The South Asia Channel

Drowning humanitarian aid

Barely hidden beneath the surface of Pakistan's worst flooding in living memory were the geopolitical stakes shaping both the justifications for official Western assistance and how aid was delivered to victims of the disaster. The perverse result may be a further restricting of the ability of humanitarian aid workers to assist the Pakistani population in the most volatile areas of the country.

I have just returned from Pakistan where I visited flood zones and discussed with Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) staff the relief effort and its implications for humanitarian aid in the country. While the primary responders to this crisis have been the communities themselves, MSF has 1,200 Pakistani and 135 international staff providing assistance in 15 locations throughout the country.

Unfortunately, what I learned through my visit is that the politicization of the flood assistance effort from Western donors has only deepened long-held Pakistani suspicions of the intentions of foreign aid.

Since British colonial times, aid to Pakistan has been used as a political tool to help quell various segments of the population. In April of this year, then-U.N. Special Envoy for Assistance to Pakistan Jean-Maurice Ripert echoed this rationale when he appealed for assistance to the country in the wake of ongoing Pakistani military operations in its tribal areas in order to "pacify some of the most volatile parts of Pakistan."

When the severity of the floods became clear, Western leaders saw an opportunity and began calling for stepped up aid to a country known as a "breeding ground" for terrorism as a way of helping to improve safety back home. During a visit in August, Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee and co-author of a $7.5 billion piece of aid legislation, promoted assistance to flood victims because "there is obviously a national security interest… we don't want additional jihadists, extremists, coming out of the crisis."

For Pakistan, it seems it is not enough for people to have lost everything in a massive disaster to deserve assistance. Instead, foreign aid must be linked with keeping the streets of Europe or the United States safe from potential terrorists. This cynical discourse dehumanizes people in need and creates the perception that organizations delivering assistance are part of a larger political agenda. When aid is used for political objectives, or is perceived as such, it can no longer be considered humanitarian.

This is more than just a debate over semantics. My colleagues, the majority of whom are Pakistani, find themselves trying to provide aid in one of the most politically charged environments imaginable. Winning the trust of all parties in a conflict and gaining access to the affected population depends on being understood as purely humanitarian -- that is, not taking sides but delivering aid based on need alone regardless of political or other influences.

Although regrettable, it may not be surprising (nor is it new) that politicians would find aiding victims of a disaster "useful" for winning "hearts and minds" in a strategic region. But aid organizations professing to be humanitarian, should categorically reject this.

It is the legitimate role of the Pakistani army and government to use all means necessary to aid their people. And in natural disasters it may be unavoidable for the United Nations and aid organizations to use military assets in order to reach those in need. However, in a region as tense as Pakistan and with the increased military campaigns in the country's northwest over the past year, aid agencies must remain independent. Use of the same helicopter engaged in military activity one day and the distribution of aid the next day can associate aid with one side of a conflict and make it a target for the other side.

Unfortunately, during the floods, many organizations that say they are impartial and independent humanitarian actors were not resilient enough in maintaining their independence from the military and government. Some used military flights to deliver aid; many accepted armed escorts in places MSF managed to work without them; and others succumbed to "guidance" from the authorities on where aid should be distributed.

As a result, hard-won trust in humanitarian organizations like MSF, who are trying to work impartially and independently in the most unstable areas of Pakistan, may now be endangered. This loss of trust may ultimately jeopardize our ability to provide assistance to populations trapped in one of the most volatile and neglected regions in the world.

The people I saw in the camps in the flood-devastated region of Sindh last week are the poorest of the poor. They had very little and lost everything. Their children are now filling our malnutrition treatment centers. They deserve to be helped, just as those suffering in the tense northern areas of the country do.

The rhetoric of political justification of aid must be rejected as it sacrifices the needs of those who are not seen as politically "useful." And, as humanitarians, we must do our utmost to remain independent from political or military agendas in order to maintain the ability to reach those most in need, be they "useful victims" or not.

Christopher Stokes is the General Director of  Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF. He has worked with MSF in dozens of countries, including coordinating its operations in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Iraq, and Lebanon during the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel conflict.

PEDRO UGARTE/AFP/Getty Images

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