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An Imperfect Implementation

An Imperfect Implementation

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Published by Quinn Zimmerman
An essay on the challenges of applying Mary Anderson's principle - "Do no harm." - to the delivery of aid in conditions of war and violent conflict.
An essay on the challenges of applying Mary Anderson's principle - "Do no harm." - to the delivery of aid in conditions of war and violent conflict.

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Published by: Quinn Zimmerman on Jan 12, 2013
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An Imperfect Implementation

On the challenges involved in applying Mary Anderson’s principle – “Do no harm.” – to the delivery of aid in conditions of war and violent conflict.

Quinn Zimmerman MA – Conflict, Security & Development 2012 – 2013 King’s College London

Word Count: 3000 (excluding cover page & bibliography)

Introduction Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, humanitarianism and the aid sector have seen expansion far beyond the confines of that era. Enjoying greater influence, autonomy, scope and mandates, aid organizations have become significant actors in the larger international community, particularly in areas afflicted by war and violent conflict. This has not come without backlash, with critics constructing nuanced and persuasive arguments aimed at exposing aid not as the benevolent manifestation of compassion it professes to be, but rather a force that can inflict greater harm than good. This discourse was fueled by Do No Harm: How Aid Can Support Peace – Or War, a 1999 book by Mary Anderson which acknowledges the negative capacities inherent in aid, and calls upon aid players to take greater responsibility when working within societies in the midst of conflict, so as to minimize detrimental effects. Anderson paints this as identifying and subsequently either engaging, or avoiding, ‘connectors’ that can stimulate peace, or exacerbate war.1 This essay will highlight some of the challenges inherent in attempting to avoid war connectors. In this essay, any reference to aid will refer to emergency relief aid as opposed to developmental aid, given it is relief aid that is most commonly applied during and immediately after periods of conflict. Michael Schloms defines this aid as ‘the provision of basic requirements which meet people’s needs for adequate water, sanitation, nutrition, food, shelter, and healthcare.’2 This essay will adopt that definition. Furthermore, while Anderson provides an analytical framework through which to apply ‘do no harm’, this essay will focus on the larger ‘do no harm’ principle, as stated in the essay prompt. That principle puts forth that, whenever possible, aid actors must not fuel war and conflict as a result of their programming. This essay will be organized by looking at three different contexts in which aid actors are challenged when attempting to apply the do no harm principle in areas of conflict: within the context of conflict, outside the context of conflict, and within the context of the aid sector. Given the scope of the topic, and the limited space in which to discuss it, this essay will focus only on some of the more commonly highlighted challenges in the ‘do no harm’ discourse. Part I: Challenges within the context of conflict. Central to the argument leveraged against NGOs and aid actors working within conflict zones is their lack of understanding the context in which they operate.3 Failing to account for political and military realities on the ground can undermine agency interventions and create significant challenges in attempting to do no harm. These shortcomings take many forms. War belligerents (rebels & governmental) are well versed in manipulating and undermining aid actors.4 Being aware of and countering such manipulation is a primary challenge agencies face, as failure to do so can fuel conflict. Through theft and taxation of aid provisions (food, materials, funds), conflict actors can create alternative revenue streams and bolster supply chains, enabling soldiers to remain armed and fed so as


Anderson (1999) pg. 23 Schloms (2003) pg. 43 3 Schloms (2003) pg. 41 4 African Rights (1994) pg. 26

