"Blurring the Lines": NGOs in War Zones

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The Grave Consequences of "Blurring the Lines"

Politicization and militarization of humanitarian aid is a slippery slope that can quickly become dangerous when the “blurring of lines” begins between NGO’s and political/military actors. With too much intervention of political and military actors onto humanitarian work, the “blurring of lines” is inevitable and could bring grave consequences to the NGO’s and the beneficiaries. In theory, humanitarian aid is given following the humanitarian principles. These principles include humanity, neutrality, impartiality, and independence. They are the standards that NGO’s are expected to abide by. Having any sort of militarization or politicization of humanitarian aid is in immediate violation of two of these principles, with the other two at risk. Firstly, neutrality, with military being involved, this component is lost. A soldier representing a country under no circumstances is neutral. Secondly, independence, this principle calls for humanitarian action to be “autonomous from the political, economic, military or other objectives that any actor may hold with regard to areas where humanitarian action is being implemented.” (1) It is straight forward, other political or military objectives should not be in play. Violating independence creates the possibility of not following the principle of impartiality, if there are other interests and opinions involved and actively being represented in humanitarian action, the likeliness for there to be no bias in the delivery of aid logically decreases tremendously. As Donini mentions, high politics equals low principles (2), militarization and politicization of humanitarian aid inhibits NGO’s to follow humanitarian principles essential for their protection, function, and existence. In the eyes of the international community and the beneficiaries (governments and citizens), this infusion of military and political actors organically cause a “blur of lines” effect, whether NGO’s are deeply associated with these other actors or not.

Politicization and militarization comes0 in many forms and occurs for many reasons. According to Keen, politicization of aid is the “subordination of aid to geopolitics” (3), which perfectly describes it. Political actors have various reasons to attempt to politicize aid in conflict zones. All of the reasons are part of a greater agenda of the actor attempting to politicize, usually the interest of the beneficiaries comes last. Equalizing humanitarian aid to other strategic factors states use to reach their aim, such as weapons and soldiers, is a misuse of the aid itself. It becomes a political pawn in the eyes of politicizing governments. The methods of politicizing aid include propaganda on food deliveries, sending the message to beneficiaries that another country is the reason why they can be fed, versus their own. Or it can be something like preventing movement of people for political interests. Unfortunately, the negative consequences of influencing the humanitarian community are received by the NGOs themselves. The humanitarian principles are an ethical shield that protects aid workers (for the most part) and allow for NGO’s to help in places and under governments that might not be accepting of foreign national help. Loosing these principles, even if it is only in one situation, could be a major blow to their reputation, later affecting their ability to enter conflict zones due to a lack of reliability and trustworthiness. In consequence, future beneficiaries in need, might not have access to humanitarian aid. It creates a domino effect and it proves that once aid is politicized, it is very difficult to separate the political actor from the humanitarian NGO, therefore causing to “blur the lines”.

A great example of severe politicization of humanitarian aid is what took place during the Balkans war in former Yugoslavia. The decisions made and actions taken by the foreign political actors and the UN are a model of what politicization looks like and what can go very wrong, especially for the supposed beneficiaries in this particular case. Tensions between ethnicities in Yugoslavia, between the Serbs, Croats, Bosnian Muslims, Albanians, Slovenes, were considered relatively in control under the leadership of President Tito. It was until his death in 1980, the tensions rose once again. (4) In 1991 Croatia and Slovenia declare their independence and autonomy. With a predominately Serbian army in nationalist led Yugoslav, the war broke out in the newly autonomous states causing the death of thousands. This ethnically based war caused the displacement of “over a million Bosnian Muslims and Croats…in ethnic cleansing” (5) While this was an issue within itself, it caused problems elsewhere. The displacement of these people became of importance once countries in western Europe began to see the increased number of refugees migrating to their nations. Germany was notably impacted by this as they were receiving a much larger quantity of refugees, in the early years of the war going up to 304,200, due to neighboring countries such as Britain and France virtually closing their doors. (6) Because of a disproportionate intake of displaced refugees, “Germany began putting strong pressure in the other European countries to increase their intake…” (7) But this increase never really occurred. The UN (United Nations) had to take measures in its own hands. Instead of the pressure succeeding in its original goal, it caused the increase in the presence of humanitarian effort by the UNHCR (United Nations Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees). The increase in humanitarian presence and effort in a war zone and ethnic cleansing situation naturally sounds like a positive action, with the mission of truly helping the ones in need with the humanitarian principles at hand.

