Whither Humanitarian Space?

Integrating militaries and humanitarian actors in Afghanistan came with a cost.
By: , /
June 8, 2012

The U.S. and NATO intervention in Afghanistan has included an unprecedented mix of military, political, and development assistance. For many of the troop-contributing countries, these combined efforts represent the first test of a new integrated approach to foreign policy in conflict regions: “whole-of-government,” “3D” (defence, development, diplomacy), or “integrated peace-building.” This new doctrine responds to the increasingly prevalent view that development, governance, and security problems in failed and fragile states create a vicious cycle that demands comprehensive solutions and requires significant bureaucratic, conceptual, and operational restructuring.

The doctrine has been recognized by many NATO members as the harbinger of a new era of intervention, and many have made substantial efforts to institutionalize its emerging practices and structures. The idea that the various components present in a peace operation should be better integrated has potential costs, however. In particular, the notion of “humanitarian space” has come into question as non-governmental organizations (NGOs) struggle to balance their relations with a range of armed actors and the local population.

Traditionally, the safe and effective delivery of humanitarian assistance in conflict by international NGOs has been contingent upon respect for certain key principles: neutrality (assistance must be provided without taking sides or engaging in hostilities), impartiality (assistance should be provided on the basis of need alone), humanity (all individuals are equal and human suffering should be addressed wherever it is found), and independence (assistance should not be connected to the parties directly involved in armed conflicts, and those delivering assistance should have unencumbered operational independence).

These principles have regulated the behaviour of humanitarians and have been crucial in creating and accessing the humanitarian space necessary for delivering assistance in the first place. Yet, despite strong legal and ethical norms, the definition, permanency, and significance of the above principles have been deeply contested. Over the last several decades, and particularly since the end of the Cold War, as the number and activities of NGOs have expanded, humanitarian actors have engaged in a process of self-identification and clarification of operational principles. Indeed, a wide range of NGOs in Afghanistan can be plotted on a spectrum, from those willing to operate in conflict zones with government funding and military support, to those that will do so only independently, to those who will not engage at all. This spectrum is further complicated by the increasing prevalence of multi-mandated organizations that, depending on the context, are committed to providing relief, development assistance, and advocacy. Integration efforts in Afghanistan have further entrenched these differences and exacerbated what were more or less existing but dormant tensions, throwing the community as a whole into a crisis over the very meaning and purpose of humanitarianism.

Integration in Afghanistan

Efforts to co-ordinate humanitarian activity in Afghanistan were spearheaded by the UN and commenced in the mid-1990s during the period of Taliban control. Despite this connection to the UN, as well as what were at times strained relations with the Taliban over controversial issues such as the education of women and girls, NGO activities were not overtly politicized and aid workers were afforded a considerable degree of access in delivering assistance.

The events of 9/11 renewed Afghanistan’s strategic importance. The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) was “established as the most ‘integrated’ mission to date.” Humanitarian and human-rights initiatives lost much of their agency, as they were beholden to the mission’s political objectives, with many organizations uncritically supporting the fledgling government and, implicitly, the NATO intervention. As a result, NGOs that had previously maintained links with the Taliban to negotiate acceptance and secure access increasingly worked directly with the government and the UN as implementing partners in what was viewed as “development” work. Once the shaky foundations of the so-called peace became evident, NGOs struggled to distance themselves from the UN and the government of Afghanistan, both in the way they were perceived and operationally. This was made more difficult as funds were increasingly channelled through the Afghan government’s National Priority Programmes. In this context, the UN’s co-ordinating role was weakened by the proliferation of other actors who appeared on the scene. Of these new actors, the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) eventually came to represent the most novel manifestation of integration approaches, with donor governments channelling foreign aid directly through these entities.

