Politics of Food Aid: From Politicization to Integration

Politics of Food Aid:

From Politicization to Integration


… at the beginning of the [1990s] … aid agencies tried to recruit states for their cause, by the beginning of the next decade they had discovered that states had already co-opted humanitarianism for their interests (Barnett: 172).

Several years before Barnett published Empire of Humanity: A History of Humanitarianism in 2011, it became painfully clear to many aid workers that a new pattern of politicization of the humanitarian action had emerged in affinity with the “liberal peace” project. Painful, because it made humanitarian workers a direct target of attacks instead of only a collateral damage caused by fighting among two other parties. A terrorist attack on 19th August 2003 against the UN offices in the Canal Hotel in Baghdad, Iraq, killed 22 people and injured nearly 150.[1] The building housed the UN political delegation led by a special representative of the Secretary General and the large team of the World Food Program (WFP), whose main task was to bring in half a million tons of food a month and maintain the country’s food distribution system after the U.S. –led war dismantled the Saddam Hussein regime.

The bombing was probably the most spectacular loss of lives the UN had ever suffered in one single incident. Two months later a similar attack hit the ICRC offices in Baghdad, but with less casualties. There was criticism by independent investigators as well as by the UN staff association pointing out security gaps that led to the Canal hotel incident including non-compliance with the UN Minimum Operational Security Standards (MOSS). But the context of such alleged lapses probably played a large role in making them possible. The increasing politicization of the aid enterprise in Iraq and in several major operations earlier had conflated the humanitarian and the military quarters in dramatically unprecedented ways. Iraq’s bombing was followed by attacks against aid workers or installations in Afghanistan, the Sudan, Syria, Palestine, DRC, Mali, and elsewhere[2].

Politicization is not merely the instrumentalization by one party or another of impartial and neutral aid agencies, but rather a process in which the aid actors also take part. Several actors influence each other. Donors, interested governments, multilateral aid agencies, NGOs, local communities, militias and market forces all interact in complex humanitarian crises.

Politicization of food assistance, and humanitarian aid in general, became evident in the civil wars in the Balkans and Kosovo and in Rwanda’s genocide in the 1990s, and became institutionalized in Afghanistan in 2001 and moved to deeper levels of integration in 2002 in the months of preparation for the war on Iraq. This politicization is now par for the course in Syria (2012-2016), where the aid industry is addressing probably one of its most complex challenges and largest operations ever.[3] Over the past 25 years, humanitarian actors have been increasingly working more  closely with political actors on operational, tactical and strategic levels.

The global liberal peace project that began in the early 1990s and included the sometimes clashing elements of democratization, free markets, human rights, and counterterrorism, accentuated the politicization of humanitarian aid in certain directions. Corrupt and crumbling post colonial states, their security agencies, and ruling socioeconomic elites, also joined the fray and shaped the post 1990 humanitarian space. One good example would be Iraq after its gigantic political miscalculation of invading Kuwait in August 1990. This country suffered from unprecedentedly draconian global sanctions for the following 13 years, became subject to human rights advocacy (from all sides), and turned into an experiment field for democratization when it was invaded under the guise of counterterrorism in 2003.

Food aid save lives of millions of people but despite the best intentions of some in the aid community (donors, humanitarian agencies, and recipient governments or authorities), this humanitarian undertaking is not (and probably could have never been) divorced from politics. Humanitarian organizations and aid workers operate in a very political environment, where power relations are themselves contested in bloody conflicts or disrupted in situations of natural disasters. At best, aid agencies engage in politics to raise funds, secure and enable operations, and ensure safe access to the people who are meant to receive assistance. But more often than not and especially since the early 1990s, the food aid enterprise has become far much more politicized or a site of instrumentalization, by all parties including even the aid agencies themselves. This paper investigates the contours of this complex position of aid agencies and practitioners.

Even before the Iraq war of 2003, Duffield (2002) argued that humanitarian aid actors have become implicated in an international security regime consisting of global regulation, restructuring and humanitarian intervention. The resistance to (or manipulation of) this regime, according to Duffield, included anti-globalization forces, supporters of state sovereignty, organized crime, and autonomous bodies – these formed alliances at will such as for example the relationships between Iran, Syria, Hizbollah, and illicit arms smuggling networks in Syria. Aid networks, Duffield argues, had become part of the international security regime together with other globalization institutions focused on enhancement of security, free trade, flow of investments, respect for human rights and the promotion of free markets in general.

Over much of the South, such [aid] networks are busy trying to provide humanitarian assistance, reduce vulnerability, resolve conflict and strengthen the capacities of civil actors: aid has become a technology of security (Duffield: 1).

Such overlapping and convergence of the political/security concerns and crisis response can be traced as far back as Biafra and Indochina in the 1950s and 60s. The process of politicization of the humanitarian enterprise accelerated after the end of the cold war as of 1990 when many western countries shifted away from multilateral modes of interaction in humanitarian assistance to approaches more blatantly subservient to national security, business and political interests. Donini, Minear and Walker (2004) outline various interpretations for how the political and the humanitarian interact, converge or overlap. Donini argues that there has never been a “golden age when core humanitarian values took precedence over political or other considerations” (Donini 2013:3, 244). He outlines structural limitations within the humanitarian enterprise that made the endeavor always politicized to one degree or another, which is the overall argument of The Golden Fleece.

The Iraq bombing, however, marked the transition from increasing convergence between political and security objectives on the one hand and aid operations on the other hand to an outright integration approach in which the aid operations become part of the tool box, or, “the benevolent side of globalization” (Donini et. al.: 193). Not only governments but also international aid agencies, NGOs and community orgnizations and beneficiaries in conflict areas have political interests and partook of this integration. According to one seasoned Syrian medical aid, most NGO aid workers around him were not even well acquainted with the humanitarian principles and some former revolutionaries (interview, Gaziantep 19 April 2016). Once aid mangers, he said, ensured that political leanings did not undermine professional standards, then the aid providers including big and heavily branded agencies, had to face security threats, negotiate with both armed militias, the government and local councils, and grapple with restrictions from their donors on where and with whom they can operate.

In every operation I have 15 various parties to worry about as both donors and militias question aid workers on the ground why they are assisting one side or the other and would not let them provide assistance easily to enemy groups or the other camp (interview with an aid manager in Gaziantep, 19 April 2016).

