Washington, 15 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- International humanitarian assistance to people living in authoritarian countries can sometimes undermine dictators but on other occasions can be exploited by such rulers to shore up their power and control.
This uncertainty as to when such outside aid will help to promote positive political change and when it will have the opposite effect almost inevitably sparks disagreements among those considering the provision of such assistance.
Such a debate has now broken out between the United States and its West European allies as to whether providing humanitarian aid to people living under the rule of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic will speed up his exit from the political scene or help him to remain in office for a long time to come.
On Thursday, George Robertson, the new secretary-general of NATO, articulated the European position. Arguing that the majority of people in Yugoslavia are "good and decent," Robertson said that "they need to know that there is a welcome for them in this European family of democratic nations."
Moreover, they need to understand that "there are benefits for them individually and collectively as well as benefits for the whole region if they reject the regime of Milosevic." Consequently, Robertson continued, "we have got to use every means at our disposal" -- including humanitarian assistance -- to get that message across.
Humanitarian assistance, such as providing heating oil to Yugoslav cities as the Europeans have advocated, serves in Robertson's words, to prove that "the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia is not Milosevic, [and] Milosevic is not Yugoslavia."
Opposing that view is the U.S. government whose officials repeatedly have argued that such assistance could actually benefit Milosevic by reducing popular anger against him. Consequently, Washington now suggests that not providing the aid now is perhaps the surest way to create a situation out of which the Yugoslav people can fashion a better future.
Responding to charges that such a stance is heartless, U.S. spokesmen have argued that the humanitarian crisis in Yugoslavia currently predicted by the United Nations may never happen and that providing assistance is thus not only unnecessary in human terms but counterproductive in political ones.
Indeed, American officials have suggested, those who want to rush in with assistance in Yugoslavia often end by propping up the very governments responsible for the conditions the people under their control are forced to endure.
Each side in this debate can invoke numerous examples in support of its point of view. Those who believe that humanitarian aid will undercut a dictator regularly invoke the worldwide trend that as countries become wealthier, they almost inevitably have moved in the direction of greater freedom and democracy.
They further suggest, as Robertson does, that aid from democratic nations will make those who receive it are more disposed to be pro-democratic domestically as well as in foreign affairs. And they note that when countries do not provide such assistance to people in need, dictators like Cuba's Fidel Castro often play up that fact as part of their political strategies.
But those who argue the opposite position note that foreign assistance extended to people living under dictatorial regime often goes astray not only as a result of corruption but because of the ability of local officials to divert it in support of themselves. Consequently, opponents say, dictatorial regimes can make use of it to continue in power.
That last point does not seem to be the case in Yugoslavia, at least at present. Belgrade has been sharply critical of what it calls the "energy for democracy" schemes of European countries. And like authoritarian rulers elsewhere, Milosevic and his officials are interested in exploiting any such aid which does arrive for their own ends.
When individuals and nations see people suffering, most want to help. But as the debate over providing humanitarian assistance to Yugoslavia suggests, this impulse may be almost universal, but views on how best to do so remain very much divided.