3. What not to do: Do no harm and other common mistakes

‘When international assistance is given in the context of a violent conflict, it becomes a part of that context and thus also of the conflict. Although aid agencies often seek to be neutral or nonpartisan towards the winners and losers of a war, the impact of their aid is not neutral regarding whether the conflict worsens or abates. When given in conflict settings, aid can reinforce, exacerbate, and prolong the conflict; it can also help to reduce tensions and strengthen people's capacities to disengage from fighting and find peaceful options for solving problems. Often, an aid programme does some of both: in some ways it worsens the conflict, and in others it supports disengagement. But in all cases aid given during conflict cannot remain separate from that conflict.' Source: Anderson, Mary B 1999. Do no harm: How aid can support peace-or war, p. 1.

Ever since the Biafra crisis (Nigeria 1967), critics of humanitarian assistance have identified ways in which unintended consequences of aid have increased rather than reduced conflict. Parties in conflict may deliberately manipulate emergency responses to further political objectives, and even where aid is not deliberately manipulated it can worsen conflict. Although situations are unique, common themes, trends and patterns have emerged.

It is clear that introducing new resources into an area of conflict can change the balance of power, for example:

  • When aid resources are stolen, taxed or diverted by conflicting parties they may directly fund further violence.
  • When aid agencies provide for civilian needs, they may indirectly be making other local resources available for fighting and may allow local power groups to distance themselves from roles in civilian affairs.
  • External resources can increase existing rivalry and competition, even on local levels. Inter-group rivalry can be particularly severe in situations of extreme scarcity.
  • When parties in conflict control the transport or allocations of aid, it gives them power and legitimacy as providers, and increases their ability to manipulate populations. They can make people move to another area or weaken opposition groups by withholding resources.
  • Providing new resources can distort local economies and make it harder to return to a peacetime economy (and thus create an interest in prolonging conflict) by raising salaries, creating new roles (such as security) or damaging local food supply chains.

It has also become apparent that the giving of aid (and its patterns of provision) can send unintended messages that may reinforce violence, for example:

  • Employing armed security services can demonstrate acceptance of weapons as a source of control and power.
  • Negotiating with armed groups or local warlords gives them recognition as legitimate holders of power.
  • Expatriates using vehicles and fuel for private activities can give the impression that it is acceptable to divert and use aid for one’s own benefit.
  • If aid agencies compete in the field, it can send a message that there is no need to cooperate with or tolerate other actors.
  • Using stories of brutality and suffering to raise funds for aid operations can increase hostility by demonising one side or another.

Much of the criticism of humanitarian aid originates from interventions that misunderstand the political economy of war and the associated political economy of relief. Even in contexts where there is no obvious conflict, aid has the potential to create division, tensions and ultimately violence if it is delivered without regard for local realities.