Like most big aid agencies, WFP does not work alone and has to deal with all these constraints and constrain others in turn. The WFP, however, occupies a prestigious position in a complex network of donors, governments, international NGOs, private sector suppliers, local civil society organizations and other actors in a multi-billion dollar enterprise. With 15,000 staff members and a US$4.8 billion expenditure in 2015, WFP is the largest aid organization in the world. It assisted 78 million people around the globe in 2015, about 24% of whom were in emergency situations in the Middle East (WFP: 20)[4]. In almost all these Middle East emergencies, major powers such as the US, the UK, Russia and France were implicated in one form or another including direct bombing, deployment of troops and arms sales. These are also countries that have permanent seats at the UN Security Council and/or are amongst WFP’s largest donors. The US, which is involved in Syria, Afghanistan and Yemen[5], provided 40% or two billion dollars of WFP’s budget in 2015. The UK provided about 10% (or 456 million dollars), while the European Commission provided 5% (or 259 million dollars) and Canada 5.4% (or 261 million dollars) (WFP: 27).

The U.S. is no stranger to the instrumentalization of humanitarian aid. Under Herbert Hoover, who later became the US president, and with $20 million, the US had established during WWI the American Committee for Relief in Belgium. It had a staff 120,000 and fed 10.5 million people. Hoover wanted to control how to distribute the assistance everywhere thus raising justifiable political suspicions of countries such as the Soviet Union, which declined the assistance despite the famine in 1921-23 ????? reference instead of Walker). Almost all states play politics in one form or another with humanitarian aid but due to the massive US economic and political influence, it has been for a long time choices made in Washington DC that pushed the humanitarian enterprise into certain directions or prevented it from pursuing certain other directions.  The IFRC owes its origin to the US, the United Nations humanitarian organizations (especially UNICEF and WFP) were almost a creation of the US (government and civil society). The fact that UNICEF for decades shunned working on rights and WFP depended for decades on US surplus food can be traced to US decisions and political orientation on such issues, which bring about a mix of strong protestant philanthropy based on human solidarity rather than on human rights. 

The Syria Case:

For many years, food assistance has become by far the largest component of any emergency aid operation, including now in Syria, where a civil uprising was pushed by the regime into a civil war in late 2011 quickly making the country the theatre for a large humanitarian disaster in the same league as Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990s or Darfur in the mid 2000s. At least 250,000 Syrians have been killed and over one million injured between late 2011 and early 2016. Every second Syrian has had to leave home in the same period (over 11 million people including 6.8 millions, who left the country)[6].

The total funding for humanitarian action in Syria in the four years (2012-2015) totaled US$6.8 billion. In 2015 alone it was US$2.4 billion or 11.7% of the global humanitarian expenditure. About 64% of the humanitarian funding for Syria in 2015 came from the US and the UK alone. A third of 2015 funds went to food assistance, more than half of which or about US$442 million went to the WFP. In other words, WFP got nearly 19% of all funding that went to Syria in 2015[7]

The untold humanitarian suffering of people in Syria is not a byproduct of the civil war, but part and parcel of the war effort itself. Targeting civilians and their basic educational, health and road infrastructure has been used as a war tactic largely by the government. Sectarianism, starvation, and denial of medical and other basic humanitarian supplies, have become regular weapons in conducting the war[8]. This simply means that aid agencies like WFP, which were scurrying to meet the needs of over 13 million Syrians, were under intense political pressures from the government of Bashar al-Assad that controls most of the territory and from the armed factions to a lesser extent. Pressure also was exercised by the main donors and permanent members of the Security Council who have complex agendas in Syria. OCHA, in an evaluation in late 2015 summarized these multiple pressures:

With Syria still maintaining its seat at the United Nations, and backed by Russia and China, UN agencies did not consider it possible that they could violate sovereignty. On the other side of this equation, the other three permanent members of the Security Council—France, the US and the UK—were openly backing the opposition to Assad and covertly financing aid across the borders into opposition areas. With the US, the UK and the EU accounting for over half of the official aid flows into the UN humanitarian system, the political pressures were intense. (Side et. al.: 11)

OCHA’s evaluation concluded that “UN agencies were simply not willing to jeopardize their operations in Syria by taking a tougher stance with the Government … [a position that] will surely be scrutinized unfavorably at a later point.” Even after the Security Council decided to allow cross-border operation in July 2014, “Damascus-based UN humanitarian agencies have been slow to take advantage of … resolution 2165, and throughout they have been protective of their relationship with the GoS.” (Side et. al.: 15)

In Syria, WFP claims that through working with the Arab Red Crescent (SARC), which is largely controlled by the government in Damascus, it has distributed food to more than four million Syrians inside Syria every month in 2015.  Most of this caseload was in government controlled areas which are accessible to UN agencies after government approval. Meanwhile about half a million people received aid through cross border operations from Turkey. A later report concluded that the UN has allowed the Syrian government to direct aid from Damascus almost exclusively into its territories. In April 2016, 88% of food aid delivered from inside Syria went into government-controlled areas while 12% went into territories outside its control. Some months provide an “even starker illustration of the government’s use of UN aid to further its own agenda. In August 2015, the government directed over 99% of UN aid from inside the country to its territories. In 2015, less than 1% of people in besieged areas received UN food assistance each month (The Syria Campaign: 4).