The PRTs were first established by the United States in 2002 with the goal of bolstering support for Operation Enduring Freedom through a new localized reconstruction effort designed to “win hearts and minds.” Aid, development, and reconstruction, conducted interchangeably and with military support, were viewed as critical in facilitating the acceptance of international military forces by the peoples of Afghanistan, in enabling the country’s stabilization, and in ridding the country of terrorism. Since 2002, the PRT model has been adopted by the other members of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), including Canada. Moreover, there has been an accelerating “civilianization” of the PRT over the last couple of years as donor countries have increased “civilian capacities to deliver on political and aid-related objectives, and have encouraged coordination with the activities of the Government of Afghanistan (GOA).”

For Canada, the move towards integrated operations in Afghanistan has been central to the mission and has remained robust across three governments. In 2004, then-prime-minister Paul Martin explained that the term “3D” had fallen out of favour under the Conservative government, to be replaced by “whole-of-government.” The substance, however, is the same. The findings of the Manley Panel, which was formed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to assess the mission in Afghanistan, further pressed the notion that greater integration, at both the operational level in Afghanistan and the bureaucratic level at headquarters, was essential. Two central recommendations of the panel – that the mission in Afghanistan be co-ordinated by a new entity based in the Privy Council Office, and that the civilian component of the mission be significantly increased – were immediately implemented.

Implications of Integration for Humanitarian Actors

A central challenge of integration in Afghanistan is that conflating humanitarian action with the broader geopolitical agendas, from which NGOs have historically sought to distance themselves, politicizes humanitarian organizations and their activities. Seen this way, integration efforts have translated into three key areas of tension: the changing relationship between the military and NGOs, within the NGO community itself, and between NGOs and donor governments. The international military forces deployed in Afghanistan have increasingly undertaken humanitarian activities themselves, through the employment of contractors as well as through local and international NGOs, all of which have come to form part of the co-ordinated strategy. Afghan civilians are well accustomed to being assisted only when and where it suits broader geopolitical objectives. As a result, many have been suspicious of these short-term projects, citing their preference for long-term development strategies.

Given the overtly political aims of the PRT, principally the extension of the Afghan government’s authority and the combating of terrorism, many NGOs assert that they are either tainted by association or adversely affected by the blurring of identities, leading to a loss of impartiality and neutrality regardless of whether they chose to collaborate with PRTs or the government. Accordingly, they argue that this compromise to their fundamental operating principles has impeded their access to vulnerable populations and has made them legitimate targets in the eyes of belligerents. Although the PRT model has been the focus of such criticisms, the blurring of identities resulting from a mix of military and humanitarian activities as well as the compromise of fundamental principles have been present from the inception of the campaign in Afghanistan. Far from harmless benevolence, actions undertaken by the intervening coalition “to take care of the victims” – for example, the deployment of Special Forces bearing arms but dressed in civilian clothes and transported in white unmarked caravans that traditionally had been the choice of NGOs and the UN – were in contravention of the principles of the Geneva Conventions and arguably had a profound and lasting impact on civilians and humanitarian organizations.

Over time, the blurring of identities and the loss of humanitarian space has manifested itself in threats to the security of both NGO actors and the beneficiaries of their assistance. As security has worsened, NGOs have reconsidered how they go about providing assistance. Indeed, the security of NGO workers in Afghanistan has steadily declined since the initial invasion, with a pronounced deterioration in 2007-09.

Moreover, who insurgents consider to be a “legitimate target” appears to have broadened to encompass the humanitarian community more widely. A recent Overseas Development Institute report argued that aid organizations in Afghanistan “are being attacked not just because they are perceived to be cooperating with Western political actors, but because they are perceived as wholly apart of the Western agenda.” Furthermore, the crowding of the development marketplace with the springing up of new organizations has made differentiation between the experienced and opportunistic NGOs all the more difficult. According to most organizations working in the country, humanitarian space has all but evaporated in Afghanistan.

In this context, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) stands out as the only exception. Several factors have potentially contributed to the ICRC’s unique standing, including “its mandate; its well-known emblem; an established presence in the Afghan and cross-border context; and its ability to maintain its independence from the armed forces and the [Government of Afghanistan].” [SM1] Given the role that the ICRC has safeguarded for itself, it comes as no surprise that Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has consulted extensively with the ICRC on how to adhere to humanitarian principles in the current operational environment.