Unfortunately, that scenario couldn’t be further from the truth. Neither the intentions were humane nor were the results beneficial to those in need. In fact, the limitation of movement was endangering people more. The acknowledgement of the damage done by increasing the concentration of humanitarian aid in former Yugoslavia was so prevalent that it “contributed to the emergence in international policy circles of the phrase ‘well-fed dead’.” (8) “Well-fed dead” was the phrase originating from the reality that with such a surplus of politicized humanitarian aid in the region, the civilians at risk had full stomachs but due to the immobilization factor, ignoring the security issues, those same full people would die in crossfire. Humanitarian aid was used to create the illusion of helpfulness. Zones where aid was primarily delivered —known as safe zones— were anything but, claims Susan Woodward. She perfectly summarizes the humanitarian aid injection to serve the needs of the countries in Western Europe as “containment with charity”. (9) Even the intentions of increasing aid were purely political. It was to avoid the need for people to become refugees consequentially seeking new homes in the western European countries that either didn’t want any or at least didn’t want more.

Pumping a situation with humanitarian aid or using goods as a propaganda platform aren’t the only way governments influence and manipulate humanitarian aid. Militarization of aid is using humanitarian aid for military agenda. It is in a way also politicizing aid through the use of military forces. It is through military actually participating in humanitarian work or selectively delivering it. Also, it can occur through security, attempting to facilitate aid workers by securing them in volatile situations. The militarization of aid is meant for strategic purposes, just like politicized aid. Since it is about the involvement of military forces, it is usually used in highly dangerous environments, such as war zones. Military attempting to control the movement of people, similar with the Yugoslavian example, is a possibility. This control could be applied to cases of war or famine. Internal migration caused by famine can be a negative factor for the economy, “bringing down wages and/or boosting price”. (10) In the same case of famine, withholding humanitarian aid can serve in military agenda. Governments preventing the delivery of relief to strategic locations could be serving a greater purpose for the military. In the case of the Darfur famine in 2003 in southern Sudan, the government purposefully prevented the delivery of aid in rebel-held areas with the goal to weaken them and eventually starve them out. (11) Under the same topic of movement, another motivation for the use of militarized aid could be to secure resources in areas that are becoming depopulated. The resources could be essential for economic or military purposes.

The consequences of militarization of humanitarian aid includes the difficult transition of demilitarizing the aid once it is believed it is not needed any more. If this transition fails, it can cause a worsening of conditions with an increase in insurgency targeting military, schools, and hospitals. (12) This is precisely due to such a severe “blur of lines”, “[increased insurgency] can be easily avoided by creating a distinction between the different forces administering the aid.” (13) Another criticism is the sign of imperialism the military brings along with them. (14) Just as politicization through propaganda on food, the presence of a foreign military “taking care” of people through delivering goods, building essential institutions, and securing camps or other safe havens, can make it seem as if the country they are in is not reliable and lack legitimacy. “Humanitarian aid had frequently helped undermine government’s accountability to their own people.” (15) That is not to say militarization is all bad. A prime model of its success was in the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Because of the high capacity of the military, they were able to do more than their humanitarian counterparts. “Military personnel performed over 1,000 surgeries in the two months following the earthquake, while the Health and Human Services deployable times performed 167.” (16) At the same time, it is important to consider that it was immediate humanitarian aid in a natural disaster, versus a lengthier humanitarian action in a conflict zone.

Militarization of aid for the stabilization of a region is also quite common. “In the language of the military, the objective of stabilization is to ‘shape, clear, hold, and build’” (17) Examples of this exist in Colombia’s case, in 1999 when the U.S. decided to participate in “Plan Colombia”, a foreign aid initiative to combat drug cartels and insurgent groups. (18) This kind of aid is questioned as being “humanitarian”, but regardless serves as a relevant example. Concentrating an enormous amount of American military personnel in Colombia was meant to secure the violent conditions and to train the military there to handle these same types of issues later on. Whether or not it was successful is debated. In early reporting, many claimed success, but after time passed, many begged to differ. Another situation was one very prevalent in the post-Cold War Era. It was politicized and militarized humanitarian aid in politically insecure countries for the prevention of the spread of Communism, a common fear of the United States at that time. This is a case where humanitarian work, and developmental work (what some might consider two different categories), fuse to gain a deep-rooted result. Such a situation can be seen in Afghanistan where the U.S. helped establish many educational facilities with Western influence and ideals to prevent the spread of Communism. (19) However, this particular example in Afghanistan is just the tip of the iceberg.