to continue fighting.5 Control of these provisions can become a priority for war actors because, as Anderson points out, ‘….aid resources represent economic wealth and political power.…’6 While direct aid to rebel insurgents is rare, hence their resulting to theft, aid given to war governments can expand and extend conflict when it is used to bolster war institutions and infrastructure. Similarly, aid provided alongside or in place of government programs during war serves to free up internal resources that might otherwise be diverted from the war effort to provide for the needs of citizens and the wounded. Florence Nightingale argued this as one of her central denouncements of the ICRC shortly after its formation.7 This is further complicated by the UN Security Council’s upholding of the international principle of humanitarian access, crystallized during Operation Lifeline Sudan, which seems to support international aid as a right, not a privilege.8 This is not lost on war governments looking to relieve themselves of obligations outside of war. The desire by war actors to capture aid resources creates a further problem that imposes significant challenges for aid agencies: the manipulation of populations, specifically the creation of large refugee groups centralized in camps.9 The incentive for doing so is to focus aid so as to better siphon it (via war actors embedded in the camps) toward the war effort, as well as provide a protected base from which to operate, given many camps sit near state borders. The challenges in attempting to demilitarize camps and limit war actors’ access to humanitarian services and supplies can be significant, as embedded belligerents often retain their arms and use them to extort aid from civilian refugees. In the case of the camps near Goma, Zaire following the Rwandan genocide, in which armed Hutu militiamen used them to feed, supply and hide themselves so as to continue raiding, two major aid agencies, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and the International Rescue Committee (IRC), ceased operations, finding no other viable solution to stop the fueling of war actors. African Rights, in their 1994 paper Humanitarianism Unbound deemed it ‘….among the most flagrant abuses of international relief in modern times.’10 The Hutu militias continued to sabotage subsequent relief efforts until they were finally pushed back into Rwanda at the hands of another rebel faction.11 Population manipulation can also account for the butchery of citizens during the Sierra Leone conflict, in which rebels cut off hands so as to elevate the conflict in the eyes of the media and therefore bring in more aid to be siphoned off. In the words of one RUF rebel leader, ‘Without the amputee factor, you people wouldn’t have come.’12 Manipulation of aid actors is not always done for the purpose of securing aid resources. It can also serve political ends. Inadvertently, aid can legitimize war actors by working alongside them, bestowing on them humanitarian credentials they do not deserve, and even feeding into propaganda efforts.13 Additionally, it can serve military ends outside of securing resources, as was the case in Ethiopia when the Mengistu regime tried (and failed) to leverage the need for aid as a call for a ceasefire, which would have given it time to try and recover from rebel advances so as to continue the war with renewed capacity later.14 Understanding how their programming interacts with political and military entities
5 6

Goodhand (2006) pgs. 111-113 Anderson (1999) pg. 38 7 Gourevitch (2010) 8 African Rights (1994) pg. 5 9 Barber (1997) pg. 8 10 African Rights (1994) pg. 34 11 Barber (1997) pg. 11 12 Gourevitch (2010) 13 African Rights (1994) pg. 5 14 African Rights (1994) pg. 12

involved in war is a central challenge relief agencies hoping to minimize harmful impacts of their interventions must be sensitive to. Manipulation by war actors of aid agencies is not the only challenge inherent within the context of conflict, but it is perhaps the most substantial. However, other serious challenges in attempting to do no harm also exist. Through securing goods and services often deemed necessary to work under conflict conditions, such as armed guards and escorts for aid vehicles, agencies can strengthen, not weaken, the war economy, providing incentives for locals benefiting from that economy to continue conflict and maintain profits.15 To quote Philip Gourevitch from his article Alms Dealers, ‘As one rebel… explained, “The white men are soon gonna need drivers, security guards, and houses. We’re gonna provide them.”’16 Furthermore, infrastructure needed by both aid workers and armed forces can overlap, as in the case of roads, communication systems, and electrical grids, and by keeping that infrastructure open whereas it might otherwise be closed, so as to conduct aid services, it may also be used militarily.17 Central to addressing the challenges found within the context of a conflict zone, so as best to apply Anderson’s ‘do no harm’ principle, is the better understanding of that context. This is feasible during program planning stages prior to intervention, but can be exceedingly difficult once agencies are deployed. As Hugo Slim acknowledges in his Doing The Right Thing, deliberation - that is the serious commitment toward an applied effort to take counsel, consult, debate and weigh carefully in mind the various aspects of the problem – is not always feasible given the realities of war zones.18 Emergent threats and emergency situations requiring immediate action if lives are to be saved are common in conflict, and can considerably undermine the capacity of aid agencies - themselves often understaffed and organizationally and geographically fractured – to engage in deliberation so as to better understand the context around those emergencies and make the best decisions possible. Creating intraorganizational systems that are flexible and responsive to the uncertain dynamics of war is a challenge agencies must undertake to better limit exposure to manipulation and the inadvertent feeding of war economies. Part II: Challenges from outside the context of conflict. Clearly, challenges present within the context of conflict serve as substantial hurdles toward doing no harm. However, external forces – that is those that have their origins outside of the zone of conflict – also play a significant role in shaping aid actors into conflict supporters rather than conflict detractors. First and foremost of these external forces is that which seeks to politicize aid. This is not new. Indeed, aid has been leveraged for political reasons since before the post-Cold War era. Barber highlights the Cold War era itself, where government-funded aid served as a means to contain communism, and anyone fleeing or opposing communism was likely to be a recipient of Western charity, even if they were themselves belligerents.19 Aid became a tool in the practice of realpolitik.20 This continues today. To be clear, much of this politicized aid does not take the form of humanitarian relief aid as defined in this essay’s introduction, but some does, and can be leveraged (or withheld) to meet political ends. As David
15 16

Anderson (1999) pgs. 42-43 Gourevitch (2010) 17 African Rights (1994) pg. 4 18 Slim (1997) pg. 253 19 Barber (1997) pg. 9 20 De Waal (1997) pg. 67

