“War on terror” exposes double standards in humanitarian aid as millions suffer in forgotten disasters

Publié: 17 juillet 2003

International efforts to curb global terrorism are posing major ethical dilemmas which threaten the legitimacy of humanitarian agencies, according to the World Disasters Report 2003, released today (17 July) by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

The Report, in its 11th year of publication, highlights the increasing shift by donors and humanitarian agencies towards high profile aid efforts in politically strategic conflicts such as Iraq and Afghanistan, while chronic emergencies in countries such as Angola, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo receive little attention.

In April 2003, US$ 1.7 billion of relief and reconstruction aid was raised by the US Department of Defence for Iraq. This figure stood in stark contrast to the US$ 1 billion shortfall in funds then faced by the UN’s WFP to avert starvation among 40 million Africans across 22 countries. In Angola, where more than 4 million people depend on humanitarian assistance to help them survive, the International Federation launched an emergency appeal in September 2002. Four months later, it was less than 4 per cent covered.

“We are facing a real inequity in global humanitarian practice where many of the world’s wars and disasters have become forgotten emergencies. If the aid community and donors are committed to providing aid on an impartial basis they must act on their principles and intervene where the needs are most acute,” says Juan Manuel Suárez del Toro, president of the International Federation.

The Report examines how military forces are assuming a greater humanitarian role in conflicts where western geo-strategic interests are at stake. Many humanitarians fear that regime change in places like Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq has blurred the lines between civilian and military humanitarian assistance which could result in aid workers losing their impartial status and being targeted or even killed.

Responsibility of aid agencies

Aid agencies themselves are partially responsible for failing to attract attention to some of the world’s more chronic emergencies. Poor data gathering, information sharing and collaboration between agencies has meant that the true scale of suffering in many crises has been ignored by the international community and in some cases the wrong kind of aid has been provided.

A rare survey carried out by the International Rescue Committee, between 1998–2003 in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) estimated that 3.3 million people had died, most from easily treatable diseases. Yet while programmes in 2000 to build and promote peace in DRC attracted US$ 250 million, donor funding for “life-saving” humanitarian aid only amounted to US$ 37 million.

When working in complex emergencies getting the right balance between life-saving aid and longer-term support that reduces vulnerabilities and supports sustainable development is never an easy task. The report draws attention to Afghanistan where policies of short-term aid and attempts to restore peace and democracy are being pursued at the cost of respect for human rights and progress in long-term development. Two-thirds of the money pledged at the donor conference for Afghanistan in Tokyo (January 2002) was for humanitarian assistance. Despite protests by the Afghan authorities much of this assistance is unwanted food aid which has distorted the agricultural economy.

The Report is critical of international agencies that undermine rather than build the capacity of local NGOs and national authorities when they arrive in the wake of disasters. Since the fall of the Taliban the arrival of over 350 international aid agencies in Afghanistan has driven up local rents, inflated salaries and sucked away skilled and experienced Afghans from the Government and vital public services. While a driver at the US Embassy in Kabul can now earn US$ 500 per month, a doctor in a government clinic only receives US$ 45.

In today’s conflicts and disasters the moral values and principles championed by humanitarians are constantly being challenged. The Report highlights the need for agencies to make better judgments in their work that balance advocacy and action on the ground.

During the 2002 drought in southern Africa local NGOs in Malawi and Zimbabwe spoke out against the political manipulation of both food aid and governmental grain supplies. When international agencies remained largely silent, arguing that keeping a foothold in the country was their over-riding imperative, they were accused of failing to stand up for the needs and rights of starving people.

Rights and welfare of migrants under threat

Humanitarian principles are also at stake as the rights and welfare of migrants come increasingly under threat. Up to 50 million forced migrants and internally displaced people remain invisible –unprotected by aid or law. The Report draws attention to the wider “asylum crisis” facing the world today where too much money is spent keeping asylum seekers out of the North and not enough is spent on helping them in the South.

The tightening of immigration controls by western governments to prevent the entry of potential terrorists, is raising concerns of discrimination based on religion and nationality. Currently in the US, foreign nationals from 25 designated countries (mainly Islamic) are required to register with immigration authorities. There are also fears that tighter controls might strengthen underground human smuggling networks which currently traffic up to 4 million victims a year.

“If we are to truly respect human dignity and save more lives through our actions, humanitarians must become more accountable. We must also take the lead in providing greater moral leadership and guidance to the multitude of different players now involved in humanitarian action so that the needs of the most vulnerable are truly provided for,” says Suárez del Toro.
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