Humanitarian aid and military action: no love lost

According to some researchers, for example, social programs funded by the US military in Iraq in the mid-2000s helped to earn the support of the population and reduce violent attacks of the insurgents (Eli, Shapiro, & Felter, 2011). But these conclusions are contested. In Afghanistan after 2003, the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), set up by the anti-terrorist coalition, and the Community Development Councils (CDCs), funded by the World Bank, have been the subject of strong criticism. Indeed, they did not prevent the Taliban from winning many battles against a corrupt government supported by Western powers. Instead of being elected and including women, the CDCs did not promote democracy either. On the contrary, they strengthened local chiefdoms and could not solve land disputes which used to be settled by traditional shuras (‘councils’). Sometimes, they even revived tensions and prompted warlords to rebuild their militias to control structures that became the main recipient of international aid (Brick Murtazashvili, 2016). Being dependent on foreign subsidies and unable to generate their own resources, the CDCs lacked legitimacy because they were not accountable to their communities, but to the NGOs that funded them.

Such shortcomings are not limited to the main countries targeted by the “global” war against terrorism. In the Philippines, development projects designed by the government to win the hearts and minds of the people also exacerbated the conflict with the jihadists of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the communist insurgents of the New People’s Amiy (Crost et ah, 2014). Funded by the World Bank between 2002 and 2006, their objective was clearly strategic and aimed, among other things, to build roads for the transport of troops. As a result, the insurgents’ attacks focused on development projects that were likely to provide jobs for the locals, strengthen social support for the government, and facilitate its repression efforts. Their purpose was not to extort money and get a share of foreign aid, as they occurred before the projects were implemented.

In Africa too, the material and symbolic resources of international aid are a source of competition. As a result, they can prolong hostilities, or exacerbate—and even create—new conflicts (Perouse de Montclos, 2001). Humanitarian aid is highly fungible. It can be diverted and used to fund military operations, sustain forced displacements, supply guerrillas in refugee camps, reinforce the communication policy of belligerents, and legitimise a political cause by designating on which side the good victims are. In practice, international aid is often captured by dominant groups because it is difficult to reach the poorest segments of the population. In the Sahel, for instance, it favoured elite-controlled NGOs and administrative sectors that were financed by official development assistance (Blundo, 2011).

Many examples in Africa illustrate how international aid can prolong hostilities. Foreign relief reinforced the capacity of the Biafran secessionists against Nigeria’s blockade in the 1960s. As his troops were surrounded, the leader of the rebellion knew that he could not secure a military victory. Hence his hope was, according to his own words, to resist long enough to convince the international community about the necessity of independence for the Biafran victims ot the blockade, which was presented as a “genocide”, even if this meant prolonging the famine and suffering of his own people.4

In the same vein, foreign relief was diverted tor military purposes in Ethiopia, Sudan, and Somalia. During the famine ot 1984—1985, the Marxist dictatorship in power in Addis Ababa restricted international aid to the regions under its control. It forced the people living in northern rebel areas to relocate to the south as part of a “villagisation” program financed by the World Bank, tor instance in the province of Gambella (Clay & Holcomb, 1986; Evans, 2013; Rawlence, 2010). In Sudan and Somalia, aid diversion also helped government troops and warlords to continue fighting. In the city of Ed’Dien in Darfur, for example, it was estimated that in 1999, one-quarter ot relief ended up in the hands ot combatants or chiefs (Loane & Schiime, 2001, p. 66). Humanitarian organisations had in fact assessed the needs for 90,000 people instead of the 30,000 who were displaced and who resold their food rations to repay debts to local moneylenders. As a result, malnutrition persisted despite—or because ot—the abundance of relief.

Looting and theft, however, are not the only way for belligerents to divert aid in Africa. Other schemes include overbilling contracts, inflating the number of people in need, or creating fraudulent NGOs.3 The creation of artificial humanitarian organisations to capture foreign aid is quite efficient indeed because it corresponds to the expectations ot Western donors who think that the proliferation of non-profit associations contributes to democratic pluralism and the non-violent resolution of conflicts. Building local capacities also fulfils the communication policy ot international NGOs which claim to defend the interests of the victims, yet do not say how much they spend to decentralise their organisation and to support their partners in developing countries (Audet, 2016).

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