Painful lessons in how to say no

Aid agencies find that handouts can make an intolerable situation worse, reports Raymond Whitaker
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The Independent Online
HOW do you decide when not to give aid, "no matter what the suffering", as Mukesh Kapila, one of Britain's most senior aid officials, puts it?

"They asked us to help in Albania last year," said Emma Bonino, the no- nonsense European Commissioner for Humanitarian Affairs, "and we said no. It was a political crisis, not a typical humanitarian one. There were many armed people, and if we had taken in food or drugs with a commercial value, it would have been looted immediately. That's exactly what happened to a private organisation which insisted on going in.

"We said no in Algeria as well. Apart from the fact that the government refused to have us, it is a very rich country. The problem is one of terrorism and human rights. Now we are being asked to give aid to Indonesia, but it is a huge country of 200 million people. It would be very hard to have an effect. We are sending people to see whether there is something useful that we can do, rather than just rushing in."

Ms Bonino and Dr Kapila, head of emergency aid in Clare Short's Department for International Development, were among those seeking to learn the lessons of past emergencies at an international conference last week in London. The aim was to draw up rules for aid-giving in violent and anarchic places such as Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Rwanda and Afghanistan, where over-hasty and uncoordinated efforts to help have been known to make things worse rather than better.

"Humanitarian assistance," Ms Short told the gathering, "is now vilified by many as part of the problem: feeding fighters, strengthening perpetrators of genocide, creating new war economies, fuelling conflict and perpetuating crises."

Some agencies persuade fighting factions to let them through by giving them some of their supplies. This may seem a small price to pay, but it helps to keep armed groups going, reduces their incentive to negotiate peace and means that the next convoy is forced to pay the same "toll". "In Sierra Leone," said Dr Kapila, "the factions eventually decided to eliminate the middleman and went into Freetown, where they stole millions of dollars' worth of food aid. Which led to one conclusion of the conference: don't stockpile food."

Participants also agreed on the need to be more aware of the effects of bringing in aid; if uncontrolled, it can wreck local economies, putting farmers and merchants out of business and making more rather than fewer people dependent on handouts. "We need as well to be politically informed, though not politically driven," said Dr Kapila. Aid workers are often surprised to discover that the people they are trying to help suspect their motives, and accuse them of political interference.

"You are interfering, though with the best of intentions," said Major Vaughan Kent-Payne, who served with the British force in Bosnia supporting United Nations aid operations. "But you learn that everything you do has an equal and opposite reaction. When we escorted people being bussed to safety out of areas held by another side, we were helping ethnic cleansing."

In his recently published account, Bosnia Warriors, Maj Kent-Payne describes handing out baby food to Bosnian villagers, only to find it being consumed by front-line troops. "We thought baby food couldn't be misused, but we were wrong," he said. "When I asked one mother what had happened, she told me she had given it away willingly. 'If we support our soldiers, my baby will have a future,' she said. It was perfectly logical to her." Bosnia is highly fertile, and the British officer asked a local commander why his people did not grow more food. "'What for?' he said. 'The UN will feed us.' They knew the world wouldn't let the Bosnian nation starve."

That presumption may soon prove wrong, according to Dr Kapila. "We decided that the provision of aid has to be impartial, and that if you cannot get proper access, your responsibility is to say you can't do it, no matter what the suffering. We have to be able to go straight to the mouths we are trying to feed."

The first test of this approach could well come in Sudan, where a catastrophic famine is looming in the south. The government in Khartoum is obstructing aid efforts because it wants to put pressure on secessionist forces. In Afghanistan, UN agencies have pulled out of the south after the governor of Kandahar slapped a UN worker who was complaining of harassment of aid staff.

"Pure humanitarians think they can live in simple boxes, leaving others to do the messy work," said Dr Kapila, "but that is impossible in modern conflicts. We need new guidelines." Ms Bonino agreed. "In complex crises, there are no black or white solutions," she said. "We have to be aware of the consequences of being there."

Bosnia Warriors, by Major Vaughan Kent-Payne, Robert Hale, pounds 25