Aiding the Afghans?

How aid agencies end up punishing the people they are supposed to be helping.

Bernadette Gibson

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Topics Politics

It seems that the nice note attached to the food parcels currently raining down on Afghanistan isn’t convincing ordinary Afghans that they are not the real target of American wrath.

Stories about starving Afghans burning the food parcels could reflect their distaste for the peanut butter and strawberry jam – but it’s more likely to be an angry reaction to the other large items dropping from the skies, that are killing civilians and wiping out what’s left of Afghanistan’s meagre infrastructure.

My hot favourite for why Afghans are burning US food parcels is that they simply don’t believe the Western coalition’s claims that this is a combined military and humanitarian offensive. The West’s bogus claim to be humanitarian was exposed by the TV scenes of President George W Bush visiting the US Red Cross to promote his humanitarian mission at the same time that US bombs were pounding the Red Cross warehouse in Afghanistan.

But Afghans have good historical reasons, too, for being more cynical than most about America’s claims to be humanitarian.

During the Cold War, Afghanistan received the highest per-capita aid in its history, with the US government pouring hundreds of millions of dollars of aid into areas controlled by their Mujahideen allies. But when the Mujahideen claimed victory over Russian forces in 1992, American aid to Afghanistan and to Afghan refugees in Pakistan started to dry up, before being completely cut in 1995, with devastating consequences.

According to one aid official working with Afghan refugees at the time: ‘Health and education systems completely collapsed and never revived. They [the USA] had achieved their goals and just didn’t care.’

While many Afghan experts argue that the poverty caused by the cut in aid set the conditions for the emergence of the Taliban, there is no sign of the USA taking its share of responsibility. Instead, the Taliban’s policies, especially towards women, have been cited by the USA, the UK and other Western governments as yet another reason to withhold aid. But again Afghans have reason to be cynical. Women’s rights were curtailed long before the arrival of the Taliban and by groups like the Mujahideen, whom the West has lionised. Joanna Macrea, a seasoned aid analyst, observed: ‘After 1989 the narrative of Afghanistan changed from heroic freedom fighters to brutal sexist bandits, despite the fact that the cast of characters remains largely unchanged.’

So it is hardly surprising that ordinary Afghans are more than a little suspicious of the coalition’s claims to be fighting a humanitarian war. But the West’s claim to be humanitarian does present serious problems for humanitarian aid agencies like Oxfam and Save the Children – who fear that if the term ‘humanitarian’ is hijacked by Western governments, their independence will be undermined and they will lose the kind of protection they currently enjoy in conflict situations.

In a statement explaining why they decided not to issue a joint appeal, Britain’s leading aid agencies said: ‘The current situation makes it difficult to present the humanitarian need independent from the current aerial bombardment and its related food drops.’

But aid agencies’ difficulty in putting clear blue water between their version of humanitarian aid and that of Western governments is of their own making. The title ‘non-governmental organisation’ is now a misnomer, as agencies queue up to get government funding for their emergency programmes. UK prime minister Tony Blair’s humanitarian response to this conflict will be delivered through agencies like Oxfam and Christian Aid.

Even more significant than the financial dependence on governments is the fact that aid agencies have been at the forefront of recasting humanitarian aid as a tool to achieve political goals.

Unlike long-term development aid, which is often explicitly aimed at transforming underdeveloped societies, humanitarian relief aid has traditionally been characterised by its minimalist life-saving goals. Post-Cold War, however, the humanitarian aid community has engaged in a major exercise to adapt humanitarian principles to the new world order.

The ‘new humanitarianism’ is being adopted by more and more aid agencies, marking a rejection of the traditional principles of ‘neutrality, impartiality and independence’ that guided humanitarian agencies through the past century. In particular, ‘neutrality’ – the refusal to become engaged in politics as a means of maintaining access to the victims on all sides of a conflict – has become the casualty of a moral climate where remaining neutral in the face of atrocities and human rights abuses is deemed repugnant. ‘New humanitarianism’ engages in politics, speaks out on human rights, and is open to using emergency aid as a tool to transform people and societies in the developing world.

Nowhere has the new humanitarianism been on such vivid display as in Afghanistan over the past five years. When Taliban forces occupied Kabul in 1996 and promptly issued an edict preventing women from working and girls from going to school, Oxfam suspended its humanitarian programmes almost immediately. Other agencies followed suit, including the Save the Children Alliance and UNICEF. The World Food Programme, the biggest provider of food aid, made the delivery of food aid conditional on the Taliban’s change of policy.

In his riveting book on 25 years as an emergency officer with Oxfam, The Selfish Altruist, Tony Vaux recalls the debates within Oxfam about the need to suspend a major humanitarian programme providing clean water to over 400,000 people in Kabul – and is clearly cynical about the level of principle involved in Oxfam’s decision: ‘It was not so much a question of what was appropriate policy for Afghanistan, as whether Oxfam’s gender policy would be applied or undermined.’

In fact, many involved in the debate really did believe that applying human rights conditions to humanitarian aid would liberate women from the terrible oppression of Taliban forces. But such conditionalities carry a high price. An independent evaluation of the Oxfam water programme concluded that its suspension, which lasted for over a year, caused a risk of death to 1800 people who had to drink from polluted rivers.

Local Afghan aid workers, many of whom oppose the Taliban policies, have criticised Western aid agencies. Pointing out that there is no evidence that conditionalities have made any difference to women’s rights, Haneef Atmar, who works with Norwegian Church Aid, said: ‘The various politically motivated conditionalities have pushed the humanitarianism to serve politics and the humanitarians to act as aggressive diplomats with little or no regard for the consequences.’

The few agencies that have resisted the moral pressure to adopt the new humanitarianism are struggling to defend traditional principles. Already bruised by allegations that its commitment to neutrality caused it to turn a blind eye to the Holocaust, the Red Cross continues to hold the line that human rights are not a priority in a conflict situation. But it is increasingly alone in doing so.

While aid agencies now criticise world leaders for mixing politics and humanitarian aid, Tony Vaux notes how Oxfam took active steps to persuade the European Union, the British government and others to suspend all aid programmes in Taliban areas just a few years ago. Not surprisingly, aid agencies were powerless to protest when Western powers used the issue to pursue their own agendas.

The new humanitarianism also finds allies outside the aid world. Influential commentators, including Michael Ignatieff, Alex de Waal and Ed Vulliamy, have called on aid agencies to engage with politics and takes sides, while the UK Guardian’s George Monbiot argues that ‘vast humanitarian interventions, dragging the population back from the brink of famine, would show the people that, unlike the Taliban, the West is on their side’.

Emma Bonino, former head of the European Community Humanitarian Office and outspoken advocate of the new humanitarianism, has welcomed the bombing of Afghanistan because of her own opposition to the Taliban’s treatment of women. As Britain’s aid agencies consider embracing the new humanitarianism, they should recognise that this position is the logical extension of a conditional aid policy that punishes those who don’t conform to Western human rights standards.

Whether it is Oxfam suspending its water programme or the West sending bombs and butter, humanitarianism must surely be a dirty word to Afghans. Little wonder that some are reportedly prepared to starve rather than accept our charity.

Read on:

More symbol than sustenance, by Josie Appleton

Sisters doing it for themselves?, by Josie Appleton

Nothing to lose but their burqas?, by Josie Appleton

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