Between Co-operation and Co-optation

Aid agencies must find a way to work with militaries and still be neutral.
By: /
June 7, 2012

Much has been made, in recent years, of the militarization of aid. In a post-9/11, post-recession world, governments are using every available instrument to achieve political and other goals in stabilization interventions. Aid is one of those tools. 

While aid politicization is nothing new – one need only review aid flows during the Cold War to see that this is the case – the explicit appropriation of development assistance as a strategic means to politico-military ends represents a paradigmatic shift in our understanding of aid and humanitarian assistance. It has at least three implications for the way aid is delivered in complex and insecure settings.

The first relates to institutional power dynamics. Efforts to achieve greater efficiency and co-ordination, and to reduce duplication and waste, have led a number of countries, including Canada, to draw together defence, diplomacy, and development actors in a whole-of-government approach to intervention. However, such approaches are subject to interdepartmental politics and power imbalances that can lead to dominance by one department – often a very well-resourced defence department – and thus prioritization of military goals and the use of military, diplomatic, and development resources to achieve them.

The second relates to allocation. When aid is used for political ends, less is available for vulnerable populations. Globally, more aid for strategically important countries often means less aid for the poorest countries. This contributes to a polarization among countries between aid orphans and aid darlings. Locally, the most needy populations, regardless of political affiliation, garner fewer resources than the politically expedient or strategic groups.

The third relates to operations. The challenging environments that both humanitarian aid agencies and militaries have been working in recently have driven them to work together. Sharing transport, providing security escorts, and delivering food aid are all activities related to humanitarian assistance that militaries have performed. This poses profound challenges to humanitarian aid agencies and the “humanitarian space” they require to work effectively and safely. For decades, humanitarian agencies have relied on common acceptance of their neutrality and independence to safely conduct their work during armed conflict. Indeed, respect for these principles is enshrined in international law. When partisan militaries begin to perform the duties that traditionally have fallen to humanitarian aid organizations, the fundamental principles that create the humanitarian space are weakened, and aid organizations are seen to be co-opted.  Neither civilians nor belligerents can clearly distinguish between independent aid organizations and opposing militaries. For individual aid workers seen to be partial to an occupying military force, this can have grave consequences.

The militarization of aid could have profound consequences for both development and security, some of which are already quite visible. The politicization of international development assistance in conflict-affected contexts is a risky game. While it could contribute to consolidating peace, it could also exacerbate existing conflict dynamics. For instance, while peace may be the endgame in Sri Lanka, at what cost has it been achieved, and will it be sustainable over the long term? The weakening of the humanitarian space has a direct impact on the safety of aid workers and their ability to effectively deliver humanitarian assistance to the most vulnerable local populations, often women and children.

The current modality for stabilization efforts is unlikely to change in the near term. UN peacekeeping and similar missions continue, and may increase in number as a result of events in the Middle East. The increase of South-South development assistance provided by countries such as China and Venezuela is likely to lead to more politicized aid overall. Iraq and Afghanistan will continue to see some allied intervention for a number of years to come, whether by formed military units, police officers, or contracted private security firms. With the expanding use of remote technology (drones) moving militaries away from battlefields, some dynamics may allow humanitarian aid agencies to distance themselves from the politics that challenge their neutrality, but may create other safety concerns for aid workers. Ultimately, governments will continue to harness whatever resources are at their disposal as long as they are achieving results – this type of aid militarization will continue.

Humanitarian aid agencies are much more nimble than governments, and will likely adapt to the new realities of aid militarization on the ground. They will need to find a balance between co-operating with militaries and being co-opted by them. To do so, and to reclaim some of their neutrality and independence, aid agencies may have to explore new ways of securing resources and engaging with local populations.

Photo courtesy of Reuters

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