Humanitarian neutrality isn’t dead because it never existed

Humanitarian neutrality is dead. The sooner we stop mauling its rotting corpse, the better off we’ll all be. In fact, I don’t believe humanitarian neutrality ever existed. It’s not a corpse at all; it’s a figment of our imagination that we’re finally abandoned. The provision of humanitarian aid changes the dynamics of a conflict situation. It is therefore inherently not neutral, and it was naive to ever believe it could be.

Mary Anderson started talking about do no harm in 1994, and recognized that aid has an impact on the conflict, and is therefore never neutral. It was naive of us to ever pretend it was. Here’s what she had to say: “All aid programmes involve the transfer of resources (food, shelter, water, health care, training, etc.) into a resource-scarce environment. Where people are in conflict, these resources represent power and wealth and they become an element of the conflict.”

The targeting of NGO workers in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia is appalling, and brutally dangerous. But what protected Medecins Sans Frontieres and the International Rescue Committee in Afghanistan in the 90s was not some airy-fairy belief in neutrality. It was the Taliban’s belief that the NGOs were not keeping the Taliban from achieving its goals. Combatants in Afghanistan no longer believe that, or are not organized enough to enforce rules. Mourning the end of neutrality is a dangerous sidetrack that keeps the real issue from being addressed.

All of that being said, I think that a particular NGO or project can nonetheless be known as honest and fair and therefore have a humanitarian space to operate in. But that’s not based on an abstract concept of neutrality or humanitarian space. It’s based on earning the trust and respect of local populations, and on convincing all sides of the conflict that your provision of aid will not turn the tables against them. That’s not an easy game to play, but it’s the only one we have. And, despite histrionics to the contrary, it’s the only game we’ve ever had.


(photo credit: DVIDSHUB)

Chosen for pretty obvious reasons.

How to help in Georgia

Georgia is a developing country, but not among the poorest of the poor. It’s not Haiti or Bangladesh. Therefore, the displaced persons who fled probably have some level of savings, and left with some household items. They’re not going to be at immediate risk for starvation, but things will get very tough for displaced persons in about a month. After that, the major risk is winter. Cold weather in the Caucasus is extremely cold, and displaced persons are likely to be in inadequate housing without the funds to pay for heating fuel or the clothes and blankets needed to keep warm.

If you want to provide help to displaced persons, I offer the same advice I always do. Find an NGO that already operates in the region. I suggest CARE, which has been in Georgia for about 15 years, and CHF, which also has an established presence. Give to the organization’s general fund, so your funds will be used as effectively as possible.

You may also want to think about other victims of the crisis. Consider supporting groups who assist and protect ethnic Georgians in Russia, and ethnic Russians in Georgia. By all accounts, the nationalism is getting ugly on both sides, and resident minorities will be at risk. I suggest supporting the Open Society Institute’s (OSI) Russia organization to help ethnic Georgians in Russia and OSI’s Georgian arm for the inverse.

Lastly, I suggest supporting civil society, human rights, and independent media in both countries. Democracies don’t go to war like this.

Photo: Joao Silva for The New York Times