WFP presents a more detailed picture in their report for April 2016:

“Deliveries of humanitarian assistance to Al-Hasakeh governorate have been suspended since 27 December 2015 due to interrupted access through border crossing points surrounding the governorate. As a result, WFP stocks of monthly food rations in the governorate have been completely depleted preventing dispatches to partners during the month of April. Deliveries to Ar-Raqqa governorate remained impossible due to ISIL’s control of the area. Food originally allocated to this governorate were redirected to areas witnessing new IDP arrivals, or where needs exceeded the plan.” (WFP: 3)

The most disturbing conditions, including reported starvation to death, have been reported in besieged and hard-to-reach areas where 4.6 million people live. According to the latest UN SG report about 517,700 people live in 18 besieged locations, of which “377,700 people besieged by the Government” in rural Damascus and 10,000 people besieged by the Government and allied militias in Damascus, some 110,000 people in Deir El-Zour city besieged by ISIS; and some 20,000 people besieged by armed opposition groups and the Nusrah Front in Fuʻah and Kafraya, in Idlib province (SG Report: 8) These figures are almost half those reported in the media quoting unnamed aid officials[9] as well as by the independent and credible Siege Watch project (Siege Watch: 9). According to the UN Secretary General in his May 2016 report to the Security Council, food assistance reached only 13.7% of the people in the besieged, hard-to-reach and priority cross line areas (SG Report: 6). This is an improvement over 2015, where WFP and partners were only able to reach an average of 0.6% of the people in besieged areas between 1 January and 31 August 2015[10]. This number jumped to 41.9% in the first four months of 2016 (UNSG Report: 1). These numbers jump dramatically up and down from one month to another and NOGs and the UN differ on definitions of what are or are not besieged areas and how many people are there. While the SG report put the number of besieged areas at 18, some NGOs take it as high as 46, and while his report estimate about 517,000 people in besieged areas, the NGOs raise that number to one million. All the UN-unacknowledged areas lie in Homs and rural Damascus provinces and are surrounded by the Syrian regime military and its allied militia (Siege Watch: 9).

NGOs admit the relative improvement in early 2016 but claim that aid deliveries to non-government controlled areas were “inconsistent, insufficient, and unbalanced due to continuing access restrictions, limiting their effectiveness. Even in communities like Moadamiya and Madaya, which received multiple aid deliveries during the reporting period, siege-related deaths continued to be reported.” (Siege Watch: 9)

http://siegewatch.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/PAX_TSI_REPORT_Syria_Siege_FINALweb.pdf  part of the improvement after Febraury 2016 is attributed to the decision of the Internationla Syria Support Group to drop food aid on besieged areas, however, even the implementation of that decision was unbalanced or not impartial. Deir Ezzor, which is government controlled, but surrounded by ISIS troops, stood out “as the only besieged area that has experienced a significant improvement in humanitarian conditions as a result of international efforts shepherded by the ISSG” with frequent drops by the WFP. Other besieged areas did not receive the same level of air drops as “the Syrian government continues to deny access” (Siege Watch: 9) .

The UN for political expedience prefers to use sanitized diplomatic language, looking apolitical, blaming “parties” of the conflict for hampering access, when in reality blame can never be apportioned equally. The UN knows that with the exception of four areas (that is Kafraya, Fuaa, Nobbol, and Alzahraa), it is the government which is responsible for the rest of the 46 besieged communities[11]. More bluntly, the government uses food as a weapons. Not that others do not. The militias that besieged Fuaa and Kafraya in Idelb province, did just the same. This language which speaks in reports about “political constraints” still insists the UN is neutral and impartial. The Syrian government has more often than not denied the humanitarian agencies approval to certain locations including three besieged areas of Duma, East Harasta and Darayya, which are “mere minutes” drive away from UN warehouses in Damascus, and where “some people are forced to eat grass to subsist[12].

In addition to rejecting requests for security permission to run aid convoys, the Syrian government used the explicit threat of removing the UN’s permission to operate within Syria and withdrawing visas for its non-Syrian staff members to keep humanitarians from delivering aid to Daraa. The Syrian government has used this threat consistently since then to manipulate where, how and to whom the UN has been able to deliver humanitarian aid[13]. The Syrian government also gives permissions that could be rescinded by government troops on the ground as happened with an aid convoy to Darayya, in rural Damascus on 12 May when the last army checkpoint before the village denied passage alleging that the convoy should not transport “medical items and baby milk. The UN SG complained that “conditions imposed by government security personnel are excessive and contrary to earlier guarantees and approvals obtained from the Government” (SG Report: 9)

Besieging civilian areas in Syria is a flagrant violations of the international humanitarian law and a lack of a consistent effort by UN agencies to reach them (armed with several SC resolutions) flies against the humanitarian principles of impartiality and neutrality. The sieges also “inflame sectarian tensions, spark reprisals, and destroy communities in the process” (Siege Watch: 9).  

The UN and most important food and non-food aid organizations have opted not to work in ISIS-controlled areas after they rejected ISIS attempts in 2014 and 2015 to control their operations. Most of them also fear draconian US and European regulations about ensuring that no aid falls in the hands of terrorists (Interviews with several aid workers in Gaziantep in April 2016). One NGO director confirmed that they use INGOs access to lists of terrorist organizations and individuals suspected of terrorism to vet job candidates and companies that they might work with. This is not necessarily a sure way simply because these lists are not the result of a credible process and people have gotten off and on them for spurious reasons. As one NGO director confirmed, “a supplier may have links to terrorist organizations or pays them money to get the stuff through, but we do not know this and we do not want to know it.”

Organizations working in non-government controlled territories usually work after agreements with local councils and security assurances, usually obtained through these councils, from the dominant militias in this area. They sometimes transfer the risk to local trucking companies.

One UN aid worker scoffed at the question about the reasons for not operating in ISIS-controlled areas: “Ask the donors.” Donors, especially the US, claim that aid agencies pulled out from ISIS-controlled areas because the extremist group wanted to control operations, but in essence this attempt at control is not radically different from what the Damascus government has been doing for years. One aid worker summed it up by saying that every side “wants political gains out of aid operations.” Another medical aid worker said they had to fold operations in ISIS-controlled areas after the Islamists’ health ministry insisted they control the budget and salaries for medical workers. He stressed that the politicization of aid is a two-fold issues: militias like ISIS trying to control aid to gain credibility and INGOs and donors frantically questioning his organization all the time to make sure their work is not benefitting ISIS in any way (Interview in Gaziantep, 19 April). Local procurement is also problematic as it is nearly impossible sometimes to verify that vendors are not related to ISIS members. One aid worker whose organization ceased to operate in ISIS areas in early 2014 claimed ISIS demanded 25-30% cuts (Interview in Gaziantep, 19 April). ISIS relented only when massive vaccination nation-wide campaign had to take place in 2015.

Other organizations opted not to work in Kurdish controlled areas fearing a backlash from the Turkish government especially since mid 2015, but also, at least for one organization, the fear of remaining pro-regime individuals in PYD-controlled areas. In 2015, Kurdish fighters in Sheikh Maksoud in Aleppo were accused by a credible NGO of seizing a food shipment. The Kurdish group denied responsibility but this also meant the NGO avoided working in this area for two months until they were reassured the incident will not happen again.

