Oxfam warns against trend in using aid for political and military purposes

By kfield

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Washington, D.C. -- Donor governments are now spending more aid on countries they consider politically and militarily important while overlooking equally severe needs in crises elsewhere, said humanitarian organization Oxfam America in a new report released today. Oxfam warned that this type of aid by-passes the poorest people and dangerously blurs the line between civilian and military activity.

The report, entitled Whose Aid is it Anyway?, outlines how billions of dollars in international aid that could have transformed the lives of people in the poorest countries in the world was instead spent on unsustainable, expensive and sometimes dangerous politically-driven projects, as international donor governments used aid as a tool to support their own short-term foreign policy and military objectives.

“Since 2001, there has been a growing trend of aid being used to win ‘hearts and minds’ in conflict but it is often poorly conceived, ineffective, and in some cases has turned beneficiaries and aid workers into targets for attack,” said Raymond C. Offenheiser. “When aid is used for short-term political and military gain, it often fails to focus on the long-term goal of reducing poverty, which is key to making the world safer.”

The report says that while aid flows rose toward meeting wealthy donors' international aid commitments between 2001 and 2008, more than 40% of this increase in aid was spent in just two countries, Afghanistan and Iraq. The remainder, Oxfam said, was shared among 150 other countries. As the US Administration readies itself to send its FY 2012 budget request to Congress on February 14, Oxfam says that a new approach is required to maximize the impact of aid based on long-term objectives rather than short-term political or military interests.

"With more people in need of aid than ever before, it is imperative that the US be actively engaged in the fight to end global poverty,” said Offenheiser. “Effective aid can be used to help save lives, strengthen the economies of poor countries and help struggling communities manage their own way forward from poverty and injustice. By helping improve the livelihoods of millions, aid can reduce the sources of discontent and disenfranchisement that fuel global security threats.”

The report points out that in 2010, 225 aid workers were killed, injured or kidnapped in violent attacks, compared to 85 in 2002. In part this reflects the greater number of workers operating in violent places but statistics indicate it is also the result of an increase in politically-motivated attacks targeted at aid workers perceived as working for political or military gains.

“Blurring the role between civilian aid workers and the military can turn aid workers and the communities where they work into targets,” said Mike Lewis, author of the Oxfam report. “Aid efforts can only be successful when they are distinct from the military effort and aimed at reducing poverty and suffering rather than addressing the short-term security problems of donor governments.”

In Afghanistan, the US and other NATO nations have spent billions of dollars on expensive and unsustainable “quick impact projects” intended to win local support, but which are perceived by many Afghans to be particularly targeted by the Taliban.  NATO training for Afghan troops has continued to encourage rewarding those who give information with humanitarian aid--even after NATO itself officially renounced such practices in 2004 and agreed to rules prohibiting the practice. The politicization and militarization of aid has also made it much harder for aid agencies to provide help to those in need in some areas according to the report. In Somalia, US humanitarian assistance for the country's desperate population, previously the single largest source of aid for Somalia, dropped eight-fold between 2008 and 2010.

Oxfam acknowledges that the military can play a crucial role in the days that follow a humanitarian crisis, particularly through the provision of transport and creating a secure environment but notes that relief agencies are best positioned to directly provide food, medical care and support for livelihoods of those caught up in disasters. Evaluations ranging from the humanitarian response to the Rwandan refugee crisis in 1994 to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami suggest that the military can be up to eight times more expensive in providing basic services compared to civilian alternatives.

“Poorly conceived projects tend to alienate the very people whose 'hearts and minds' donors want to win,” said Lewis. “Effective aid saves lives, reduces poverty, builds health and education systems, and strengthens the economies of poorer countries.”

To view full text of the report, click here.