Keen highlights, in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, ‘Hundreds of thousands of Hutu refugees were denied humanitarian assistance... Part of the reason seems to have been that the Rwandan government… enjoyed a privileged moral status as victims of 1994 genocide.’21 Those Hutu refugees were systematically targeted and killed by the Banyamulenge, a Congo-based Tutsi faction allied with the Rwandan government. This exposes a central challenge to aid agencies attempting to function with impartiality and neutrality central principles in humanitarian ideology – within the context of strategic, highly-partial, non-neutral political environments: they are implored to engage in ways that betray those principles. The humanitarian imperative of providing aid based on need alone is sabotaged by the political imperative of leveraging aid to meet strategic goals. Perhaps most challenging for agencies is that, as a result of their growing influence and expanded scope and mandates, they are often substituted by governments for other forms of intervention that are better suited at meeting the demands of a conflict situation, but are withheld for strategic reasons or lack of political will. As Barber rightly points out, ‘Many refugee analysts believe that aid has been substituted for political initiatives that would resolve the root causes of emergency migrations, be they war, ethnic conflict, famine, environmental damage, or economic imbalance.’22 In short, aid agencies are deployed to address problems of a political, economic, or social nature that they, by design, are not capable of addressing. By going forward with these ill-conceived interventions, aid actors hamstring themselves and set themselves up to potentially do harm, because relief actors are not peacebuilders, and are only equipped to address symptoms, not causes, of conflict.23 This externally-motivated misuse of aid can have substantial impact within war contexts, because by overselling aid’s capacity for peace, outside actors can elevate the negative implications of aid in a conflict setting. As David Shearer insightfully highlights, ‘Aid still connects the conflict to the West, possibly representing an international commitment… that hints at the promise of a more substantial intervention. Raised expectations may modify the behavior of belligerents.’24 Attempting to push a peacebuilding agenda through the wrong channel of humanitarian aid, which does not have the proper political backing, expertise, or resources, can play directly into the hands of manipulative war actors. Tellingly, in Shearer’s words, ‘The less tangible effects of aid… may be more significant than what emerges from the back of the truck.’25 In these situations, the problem becomes one of independence: aid actors specialized in the deployment of humanitarian relief will be rendered less effective if implored to act in another capacity. Frustratingly, the nature of the donor-client relationship that is the economic lifeline of the majority of aid agencies makes realizing such independence difficult. Governments provide a substantial portion of aid funding, but that funding does not necessarily come free of mandates for how it should be used. Indeed, Hugo Slim highlights coercion (by fear or force) as a central driving force within aid agencies, be it internally (threats from warlords & totalitarian regimes) or externally (donor & media pressure).26 The challenge then, in doing no harm, is to identify when those coercive elements are in play and will have a negative impact, and separate from them. NGOs such as MSF have attempted to do so by keeping their
21 22

Keen (2012) pg. 5 Barber (1997) pg. 10 23 Shearer (2000) pg. 189 24 Shearer (2000) pg. 199 25 Shearer (2000) pg. 199 26 Slim (1997) pg. 253

government funding below certain limits.27 To compound this challenge, agencies must also weigh the benefits and costs of rejecting coercive funding, particularly if securing that funding could also help them expand existing programs that are providing effective aid, or create new ones. Part III: Challenges within the aid sector. Internal and external factors aside, it would be irresponsible to assume the challenges inherent in doing no harm are always thrust upon aid agencies by outside actors and forces. In no uncertain terms, that is wrong. Aid agencies often have themselves to blame for mistakes that, once made, make doing no harm unlikely or all together impossible. The reasons for this are many, and extend beyond the scope of this essay, but two central to the discourse and often argued are worth highlighting. As has been previously stated in this essay, aid skeptics frequently cite contextual ignorance as central to the deliverance of harmful aid, and two primary reasons are given for this: a lack of accountability by and of aid agents, and their slow capacity to learn. The two go hand in hand. Philip Gourevitch, channeling the words of aid skeptic Linda Polman, writes that, ‘Moving from mess to mess, the aid workers in their white Land Cruisers manage to take credit without accepting blame, as though humanitarianism were its own alibi.’28 Or, as Schloms puts it, ‘Accountability and transparency are undermined by the perception of aid as a self-justifying cause.’29 While Polman’s statement is exaggerated, aid agencies do project an aura of impregnability to criticism and professional analysis of their impact.30 Unfortunately, many agencies seem invested in keeping it that way, displaying a ‘counterintuitive discomfort’ with accountability.31 To hold themselves accountable risks losing funding from donors who, having become accustomed to padded and overly-positive program reports that are the result of a lack of accountability, may be quick to defund any programs perceived to be problematic. Furthermore, outside forces are highly sensitive to the advantages of working through an unaccountable channel, indeed it is a central reason for Western governments pushing aid as a solution to problems that are best served by other means. Aid is high-profile and low risk.32 That safe bet creates comfort in donors and drives funding to agencies but can result in disasters on the ground because it inevitably leads to avoidable mistakes being made and repeated. Without a proper feedback loop from client to agency - the common learning model in service-based industries - aid actors hamper their own ability to learn and improve. And, if contextual sensitivity born of understanding is of utmost importance in doing no harm, a lack of ability to learn and understand will necessarily do the opposite, particularly in the deeply complex and highly volatile context of conflict. Agencies know this, but often choose to place blame elsewhere, such as the World Food Program’s (WFP) insistence that donor fatigue, high operating costs and ongoing insecurity were the causes for problematic programs in post-genocide refugee camps in Zaire. While those factors may have played a role, arguments have been made that the WFP never had a viable plan for the camps to begin with, and therefore could not logically cite external reasons as the primary causes of their problems.33 The challenge, then, is to create a new model of client - agency accountability from within the aid sector, and
27 28

