When ‘do no harm’ hurts

David Keen writes: It’s increasingly clear that humanitarian assistance to rebel-held areas of Syria is being impeded by a fear — shared by the United States, the European Commission and many nongovernmental organizations — that food, medicine and other supplies might fall into the hands of terrorists.

“The underlying principle for all of us is the humanitarian imperative,” Johannes Luchner of the European Community Humanitarian Office said recently, commenting on aid to Syria, “but what we need is reasonable assurance that the goods go where they need to go because otherwise you could be doing harm. When we don’t get it, we don’t finance.”

The fear that aid will fall into the wrong hands — exemplified by a widely circulated photo appearing to show Syrian jihadists standing inside a tent bearing the logo “U.S.A.I.D.” — is understandable. But the insistence that aid should “do no harm,” which has become something of a mantra in the humanitarian community, too often obscures the fact that conflicts are also fueled by the lack of assistance.

This is now the case in Syria. With Western assistance falling far short of needs, a great many Syrians feel deserted, and many are turning to militias (including jihadist groups) that can sometimes offer them a measure of relief — and of hope. The “do no harm” principle is leading to harmful results.

Of course, “do no harm” can be an insightful refrain. In the 1980s, when governments in Sudan and Ethiopia used famine as a tool of counterinsurgency, “do no harm” encouraged a heightened awareness of the possibility that aid can be used for hurting as well as helping. At the extreme, as I discovered while doing fieldwork in Sudan at the time, the government in Khartoum used humanitarian aid to depopulate rebel-held areas of the country, by limiting its distribution to the edge of those areas and effectively starving the interior.

But “do no harm” is today being enforced more in relation to rebels than in relation to governments. All too often, as in Syria, the fear of inadvertently aiding terrorists is actually bolstering repressive regimes. [Continue reading…]

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