Aid as a Combat Tool? A Very Bad Idea

Embassy - November 28, 2007
Op-ed by By Gerry Barr and Kevin McCort

The Senlis Council's proposal, in its latest report, that the international military should take over the administration of aid in war ravaged southern Afghanistan is a disturbing and dangerous idea. Disturbing, because it militarizes aid and undermines its main purposes - to provide life saving assistance and reduce poverty. Dangerous, because associating armed military actors with aid workers turns these aid workers, the aid, and the civilians who desperately need assistance into war targets.

The objectives of humanitarian action are to save lives, alleviate suffering and maintain human dignity. Seventeen countries including Canada, the U.S., the U.K, and European nations have jointly endorsed these goals under the Good Humanitarian Donorship initiative. They have recognized the primacy of civilian organizations in humanitarian assistance and the importance of maintaining separate roles between the military and humanitarian personnel.

The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs have also endorsed a Code of Conduct to guide their behaviour in responding to disasters. This states that organizations will not knowingly, or through negligence, condone themselves or employees, to be used for political purposes.

Life-saving humanitarian assistance is not an instrument of foreign or military policy, and it certainly isn't a tool of war. The Senlis Council's call to synchronize aid with counterinsurgency efforts, and to establish a 'Combat CIDA/DFID', where Canadian and British militaries assist in the delivery of aid and control development agency war-zone budgets, will only worsen the current serious blurring of the lines between military and humanitarian objectives. Conflating the military tactic of winning 'hearts and minds' with humanitarian and development assistance has already cost too many lives.

In Afghanistan, this year alone, 34 humanitarian workers have been killed and another 76 abducted. Afghanistan is among the 6 most dangerous places for aid workers. The majority of these are Afghan nationals. Because the security situation is so precarious and because non-nationals are seen as part of the international military effort against the Taliban, there is increasing reliance on Afghans themselves to deliver aid.

Traditionally, the international humanitarian presence has provided two basic services: the first, life saving assistance, the second, witnessing to what is actually happening to vulnerable populations. In Afghanistan, the reduction of international aid staff has meant less witnessing on the ground and increased vulnerability for national staff. This means that the Afghans trying to rebuild their society are the ones being killed and threatened because of their association with the military. The international military presence for many organizations in Afghanistan, is already too closely tied to aid efforts integrated under Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). Senlis's proposal would dangerously strengthen those ties.

According to Afghan organizations, when PRT teams settle into an area, these places then become insecure, because the PRTs themselves become targets for the Taliban. Reconstruction work led by the international military has often been inappropriate and inefficient. Aid motivated by short term 'hearts and minds' objectives doesn't reduce poverty or make substantial development progress. Nor, is there evidence to suggest military projects have served their intended purpose of fending off the insurgency. What we do know, is that they have made real aid work more difficult to do.

In its worst case scenario, the Senlis Council predicts that an overwhelming emphasis on the military operation at the expense of development assistance would lead to aid becoming virtually non-existent. This, it says, would ultimately lead to the failure of the mission. This could indeed happen.

So, if the Senlis proposal of militarizing aid, with its additional risk to the safety of civilians, isn't the answer, what is?

To start with, Canada needs to do much more to support the conditions for effective development in Afghanistan. Practically speaking, this means pressuring the U.S. and other donors who overwhelmingly rely on foreign companies, contractors, and personnel for delivery, to invest instead in Afghan resources. Canada must go beyond supporting government to emphasize supporting the growth of Afghan civil society as well. Such support has been shown to have more direct impact on improving people's lives.

Canada must also pressure the Afghan government to end impunity for attacks against aid workers, whether they result from rampant criminality or insurgency. Finally, we have to confront the causes of growing insecurity by pursuing a peace process that addresses the concerns and aspirations of Afghans across tribal, ethnic and religious divides. Adding more troops, another Senlis proposal, will increase the fighting and further compromise the safety of civilians and the country's ability to make vital progress towards the conditions for peace. In the end, it will undermine the government and feed the insurgency.

As a major donor in Afghanistan, Canada should use its international engagements to promote and support a robust diplomatic effort in Afghanistan between the government and the anti-government factions. This includes seeking agreements not to target aid and negotiating access for humanitarian assistance. The Karzai government should make these immediate priorities in negotiations with elements of the Taliban.

For Canada, our government's own Guidelines on Humanitarian Action and Civil-Military Coordination are quite clear: To the greatest extent possible, the Canadian Forces operations should be conducted with a view to respecting the humanitarian operating environment. This means not using aid as a tool in combat.

Gerry Barr is President and CEO of the Canadian Council for International Co-operation.

Kevin McCort is Interim CEO of CARE Canada