Academic journal article Parameters

Unintended Alliance: The Co-Option of Humanitarian Aid in Conflicts

Academic journal article Parameters

Unintended Alliance: The Co-Option of Humanitarian Aid in Conflicts

Article excerpt

Pillage, plunder, and theft have long been a part of war. Barbarian armies and marauding bandits used these tactics prolifically. The campaigns of Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great are archetypes of mass armies using plunder as a component of logistical systems. The plunder approach to supply has its modern roots in the speed with which Napoleon's armies raced across Europe during the Napoleonic wars. (1) What is new about the plunder technique of supply procurement is how, on occasion, it has been used against aid organizations, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and other suppliers of humanitarian assistance. During the Cold War, Western states funded and supplied the enemies of the Soviets, while the Soviets aided the enemies of the United States. When the United States and the Soviet Union began to disengage from the many conflicts spawned by the failure of decolonization, particularly in Africa, insurgents and governments had to find new methods of providing for the supply of their armed forces. An increasing influx of humanitarian aid from independent and even state donors, intended to help the collateral casualties of war, often has been co-opted to fill part of the void left by the superpowers.

In societies characterized by ancient traditions of rebellion and banditry, accompanied by the established military practice of raiding and pillaging, co-option of humanitarian aid has become a natural extension of military doctrine, as is the case with any other available resource. Since the factions involved in such conflicts either believe they are fighting for the well-being of their own ethnic or cultural group, are attempting to deny rivals spoils, or are political and economic opportunists, the moral dimension of depriving noncombatants of aid is not an issue for them.

Despite being widely known, the utilization of the humanitarian aid system as a logistical support system for war is one of the most overlooked constituent tactics of modern warfare. As such, it has not received adequate research or public attention. The lack of consideration of this tactic has had a significant effect on the failure of interventions in many of the world's conflicts. Indeed, this unorthodox approach to military logistics should be considered as one of the factors that contributes to intervention failures, as in Somalia in 1992 or Rwanda in 1994. The cunning co-option of the massively valuable resources of the humanitarian aid system is how many militaries and paramilitaries have continued to support their soldiers and campaigns despite the loss of military assistance. The determination of aid organizations to remain neutral, however noble, enables local commanders to continue to pillage aid resources intended for those who suffer. Those with guns never go hungry.

When compared with the exploitation of natural resources or narcotics, which are geographically dispersed, the co-option of international humanitarian aid has likely become one of the most reliable sources of funding for belligerents. Because people in the West feel guilty, or obligated, when they see suffering masses on their television screens while enjoying their own comfort or even opulence, they open up their checkbooks and send money. (2) The well-intentioned aid and relief organizations in turn are determined that regardless of the political situation they will use the donated money or supplies to provide for the many innocents who are harmed by the conflict that rages, for whatever reason (and there are many). Relief organizations may be only marginally successful in reaching a portion of the civilian population; the rest of the time they may be controlled, manipulated, and bullied by the local tyrants (including governments) whose war is producing the suffering that relief providers intend to alleviate. The combatants, well aware of how aid organizations operate, abuse the shortcomings in the system and funnel resources from donors into their war machines. …

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