One organization, operating from across the Turkish borders in Gaziantep to feed about 100,000 people a month, decided to work only in areas that are away from cross-lines and that has been stable for a pre-determined period of time. However Deir El-Zoor benefitted form the ISSG decision to enable air drops and the WFP conducted “29 high-altitude airdrops over the besieged city, dropping a total of 479 metric tons of urgently needed food assistance, distributed by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent to more than 100,000 beneficiaries in the most food-insecure areas of the besieged city” in April 2016 (SG Report: 10).

For bibliography: UNSG. 2016. “Implementation of Security Council resolutions 2139 (2014), 2165 (2014), 2191 (2014) and 2258 (2015) Report of the Secretary-General” – May 2016 accessed at http://www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=S/2016/460

This complex situation where security prerogatives, donors’ conditionality and militia and government manipulation and threats, push organizations who work in ISIS-controlled or in Kurdish areas to either withdraw or keep a very low profile which clashes with their need for publicity and fundraising.

Aid groups affiliated with political parties accept instrumentalization as an integral part of humanitarian operations. One leader of such group said had the donors supported them enough they would not have lost Al-Raqqa in 2013 to ISIS or Idlib to Jebhat Alnusra (Interview with an aid manager in Gaziantep, 19 April 2016).

On the other hand, NGOs which are operating in the north cannot breake the siege imposed by various militias on four pro-government areas. One NGO manager scoffed at the possibility of working there:

These besieging groups which provide security assurances for our work in all other areas under their control would label us as traitors if we only dare as raise the possibility of providing for these four villages … If I dare take a convoy to Nobbol, it means Jibhat Al-Nusra would bar my organization from working in any area under their control.

Another aid worker pointed out that his organization was challenged by its own staff members who did not want to help “Shabiha” or pro-government paramilitary thugs in Kafraya and Fuaa (An NGO manager in Gaziantep, interview on 19 April 2016).

What is the result of this government policy and militia tactics to which aid agencies on the ground play along? Access to basic necessities and most importantly food becomes severely limited and exorbitantly expensive, especially in government-besieged areas, where traders and smugglers also exploit the situation and prices are exorbitant. Few kilometers away from Damascus the average price for one kilogramme of rice is the besieged areas of Madaya, Zabadani, Moadamiyeh and Qudsaya was recorded at 1,115 Syrian Liras in January 2016,  six times more expensive than Damascus market (WFP VAM Survey: 1)  http://documents.wfp.org/stellent/groups/public/documents/ena/wfp281875.pdf?_ga=1.237861184.179220209.1464028754.

The aid operations, this way, turn the government controlled areas into the only viable governing order capable of ruling the country while undermining the opposition controlled areas. This disregards the principles of impartiality and neutrality. This bias and acquisence of aid agencies is taking place because the third pillar of their work, independence, has been severaly compromised for structural and political reasons.

The dilemma of aid managers?

Setting aside higher politics and manipulation by big donors and Security Council permanent members, how do aid managers on the ground justify this? They say that the government controls the majority of population in need and this government can, as it has abundantly proven, curtail access to them, if UN agencies do not behave well. Senior aid managers then are faced with the decision of whether they would stand fast and refuse to be manipulated for political ends but risk that aid shipments to millions of those in need in areas under government control could be jeopardized. Even worse, without government permission to access besieged areas, the safety of shipments and aid workers will be at a grave risk. In its own evaluation of operations in Syria, WFP management there said: “as a United Nations agency, WFP’s role in delivering food to the maximum number of people in need was best served by maintaining relations with the Syrian Government and negotiating access“[14].

What aid managers have done to their mind is the best under the circumstances thus letting the Syrian government indeed use food aid as a weapon. I say this while knowing that their distributions have also saved lives. Or let’s say: where the food indeed arrived to areas under siege, it has helped sustain some lives, not all, and just enough to allow hailing the breakthrough but not breaking the siege effectively. These restrictions and dilemmas, however, should not serve as an excuse for the WFP and other aid agencies. Taking the route of lesser evil does not justify silence about how tough the choices they had to make were and exposing these circumstances, so as not to end up like the ICRC in the concentration camps of the holocaust or paralyzed aid agencies in the DRC. This could even be more politically savvy compared to the persistent use of sanitized language and beating drums of a fake success and commitment to humanitarian principles that they have become unable to hold.

The UN pragmatic approach was rejected by over one hundred Syrian doctors and aid workers who sent a scathing letter to the UN humanitarian coordinator on 13th January 2016. They concluded:

For many of us in Syria, the UN has turned from a symbol of hope into a symbol of complicity. Two decades ago, in Srebrenica, we saw what happens when UN peacekeepers get dictated to by war criminals. Today in Syria, it seems to be the turn of UN humanitarians[15].

The Case of Iraq:

From Convergence to Subservience:

The WFP started preparing for a war in Iraq months before Washington decided to launch it. When the massive humanitarian operation was launched the WFP consumed 75% of the consolidated humanitarian appeal this year.

The WFP undertook two massive operations in 2001 and 2003 in Afghanistan and Iraq respectively. Both were closely coordinated and massively funded by the US through USAID and the UK through DfID.[16] The Iraq operation, more than the Afghanistan one, was a culmination of what British Secretary for State for international development Clare Short described in 1997 as the New Humanitarianism, which “recognized that all aid is political and that some of the ideals of the classical humanitarianism were a little old fashioned (none more so than the cherished classical ideal of neutrality)” (Walker: 73). In 2001, the humanitarian operations by US NGOs in Afghanistan were dubbed by US Secretary of state Colin Powel as a “force multiplier” in the fight against terrorism. These NGOs were under political and legal pressure to ensure the continuation of funding form western donors, which were involved on the war-on-terror. Their independence became severely under attack (Walker: 74).

