Relief Agencies Swim With The Sharks

By , Brian H. Smith teaches religion, ethics, and values at Ripon College. He is the author of ``More Than Altruism: The Politics of Private Foreign Aid.''

TWO years ago the bestseller by Harvey MacKay, ``Swim With the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive,'' gave advice on how to succeed in a fiercely competitive business environment. Its title is most apt in describing the predicament facing international relief agencies operating now in the Middle East crisis. As the ``sharks,'' like Iraq, the United States, and the multinational forces, posture their military strength, the plight of the ``hostages of the desert'' - the nearly half million Asians and Arabs, and the 10,000 Westerners, stranded in Jordan, Iraq, and Kuwait - has been a major challenge for charitable agencies swimming in a hostile environment. They are doing heroic work (with as yet insufficient support), but the longer the crisis lasts the more carefully they will have to operate. They are allowed to function only at the will of the major players, who are becoming increasingly concerned with the political implications of their humanitarian activities.

More than a dozen private international relief agencies, along with six United Nations relief organizations, have been working in Jordan desperately to alleviate the plight of more than 100,000 Asian evacuees who have already fled Kuwait via Iraq, many of whom are still waiting in Jordanian camps until their home governments can arrange for their departure. Another 350,000 Asians and Egyptians are still in Kuwait and Iraq, eager to return to their home countries.

Many of the relief organizations directly or indirectly assisting these evacuees receive significant donations of supplies and cash from governments. More than 70 percent of the budget of Roman Catholic Relief Services and of CARE comes from US government food or food-related subsidies, and a very substantial part of the resources of the Red Crescent Society (the equivalent of the Red Cross in the Arab world) is from Arab governments. The governments that support such agencies are interested in how, when, or where they carry out their humanitarian mission.

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The Western nations question the objectivity of national Red Crescent affiliates, since these rely so heavily on their respective governments for support. Arab governments, notably Iraq, are suspicious of the Red Cross for similar reasons.

Article 661 of the United Nations charter allows humanitarian aid to get through to people suffering the effects of a blockade. President Bush has stated that he will abide by that law, with international agencies strictly supervising the flow of aid, but only ``when the embargo is so effective that the children of Iraq literally need milk, or the sick truly need medicine.'' He also has said: ``I hope nobody around the world interprets this as our view that now there should be wholesale food shipments to Iraq.''

Western concern is that if humanitarian aid be allowed into Iraq and Kuwait too soon, and without strict international supervision, it will be subject to seizure by the Iraqi army for its own use. To an Asian or Arab, however, these objections sound as if there must be starved bodies on the streets of Baghdad before international relief agencies will be allowed to move food and medicine through the blockade.

Conversely, if Iran decides soon to make a substantial contribution to the Red Crescent Society to aid fellow Muslims and Asians in Iraq and Kuwait, that move will be considered by the West to be a blatant politicization of international charity and a thwarting of the blockade.

Throughout their history, international charities have always had to maneuver cautiously amid nations at war, none of whom want all innocent victims treated alike. Too often private aid organizations have also been used (at times willingly) by political leaders to pursue their national interests through private means.

In the early years of both World Wars I and II, before the US was a combatant, US relief agencies channeled humanitarian aid to countries fighting Germany (with the encouragement, and sometimes cash, of our government), partly as a way of getting around neutrality restrictions to aid our friends in Europe. During the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, several large US charitable organizations worked closely with the US military command to channel US government food and medicine to those civilians considered favorable to the governments we were supporting.

During the Vietnam war, some European governments critical of American involvement looked the other way as charitable agencies from their countries sent humanitarian aid to North Vietnam. Similarly, European relief organizations with significant home-government subsidies have brought humanitarian assistance to areas controlled by the guerrillas in El Salvador, and to Nicaragua while the Sandinistas were in power, when European governments were not willing to pay the political price of openly opposing US interests in Central America.

To do their job effectively in conflicts, international relief agencies need resources from private citizens and governments alike, as well as free passage through the sharks to get to the suffering innocent of all nationalities. Unfortunately, many sharks always see these little fish as pawns to be used in their own game and only tolerate them when they serve shark interests. Swimming in such waters without having one's credibility and integrity eaten alive truly is a challenge for international charities.

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