Afghanistan can demonstrate almost all kinds of militarization and politicization of aid. This country was a player in the Cold War in the 70’s and 80’s, seen as a target for the Soviet Union, after that going through a phase of civil war and the Taliban regime in the 90’s, to then playing another controversial role post 9/11 in the 2000’s due to terrorism and seen as a vivid target for the United States. All of these roles in the most heated issues and time periods has caused the nation to be a complex emergency in desperate need of aid, but also a nation that foreign governments want to influence. With this combination, naturally the zone became riddled with politicized and militarized aid, humanitarian and developmental. This occurred to the extent of the government, rebel groups, and citizens not being able to distinguish between the primarily American military with a neutral NGO, or at least using it as an excuse to target those groups protected by international humanitarian law. “In Afghanistan, all major assistance donors- with the exception of Switzerland and India- are belligerents.”(20) It is important to note that this has never happened before and that this amount of militarization in aid has reached “unheard-of levels”.(21) Although Afghanistan has for a long time been a politically charged area, large political stakes by major powers were not as prominent. It wasn’t until after the 9/11 attack in 2001 that more aggressive militarization began to be implemented. This was when a mixture of civilian-political-military assistance was used. One form of this was through PRTs (Provincial Reconstruction Teams), while some might be made of civilians, the majority coming out of the United States are solely made up by military. PRTs are an active way of involving military in what would usually be the jobs of civilian’s part of the same NGOs providing the goods themselves. (22)

The politization of aid in this same case materialized through similar means as the case in former Yugoslavia. It was through the subordination and pressuring of NGOs with the UN to selectively choose aid recipients. Specifically, after 2001, the political goal of the United States, in sum, was to topple the Taliban regime, therefore they wanted to support the new government established by President Hamid Karzai. As explained before, an effective way of politicizing aid strategically is to reduce or completely halt aid to what is considered the enemy. The same happened here, humanitarian organizations were pressured to deliver aid to government-held towns and supporting the Coalition. (23) Purposefully avoiding and restricting aid delivery, including food, water, and medical aid, to Taliban controlled zones. All of this is amidst dangerous war zones and a severe drought causing famine throughout the country. (24)

The case studies presented demonstrate violations of humanitarian principles by NGOs and the UN. Impartiality was not met when aid was being delivered and given discriminatorily. Neutrality was not demonstrated in Afghanistan when the Coalition and government-held areas were favored and supported by humanitarian agencies versus other regions. Independence was non-existent when NGOs and the UN acted and made decisions upon pressure from governments. And arguably, humanity was not important if not all need was addressed. These were the results of politicization and militarization of aid, “blurring the lines”, not following the humanitarian principles. But those results didn’t remain in the theoretical sphere, they materialized into deaths and harm of aid workers, of citizens who didn’t meet the strategic requirements to receive life-saving aid, and into damaged reputations of NGOs —possibly causing less access to people in need in the future.

QUOTE SOURCE IN IMAGE: https://sur.conectas.org/en/is-humanitarian-action-independent-political-interests/


[1]  “OCHA on Message: Humanitarian Principles,” United Nations OCHA, (June 2012)
[2] Antonio Donini, “Between a rock and a hard place: integration or independence of
humanitarian action?” International Review of the Red Cross 93, No. 881 (2011)
[3] David Keen, Complex Emergencies (Cambridge: Polity, 2008),
[4] “Balkans War: A Brief Guide,” Europe, BBC, March 18, 2016, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-17632399
[5] BBC, “Balkans War: A Brief Guide.”
[6] Keen, “Complex Emergencies,” 119.
[7] Keen, “Complex Emergencies,” 119.
[8] Keen, “Complex Emergencies,” 118.
[9] Keen, “Complex Emergencies,” 119.
[10] Keen, “Complex Emergencies,” 122.
[11] Keen, “Complex Emergencies,” 125.
[12] Ian King, “Militarization of Aid and its Implications,” Cornell International Affairs Review 5, No. 1 (2011) 1.
[13] King, “Militarization of Aid and its Implications” 1.
[14] King, “Militarization of Aid and its Implications” 1.
[15] Keen, “Complex Emergencies,” 135.
[16] King, “Militarization of Aid and its Implications” 1.
[17] Donini, “Between a rock and a hard place: integration or independence of
humanitarian action?” 150.
[18] Natalio Cosoy, “Has Plan Colombia Really Worked?” BBC, February 4, 2016.
[19]Roozbeh Shirazi, “Islamic Education in Afghanistan: Revisiting the Unites States’ Role,” The New Centennial Review 8, No. 1 (2008)

[20] Donini, “Between a rock and a hard place: integration or independence of
humanitarian action?” 151.
[21] Donini, “Between a rock and a hard place: integration or independence of
humanitarian action?” 151.
[22] Donini, “Between a rock and a hard place: integration or independence of
humanitarian action?” 150.
[23] Donini, “Between a rock and a hard place: integration or independence of
humanitarian action?” 154.
[24] “Drought Causes Famine in Afghanistan,” Newsroom Historic Archives, FAO, June 13, 2001 http://www.fao.org/english/newsroom/global/gw0105-e.htm


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