelled Sarajevo civilians might persuade Western governments to intervene. Cuny is believed to have been killed by rebels in Chechnya in 1995.

Cuny's visionary ideas about humanitarian relief clashed with the more traditional thinking of some aid officials, with the political interests of warring players and with the strategies of Western governments and militaries, who were often looking for more expedient solutions. Yet ignoring crucial details often cost the lives of both international aid personnel and the victims they were trying to help.

Now the international community is starting to take notice of that reality. Key aid groups, Western governments and, most profoundly, the U.S. government are trying to incorporate Cuny's lesson: that humanitarian assistance is strategic, and that the way it is deployed can transform the landscape of conflict and crisis.

In the post-Cold War age, when military conflict is no longer a palatable way to solve global crises, Western governments are looking for a low-risk way to achieve their goals in the world. And awareness is growing among international agencies that humanitarian aid can be a potent foreign policy tool.

But critics say that this approach turns sick and starving people in bread lines and refugee camps into political tools, pawns not just of corrupt warlords but of the very humanitarian groups that exist to help them.

The U.S. government is already using humanitarian aid as a key tool for achieving its foreign policy objectives. In Serbia, the U.S. and its European allies are trying to provide humanitarian aid to towns controlled by opponents of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. The U.S. is also providing aid to the pro-Western Yugoslav republic of Montenegro as a way to reward its president for his opposition to Milosevic. And Congress recently debated a plan to send food aid directly to anti-government rebels in southern Sudan who are waging a 17-year war against the Khartoum government.

One sign of the times is the decision to move the United States' major relief agency, the Agency for International Development, under the umbrella of the State Department. Aid experts say the move reflects the growing politicization of U.S. foreign humanitarian assistance.

"From Sudan to Serbia, the U.S. government is actively using humanitarian assistance in order to achieve foreign policy goals," says Sue Lautze, acting director of the Feinstein International Famine Center at Tufts University. "In the post-Cold War, the U.S. ... is looking for new tools for political suasion. And humanitarianism is right in the way of that search. Money moves quickly. There is a nice tight relationship between the U.S. government and non-governmental organizations and they are a very easy target for political manipulation."

Some of the larger United Nations aid groups, which depend on Western governments for funding, are resisting what they say is a move to make aid political. They say that Western governments are pressing them to serve as proxy political instruments and foreign policy tools, a role that violates their commitment to serve humanitarian needs in a politically neutral manner.

"As a humanitarian agency, we are bound by the principle of neutrality and impartiality," says Kayoko Gotoh, deputy head of the U.N.'s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Belgrade, the Serbian capital. "We try to stick to the principle that assistance should be provided to people based on who needs it, regardless of political conditionality, residence municipality and which political party they support."

But other relief workers applaud Washington's effort to take a more politically sophisticated approach to humanitarian aid. They say it demonstrates increasing sensitivity toward the political impact humanitarian aid has in volatile situations -- from freeing up a government to sell domestically grown goods abroad, to feeding a rebel group and enabling it to continue waging war, to influencing how aid recipients vote.

"There is no apolitical assistance," says John Fawcett, a humanitarian-aid worker who has studied international aid policy. "Any choice you make is political."

"I think it is kind of naive not to recognize that aid is by its definition political," agrees Randolph Martin, director of operations for the International Rescue Committee in New York. "If you look at modern warfare, civilian displacement is more and more not the byproduct but the purpose. If you look at war over the past 150 years, civilian casualties have gone from 5 to 10 percent of the total casualties to 85 to 90 percent of the casualties in modern war. So if you are doing something to help civilians, you are seen as a party to the conflict."

War in the former Yugoslavia has killed more than 200,000 people and turned millions into refugees in the past decade. Now postwar Serbia is a laboratory for evolving Western ideas about humanitarian aid.

There, U.S. and European policy is aimed at removing Milosevic, who was indicted for war crimes by a U.N. tribunal last year, from office. Western policymakers consider Milosevic the key source of the instability and conflict that have taken so many lives. Besides economic sanctions, diplomatic isolation and financial and technical assistance to Serbian opposition groups, Western governments are looking increasingly to the strategic use of humanitarian aid as one plank in their Serbia policy.

The humanitarian sector is one of the only visible outposts of the international community left in isolated Serbia, with some 80 international aid groups and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) on the ground. The aid groups are one of the few channels through which the international community still pours money and commodities into Serbia -- more than $200 million worth this year alone.

As such, aid groups find themselves the focus of intense scrutiny. Serbian authorities control most aspects of their daily life, from visas to license plates to customs to the bank accounts from which staff get paid. Meanwhile, Western governments watch closely to try to make sure humanitarian aid is not going to line the pockets of the regime or buy it political support.

To their dismay, that is exactly what European Community officials found last December when they discovered that nine branches of the Yugoslav Red Cross in Belgrade had diverted E.C.-provided hygiene packs and food aid from refugees to unpaid factory workers and schoolteachers, who were not the E.C.'s authorized recipients.

The incident came after repeated complaints from some aid workers that the YRC was too close to the Milosevic regime. The head of the Serbian Red Cross, part of the YRC, is an executive member of Milosevic's political party, and Milosevic's wife is a major supporter of the organization. What's more, the Bosnian-Serbian Red Cross is led by the wife of Radovan Karadzic, a man indicted for war crimes.