Many humanitarian aid agencies in Afghanistan had worked closely with the U.S.-led coalition through the Provincial Reconstruction Teams that comprised military forces working with civilians including private contractors to implement humanitarian and development aid operations (Walker 2008, p. 75)

The involvement of aid agencies in Iraq goes back to the mid 1990s with the establishment of the Oil for Food prorgamme (OFF), under which Iraq, suffering from the devastating impact of five years of draconian sanctions after in invaded Kuwait in 1990, was allowed to sell a certain amount of its oil production to procure basic humanitarian supplies including food and medicine under UN supervision.[17] The WFP was responsible for food distribution on behalf of the Government of Iraq in the three semi-autonomous predominantly Kurdish northern provinces through a chain of some 11,000 food agents, while WFP staff members observed the government distribution of food in the center and south through some 44,358 food agents. The role of the nearly 40 WFP observers was to provide data on the movement of commodities from warehouses and silos to beneficiaries and information on household food security. “In his report to the Security Council on the first six months of the programme, the Secretary-General said that the observation system has confirmed that commodities have been transported efficiently throughout the country, that the distribution system is working equitably to bring available commodities to all governorates, and that in terms of adequacy, the food ration under [Security Council] resolution 986 provides food nutrient supply at basic survival level.“[18]

When the war became almost certain in the winter of 2002/2003, especially after Washington DC started negotiations within the Security Council in a failed attempt to get support for invading Iraq to dismantle the alleged arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, aid agencies approached the U.S.-led coalition in contingency meeting through diplomatic channels to plan the humanitarian response. One of the leading humanitarian aid agencies operating in Iraq prepared a US$800 million contingency plan and shared it with the US administration.[19]

Few days after the US invasion on 20th March, the first food commodities procured by WFP arrived in Iraq. First distributions of wheat flour started in April. In May, the distributions included rations of wheat flour, rice, pulses, oil and detergent. Deliveries of salt, sugar and tea were not sufficient to be included in the monthly distribution. WFP conventional rations elsewhere did not include some of these elements but in Iraq WFP was simply reproducing the monthly rations the government used to distribute.[20]

The WFP role in the OFF programme gave many Iraqis the impression that the UN humanitarian observers were responsible for the sanctions as well as for the quality of the food rations of which they regularly complained, despite the fact that it was the Iraqi government which procured the food and that the sanctions were imposed by the Security Council. The general public, justifiably, does not differentiate between the political and the humanitarian arms of the UN, while the observers have never publicly pointed out the low food quality. WFP agreed to play this role for operational interests and to maintain good relations with its largest donors (The US more often than not contributed more than half of WFP resources in the 1990s). WFP operation in Iraq also created a lot of jobs and earned the organization a handsome overhead charge. WFP teams withdrew just before the war started and then returned after the intense military operations were over in April to closely cooperate with the invading powers without even bothering to explain to Iraqis the circumstances and the reasons of their withdrawal and the purpose of their re-deployment.[21] This raised more suspicions about their allegiance and cast doubts on their neutrality and independence.

Before the US invasion it was difficult but not impossible to communicate with the Iraqi people through the BBC radio Arabic Service or the rising and available regional Arab TV stations such as Aljazeera, but UN agencies never really bothered to invest in such efforts. After the invasion, it was even easier to communicate with the Iraqi people as local media platforms mushroomed. But the UN communication plans systematically ignored local audiences or relegated them to a very low priority. Of the five spokesmen who were active on behalf of UN humanitarian agencies (OCHA, WFP, UNICEF, UNHCR and SRSG office) only one, the author of this paper, spoke Arabic and was continually under pressure by his HQ to address the international media for fundraising purposes or to send messages back to main donors or political allies in the west.

The US invasion of Iraq was not sanctioned by the UN and it was seen as illegitimate by many Iraqis and Arabs in the region at large. The “short leach” on which various aid agencies were held by donor governments who were party to the conflict were obvious to regional observers (Donini, Minear, and Walker, p. 192)

WFP’s work in Iraq under the OFF programme and, surely, after the US invasion, could not  unequivocally be categorized as humanitarian work.  Even before the demise of the Saddam regime in April 2003, WFP had started to act as a procurement and logistics consultant to the occupying power, the Coalition Provisional Authority, to ensure the continuation of the massive Public Distribution System. This cast a long shadow on the alleged humanitarian nature of WFP’s work. There was practically no humanitarian crisis in large parts of the country and had the agency not been there could have been some hardship but a for-profit contractor could have done the job. It is this “fictional” humanitarianism that was motivated by operational and political needs of the organization, which wanted to be there and not to miss the action that undermined the humanitarian principles even further.[22]

The pragmatic consequences of politicization can be approached from two different perspectives. It can be seen as a blessing where government are integrating more humanitarian principles into their foreign policies, recently under the rubric of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), such as the case with Libya in 2011 and the Balkan in the 1990s. On the other hand, politicization can lead to extreme instrumentalization as we have seen in the case of Iraq. Vaux agonized over this question when he discussed Kosovo. He problematized the question by introducing the factors of subjectivity, context, and values in how decisions are now being made by politicians and humanitarian workers. “Objectivity is simply an analysis that follows subjective values.” (Vaux, p. 203)

Walker (2008) sees the same paradox that politicization engenders. Humanitarian assistance in Iraq has become a “central tenet of the hearts and minds component of current western counter-insurgency warfare doctrine … it presents both an opportunity and a risk for humanitarians – it has led to vastly bigger budgets for humanitarian work but the money comes at a high risk to the independence and credibility of the agency that accepts it” (Walker 2008, p. 75)

Depoliticized Professionalism!

In Iraq in 2003, WFP had amazing logisticians and planners who were able to move half a million tons of food from overseas and distribute them throughout Iraq every month, but lacked any nuanced reading of their context and the local dominant perceptions, expectations and the fast shifting political sands. Such a reading would not have necessarily prevented terrorist attacks but it might have fed into better decision making on communications, security and programming. An aid worker needs technical expertise (nutritionist, logistician, etc.); but also needs to be part anthropologist, economist, security specialist, and to understand the local context culturally, linguistically and, above all, politically. But such well rounded, informed, and knowledgeable aid workers do not come in abundance – to state it mildly. Technical professionalism is indispensable for the humanitarian effort but never sufficient. 

