Aid groups face dilemma

Groups preparing for an Iraq war have been put on the spot by a $900,000 US grant.

The US government has presented Jordan's bulging community of humanitarian groups with a tempting offer - and an ethical dilemma.

Humanitarian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are struggling to decide whether to accept $900,000 in US aid to plan for refugees from any war against Iraq. The groups are now torn between the prospect of being a fig leaf for the American military or falling short in caring for the victims of an attack.

"The imperative is always the humanitarian situation and that should always overrule the politics," says Ton Van Zutphen, project director of the Christian charity World Vision, one of the five US-based NGOs that teamed up to apply for the grant.

International aid agency staffers argue that refugees won't care about who paid for the tarpaulin protecting their children from freezing desert nights. They say it's vital to plan for a conflict which could leave up to 10 million Iraqis dependent on UN rations soon after a conflict begins.

But other agencies say they are shunning the enticement from the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, the emergency arm of USAID, on the grounds that they should be working to prevent a war instead of preparing for one.

"We have to be sure of impartiality when defending humanitarian needs and ensure that we are not challenged and not influenced politically in any other way," says a relief worker for CARE, the largest foreign charity still operating in Iraq, one which turned down the offer of funds. Recipients of the US government grant say the funds are to be spent on Internet and computer facilities located in Amman to link NGOs preparing for war.

But aid workers opposed to the grant say they are concerned that the facilities could be used by the US government to track their activities. Coordination, they say, should be a matter for the UN, which is setting up its own coordination body for NGOs.

"It is extremely morally dubious to be accepting funds from governments which are likely to be protagonists - or even antagonists in a conflict with Iraq," says James Shepherd-Barron, emergency preparedness director for CARE International. "During the preparedness stage, we will not accept bilateral funds from the US, the UK, and Australia."

Unfortunately, relief workers say their ethics handbook, the 10-point Red Cross and Red Crescent Code of Conduct, adopted in 1994, offers conflicting guidance.

Principle 4 says that aid agencies should "endeavor not to act as instruments of government foreign policy." But Principle 1 also says that humanitarian imperatives come first.

The funds so far committed are small compared with the planned outflow once conflict begins. Two weeks ago, President Bush was reported to have set aside $15 million to prepare for any "humanitarian emergency in the Middle East" resulting from a US-led war on Iraq.

UN relief teams and aid agencies are also troubled at the prospect of rerouting funds and attention away from disasters unfolding elsewhere in the world, and some say that the US should pay for "clearing up their mess."

"We've two major famines in Africa - in the Horn and in Southern Africa, and our staff are being told to divert funds to Iraq, which is not a priority," says a senior official from the World Food Program seeking to hire 2,500 trucks to haul food to Iraq once the UN oil-for-food program - currently responsible for feeding 18 million Iraqis - pulls out.

The buildup is already visible along Jordan's desert road to Iraq. There, piles of bricks have been painted red to mark the campsites for an influx the UN High Commissioner for Refugees anticipates could be 70,000 Iraqi refugees. UN workers have worked with the Jordanian water authority to drill for water in the bleak flint scrubland, and their cars jostle for space on the road with Iraqi oil trucks and Kuwaitis seeking refuge in Jordan.

Jeeps without license plates and packed with conspicuous white faces in military fatigues also compete for space on the highway.

Aid agency unease reached new highs last week following the launch of a drive by US military staff in Amman to woo some 20 international relief agencies active in Jordan. "You are the heroes," the aid workers said they were told in what was styled as the beginning of a friendship between the humanitarian agencies and the military.

But aid agencies fear a slippery slope. "Iraq is going to be a military zone under US control - effectively, we'll need to ask their permission," says one NGO director recently arrived in Amman. "But we don't want to work with the US military. There should be a UN buffer." He adds: "I don't think people want to see aid workers riding into Baghdad on the backs of tanks."

The US delegation included staffers from the offices of the US secretary of Defense, and the US Joint Chiefs of Staff and US Central Command, as well as USAID representatives.

A US government official later sought to downplay the event, saying it was an attempt "to establish a line of communication to relief agencies." "It would only make sense to do so," he says. "An open and accurate line of communication from possible zones of conflict to these personnel will be critical, both in the effective provision of aid for the Iraqi people and in ensuring, to the fullest extent possible, the safety of relief personnel."

The meeting's chair also defended the effort to get the US talking with aid groups. "The meeting was a necessary interface should the situation deteriorate," said Daniel Augstburger of the UN's Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. "There is no intention to militarize the relief effort."

Aid agencies remain on their guard and find US Central Command's invitation to work in safe areas in Iraq problematic. "We will not work with the military unless the military is interfacing through a civilian authority," says CARE's Mr. Shepherd-Barron. "That's what happened in Kosovo, happened to a lesser extent in Afghanistan - which made us wary. It doesn't look like it's going to happen at all in Iraq."

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