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'Crisis state', humanitarian aid and the reconstruction of civilian governance

Time (GMT +01) 12:00 13:30

Joanna Macrae, ODI
James Putzel, DRC-DESTIN, LSE

Margie Buchanan-Smith, ODI

Joanna Macrae began by asking whether and how the relationship between development and politics is shifting in humanitarian assistance and why development actors have become more interested in the political task of conflict reduction. She chose to focus on 'chronic political emergencies' arguing that real post-conflict situations, where there is a definitive peace, are increasingly rare. Much more common are situations of chronic political instability. Three key questions were posed:

  • Why promise aid as a tool of peace-making?
  • Whose politics are we talking about?
  • What are the implications in light of September 11th?

Aid and security have taken a more prominent role in conflict management in the 1990's. Aid emerged as a security measure as international intervention in internal wars increased. After the Cold War, there was a search for a new concept of security to guide international relations. This was first mapped out in 1992 in Boutros-Ghali's Agenda for Peace, where security was seen to be determined not only by military factors, but also by social and economic factors. Poverty and inequality were associated with conflict and development seen to contribute to security, placing development assistance actors in a new position in relation to security issues. No longer confined exclusively to the apparently technical domain of economics, they were invited to contribute to a process of conflict prevention by addressing its root causes. In addition, they were encouraged by donor governments to scrutinise recipient countries' defence and security spending. Thus, aid was seen to provide both a stick and carrot in achieving conflict reduction objectives.

Another important change was the rise of conditional humanitarianism. As the decade progressed, the debate about the role of development assistance in conflict prevention began to shift emphasis. From a focus on conflict prevention, attention began to shift to reducing active conflict. At the same time, it became increasingly evident that development assistance actors were largely absent in conflict-affected countries. In these countries, it was largely relief agencies that were present on the ground. The late 1990s therefore saw a small but significant number of experiments in which a number of donor bodies sought to examine whether and how, by omission or provision, humanitarian assistance might be used to exert leverage over conflict. Examples included Serbia, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan.

The third change has involved a re-thinking of the relationship between aid and security. Political/conditional humanitarianism is increasingly seen as unviable for two reasons. First, it has proved contentious and embarrassing to withhold aid to the poor and vulnerable. Second, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that aid is not effective in reducing conflict and actually feeds into the political economy of war and may prolong conflict. On the other hand, more recent studies have suggested that aid is not as significant as other sources for financing wars, such as the arms trade.

Joanna Macrae concluded on a more speculative note, discussing the ways in which aid is being employed to legitimise intervention. The new political purpose for aid, particularly since 9/11, is less to resolve conflicts, than to legitimise international intervention in them. During the 1990s a range of legal, trade and diplomatic sanctions were designed to punish deviant states, and increasingly tough conditionalities on development assistance were introduced. As last resort, military intervention also came to be seen as a legitimate response to the problem of pariah states. While this provided the basis for engagement with like-minded countries, this framework also demanded a convincing strategy in terms of what to do when other states, particularly aid receiving states, did not share those values. During the 1990's military intervention was justified under the banner of 'humanitarian war'.- Kosovo in 1999, was the prototypical case.

The selectivity of such interventions, however, meant that the purity of their motives was questioned. The use of the humanitarian label has associated humanitarian agencies with a contentious agenda of military interventionism. The implications of associating aid with a high politics agenda of security means that aid actors are quickly forced to take sides, not with the poor, but with one or other party in a war. Joanna Macrae sees a potential gap emerging between the US and Europe over the appropriate role of humanitarian aid in fighting the 'war on terrorism'; as well as conflicts of interest over competing agendas of those actors providing aid. Aid should not be seen as a substitute for political action, especially in marginal areas, as the case of Rwanda demonstrated.

James Putzel spoke on 'The Politics of Humanitarian and Development Assistance' with particular attention to the recent work of ODI. He addressed four issues:

Bringing politics back into development means that those making development policy and studying development processes need to be concerned with the distribution of power and rights, the organisation of politics, the grounds of legitimacy and the ways in which formal and informal rules influence behaviour of different groups.