Political compliance, donor pressure, organizational inertia and the obsession about growth all contributed to impede broader professionalization in Iraq. Aid agencies do things often because they have done them before the same way or because it would help grow their budgets and footprint. “The budget of single agencies began to rival the entire global spending on humanitarian action a mere decade or two earlier and in many cases exceed the annual budgets of many least developed countries.” (Walker 2008, p. 73). WFP raised US$1.7 billion in 2000 and then US$1.9 billion in 2001 (year of Afghanistan operation) and US$3.6 billion in 2003 (year of Iraq operation and in this year over 40% of WFP budget went to Iraq).[23] This means the organization doubled its size in only three years.

Iraq humanitarian appeal in 2003 totaled US$2 billion, 85% of which came from the US, the UK and also from unobligated funds for the OFF programme that the Security Council decided to allocate for the humanitarian operation.[24] About 75% of all this money went simply to food aid – over US$1.5 billion – while protection and human rights received 0.2% or US$4.7 million.

The sheer size of the Iraq appeal and the massive media campaigns by aid agencies to raise funds (to make the operation look more multilateral rather than merely funded by the aggressors) lost these agencies even more credibility especially in a region which always viewed Iraq as a rich country thrown into poverty due not only to the follies of its leaders but more because of the US-led sanctions and blockade.

Consolidated Appeal: Iraq Crisis 2003. Requirements and Contributions and Pledges per Sector.[25]


The increasing politiciazation is a long term process that changes over time. There was never a golden age. Instrumentalization is a better term because it can or different purposes over and beyond to the humanitarian principles. The good example is UNHCR in the 1980 when it started to lose support and funding, entering the 1990s with people questioning its very existence, here came the time as its chief Sadako Ogata said that the organization “should not give up on a project just because it does not fit into traditional schemes … In order to be financed in a highly competitive environment, UNHCR must develop new, interesting approaches to fulfill its core mandate” (Barnett: 208). And this indeed took place as UNHCR started to work on preventive and in-country protection to meet the demands from countries which no longer wanted to receive refugees. This was a gigantic change for an organization whose work was to care for refugees once they cross borders and not to help them when they are displaced within their country. But by moving to work inside countries in which people are fleeing the persecution of authorities or militias, UNHCR had also to work with these very authorities often or at least gain their permission. It had also to start working on other facets of prevention which include in the liberal project human rights, democratization and even market stabilization at least in terms of programme planning.  

Aid work has always been politicized to one degree or another, if we take this to mean the influence of factors beyond the narrowly defined needs of the assisted, but this politicization has deepened and broadened since the end of the cold war as governments increasingly and selectively embraced human rights and humanitarian intervention as part of the driving principles of their foreign policy. This provides the humanitarian industry with opportunities to influence decisions that would have been impossible in the past such as the intervention in Libya in 2011 but puts them at the mercy of much larger and instrumentalizng powers that can use them in wars of choice such as the invasion of Iraq in 2003 or the Syrian civil war since 2012. “Such humanitarianism, tagged along with western strategy, or playing along with one or more parties to the conflict will lose credibility in those parts of the world where the west is least impartial and will be seen as a tool of western interests and culture … aid will become a tool of self interest” (Vaux, p. 204). This is a very befitting description of what happened in Iraq in 2003 and can be repeated to describe Syria, though the manipulators are western, eastern and domestic.

            Instrumentalization was also not imposed on WFP, but sometimes actively sought for institutional preservation purposes. This is why in complex ways and forms the organization has over the last 20 years moved away from general food distribution for the needy, now only used in the early phase of an emergency, into using food as a tool for “development” especially in protracted situations. Food-for-work, food-for-education, food for training, and food for asset creation, all became fashionable interventions by WFP to come across as an organization that is more interested in the root causes of conflict and intervening to address them rather than only dealing with the symptoms. But this very apparently simple move ultimately means also entering the political fray full force and adopting positions on governance, political reform, reconstruction and peacebuilding. This means it had to be involved into programmes such as disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of militias, return of refugees and displaced people, recovery of decimated communities, rebuilding basic agricultural infrastructure, supporting land reform, and many other thoroughly political endeavours in which more often than not it would have to take the sides of the implicated donor governments and the authorities controlling the territories in which it operates.

In his study of the humanitarian endeavor in Iraq, Hansen stated that “evidence from ground level in Iraq serves both as a strong endorsement of the Dunantist ethos and as an indictment of the surrender to pragmatism.” He, however, admitted that “many in the international humanitarian apparatus  … prematurely concede the defeat of principled humanitarian action.” “The Iraq case demonstrates the dangers inherent in shackling and subordinating a humanitarian response to a military or political agenda that is subject to changing fortunes. In Iraq, as elsewhere, combatants fall in and out of favor with local populations, sometimes suddenly and in unanticipated ways. Combatant priorities are governed not by humanitarian interests but by political imperatives, force protection constraints, and the needs of the military mission. Political interests likewise often ebb and flow in dramatic fashion in post-invasion Iraq. Humanitarian action that is tied to such fleeting interests and preoccupations is a dubious proposition at best” (Hansen, p. 16).

            The U.N.’s credibility as a humanitarian actor has suffered a series of grievous blows since the early 1990s and specifically in Somalia. But it continued to bleed and become less and less impartial from then on (Bosnia 1991-95, Rwanda 1994, Kosovo 1996-8 and Afghanistan 2001 are all stark cases of the evolution of integration of humanitarian aid into political and military plans both by design and interest from all parties involved including the aid agencies despite the opposition of a few in all camps about the unintended consequences of effectively abandoning the humanitarian principles. Iraq is blatant case of integration into the political plans of a warring party to ensure stability in the transition period, while Syria is the an ultimate case in which the aid actors, especially on the food aid front, have become effectively integrated in the military strategies of the regime. In both cases, institutional preservation and maintaining a seat at the table with the big boys were also a major driver. In that vein, it was always more important to see to donors’ needs and maintain a relationship with the governments rather than stick to the humanitarian principles of impartiality, neutrality and independence. Hansen concluded that in Iraq:

 “Member States and the U.N. System have not adequately protected the real and perceived neutrality, impartiality, and independence of the U.N.’s humanitarian roles from threats posed by severe and recurring political pressures. The result has been the failure of the U.N. to live up to its mandated humanitarian assistance and protection responsibilities in Iraq, and a weakened and defensive humanitarian stature for the U.N. worldwide.” (Hansen: 17)

The questions raised by Donini, Minear and Walker in 2004 are still very relevant especially when they wonder about the essential core of the humanitarian enterprise and how interlinked it is with “other forms of international involvement in the south such as development, human rights, trade, investment and political/military action” (Donini, Minear and Walker,  p. 198).

