Keep military aid separate from aid organizations

Even the perception of bias undercuts humanitarian help.

The US warships that steamed through the Black Sea carrying cargo to help out those beleaguered by the fighting between Georgia and Russia might be doing more to damage the cause of humanitarian assistance than to help the citizens of Georgia.

This humanitarian move by the United States military raises an issue of growing concern to international aid organizations – the increasing militarization of humanitarian aid, not just in Georgia, but throughout the world.

One of the fundamental principles that relief organizations live by is simple: Aid must be directed toward the alleviation of human suffering, without regard for race, creed or nationality, and certainly without strategic military intent.

To be sure, sometimes it is possible, or even necessary, to work with the military to achieve this aim. Following the 2004 tsunami that devastated coastal regions throughout Asia, or the terrible 2005 earthquake in a mountainous Kashmir region of Pakistan, the US military often was the only organization with the logistical wherewithal to get aid and aid workers to the affected areas. It was not a question of sides – everyone was simply trying to help those devastated by the disasters.

In cases of natural disaster, aid organizations welcomed the help of the military and were grateful for it.

But that is not the situation in Georgia – where the US has made clear that it sides with Georgia not Russia, nor is it the case in other areas of the world where aid is increasingly becoming mixed up with military matters. It seems that far too often, the humanitarian aspect of the mission becomes blurred by the military operation.

Why should this be of concern to organizations such as Catholic Relief Services (CRS)? After all, if people need food or shelter, or other necessities of life, who cares how that aid gets there?

Aid organizations like CRS cannot operate effectively if they are perceived as taking sides in political conflicts. Any whiff of partisanship can put the staff of aid organizations in danger.

Putting a military veneer on aid violates that basic principle of aid work, the one about alleviate the suffering of all – not just those on one side of a conflict but anyone affected by it.

Even if the aid delivered by the military is meant for everyone, if it is perceived as helping one side over another, the damage is done.

Once the lines are thus blurred, it becomes increasingly difficult for aid organizations to pull themselves from the perception of partisanship. That's a slippery slope for aid workers and their effectiveness.

The fact is, the motivation, and even perceived motivation, for providing assistance matters. When the role of aid is to control or influence foreign governments or other parties in a conflict, the danger is that, instead of taking care of people's needs, the aid will simply fan the flames of the instability that led to the conflict in the first place.

Moreover, military-based aid, with its mixed motivations, is often not responsive to the actual needs on the ground. CRS has learned that the most effective programs are those that are locally designed and implemented by the very people they intend to help.

Community participation and ownership are essential for achieving relevance and sustainability. The ability to design and develop such programs is not usually found in the military skill set. Nor should it be; the military has a different mission.

Within the US government, the State Department and the US Agency for International Development must stay focused on their primary responsibility of coordinating the response to human suffering caused by natural and man-made disasters. As appropriate, the US military should support these civilian efforts. But it should not be the driving force behind them, as it has become in far too many places around the world.

The leadership of US civilian agencies and departments as well as their partners in the humanitarian community will, and can, ensure effective and appropriate responses to human needs.

Ken Hackett is president of Catholic Relief Services.

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