“Compassion in the midst of battle” has long been the rallying cry of humanitarian aid groups as they come to the rescue of innocent victims of war and disaster. The philosophy dates back to Henri Dunant, who founded the Red Cross after witnessing one of the bloodiest battles of the 19th century, the battle of Solferino in the Crimean Wars. But whereas Dunant and his followers would hold up a white flag in the expectation of being given access to the wounded, nowadays a red cross, a white flag, or a blue helmet is as likely to be a target as a shield – as tragically evidenced by the bombing of the headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and UN mission in Baghdad last August.
Why the change? What has compromised the traditional image of aid groups as neutral and impartial? No doubt, President Bush’s “you’re with us or against us” approach to the war on terrorism has had an impact on how aid groups are perceived. In his speech at the Afghanistan donors’ conference in 2001, Colin Powell said that he viewed humanitarian non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as an “important part of the [U.S.] combat team,” committed to the “same, singular purpose of [helping] humankind.” More recently, USAID administrator Andrew Natsios went even further, informing the leaders of American humanitarian NGOs that he sees them as an “arm of the U.S. government.”
But to say that humanitarianism has been co-opted by Western powers eager to justify their military interventions – and that aid groups are just a pawn in this – is to tell only part of the story. As chronicled by the journalist David Rieff, aid groups themselves have drifted away from their original mission of serving those in need in favor of becoming part of what they see as the “promising new liberal world order” predicated on the notion of universal human rights. According to Rieff, Western relief workers are attracted to this expanded definition of their role because it allows them to believe, “We’re not just benign philanthropists from the rich North; we are people trying to secure rights enshrined in international treaties and declarations for people who can’t secure them for themselves.”
Against this background, a few NGOs – most notably, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) – have been trying to reclaim their position of neutrality, even if that means withdrawing from Iraq and concentrating instead on crises in West and Central Africa. The “only concern” of humanitarian aid organizations, writes former MSF president Rony Brauman, “should be to obtain sufficient freedom of movement so that they are able to assist the victims before serving political interests.” He adds that in Iraq it is “unlikely that NGOs will find the minimum conditions required for the delivery of effective aid.”
If MSF’s view prevails, some fear it would lead to the diminishment of the humanitarian mission as they perceive it: humanitarianism would once again be a band-aid supplied by skilled activists with no ambitions to achieve structural and political change. In any event, some hard strategic thinking is required if NGOs are to deliver “compassion in the midst of battle” and avoid becoming military targets.