16 September 2014
Linking humanitarian assistance to political goals risks undermining the principle of aid neutrality and could put aid workers at risk.


British Prime Minister David Cameron visits a UK Aid Disaster Response Centre on 14 August 14 2014. Photo by Getty Images.
British Prime Minister David Cameron visits a UK Aid Disaster Response Centre on 14 August 14 2014. Photo by Getty Images.


On 14 September David Cameron announced that increased humanitarian assistance would be one of the five steps taken by the UK in response to the threat presented by Islamic State (IS). In doing so he appears to be presenting humanitarian aid as an instrument of government policy, using humanitarian assistance to achieve British security goals in the Middle East. If this were the case it would run counter to the independent humanitarian imperative which governs the work of most humanitarian organizations, and it would put at risk the perception of neutrality and impartiality on which they depend for their effectiveness and security.

The humanitarian imperative, as defined in the International Red Cross and Red Crescent movement’s Code of Conduct, is the right to receive humanitarian assistance, and to offer it, as a fundamental humanitarian principle which should be enjoyed by all citizens of all countries. It further clarifies that ‘Aid will not be used to further a particular political or religious standpoint’, a sentiment that runs contrary to yesterday’s announcement that presented humanitarian aid as point four of the UK’s ‘comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy’ to defeat IS. It follows then that those delivering that aid may also be linked to delivering, at least part, of the UK’s defence strategy.

The murder of David Haines, an aid worker that was kidnapped by IS in March 2013 and killed last week, has once more underscored the very dangerous environment that humanitarian workers operate in. Reported violence against aid workers has increased across the board, with the organization Humanitarian Outcomes reporting that kidnappings of aid workers have quadrupled during the past decade. While there are no doubt many contributing factors to this increased insecurity, lessons from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria suggest that by conflating humanitarian response with political and military response, aid workers have lost the shield of neutrality and impartiality that was, at one time, their best defence.

The reality is that much government backed humanitarian work is politicized to some degree, with aid being offered as one of the many negotiating tools from the diplomatic box. This reality is difficult to avoid for most humanitarian operators who rely on government funding. The last 20 years have also seen the military, in addition to politicians, co-opt the language of humanitarianism to justify and explain their role overseas, with the British Armed Forces being deployed to undertake humanitarian activities. Some of this has been well executed and well received, such as the delivery of supplies by the Royal Navy in the Philippines following Typhoon Haiyan, but this has also had the broader adverse impact of confusing the roles of those working in the humanitarian space.   

Afghanistan provides a useful example of a humanitarian context where the division of roles between military and humanitarian actors became, and continues to be, blurred, beyond distinction to many. It is perhaps no coincidence that Afghanistan, a country where aid has long been used to consolidate military gains, is also currently the most dangerous country in the world for aid workers to work in, as it is increasingly difficult to distinguish those delivering aid and those delivering military assistance. From 2002, the establishment  of military-led Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), for example, to coordinate and implement reconstruction assistance programs in remote areas of Afghanistan, meant that activities normally in the domain of aid workers were being carried out by the military ‘focused more on meeting narrow security objectives’ than broader development targets. Further, this confusion looks unlikely to change following the withdrawal of troops. One report notes that ‘it has not been the case…that the withdrawal of ISAF has made aid actors any less vulnerable to threats…’ The report goes on to note that incidents have increased as the pool of viable targets has decreased.

If those who deliver aid are perceived as no more than political pawns of the West, they will become, in the eyes of some, a legitimate target. This apparent erosion of neutrality and impartiality of humanitarian aid undermines the very core of humanitarianism.  Governments providing humanitarian aid should recognize the danger that any perceived politicization of aid may present to those working in the field and seek to protect and preserve the independence of that humanitarian aid. The failure by those in positions of authority to make this clear risks turning humanitarian action into political and military action.

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