Goodhand (2006) pgs. 187-188 Gourevitch (2010) 29 Schloms (2003) pg. 51 30 Roberts (1996) pg. 60 31 Stein (2008) pg.124 32 African Rights (1994) pg. 6 33 Keen (2012) pg. 8

get donors to buy in to the new model, so as to create the framework needed to learn and better understand contexts in which aid actors work. Given the deep reluctance among agencies to expose themselves, and the often unrealistic expectations of donors, the challenge is a formidable one. Conclusion While highlighting only some challenges aid actors face in trying to implement Anderson’s ‘do no harm’ principle in conditions of war and violent conflict, this essay makes it clear that progress is needed should the principle be realized. However, the current shortfalls should not be overstated, or used as excuse to abandon aid. On the contrary, as made clear by Anderson, ‘It is a moral and logical fallacy to conclude that because aid can do harm, a decision not to give aid would do no harm. In reality, a decision to withhold aid from people in need would have unconscionable negative ramifications.’34


Anderson (1999) pg. 2


Anderson, Mary (1999) Do No Harm: How Aid Can Support Peace – Or War (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc.) African Rights (1994) Humanitarianism Unbound? Current Dilemmas Facing Multi-Mandate Relief Operations in Political Emergencies, Discussion Paper No. 5 (London: African Rights) Barber, Ben (1997) ‘Feeding Refugees or War?’, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 77, No. 4, pp. 8-14. de Waal, Alex (1997), Famine Crimes: Politics & the Disaster Relief Industry in Africa (Oxford: James Currey) Goodhand, Jonathan (2006) Aiding Peace? The Role of NGOs in Armed Conflict (Warwickshire: Intermediate Technology Publications Ltd.) Gourevitch, Philip (October 11, 2010) Alms Dealers, The New Yorker. http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2010/10/11/101011crat_atlarge_gourevitch (accessed December 1st, 2012) [online] Gross Stein, Janice (2008) ‘Humanitarian Organizations: Accountable – Why, to Whom, for What, and How?’ in Barnett, Michael and Weiss, Thomas, eds. (2008) Humanitarianism in Question: Politics, Power, Ethics (Ithaca: Cornell University Press), pp. 124-142. Keen, David (2008), Complex Emergencies (Cambridge: Polity Press) Keen, David (2012) Aid and Development in the Context of Conflict: Some Problems and Pitfalls, prepared for High-Level Expert Forum – Food Insecurity in Protracted Crises. Rome, 13-14 September, 2012. Macrae, Joanna (2001), Aiding Recovery? The Crisis of Aid in Chronic Political Emergencies (London: Zed Books Ltd.) Roberts, Adam (1996) Humanitarian Action in War (Oxford: Oxford University Press) Schloms, Michael (1996) ‘Humanitarian NGOs in Peace Processes’, International Peacekeeping, Vol. 3, No. 2, pp. 40-55. Shearer, David (2000) ‘Aiding or Abetting? Humanitarian Aid and Its Economic Role in Civil War’ in Berdal, Mats and Malone, David, eds. (2000) Greed and Grievance: Economic Agendas in Civil Wars (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc.), pp. 189-203. Slim, Hugo (1997) ‘Doing the Right Thing: Relief Agencies, Moral Dilemmas and Moral Responsibility in Political Emergencies and War’, Disasters, Vol. 21, No. 3, pp. 244-257.

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