Protecting the principle of humanitarian action. ODI researchers have found a blurring of the distinction between humanitarian action and political intervention and warned that the international community is losing its ability to intervene on the basis of humanitarian principles of neutrality and impartiality. This has occurred for many reasons, including:

1) The changing political economy of war such that a) belligerents have a multiplicity of sources of finance to sustain their activities and so are less dependent on gaining recognition of the international community; and b) belligerents are less dependent (and protective) of the populations in the territories where they operate and therefore less concerned about gaining local legitimacy. This makes negotiation with belligerents on the grounds of neutrality and impartiality very difficult, if not impossible.
2) Rich countries' claim that all their interventions, including military ones, are 'humanitarian'
3) Rich countries' concern for effectiveness of humanitarian aid spending in the face of evidence that aid can fuel war and that is has been employed ineffectively. The latter factor has led to the impositions of different types of conditionality.

James Putzel, while agreeing with the ODI goal of preserving a space for humanitarian assistance, warns that there are many problems associated with humanitarian action, including:

1) There is limited ground for humanitarian action in situations of violent conflict and war. Unlike the model of humanitarianism - the ICRC (based in a politically neutral country) - nation-states are members of military and political alliances and by definition, cannot legitimately behave as humanitarian actors.
2) Multilateral organisations do not provide the answer, as evidenced by the fact that the UN High Commission for Refugees, perhaps the UN agency that has most closely approximated action on the basis of humanitarian principles, has struggled with the demands of member states on which it depends. The UN, to the extent that it is an embryonic world government, represents a particular coalition of interests and balance of power as all states do, and thus cannot be an impartial, neutral actor.
3) The conflation of 'emergency action' and 'humanitarian action' in the organisation and policy debates in bilateral and multilateral aid agencies. Emergency action may have many grounds - military, political, economic, humanitarian - so a distinction needs to be made between humanitarian emergency action, which is conducted on the basis of neutrality and impartiality, and other forms of emergency action.
4) There is a need to preserve the limited space for humanitarian action, particularly in the post September 11th environment, when rich countries claim that all their interventions are undertaken on humanitarian grounds. A major task lies in codifying the criteria when military intervention is justified to permit humanitarian action.

The politics of aid and political conditionality

The claim that aid has ever been 'non-political' is a fiction. The US has been more frank than others in stating that its aid has always served its national security interests. In the 1950s there was a debate among donors over foreign assistance. Some argued that the 'root causes of violent rebellion' lay in poverty, disempowerment and inherited inequality and suggested aid could be directed to altering the distribution of rights. They lost the debate to those who advocated a combination of military action with aid founded in respect for traditionally emerged political authorities, technical in its character and opposed to redistribution.

Aid has always been allocated with implicit conditionality, but the political criteria have not always been transparent. The move over the last decade to recognize the root causes and the political determinants of violent conflict, as stated in Boutros-Ghali's Agenda for Peace, and the recognition by donors that politics matters is largely positive.

However, the political prescriptions advocated by donors are open to debate. The models of governance that inform the 'good government' agenda need to be questioned on several grounds, particularly since modern liberal democracy has never provided the basis for periods of dynamic growth in late developers. Also, the prerequisites for electoral competition are rarely met in poor countries and even less in countries emerging from violent conflict.

Political analysis is crucial for all forms of intervention, including humanitarian action.

James Putzel briefly concluded arguing that those involved in organising humanitarian action and other forms of emergency intervention need to understand the long-term implications of their action for issues of governance and development. In countries emerging out of periods of violent conflict there is a need for long-term donor assistance to constructing and reconstructing governance institutions and organisations. Crises offer opportunities for far reaching governance reforms, but they also come with the scars of violent conflict that must be taken into account in re-establishing stable governance. Promoting peace and stability is an expensive proposition.

Discussion. Several people were interested to know what the alternatives James Putzel proposed given his assessment of the narrow basis for humanitarian action. What action can the international community take beyond political analysis? A second line of questioning was concerned with disaggregating politics beyond international geo-politics and national politics to include regional, local and NGO actors.

Very briefly, James Putzel responded that resources devoted to humanitarian action, along the lines pursued by the ICRC should be expanded. He also said there is great room for expanded political action to reduce the outbreak of violent conflict and development assistance by the donor community, informed by political analysis, for instance, to understand whether reforms to decentralise government reinforce or weaken unequal power relations or increase or reduce political stability.

Joanna Macrae pointed out that an important empirical question is the extent to which actors with competing agendas and mandates acting in the same territory compromise the possibility of providing aid that is consistent with humanitarian principles.


This event discussed the relationship between development and politics is shifting in humanitarian assistance and why development actors have become more interested in the political task of conflict reduction.