LONDON -- Those who care about the Afghan people may have been relieved when the U.S. Air Force began dropping food. But while the air drops may fill a few stomachs, they damage the effectiveness of humanitarian aid in this and other conflicts. The Western coalition is trying to prove to Afghans and the wider world that this is not a war against the Afghan people, that on the contrary it wants to help them.
But limited food drops are a symbolic gesture. It is extremely unlikely that these few items of assistance reach the poorest and most vulnerable Afghans. The experience of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) in delivering humanitarian aid throughout the world in armed conflicts for more than 30 years has taught that untargeted and unmonitored relief, particularly food aid, rarely reaches those who need it most. The food drops are a superficial and misleading gesture. Decisions on humanitarian intervention should be based on needs alone, independent of military or political objectives. Otherwise those Afghans in greatest need of food and medical assistance will go without.
If the military is involved in delivering humanitarian assistance, the aid can be regarded by opponents as an act of war. If humanitarian action is seen as partisan, aid and aid workers can be denied access to people in need. In Pakistan, some United Nations offices, theoretically a beacon of hope for war-distressed people, have been looted and burned.
Aid agencies have left Afghanistan for fear of being targeted because they are identified with the coalition. Security fears have forced aid agencies in Kashmir, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Kenya and Somalia to reduce work, depriving many people of badly needed assistance. Humanitarian aid promotes a concern for humanity and dignity in times of violence. Such aid relies on respect for the impartiality of aid agencies. MSF in Somalia is still paying the price a decade later for the confusion between military and humanitarian objectives. Confusion was created again during the Kosovo crisis by the presence of NATO troops in refugee camps; the camps were shelled by Yugoslav forces. When the bombing stops and humanitarian agencies can move into Afghanistan, how will the warring parties tell them apart from humanitarian bombers? The military can provide help to people in danger in certain circumstances. Logistical resources are frequently deployed to respond to natural disasters, and peacekeepers have an important role to play in protecting civilians caught in conflict. But every time a military belligerently involved in a conflict describes its actions as humanitarian, this vital concept is eroded.
Aid agencies are perceived as less neutral and less independent; staff will find it increasingly difficult to work and will be increasingly targeted.
The people of Afghanistan are in desperate need and have almost no assistance. Millions face starvation. The United Nations has drastically reduced operations; all but a few aid workers have withdrawn from Afghanistan and now wait across the border. On one side tons of aid and hundreds of staff; on the other side millions of people suffering.
A large-scale, independent humanitarian relief effort aimed directly at reaching those most in need is required. This response could be led by the United Nations, with a clearly understood humanitarian mandate, in collaboration with independent relief agencies. All parties to the conflict must allow passage of large convoys bearing food, medicine and humanitarian workers who can ensure that the aid is delivered to those who need it.
If the coalition really wants to save the most desperate people, it should concentrate effort and resources on making this happen, rather than on symbolic air drops. The Taliban and their allies have the same responsibility toward civilians in war.
Dr. Rostrup is the international president of Médecins Sans Frontières. He contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.
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