Oxfam warns against trend in using aid for political & military purposes

Published: 10th February 2011

Relief agency calls on donors to allocate life-saving aid based on need not on short-term political or military gains

Donor governments are now spending proportionately more aid on countries they consider politically and militarily important while overlooking equally severe needs in crises elsewhere, said international agency Oxfam today in a report.

In Whose Aid is it Anyway? , Oxfam found that billions of dollars in international aid which could have transformed the lives of people in the poorest countries in the world was instead spent on unsustainable, expensive and sometimes dangerous aid projects, as international donor governments used aid to support their own short-term foreign policy and security objectives.

Since 2001 there has been a growing trend of aid being used to win “hearts and minds” in conflicts. Unfortunately, this aid is often poorly conceived, ineffective, and in some cases has turned beneficiaries and aid workers into targets for attack, Oxfam said. This type of aid often by-passes the poorest people and dangerously blurs the line between civilian and military activity.

The report says that while aid flows rose towards meeting wealthy donors' international aid commitments between 2001 and 2008, more than 40 per cent of this increase in aid was spent in just two countries, Afghanistan and Iraq. The remainder, Oxfam said, was shared between 150 other poor countries.

As national budgets are being reviewed and with more people in need of aid than ever before, Oxfam says that a new approach is needed to maximize the impact of aid based on long-term objectives rather than short-term political or military interests.

"We are witnessing a worrying trend where some donor governments are using aid to score quick political points instead of looking at the big picture of how to tackle poverty,” said Report author Mike Lewis.

“Effective aid saves lives, reduces poverty, builds health and education systems, and strengthens the economies of poorer countries. Aid directed to short-term political and military objectives fails to reach the poorest people and also fails to build long-term security in fragile states and ultimately for donors too.”

The report says that in 2010, 225 aid workers were killed, injured or kidnapped in violent attacks, compared to 85 in 2002. In part this reflects the greater number of workers operating in violent places but statistics indicate it is also the result of an increase in politically-motivated attacks. Aid workers’ neutrality is compromised if locals see aid as a tool of the military.

Mike Lewis said: “Poorly conceived projects tend to alienate the very people whose 'hearts and minds' donors want to win. And blurring the role between civilian aid workers and the military can turn aid workers and, more importantly, the communities where they work into targets.

“Aid will only win hearts and minds when it is distinct from the military effort and aimed at reducing poverty and suffering rather than addressing the short-term security problems of donor governments,” Lewis said.

In Afghanistan, the USA and other NATO nations have spent billions of dollars on expensive and unsustainable ‘quick impact projects’ intended to win local support, but which are perceived by many Afghans to be particularly targeted by the Taliban.  NATO training for Afghan troops has continued to encourage  the reward of those who give information with humanitarian aid, even after NATO itself officially renounced such practices in 2004 and agreed rules prohibiting them.

The politicization and militarization of aid has in some places made it much harder for aid agencies to provide help to those in need, the report said. In Somalia, US humanitarian assistance for the country's desperate population, previously the single largest source of aid for Somalia, dropped eight-fold between 2008 and 2010. This came after the US government listed some armed groups in control of most of central/southern Somalia as terrorists under US law, and ended funding if aid groups could not guarantee that no aid would reach proscribed groups.

The report notes that some donors are also increasingly militarizing aid when responding to major emergencies. Oxfam acknowledges that the military can play a crucial role in the days that follow a humanitarian crisis, particularly through the provision of transport and creating a secure environment but notes that relief agencies are best positioned to directly provide food, medical care and support for livelihoods of those caught up in disasters. Evaluations ranging from the humanitarian response to the Rwandan refugee crisis in 1994 to the 2005 Indian Ocean tsunami suggest that the military can be up to eight times more expensive in providing basic services compared to civilian alternatives.

Read more

Download the report:  Whose Aid Is It Anyway? Politicizing Aid in Conflicts and Crises

Issues we work on : Aid effectiveness

Effective aid saves lives, reduces poverty, builds health and education systems, and strengthens the economies of poorer countries.
Mike Lewis
Report author

Notes to editors

  • Since 2001, the Democratic Republic of Congo's population has received at best US $10/year per capita in humanitarian assistance, while those in Iraq, a much wealthier country, have in some years received over twelve times that amount.
  • Since 2009 Canada has pledged to spend 80 per cent of its bilateral aid on 20 'countries of focus', designated partly on the basis of ‘their alignment with Canadian foreign policy priorities.’ This includes Afghanistan, where Canadian troops are fighting, and middle-income Colombia, with whom Canada had just signed a free trade deal, while seven low-income countries in sub-Saharan Africa were dropped.
  • In France, aid has long been weighted towards Francophone African countries, and based upon a mix of strategic interest and historical ties. Though now also based on country needs, French aid recipients are still explicitly selected according to certain 'criteria of interest', including their importance to French national security and counter-terrorism priorities.
  • Between 2007 and 2009 more than half of Australia's aid to Afghanistan has been channelled through the Department of Defence, which is not required to report or evaluate the impact of its aid projects.
  • More positively, in 2010 about 17 per cent of ECHO's $2bn humanitarian aid budget was dedicated to twelve 'forgotten crises' outside the media and political spotlight: from the thousands displaced by fighting in the Central African Republic, to Sahrawi refugees in Algeria.
  • At €18.2m, Operation Hispaniola by the Spanish military forces provided healthcare to 7,568 Haitians, vaccinated 21,274 people, cleared 8,000 cubic meters of debris and distributed 600,000 litres of drinking water. By comparison, with just €1m, Intermón Oxfam (Spain) provided assistance to 20,810 beneficiaries, constructed 5,800 latrines, distributed hygiene kits to nearly 9,000 people and provided basic shelter material to close to 4,000.

Contact information

Louis Belanger, Humanitarian Media Officer. Tel +1 212 687 2678 / Cell +1 917 224 0834 louis.belanger@oxfaminternational.org