Q&A: Afghanistan's humanitarian crisis
Austen Davis is the General Director of MSF-Holland, one of five operational centers of Médecins Sans Frontières, also known as Doctors Without Borders. MSF is an international humanitarian aid organization that won the 1999 Nobel Peace Prize. Davis has worked for MSF since 1991 in Liberia, Guinea, Mozambique, Angola, Sudan, Ethiopia, Bosnia, Brazil. In 1999, he visited MSF's projects in Afghanistan.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Mr. Davis was interviewed by The Christian Science Monitor's online producer, Ben Arnoldy.
1) MSF recently released a statement rejecting humanitarian airdrops by US military forces. Can you explain why you do not support this effort?
The American people wish to prosecute the war against terrorism, and they wish not to harm civilians. In order to deal with these two competing imperatives, it is essential to separate the two processes so that the desire to help people is not subordinated to the war effort. The Geneva conventions define humanitarian action as neutral, independent and impartial. This means that humanitarian actors should not take sides and should be free from political influence so they can go after their objectives single-mindedly to impartially help people based solely on criteria of need.
If aid is not perceived to be entirely neutral and independent of political objectives it can be claimed by one or both sides as a part of the war effort. Then aid and aid workers become a legitimate target of war. Humanitarian action is supposed to be an expression of hope and humanity in times of darkness crossing borders and serving victims on both sides, to show even parties at war can care for humanity while fighting their war.
Today humanitarian action has irrevocably been brought into the war effort as part of a "hearts and minds" strategy. Humanitarian action has no possibility of access in Afghanistan today but it will be even more curtailed in the future. And many humanitarian programs are also on standby withholding vital lifesaving assistance in many other countries of the world where local populations perceive humanitarian assistance to be part of a Western action that they do not approve of.
2) Since the US military is one of the only organizations in a position to get food aid to Afghanistan, isn't it preferable to offer some food to the people even from the hands of the military? Isn't your position sacrificing hungry people in the short-term, for a long-term philosophy?
The US military dropped a few thousand rations to a nation of hungry people. It is an action that is so minor in relation to the needs and so poorly targeted that it is highly unlikely that any needy people would have received any of the food.
The military actions do nothing to address the risk of epidemics today or to blunt the growing famine over the next six months. The actions further reduce any chances of a massive humanitarian effort being feasible in the last few months before the onset of the winter renders all humanitarian action impossible.
UN food convoys, NGOs, and private food merchants have been able to send truck loads of food and relief materials across the borders since September 11. The quantities are far more significant than those dropped by air to date and are distributed through running programs. The total quantities that were going in before September 11 were insufficient, they were much reduced after September 11 and stopped after the retaliatory bombing but I believe new supplies are starting to trickle in overland again. The US airdrop is not the only, nor the most significant supply chain at this time. It is threatening what we have and the possibilities for the future.