Aid work must never be linked with defence

First published in the Herald Sun on June 10, 2019

By Senior Humanitarian Policy Advisor, Caelin Briggs 

As an aid worker with an American accent, I’m used to being the target of security threats.

In South Sudan in 2016, humanitarian staff were subjected to horrific violence and harassment, with Americans often singled out.

There were mock executions of Americans at checkpoints. In an attack on a residential compound, one was badly beaten and told: “Tell your Embassy how we treated you”.

The threat to our lives became so bad that I was forced to hide my passport and train staff to conceal my nationality.

Aid workers are regularly targeted in the field because of their nationalities and given how unpopular the US government is in many parts of the world, I have often felt like I've had a giant target on my back.

I’m not alone. We are working in a time where delivering aid is becoming increasingly dangerous, with violent conflict within countries intensifying and leaving millions in desperate need.

And the risks increase tenfold if governments start actively referring to humanitarians as part of their political or military strategy.

Rewind to late 2001, when Colin Powell described NGOs as a “force multiplier” for the US military and “an important part of our combat team”.

In doing so, the US Secretary of State signalled the start of a dangerous era of American foreign policy in a speech that stunned humanitarians around the world.

While it may have been well-intentioned, this characterization revealed a fundamental lack of understanding among administration officials about the risks humanitarians face when perceived to be affiliated with military forces.

Humanitarian workers operate under a strict set of principles: humanity, neutrality, impartiality, and independence.

With humanitarian action now heavily concentrated in unsafe areas, it is critical aid workers are independent and can work free of influence from political, economic or military objectives.

We must be able to access civilians on all sides of a front line and support those in greatest need, whether they are in a war zone in Syria or providing psycho-social help to refugee children in Cox’s Bazaar.

We must feel protected in these dangerous settings, where the trust and acceptance of the community provides our primary source of security.

In Australia, humanitarians are now concerned they could face fresh challenges after Alex Hawke was appointed Minister of International Development and Pacific and Assistant Minister for Defence.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s re-elevation of the former role  to a Ministry is a welcome move and demonstrates the Government’s commitment to the Pacific Step Up - and hopefully international development more broadly.

But Hawke’s parallel appointment as Assistant Minister for Defence is a worrying indication of how Australia’s humanitarian aid program may be viewed by the new Government.

In his press conference, the Prime Minister noted that he hoped the dual appointment would lead to greater integration of Australia’s international development and defence efforts in the Pacific.

For those who were impacted by the blurred lines of America’s foreign policy during the so-called “War on Terror,” Hawke’s joint appointment and the PM’s statement have unwelcome echoes back to Powell’s remarks.

Workers in aid organisations like World Vision Australia are worried this move will compromise the independence of humanitarians and undermine our ability to deliver DFAT-branded assistance in active conflict settings.

Any affiliation between politicians or military forces and humanitarian organizations - even if it’s only implied - can compromise development and humanitarian efforts and jeopardize the safety of humanitarian staff.

Even prior to this announcement, humanitarian and development workers faced pressure to frame humanitarian outcomes with a defence lens.

In Afghanistan, for example, it’s no longer enough to simply report how many children and families have benefitted from lifesaving assistance or development support.

Now, NGOs are also being encouraged to report how many beneficiaries have refused to join armed groups after benefitting from the assistance.

While this line of inquiry might make sense from a foreign policy perspective, the reality of collecting this information presents real risks for humanitarian staff on the ground.

Asking those we are supporting if they are likely to join an armed group raises understandable suspicions in communities about who we are working for and how the information will be used.

Ultimately, asking these types of questions puts humanitarian staff in the centre of the conversations we try hardest to avoid.

With Hawke’s appointment to Assistant Minister of Defence, many humanitarians fear that this pressure to blend humanitarian and defence outcomes will grow - and impact our work overseas.

It’s critical that the government’s humanitarian decision-making remains independent as Hawke takes up his new role and that we take seriously the international principles that guide humanitarian aid that Australia has been instrumental in leading until now.

Hawke must maintain a distinction between these two portfolios as he begins to navigate between them.

I’m relying on it to help those who need it most.


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