August 19, 2010: World Humanitarian Day

As we celebrate World Humanitarian Day, the lines between humanitarian aid and military aid are increasingly blurred.

By: Mia Vukojevic

What image comes to mind when we think about the aid workers desperately trying to get food, tents and clean water to survivors of Pakistan’s floods?

White men in Land Cruisers barreling through muddy craters? Pakistani women collecting water in makeshift containers? Pakistani men clearing debris?

Or is it Black Hawk helicopters and camouflage?

As we celebrate World Humanitarian Day, the lines between humanitarian aid and military aid are increasingly blurred.

In Pakistan, 30,000 local troops were sent to flood regions to help evacuate survivors and erect shelter, a part of their mission as the national military force.

In Haiti, however, foreign troops got involved with the relief efforts. Some 11,000 U.S. military personnel were flown into Port-au-Prince to assist with food and water distribution. Even Canada sent 1,000 troops in the first few weeks after the deadly earthquake. The pictures that flashed across television screens – soldiers in khaki tossing bottled water into grateful hands – were the kind designed to win hearts.

But using soldiers to deliver humanitarian aid isn’t always the most effective way to reach the millions in need – and can inadvertently place aid workers in harm’s way. 

Military troops can be quickly mobilized, but humanitarian relief needs to remain independent in order to work. If humanitarians are not seen as impartial, they lose the trust of the very people they’re supposed to be supporting. Their own security, and their access to survivors, can be jeopardized.

Photo: Mirjam van den Berg/Oxfam Novib

Blurring military intervention and humanitarian aid has become the norm in Afghanistan, where Canada is spending $111 million over three years to have troops provide food aid, blankets and kitchen utensils, deliver vaccinations and clear mines. The Afghan government itself estimates that international forces have spent more than $1.7 billion on aid in Afghanistan – most of it funneled through Provincial Reconstruction Teams in regions where military presence is strongest, but not necessarily where aid is needed most.

Photo: Gulbuddin/Elham/Oxfam

In “Quick Impact, Quick Collapse,” eight agencies operating in Afghanistan – including Oxfam – argue that militarized aid actually draws civilians further into the conflict, since projects set up or financed by allied troops, such as schools or clinics, often become targets for retribution.

Worse, military aid can often be completely inappropriate for the refugee or survivor context. In “A bridge too far: aid agencies and the military in humanitarian response,” authors Jane Barrie and Anna Jeffreys note: “Military forces are trained and equipped to provide medical care and facilities to a predominately male, adult, healthy population – yet 80 per cent of refugees are women and children.”

Another problem is that military aid is often far more expensive than humanitarian aid delivered by non-governmental agencies. While charities undergo rigorous inspections of their spending and must keep overhead costs low to ensure every dollar possible is sent to the field, military spending rarely receives the same kind of critique.

Barrie and Jeffreys highlight case after case where military spending on aid delivery or field hospitals far outstripped what an aid agency would budget for the same service. In Rwanda, they note, the British Royal Air Force charged cargo rates six times higher than those of civilian airlines. In Afghanistan, the U.S. spent $7.50 per kilo on food airdrops, compared to the World Food Program’s average of 20 cents.

Photo: Oxfam

Part of this is because aid agencies hire local staff where possible. The economic jumpstart provided by cash-for-work programs, which employ locals to package and distribute aid, have become a crucial part of the recovery phase of a disaster.

Soldiers, however, come with non-negotiable costs that drive up expenses. In Haiti, for example, the U.S. military spent millions – and tied up crucial airways into the country’s devastated capital – flying in the shelter, food and water supplies they’re legally obligated to provide deployed troops – even while Haitians themselves were desperate for help.

Last year, some 98 humanitarian workers were killed on the job, with local staff most at risk. Just this month, 10 aid workers were killed in Afghanistan while attempting to deliver medical aid.

For the sake of survivors, refugees and aid workers on the front-line of relief efforts, humanitarian work needs to remain outside the realm of military intervention, where it cannot be corrupted by political interests or made vulnerable to attack.

  - Mia Vukojevic is Oxfam Canada’s humanitarian coordinator.

Learn more about Oxfam Canada's humanitarian efforts around the world.