Although the International Federation of the Red Cross says the aid diversion was relatively tiny (only 0.7 percent of the total volume) and that it has since helped the YRC set up better auditing mechanisms, the incident was a turning point for Western governments. It confirmed Washington's fear that Belgrade was manipulating international aid to benefit one of Milosevic's key voting constituencies -- unpaid state workers.

The U.S. government has therefore begun to pressure the aid groups it funds to bypass the YRC. But major groups such as the World Food Program and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees have resisted that order and continue to work with the YRC. They say the organization has proved a reliable partner and that it is the only group in Yugoslavia that can logistically meet their needs. Meanwhile, AID has funded a $1 million pilot program to build up an alternative network of independent international and Serbian NGOs through which humanitarian relief can be channeled.

While the U.S. has tried to develop alternative aid channels, Washington's European allies have designed humanitarian programs that deliberately aim to help the inhabitants of Serbian towns controlled by the political opposition. Last winter, the E.C. sponsored a program called Fuel for Democracy, under which humanitarian shipments of heating fuel were directed to opposition-controlled Serbian towns. Opposition mayors love the program, which they say helps persuade citizens to vote for them. But some aid groups are uncomfortable with it.

"Those who have a political agenda should concentrate their activities on political tools, not on humanitarian ones," says Andrei Neacsu, information delegate for the International Federation of the Red Cross in Belgrade. "A vulnerable person living in a municipality run by the opposition -- a poor person, one who is not employed, elderly, a woman alone with children, a refugee or internally displaced person -- is equally vulnerable as one who lives in a municipality run by" Milosevic's ruling coalition.

Not so, argue Serbia's opposition politicians, who say that the tax money the Serbian government collects from citizens of their towns gets redistributed in a way that unfairly benefits regime-controlled municipalities.

U.S. aid officials say they are not the ones politicizing humanitarian aid in Serbia -- Milosevic is.

"Knowing the way the Milosevic regime operates, every aspect of life is politicized," said one U.S. aid official with a Balkans portfolio, who asked not to be named. "This was not invented by us. Our programs just try to balance the situation."

Some aid experts go further. Aid researcher Fawcett says that humanitarian aid to Serbia is not really about critical humanitarian needs but about politics.

"If you just look at humanitarian need, Serbia doesn't have much," Fawcett says. "So let's recognize this is a political imperative, not a humanitarian imperative, because there are plenty of other places around the world with greater need.

"Since we have decided we are going to send in aid for a political purpose, then it is incumbent upon us to look at what's happening with that aid and how it is having an impact on that society."

No one disputes the fact that Serbia bears only a small slice of the world's strife. But even in places where food aid means life or death for millions of people, decisions about humanitarian relief are still deeply political.

In Sudan, where some 2 million people have been killed in the long civil war between anti-government rebels in the south and the Islamic government in Khartoum, some aid groups fear their presence has prolonged the conflict. In some places, the population has become almost entirely dependent on international food relief. Last week, the French group Midecins Sans Frontihres (Doctors Without Borders) suspended its operations in southern Sudan in response to repeated government bombing of the south.

The horrific conflict has raged so long that some in Washington are urging more radical measures. Earlier this year, some members of Congress proposed a resolution to use food aid to back one side in the war, the southern Sudan People's Liberation Movement -- even though the SPLM has been accused of numerous human rights abuses. (The resolution did not pass but was recently revived.)

Aid workers say that the proposal goes too far.

"Food aid is a humanitarian mechanism," says the International Rescue Committee's Martin. "If we are working in a war zone, as we are in southern Sudan, there needs to be a distinction between the humanitarian provision of food aid and the strategic or military provision of food aid. If the distinction gets blurred, it endangers the whole humanitarian intervention."

The case of Sudan shows the limits of what humanitarian aid can accomplish. Most observers say the only real solution to the humanitarian crisis is an end to the conflict -- something aid itself cannot achieve.

That was the case in the Bosnian war, where U.N. peacekeepers who were deployed to escort humanitarian aid convoys had no mandate to stop the killing, massacres and ethnic cleansing that forced more than 2 million people to flee. In the end, NATO military intervention was the ultimate humanitarian relief: It did more than just postpone death for thousands of people caught in the conflict.

Even proponents of the strategic approach say the heavy focus on targeting aid reveals a failure of statecraft. Aid has become more political, some aid workers say, because it is often operating in a vacuum.

"Aid is certainly becoming more of a policy tool now," says Fawcett. "After the Cold War, particularly during the Bosnian war, the U.S. just didn't have a coherent policy of what to do. And here's this mechanism -- the provision of humanitarian assistance -- that filled the vacuum, because it could demonstrate some success, where the rest of the bureaucracy dealing with Bosnia couldn't. So humanitarian aid took on a more high-profile role as a policy tool."

Governments can't handle global crises alone anymore. Despite the shortcomings of the strategic approach, the growing influence of the humanitarian sector reflects a key change in foreign policy. This year, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Midecins Sans Frontihres, a group known for loudly issuing foreign policy advice to Western governments.

Humanitarian groups are now doing the work of diplomats. Indeed, NGOs have even tried to broker peace accords, ban land mines and keep the diamond trade from flowing in African war zones. And with CNN and Midecins Sans Frontihres on the ground, governments can no longer control how audiences in the West understand conflicts.

Ultimately, aid workers say, the question is what can be used to fight with besides bread and medicine.

Laura Rozen

Laura Rozen writes about U.S. foreign policy and the Balkans crisis for Salon News.

MORE FROM Laura Rozen

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

National Security United Nations