Can World Aid Agencies Be Politically Neutral?

Groups question whether humanitarian needs outweigh ethical issues

Central Africa's refugee crisis has sparked aid agencies to question their uncomfortable role on the front line of world conflicts.

For 2-1/2 years, the United Nations maintained camps for Rwandan refugees in Zaire and Tanzania that doubled as bases for Rwandan Hutu militias, who used them to stage cross-border raids and hold thousands of refugees virtually hostage. This has prompted soul searching about the ethics of increasingly politicized aid work.

The camps have broken up. Some 600,000 refugees have returned from Zaire. Thousands more are streaming back from Tanzania. And aid groups are standing back to weigh the impact on their multimillion-dollar efforts.

Doctors Without Borders called a high-level meeting in Paris last Thursday to discuss the issue. Oxfam and Save the Children are taking a particularly critical look at the use of resources. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has heightened its examination of how to adapt to the changing nature of conflict.

"This is a turning point. The debate goes wider than [Central Africa]. It has to do with the aid agencies' increasingly prominent role since the cold war ended," says Samantha Bolton of Doctors Without Borders.

Much of the debate centers around whether the aid agencies perpetuated the crisis by feeding the militias as well as the masses. Aid agencies privately admit to such inadvertent complicity elsewhere. Aid to Sudan has helped the rebels' fight there. In Angola, rebels were fattened by the UN during their struggle from 1992 to 1994.

The Central Africa crisis illustrates how aid groups have trouble promoting humanitarian missions without a political mandate to solve the problems. The events also force them to address criticism that they may have prolonged the crisis rather than provided relief.

Since Ethiopia's famine in the mid-1980s, aid agencies have been thrust into a highly visible position. Aid groups used the media to raise funds, becoming a huge industry. In turn, emergencies have often become media circuses. Aid agencies are often forced to fill a political vacuum caused by the West's reluctance to get involved in peacekeeping.

Many aid groups complain too much is expected of them, and that they must take the rap for governments' lack of political will. "Aid agencies are sometimes a fig leaf for lack of international action. You can attack the fig leaf, but if it drops off, there's nothing," says Peter Kessler of the UN refugee organization, UNHCR.

In the case of Central Africa, the UNHCR and the World Food Program (WFP) promised to help anyone in need when an estimated 1.7 million Rwandan Hutus fled to eastern Zaire and Tanzania after the 1994 genocide. Many of the refugees were shepherded across the borders by Hutu militiamen who perpetrated the slaughter of more than half a million Tutsis. Most aid agencies continued their work, despite evidence of military training in the camps, which served as bases for cross-border raids.

Rwanda, tired of this threat on its border, backed Zairean rebels who broke up the camps several weeks ago. Relief groups predicted an epic humanitarian disaster, prompting the formation of a multinational force to create new camps.

But before the force could deploy, the refugees flooded back to Rwanda looking quite fit - hurting the credibility of aid agencies that had cried wolf.

Heartened by the easy repatriation from Zaire, Tanzania announced it was closing its camps. Despite cries of forced repatriation by Amnesty International, the UNHCR backed Tanzania's decision, and thousands of refugees began returning home this weekend.

At times aid groups have adopted morally questionable methods to distribute food. In Zaire, they bribed officials to get supplies in. In Liberia, they cooperated with faction leaders. Adding to the ethical debate, some have accused relief workers of exaggerating the scope of the crisis. At one point, Doctors Without Borders and others estimated that tens of thousands had died from lack of assistance.

While admitting they got it wrong, relief workers argue that they worked with the information they had. They were under pressure not to be as ill-prepared as they were in 1994, when tens of thousands of Rwandan refugees arriving in eastern Zaire died.

"We are in a part of the world with huge calamities due to war, disease, and famine. There is always criticism that aid organizations did not warn early enough. So this time they felt that they had to give a warning," says Brenda Barton, WFP spokeswoman for Africa.

Whether there will be any major changes in relief philosophy will become clearer as the debate unfolds. Some agencies are seriously considering how they will target resources in the future. But so far the ICRC and the UN have indicated that they will continue to refrain from making judgments about whom they help. "It is not up to humanitarian organizations to say 'these are the good guys and the bad guys,' " says Kim Gordon-Bates of the ICRC.

"Anyone who is hungry or a victim of conflict should be helped, no matter what their political situation."

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