The ground I was standing on was littered with broken glass, which less than two hours earlier had been the windows of the cafeteria where we had drunk our morning coffee. I couldn’t take my eyes off a silver watch lying about two yards away from me. It was still working, and showed that it was almost half past five in the evening. It was still clasped around the wrist of a dead body, most of which was covered by a dirty sheet on a military stretcher, no doubt brought to the scene by American soldiers.
More stretchers bearing similar burdens were laid out in the middle of the car park of the Canal Hotel, UN Headquarters in Iraq. More bodies were still under the rubble. The sight is engraved in my mind, still. I spent a few days in Baghdad after this day of 19 August 2003 when a truck carrying explosives was driven into the Canal Hotel in a suicide mission, turning it into the rubble under which 22 people, including colleagues and friends, died.
Staff and investigators alike faulted security lapses, including the bending or breaking of rules to enable the deployment of this large UN team called for by major donors and political powers after the US-led invasion of Iraq. Such explanations are narrow and superficial. They explain how the attack might have been possible, and how it might have come to kill and injure so many. They don’t tell us anything about why people launch such attacks in the first place and the deeper roots of increasing antipathy within vulnerable communities towards the very aid organisations assisting them.
To me, a survivor still haunted by the blood I touched as I groped my way along darkened corridors shrouded in dust, part of the answer lies in the increasing and exaggerated politicisation of the global humanitarian enterprise. Aid workers are realists and many of them understand how politicised their work is, and how instrumentalised their own lives have regrettably become.
Still, even the most realist amongst aid workers are starting to find their work in various conflict areas untenable as they are no longer seen by donors or by communities in need as neutral or impartial actors motivated by their common humanity to provide assistance. They have become part of the war, or more precisely collateral damage.
It is true that recipient governments, other donors and armed groups have long sought to use humanitarian aid to serve their own political ends, but this manipulation has increased dramatically and now threatens the very essence of the humanitarian enterprise.
I have worked in humanitarian aid agencies in several war situations and conflicts from Afghanistan to Sudan over the last 13 years and have no illusions that we can conduct humanitarian aid in such situations completely free from the political or military objectives of the interested powers; internationally and domestically. But this interference and manipulation has gone too far.
Let us take a deeper look at donor governments—while keeping in mind that harmful interventions have also been perpetrated by recipient governments and non-state actors. Winning ‘hearts and minds’ has been transformed by the major powers, especially the US, from an add-on to an integral part of modern warfare especially when the war is waged ‘amongst the people’.
Major aid donors, which happen to be involved in some of the most complex conflicts around the world, often allocate their monies to international aid agencies in these areas in a way that is perceived to bring assistance to affected communities as a reward for their cooperation or as a price for the harm that has befallen them because of the fighting. The impact of using humanitarian aid in such a manner is short-lived, at best, while the discredit to the independence and impartiality of the humanitarian aid effort remains.
The implementation of sanctions and counter-terrorism measures in territories controlled by hostile non-state groups (such as Al-Shabab in Somalia or Hamas in Gaza) over the past few years helped create an environment in which humanitarian actors are perceived as a part of the global political machine, as these measures often block access to innocent civilians who are in need, according to a UN commissioned study released in July. Counter restrictions by armed groups do not make it easier for aid workers to reach the people in need. Innocent civilians, who are the majority populations in these areas, are thus crushed between the political machinations of the international community on the one hand and the armed groups (or states), which control their lives on the other hand. This quagmire has led to a dramatic change in how aid agencies are seen by the very people they try to help. It has also changed the way aid workers maintain their security in conflict areas.
Aid workers used to ensure their safety just by displaying the banner of their humanitarian agency and following minimal, commonsense precautions. But now, agencies use unmarked armoured cars, wrap their personnel in flak jackets, and heavily fortify their houses and offices – which they also tend to place away from the community they ‘serve’.
Interestingly, aid organisations that have suffered the least number of casualties such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), are the least politicised. They also undertake intensive outreach and humanitarian dialogue in the communities they serve.
Preparatory work for an International Humanitarian Summit, scheduled for 2015, has commenced. If the summit does one thing, it should be to put front and centre the need to reinstate the humanitarian principles through practical measures to transform funding mechanisms and governance systems in such a way that could ensure more transparency and independence for aid organisations.
We need to save humanitarian aid from becoming just a “force multiplier,” as former Secretary of State Colin Powell called it in 2002. Failing this, this tool could soon become useless. We need to unshackle aid workers and agencies, or at least loosen the political grip, exercised through donor funds and executive boards, on them. This can start with more transparency about the internal workings of such agencies and how funds are used and allocated in greater detail. Such an approach could empower aid workers to perform a noble mission and regain badly needed credibility in conflict areas. As important, it would honour the memory of my fallen colleagues instead of all the ceremonies that took place around the world this month.
The writer led communication efforts for various UN agencies and acted as a spokesman for the organisation in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Sudan. He is a former Director of Communication for UNICEF in New York