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James Denselow

James Denselow

Posted: August 8, 2010 04:06 AM

The Humanitarian-Military Complex

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Non-governmental organisations have faced their fair share of criticism for their role in Afghanistan. Linda Polman, in her book War Games, described how Afghans who having lived through Soviet communism and Taliban Islamism, are experiencing the new dynamic of "NGO-ism".

The chaos of a war zone combined with the financial attraction of an invasion led by the world's remaining superpower has proved a potent mix for a multitude of NGOs to flock to the country.

Aid agencies have been accused of chasing contracts - which has resulted in a geographic imbalance of aid with resources focused on those areas suffering from actual conflict while ignoring areas with the security to benefit from sustainable development. This has meant that aid has often failed to adjust to Afghan needs, for example 10-15% of all Afghan land is arable to farming yet despite 80% of Afghans relying upon agriculture only 5% of international aid goes to that sector.

According to Transparency International, Afghanistan is the world's second most corrupt country and many NGOs appear to have lost themselves in it. Massive amounts of money have been lost through the incompetent subcontracting of projects, with Polman describing a $150m housing contract that eventually provided only firewood for the would-be residents.

During a discussion at the Tricycle theatre in London this week, Shaheen Chughtai of Oxfam admitted there is "shamefully little to show" from a massive investment of aid resources. Earlier this year, Jean Mazurelle, former director of the World Bank in Kabul, estimated that 35-40% of all international aid to Afghanistan has been "wrongly spent".

Yet what has happened in Afghanistan is much more than simple corruption and inefficiency, it is a fundamental change to the space in which humanitarian organisations operate.

The American military dominates the Afghan aid landscape and has been accused of seeking to incorporate the third sector into its agenda. The subsequent militarisation of aid is typified by the massive investment in "provincial reconstruction teams" (PRTs) whose funding has increased by some 2,500% since 2004 while traditional development spending is one-third of what it was six years ago.

PRTs were a concept developed in 2002 and as a recent Brookings Institute report explained, "although PRT work is mostly non-military in nature, a dearth of available civilian personnel means that the teams are composed primarily of military officers". The current ratio of US civilian to military personnel in Afghanistan is 1:100.

An entirely new space has been created between wartime and peacetime development - "stabilisation operations" - which are driven by the military leadership despite its alarming similarities to the work of humanitarians. These operations include support from the newly formed human terrain teams, which have also brought the independence of academia into question.

What are the consequences of this blurring of humanitarian space? Aid agency staff, both international and local, are increasingly seen as legitimate targets by combatants for threats, suicide attacks and kidnapping, and this prevents them from fulfilling their humanitarian mandate.

Indeed, in 2004, Medecins Sans Frontiers withdrew from Afghanistan after five of its staff were murdered. A Taliban spokesmen bluntly explained that "organisations like Médecins Sans Frontières work for American interests and are therefore targets for us".

Speaking at the Tricycle, Elizabeth Winter of Afghanaid described how despite Isaf agreeing humanitarian guidelines with NGOs, they were signed but not honoured. Actions such as coalition military forces entering NGO projects or travelling in identical white vehicles often directly result in those becoming targets.

We should be clear that the third sector is simply one of a multitude of international actors whose work is being compromised by greater militarisation. Academics (human terrain teams), journalists (embeds) and diplomats (Hilary Clinton has demanded 7,000 fully armed security operatives to protect the US embassy in Iraq) are all experiencing a similar trend. In place of Dwight D. Eisenhower's concerns over a military-industrial complex we may be heading toward a military-industrial-academic-media-diplomatic-NGO complex whose eventual hegemony could prove unchangeable.

The humanitarian community needs its own General David Petraeus to surge up and reclaim the notions of impartiality and independence that are the cornerstones of what they should represent. These have been badly compromised in the "humanitarian wars" that have defined the last decade and there are real concerns that any future military exit from Afghanistan will dovetail with the enforced equivalent exit of the majority of NGOs.

 

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