Burmese monks protest the slow response to Cyclone Nargis. CREDIT: <a href="http://flickr.com/photos/northcountryboy/2505122369">Sean Ng</a> (<a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/deed.en">CC</a>).
Burmese monks protest the slow response to Cyclone Nargis. CREDIT: Sean Ng (CC).

Policy Innovations Digital Magazine (2006-2016): Briefings: Humanitarian Aid Politicized

Aug 11, 2008

The damage done to Myanmar by Cyclone Nargis this past May raised familiar problems for the humanitarian community. Almost overnight, governments and NGOs mobilized to help a poor and isolated community deal with the immediate costs of disaster, and the longer-term problems of sickness, displacement, and food shortage.

What set this disaster aside was the resistance that aid organizations faced from the Burmese government. In the days following the cyclone, UN food aid was seized, and aid workers were denied visas. A spokesman for the UN World Food Program called the delays "unprecedented," and Bernard Kouchner, French foreign minister and founder of Doctors Without Borders, suggested that the "responsibility to protect" be invoked to help Myanmar's stricken population even without the consent of the government.

Aid workers are keenly aware of the need to avoid politicizing aid—this was one of the major reasons that Doctors Without Borders cited for respecting the junta's qualms about allowing direct aid. And yet, faced with disasters that don't respect political differences, and global gaps in the ability to mobilize a response, even the perception of apolitical aid is difficult to achieve.

The disaster in Myanmar made this dilemma very clear. When the Burmese government refused to admit French and American naval vessels carrying thousands of tons of food, vehicles, and medical supplies, it claimed that the ships were intended to exercise a sort of gunboat diplomacy.

NGOs often need to piggyback on the technology and skills that governments can offer, particularly the military. Such collaboration was a major feature of the humanitarian response to the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. But in doing so they risk being rebuffed by regimes distrustful of their ties to unfriendly governments.

The recent earthquake in southwestern China raised similar issues for aid organizations. While authorities were willing to accept aid (and were indeed praised by Western governments for their "exemplary" response to the disaster), they refused entry to aid workers, arguing that they had the experience and the manpower to cope with the disaster themselves. This refusal may not have had consequences as grave as in Myanmar, but it highlights a frustrating reality for aid organizations.

Aid organizations also face the risk that the help they offer may be coopted for political purposes, however carefully they maintain their humanitarian neutrality. During the political turmoil that has gripped Zimbabwe in recent months, one of the most striking stories was the seizure of twenty tons of food aid by state security forces. The aid was intended for the poor and was being distributed by a trio of charities working with USAID, but it was instead handed out at a rally to supporters of Robert Mugabe.

How are NGOs to respond and adapt when squeezed between government players?

When aid workers were not allowed into Myanmar, some donors minimized their aid, unwilling to let the Burmese military handle distribution. France gave only $309,200 in direct aid immediately following the cyclone (not including its significant contribution to the EU donation), stating that they didn't trust the way the Burmese would use the money. A number of charities expressed similar hesitation about unsupervised distribution of their aid.

This climate of mutual distrust can only worsen the fate of natural disaster victims. Faced with stalemate, the appeal of Kouchner's demand for multilateral intervention is understandable, though in the long run such infringements on sovereignty may increase opposition to humanitarian efforts.

As Doctors Without Borders recognizes, the "ambiguities of intervention" run deep in any situation where politics and humanitarianism meet. Some aid organizations, like the Red Cross, maintain a "silent neutrality" in order to ensure access to as many of those in need as possible. Others, like Doctors Without Borders, possess what they describe as an "aversion to silence," speaking out "when faced with mass violations of human rights." For many, the divide is over whether charities, in order to remain neutral, are bound to respect the sovereignty and the wishes of the governments that host them, or whether their humanitarian values require them to act counter to these wishes.

Kouchner's suggestion that able governments and aid agencies invoke a "responsibility to protect" goes to the heart of this debate. Diplomats to the UN from China, Russia, Vietnam, and South Africa denounced his suggestion, reading in it a measure of hypocrisy, and arguing that, even in situations as serious as the one in Myanmar, a state's right to sovereignty cannot be discounted. Others saw the probable tragedy of delay as a justification to violate Myanmar's sovereignty.

Fortunately, according to a report in the New York Times, the human cost of the junta's initial skittishness was not as grave as anticipated. And with some attention still focused on Myanmar, it may be that, in this instance, the wait-and-see attitude adopted by most aid organizations was the right one to take.

And yet, for NGOs and governments alike, the lessons of recent disasters have been harsh. They operate in a world where aid is viewed as a political commodity, however well intentioned the donors may be. The human costs of this politicization may be significant; certainly, as swelling urban centers make disasters deadlier, it poses a crucial policy problem for aid organizations and international diplomacy.

Jon Templeman is a student at the University of Oxford.

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