In addition to presenting security challenges, integration has recast relations between NGOs operating in Afghanistan as organizations have adopted different approaches to funding and operational co-operation. The “defeat” of the Taliban in 2001 and the overwhelming availability of resources for relief and development prompted an influx of NGOs operating in the country. Although many of these organizations were reputable and established institutions, the development marketplace was also flooded with unskilled entrepreneurial local and international entities. Moreover, as donor funds have increasingly been channelled through the Afghan government and the PRTs, some NGOs have had little choice but to accept funding and act as implementing partners, thereby compromising their independence in order to reach beneficiaries.

NGOs that are vehemently opposed to integration have increasingly distanced themselves from those that have been willing to co-ordinate with the Afghan government and PRTs. This has resulted in strained relations within the NGO community, making communication and intelligence-sharing more difficult. Although the establishment of several NGO co-ordinating bodies has assisted to some extent with negotiation of this complex terrain, members recount how meetings are plagued by mutual suspicion, inconsistent attendance, and a reluctance to share information. These tensions point to a deeper and more troubling lack of coherence among the humanitarian community, as aid workers increasingly disagree on the purpose and appropriate means of humanitarianism. Because both major aid donors and the governments of troop-contributing countries are preoccupied with the security benefits of assistance, many NGOs argue that the humanitarian ethic is being rendered subordinate to political aims. For some NGOs, this has led to a complete separation from government-funded activities in Afghanistan or a refusal to operate in the country should private funding be unavailable.

Many in the development community have argued that the political priorities of donor nations have led to a prioritization of reconstruction and development seen as strategically useful, and to a sidelining of humanitarian relief. This has led, critics argue, to a concentration of funding in provinces that are politically and militarily important (i.e., the volatile South) but not necessarily most in need of assistance.

This same impetus, some argue, drives aid to the PRTs, with significant consequences. A reliance on officials with little field and regional experience and poor resourcing deployed to work on assistance in the PRT, for example, can lead to increased contracting out to questionable companies, ineffective programming, and the further subordination of aid projects to military objectives. This tension between the humanitarian and the strategic imperative (need-based assistance and long-term development versus politically motivated aid and quick-impact projects) is also visible within governmental development departments. The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), for example, is involved in both politically driven reconstructions in support of specific mission objectives as well as long-term development projects. While both may be entirely appropriate, when conducted by a single organization there is a real risk of the different mandates becoming intermixed at the planning stages and consequently encountering a confused reception from the beneficiary population.

NGOs and international co-ordinating bodies, increasingly concerned by the effects integration is having on humanitarianism, have begun to develop policy frameworks for dealing with the issue at both a conceptual and a practical level. The Guidelines for the Interaction and Coordination of Humanitarian Actors and Military Actors in Afghanistan stress that “[a]ll humanitarian actors, military actors and other security actors should at all times be respectful of international law and Afghan laws, culture and customs,” and that “[h]umanitarian assistance must not be used for the purpose of political gain, relationship-building, or winning hearts and minds.” The guidelines were prepared and endorsed by UNAMA, more than 100 NGOs, the Afghan government, and NATO-ISAF in 2008. Moreover, as numerous NGOs and Afghan officials have argued, the incorporation of Afghan perspectives on humanitarian action at both the local and national levels must be central to the development of programming and implementation.

The ramping up of the counterinsurgency efforts with the strengthening of U.S. military forces not only underscores the need to create clearer distinctions between the military and humanitarian aspects of the international effort in Afghanistan, but also underlines the importance of differentiating and labelling types of humanitarian action (relief, development, and reconstruction). Alternative models where military and civilian activities are clearly demarcated, with separate financial and administrative control, should be explored.

Integration, in Afghanistan but also more broadly, has real costs for NGOs as well as for the beneficiary communities they aim to assist. Although the situation for humanitarians in the country is likely to be irreversible – the reclaiming of a completely neutral space for all humanitarian action is an unrealistic goal – there are nonetheless potential reforms to current and future practices that could make a difference, as long as policy makers and donors recognize this as the critical issue that it is.

Photo courtesy of Reuters

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