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World: Analysis From Washington -- When Doing Good Does Harm

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 3 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- International assistance to refugees and other victims of ethnic conflict, efforts that have helped to keep millions of people alive from Afghanistan to Kosovo, often has political consequences that neither those giving the aid nor those receiving it are likely to want.

By stabilizing an apparently unstable situation, such aid frequently reduces the pressure on the international community to address the political and security issues that gave rise to these conflicts and their victims in the first place. Moreover, humanitarian assistance is often misused by local leaders to raise money, develop new political movements, and even to pay for continued fighting.

And such aid, however well-intentioned, sometimes appears to legitimate ethnic cleansing. Once refugees are safely housed and fed in camps, few in the international community appear interested in pressing for their right to return to their homes, especially if such a movement would almost inevitably reignite the conflict.

This "dark side of aid" is attracting ever more attention from both political figures and academic specialists. In January, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan noted in Geneva that "humanitarian assistance has been used as a fig leaf, hiding a lack of political will to address the root causes of conflicts." And he argued that the Western relief effort had in effect assisted ethnic cleansing in Bosnia.

Annan's points are reinforced by the authors in a recent collection of studies published in London under the title "Hard Choices: Moral Dilemmas in Humanitarian Intervention." Rony Brauman, the former president of Doctors without Borders, argued that that in helping refugees, "the humanitarian agencies were both playing into the hands of the 'cleansers' and carrying out their humanitarian mission."

Another author in this collection, Mary B. Anderson, a U.S. based activist who runs the Collaborative for Development Action, suggests that international assistance can actually "exacerbate the conflicts that it is meant to alleviate." And she calls for a new Hippocratic oath for those who would provide assistance: "First, Do no harm."

Other students of this subject are even more critical. In a book entitled "The Road to Hell: The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity," Michael Maren suggests that such assistance is often delivered in an "incompetent" way and as a result is "inadvertently destructive" and even "positively evil."

Alexander de Waal, a leading student of African affairs, argues in "Famine Crimes: Politics and Disaster Relief Industry," that the international relief community has failed to understand the close interconnections between famine and other human tragedies and the political regimes where they happen. And as a result, the assistance this community provides often helps sustain those who have created the problem.

And Thomas Weiss, a professor at the City University of New York and the man who coined the term "the dark side of aid," catalogues the numerous occasions in which those who have tried to alleviate suffering -- and thus be part of what he calls "the bright side of aid" -- have been appalled by the impact of their work both on the people they are trying to help and on those in donor countries.

These aid workers, Weiss suggests, have seen the way in which their efforts have stopped one human tragedy only to create another -- permanent homelessness. And they have seen the ways in which donor countries have used such assistance to reduce pressure on themselves to take action to address the underlying problems.

But even as these students of international assistance decry the consequences such aid has had, they are in every case worried that their findings will provide an excuse for the international community to do nothing, to decide that the best solution to these human tragedies is to stand aside.

Such a conclusion, these analysts and political leaders suggest, would be an even greater tragedy, one that might force the international community to act in some circumstances but only at the cost of immense human suffering.

And so in the words of Professor Weiss, they are calling for a new approach to aid, one that tries to help people who are suffering without helping those who are inflicting that suffering. Finding such a policy is not easy, Weiss says. But such "tough love" is certain to do more for the victims of conflicts than either neglect or a continuation of the aid policies of the past.