The ongoing developments in Somalia, Mali, Libya and Syria indicate that humanitarianism has become too entangled within this “international involvement” especially when it comes to UN agencies, despite the fig leaf of humanitarian principles that these agencies are still holding to, sometimes forcefully by principled aid workers who still think that the Dunantist ethos of compassion and humanity can – and should – be maintained.

There are harrowing experiences from Darfur in the early 2000s to South Sudan in the 1980s and 1990s to Biafra in the 60s that reaching the people in militia controlled areas is rarely devoid of political manipulation. Providing food aid to insurgency controlled areas as the lessons of Biafra, South Sudan and Hutu-controlled camps in eastern DRC have shown us can indeed save lives but also prolong the war and strengthen political control of armed groups over populations. The militia leaders mirror the roles played by the governments they are fighting sometimes in how food aid is used to ensure control over civilians.

This dilemma has taken another trajectory even before the Iraq war of 2003 as  humanitarian aid actors became implicated in what several academics have come to call “an international security regime”. Over much of the South, such [aid] networks became  busy trying to provide humanitarian assistance and reduce vulnerability, but by abandoning or being forced to abandon the principles of neutrality and impartiality and by becoming not truly independent in terms of funds and governance, these aid agencies turn into part of a wobbly international regime of governance.

???? SEE Alex latest article in Boston Review ??? Also see Marry Robinson “Do No Harm” …

In 2001, the humanitarian operations by US NGOs in Afghanistan were dubbed by US Secretary of state Colin Powel as a “force multiplier” in the fight against terrorism. These NGOs were under political and legal pressure to ensure the continuation of funding form western donors, which were involved on the war-on-terror. This damning proximity of the military with the humanitarian culminated with the trend of entrusting armies with aid distribution, and, even more damning, promoting images of army personnel in Iraq distributing candy.  These acts may have been well-intentioned, but the PR effect was a disaster for aid workers who seek an image of neutrality. If anything, the Baghdad terrorist bombing in 2003 that killed 22 of my colleagues in a building where I worked- that is the UN compound at the Canal Hotel – was a late confirmation of how UN humanitarian work’s neutrality and independence had long eroded.

The UN organizes a special event on 19th August to both commemorate the bloody bombing of the Canal hotel which was later converted to be the International Humanitarian Day. One of the surviving aid workers told me he started to decline his invitations after the Syria debacles started. In one of his recent letters of invitation to this event, the UN Secretary General said that although “nearly a decade has passed, the day is still a haunting reminder of the dangers that our personnel face everyday in line of duty.” For many aid workers, the ultimate price that was paid in Iraq and is now paid in Syria (more by medical NGOs) was not for primarily a humanitarian duty but rather an ill-conceived and baldy implemented political adventure, for which some of the ore principled aid workers are a side show and, ultimately, collateral damage, if not a direct target.

Let us hope that the humanitarian enterprise could better learn how to maneuver these hyper political waters with more principled sails, which seems to become increasingly an impossible task for the big, multilateral organizations, compared to the valiant and brave efforts of NGOs and community networks.

Because after all, the decisions taken in the filed are not purely objective and constrained by political and institutional interests, they are also, even if in a small measure dictated by the subjectivity of the aid worker. Ideological prejudices cloud the judgment of aid workers as Vaux (2001) showed in Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan and Kosovo. Not that aid workers cannot be implicated in the business of instrumentalization as we have shown, but by the virtue of bearing testimony to the actual conditions on the ground, they, the media and local NGOs could hopefully provide some resistance to the myriad of other actors who are primarily involved in the humanitarian enterprise for political reasons. Barnett (2011) played the same chord as he observed the increasing accountability of aid actors after 1990s but warned that the agencies had become more sensitive and to their donors and the media and less attentive to the people they are meant to help, their “beneficiaries” in the humanitarian parlance. He derided their paternalism that shifts between positions of emancipation to that of domination even when those rest on a drive for care across borders (Barnett: 11-14).

We have to be careful that the UN is not but one actor, other actors include private commercial business (transport, procurement, ..) militias, cultural biases, military (decision to drop supplies by air), religious bodies and philanthropists …

We must, to rightly analyze the humanitarian enterprise, look always at its multiple and crisscrossing relationships with the liberal states, dominant market forces and rule of law institutions[26]. This would help us understand in which way humanitarian actors are (or are not) influenced, by what tools, under what pressure and how they and other actors stemming from these three quarters all take part in the instrumnetalization of humanitarian aid. Another barrier between humaiatrain actors and politics of instrumentalization feel off in the 1990s due to major political and funding changes when relief or emergency aid was re-construed as part of a continuum on which peacebuilding, peacekeeping, conflict prevention, human rights, democratization and emergency aid co-exist and must harmonize their efforts. This forced aid actors to include and pay attention to very political considerations especially those of their donors and regulators as they designed and implemented their relieve programmes.

Humanitarianism is made up of “ethics and politics, of solidarity and diversity, of emancipation and domination” and its history reflects “much about the changing global order in which we live” (Barnett: 18).  What is happening in Syria now is yet another harrowing example of the articulation of power politics and humanitarian aid in such a way that the effort has sometimes hurt the very people it is meant to help. This is not new as it had helped prolong the war before in places like Biafra, or contributed to further suffering like in Ethiopia or inadvertently (or not so much so) helped one party to the conflict is it did in Rwanda, Bosnia and now in Syria. Every time the aid community engaged in a postmortem leading to soul searching and reform effort including the Sphere project on minimum standards in emergency operations, but as the Syrian operations have shown us, we are still a long war far from an independent aid sector that can work to improve its impartial and neutral principles in a never ending search for the golden fleece. 

            We would indeed learn our lessons when the ensuing evaluation reports, new codes of conduct, and impact assessment, could lead to new applicable systems of accountability (Barnett: 217).


Donini, A. Minear, L. Walker, P. 2004. The Future of Humanitarian Action: Mapping the Implications of Iraq and Other Recent Crises. Disasters, Vol. 26:190-204

Barnett, Michael. 2011. Empire of Humanity: A history of Humanitarianism. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Pres.

