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Can the giving of aid in war scenarios ever be black or white?

Can the giving of aid in war scenarios ever be black or white?

Humanitarian agencies face difficult choices when choosing to work in war zones and some people feel it’s impossible for agencies not to be complicit with warring factions when operating in such zones.

As the work of humanitarian aid agencies is increasingly scrutinised by outside observers, some remain deeply sceptical about agencies working in war zones. They point to the long history of governments and warring groups using aid for their own military advantage. So for example, a recent BBC4 documentary produced by Ricardo Pollack, ‘The Trouble With Aid’, highlighted how in the 1980s the severe famine in Ethiopia was exacerbated by the country’s then communist government stopping food from reaching rebel areas. And the documentary revealed how in 1994, food aid received by Rwanda’s former Hutu government was used to build up exiled forces.

Such outcomes have certainly challenged thinking about how humanitarian systems should operate in conflict-ridden situations and led to a greater emphasis on consulting with local agencies and communities. There is also a new focus on monitoring the success of aid in emergency situations. So for example, the Active learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action (ALNAP) provides analysis and feedback on how well humanitarian assistance has worked in past conflict situations, such as the Kosovo crisis, in order to see what lessons can be learned.

Today, concern is being expressed about the operation of international aid agencies in Syria. To work inside the country inevitably involves agencies co-operating with government or rebel groups to ensure aid reaches certain areas. Such “co-operation” means supplies and medical assistance can be controlled and used to benefit only certain groups.

Humanitarian organisations argue that they are not blind to these dilemmas. Agencies realise they are working in an imperfect situation and that the aid they provide could end up strengthening one side to the disadvantage of the other. However, aid agencies firmly believe they should be present in Syria to offer whatever help they can, while recognising it’s not always possible to make the right decisions in fraught circumstances or to do the right things, especially when actions are examined with the benefit of hindsight.

Nevertheless, aid workers feel this is a price worth paying if it means being able to assist at least some ordinary citizens who would otherwise be left to suffer. Saving lives can be messy, but leaving people to die through lack of assistance is seen as no better alternative.

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