TEDxRC2 – Fiona Terry – The Paradox of Humanitarian Aid


Transcriber: Leonardo Silva
Reviewer: Marie-Claude Bélanger Good afternoon. Over the last decade, several western governments have introduced new legislation, or strengthened the existing legislation, to criminalize terrorist organizations. And this is, you know, a very logical measure to take, in order to try to stop terrorism spreading around the world. The problem is that the laws
do not make a difference between intentional support
to a terrorist group and that which is not intentional, so that any service or any item which ends up in the hands of a group which is on a terrorist list, the people responsible
for passing out that support could be held criminally liable. And this is causing great concern to humanitarian aid organizations, because, you know, many of them
want to work in areas which may be held
by this terrorist group. No aid organization is able to say that 100% of their aid can get to the people
to whom it is intended. So, the problem we are seeing, for instance, in Al Shaabab regions
of Somalia, [is that] some aid organizations are not even trying to negotiate access. This issue raises a much bigger
question and issue of the unintended consequences
of humanitarian action and the response of this
by aid organizations, because while it’s for aid organizations, the side effects of aid, such as contribution to their war economy or legitimazing certain leaders
in an area are unintended, but literally parties in conflict have often used aid very much
in their own interests. And in many ways,
the criminalization of aid to one’s enemies in Somalia is just the flip side of using aid to win the hearts and minds
of civilians in Afghanistan. In both cases, aid is being considered as a weapon of war, and it is the people,
who are in dire need of that aid, who are paying the consequences, because in Somalia many people are without
humanitarian aid and in Afghanistan many villages have been
attacked and punished for having been in receipt of aid which is aimed
at gaining their allegiance. Humanitarian aid organizations have been both willing and unwilling accomplices in this process. On the one hand, they tend to lament this instrumentalization of aid
in some circumstances, but in others, they tend to become
part and parcel of the issue. But now that we are facing
more and more situations where access to people in areas is more and more difficult,
for instance, in Pakistan, in Afghanistan and Somalia, I suggest that aid organizations
really need to start seriously thinking about a new approach,
a different approach. And, so, there are two things
I think that aid organizations really need to think about today. The first is that there is… We need to recognize that there is
a fundamental paradox at the heart of humanitarian action. It can prolong war and, with it, the suffering it intends to alleviate. The most obvious example of this is in the very basic gest of the Foundation of
The Red Cross Movement, of saving a wounded soldier,
from the battlefield, and treating him. In this case,
this is the field surgical team that was operating in Darfur, in 2008, of the International Committee
of the Red Cross. There are no laws to say that those soldiers who have been healed cannot return to conflict. So, by saving their lives
and putting them back on their feet, they can potentially go back to conflict,
thereby prolonging it. For humanitarian actors, this is the price we have to pay for introducing some humanity into the inhumanity of war. We believe very much, very strongly,
that it is better to take the risk that a wounded soldier who’s been repaired
returns to battle, than to just condemn all wounded people
to die where they fell. And, fortunately, western governments
also have recognized this, because the anti-terrorist legislation exempts from criminal prossecution
medical assistance, which is great. But there are many other aspects
of humanitarian action which are not exempt
under this legislation, and many different ways in which humanitarian aid can contribute to the prologation of war. I think the most extreme example of this was in the Rwandan refugee camps that were formed on the border
of Rwanda, in 1994, in which the people responsible
for genocide, the Rwandan army
and the Interahamwe militias, used the refugee camps as a base from which to launch
attacks on Rwanda, to try to finish the genocide they had started in April that year. These people took control of the reigns of the refugee camps and they used humanitarian aid to completely control the population. The population was not permitted
to return to Rwanda and they also gained
enormous amounts of money from the aid efforts. But, fortunately, Rwanda is the exception. I dont think there is
any other country you can really make a case
for aid prolonging war. When you think about the military and financial resources that allied regimes give
to belligerent parties, when you think of the remittances coming from the diasporas, when we think of the contraband and the narcotics trade and piracy, all these things are far most significant
than humanitarian aid in contributing to the continuation
of war. Rwanda really was exceptional,
these camps. But that does not absolve humanitarian aid organizations from being very serious about the need to absolutely ask who is benefitting from the aid coming in. And does the aid do more harm than good? If people do realize
that aid is doing more harm than good, which Médecins sans Frontières,
for instance, fought in the Rwanda refugee camps,
then it is very important to, be able to stop that aid. And I think if aid organizations,
rather than just paying lip service to some of the humanitarian principles, at the foundation, if they really followed these principles better and had more consistency
across the board, we could find some advantages, which brings me to my second point,
which is that neutrality is an incredibly important principle of humanitarian action. Since the 9/11, many aid organizations
have rejected neutrality, prefering, instead, to direct their aid in accordance with western
political agendas, particularly, we’ve seen this
in Iraq and Afghanistan. And it’s not the first time aid organizations have done this. Throughout the Cold War, many organizations tended to help refugees with whom they had
some political affinity. We saw right-wing aid organizations helping the Contras, in the Nicaraguan camps, in Honduras, and on the other side of the country,
we saw left-wing organizations helping the Sandinistas. So, it’s certainly not a new thing, but one of the lessons that we learned from these 1980s
of taking-sides in conflict was that, often, the warriors that we celebrate one day turn out to be the warlords tomorrow, and I think this is very much the case
that aid organizations are finding in Afghanistan today, as they try to disassociate themselves from their overly siding with one side, and now they need to try open up access with the armed opposition to get access to people who are in desperate need
of humanitarian assistance. There’s no moral… There’s nothing moraly superior about a neutral position. It is simply a tool that aid organizations need to use in order to get access to people most in need of assistance. And the criminalization
of humanitarian action, or the criminalization of food aid, because some of it might end up in the hands of the wrong people, is immoral, but it is also very unwise, because, if you look at
The Guardian website, recently, there’s been a video put up of Al-Qaeda, now coming in, and starting to win hearts and minds, of the Somali population through aid. And so, I think we’re going to see
a lot of the same sorts of problems that we see with hearts and minds
programs everywhere, that is not necessarily the interest of the populations
who are receiving this aid, that is foremost in the minds of the people giving it. So, aid organizations, I think, today really need to decide: Do they feel that aid should be used to influence
the vulnerable, or should aid be given only on the basis of our shared humanity? Aid organizations cannot lament the instrumentalization of aid,
on one hand, and, then contribute to
and participate in it, on the other. They need to choose and they need to act in accordance with their choice. Thank you. (Applause)