Duffield, Mark (2002), “War as Network Enterprise: The New Security Terrain and Its Implications” Cultural Values. Vol. 6

Hansen, Greg (2007) “taking sides or saving lives: Existential choices for the humanitarian enterprise in Iraq”, Medford, MA: Tufts University.

ICRC (2004), “Advisory Service on International Humanitarian Law: What is International Humanitarian Law?” Geneva: ICRC.

Lautze, S Raven-Roberts, A. (2006), “Violence and complex humanitarian emergencies: implications for livelihoods models”, Disasters, Vol. 30:4

Side, Lewis and Lorenzo Trombetta and Veronica Panero. 2015. Evaluation of OCHA response to the Syria crisis. New York: OCHA (accessed on 1 June 2016 at  https://docs.unocha.org/sites/dms/Documents/OCHA%20Syria%20Evaluation%20Report_FINAL.pdf

The Syria Campaign. 2016. Taking Sides: The United Nations’ Loss of Impartiality, Independence And Neutrality In Syria. The Syria Campaign. (accessed on 12 June 2016 at http://takingsides.thesyriacampaign.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/taking-sides.pdf)

WFP. 2016. Syria Emergency Food Assistance to the People Affected by Unrest in Syria. Rome: WFP. Accessed on 2 June 2016 at  http://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/Syria%20External%20SitRep%20April%202016.pdf)

WFP. 2016. The Year in Review 2015. Rome: WFP. Accessed on 15 June 2016 at http://documents.wfp.org/stellent/groups/public/documents/communications/wfp284681.pdf

Vaux, Tony. 2001. The Selfish Altruist: Relief work in Famine and war. London: Earthscan

Walker, Peter (2013) – Series of lectures on humanitarian aid at Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Unpublished.

Walker, Peter and Maxwell, D., (2008), “Shaping the Humanitarian World”, London: Routledge.

Walker, Peter and Purdin, Susan, (2004) “Birthing Sphere”, Disaster, Vol. 28:2

Weiss, Thomas (2007),  “Humanitarian Intervention”, Cambridge: Polity Press.   

The Sphere Project, (2004) “Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Disaster Response”. Geneva

[1] I worked for the UN World Food Program in Baghdad at the time and survived the attack.

[2] About 3,000 aid workers have been killed and injured in the period (2004-2014). They were collateral damage (or recklessly attacked by non-discerning regular forces), or intentionally attacked by one or more of the warring parties because their role was suspected to directly or indirectly aid an opponent. Aid workers no longer enjoyed the protection of their flags as neutral providers of aid on the basis of need and humanity and impartial to the conflict parties. They are more often now seen as political tools in the hands of an opponents, such as doctors treating the wounded in militia-controlled territories or food aid agencies working only where it is said to be safe by another opponent. For more details on these attacks, see https://aidworkersecurity.org/incidents/report/summary

[3] UN communication officers in the Middle East and South Asia in 2001-2003 reported to their HQs on local media and public opinion trends, which became gradually more hostile to the UN. I contributed to some of this reporting from Pakistan, Jordan and Egypt.

[4] WFP provided food assistance to Yemen (nine million people), Syria (five million inside the country and two million in neighboring Lebanon and Jordan), Iraq (two millions), and Palestine (600,000) (WFP: 20)

[5] The US is the largest seller of arms to Saudi Arabia and other members of the coalition fighting in Yemen. Among the major donors to WFP are countries which are also the largest arms sellers to countries in the Middle East which are parties to conflicts in which WFP provides humanitarian aid. See HIS 2015 report for arms sales at http://press.ihs.com/press-release/aerospace-defense-security/record-breaking-65-billion-global-defence-trade-2015-fueled

[6] For an overview of most credible, and rather conservative, figures for the destructive impact of the civil war in Syria, see OCHA’s overview at http://www.unocha.org/syrian-arab-republic/syria-country-profile/about-crisis

[7] For details on humanitarian funding, donors, recipients and programs see OCHA Financial Tracking Services at https://ftsbeta.unocha.org/countries/206/summary/2015

[8] For general description of the Syrian revolution and how it degenerated into civil war see Gilbert Ashcar, ???? edited collection about civil resistance, ???? what else??????

[9] see http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/17/syria-humanitarian-aid-convoys-madaya-zabadani )

[10] see http://www.wfp.org/stories/wfp-executive-director-un-security-council

[11] for an updated map of besieged areas check http://siegewatch.org/#7/35.111/38.540

[12] Stephen O’Brien http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=53575#.VvzwvhJ9637

[13] (source: http://takingsides.thesyriacampaign.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/taking-sides.pdf p. 4)

[14] page viii of http://documents.wfp.org/stellent/groups/public/documents/reports/wfp274337.pdf


[16] As a WFP staff member in both operations I was privy to several meetings and exchanges with the two organizations. USAID kept an office for its staff within WFP’s office for a while in Islamabad. All donor figures for WFP can be accessed at www.wfp.org

[17] The UN official information on the OFF can be accessed at https://www.un.org/depts/oip/background/index.html

[18] WFP issued regular reports on its work in Iraq under the oil for food programme. This was an excerpt from a report in 1997 which can be accessed at  http://reliefweb.int/report/iraq/wfp-emergency-report-no-23-1997-iraq

[19] I saw a copy in the organization New York office and a senior official confirmed to me that it was shared with the USG. The plan was shelved after senior officials in this organizations objected within the senior management team out of concern for appearing publicly as a part of the US overall strategy.

[20] WFP regular reports during the 1990s and 2000s including in 2003 can be found at http://www.un.org/Depts/oip/sector-food.html

[21] Most of the information in this section is gleaned from conversations with  WFP colleagues in the early 2000s.

[22] For a thorough discussion of general UN agencies implicated in the Iraq operation see Donini, Minear and Walker (2004).

[23] Check WFP annual reports at http://www.wfp.org/policy-resources/corporate?type=38&tid_2=all&tid_4=all

[24] UN OCHA Financial Tracking Services,  Emegrncy: Iraqi Crisis 2003  http://fts.unocha.org/pageloader.aspx?page=emerg-emergencyDetails&appealID=605

[25] http://fts.unocha.org/pageloader.aspx?page=emerg-emergencyDetails&appealID=605

[26] See Barnett pp. 162

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