Le Panoptique

Perspectives sur les enjeux contemporains | More Perspective on Current International Issues

Lending a Harming Hand: The Interaction of Aid and Conflict

Publié le 1 septembre, 2007 | Pas de commentaires

Télécharger l'article au format PDF

Large foreign aid commitments garner good publicity. Pledges are generally viewed positively and are not considered further. In turbulent situations, though, one must ask whether these financial commitments translate into positive changes on the ground. Unfortunately, there is not always a clear relationship between aid and peace. Drawing heavily on Mary Anderson, this article will show that in conflict and post-conflict situations aid can hurt as well as help.

European food aids
Rock Cohen, European food aids, 2006
Certains droits réservés.

Although foreign aid is often well-intentioned, more and more people are finding flaws with its implementation. Increasingly, aid is seen as fuelling wars, fulfilling political agendas and undermining locals’ ability for good governance and self-reliance. Admittedly, there are limits to what providers of humanitarian and development aid can do. They must work within the existing international context. In Sierra Leone, for example, the absence of political or commercial motives limited aid and likely encouraged the escalating violence seen there (1). However, it is important to note that while wars are not caused by aid, existing tensions can certainly be exacerbated by it. In conflict and post-conflict situations aid can reduce or increase wartime actions, attitudes and economies. Aid can ‘do harm.’Of the many types of aid, humanitarian and development aid are usually seen as the most benign. Humanitarian aid typically comes as a response to a crisis—natural or manmade. It aims to save lives and to ensure that basic human rights are met. Famine relief, disaster aid and medical assistance are perhaps the most obvious forms of humanitarian relief. In contrast, development aid seeks to support political, economic and social progress in a country. Like humanitarian aid, it hopes to alleviate suffering but does this over a long-term period, providing, for instance, the infrastructure necessary for self-sustaining health services.

Harm Through Economics

Aid involves an influx of resources, such as money, medical supplies, blankets and textbooks. These resources create new incentives for theft, greed, and disagreement over allocation between enemy groups. Clearly, this side effect of aid can heighten tensions and has done so in the past. To combat this unintended side effect, agencies can adopt a wide range of strategies. In Somalia Red Cross staff cut the blankets they were distributing in half to reduce the incentive for theft. In doing so, these staff members diminished the blankets’ retail value, but not their utility, as they could be easily sewn back together (2).

Aid also creates new well-paying local jobs in the services involved in its provision. Because of aid, locals have access to new jobs in protection, transportation, translation and project planning. Given that many of these jobs depend on the continuation of conflict, aid can have the unfortunate side effect of increasing individuals’ motives for continuing conflict. One driver from Bosnia and Herzegovina comments: “Driving the aid convoys during the war was dangerous, but this seems like nothing to dangers of peace. Not only my immediate family but also my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins depend on my income. I almost dread this peace and wish for war again(3)”.

Resolving the issues that accompany the creation of war-related jobs is difficult. For instance, while agencies could pay locals at local rates and expatriates at foreign rates, this unequal treatment of coworkers raises moral issues around human dignity and equality. Some agencies have chosen to pay locals low wages, but include a substantial bonus to be given when peace is brokered. While this strategy is not perfect as it continues to treat workers unequally, it does create a financial incentive for peace.

Finally, aid can undermine local economies. The influx of food aid, for instance, reduces the incentives for farmers to produce and encourages them to seek work in other professions. This distortion often leaves the country with a weakened agricultural sector that is unable to handle demands once aid agencies withdraw.

Harming Local Leadership

The focus of aid providers on humanitarian issues can encourage local leaders, oftentimes warlords or commanders, to abandon their responsibility for the welfare of those living under their control. With aid staff taking responsibility for improving living conditions, warlords can focus more intensely on military power. This dynamic weakens local leadership, reducing leaders’ social responsibility. While some would suggest that rebel and military leaders inherently have no interest in local welfare, the experience of aid providers in Liberia (and elsewhere) proves otherwise. Aware of the possible negative side effects of their presence on local leadership, aid providers in Liberia successfully involved commanders in promoting the welfare of local populations. Frequent consultations with one commander sparked his interest in the needs and health of his people so much so that he eventually went to the villages to see the conditions for himself and began to implement more socially responsible policies (4).

In addition to reducing social responsibility, aid does harm to leadership structures by raising the status of illegitimate individuals. To ensure the safety of staff members, aid agencies often make agreements with local warlords. However, these agreements help legitimize warlords, giving them more community respect and power without ensuring that such power and status are used constructively or responsibly. Such a dynamic occurred in Sudan, where negotiations with aid provider, Operation Lifeline Sudan, were used by aspiring commanders to “gain approval as legitimate wielders of power over certain populations or regions(5)”. While aid providers must deal with local leaders to gain access to areas and ensure the safety of staff, the impact of these relationships must be carefully considered.

Ingraining Tensions

Because of the turbulent circumstances they are working and living in, many aid workers and locals pay attention to the conflictual aspects of day-to-day life and overlook the continuing connections that exist between enemy groups. Instead of building on similarities, aid workers and locals reinforce difference. However, despite this unfortunate tendency, connections often persist even during conflicts. Electricity and health services are often shared between enemy groups; there are national symbols that appeal to both factions, just as shared values, such as the well-being of children, span group divisions. Tolerance is often practiced in the market place and in other everyday interactions, and mutual experiences, such as exhaustion with wartime brutality, can unite groups. However, instead of reinforcing connections, aid often emphasizes division and difference. It does this in many ways, such as by splitting resources along enemy lines. An aid worker in Sudan commented on his agency’s decision to open two health training centers, one in each enemy group’s region: “We rewarded the split! They got twice as many resources (…) if we had continued with our original plan of one center (…) this center could have represented one place in the society where [people from both sides] could have legitimately met and worked together(6)”. In treating conflict aid can reinforce tensions and divisions. Aid providers must begin to recognize group connections if locals are to realize their ability to live together.

The Way Forward

How aid is provided is often as important as how much aid is given. If concrete measures are not taken to prevent and reduce conflict in development and humanitarian efforts, many unintended consequences can result. Increased awareness of aid’s negative side effects and proactive strategies to address these effects (through, for instance, encouraging responsible leadership and rewarding group connections), aid providers can ensure that they are lending a helping hand, not a harming one.


(1) Smillie, Ian and Larry Minear. The Charity of Nations: Humanitarian Action in A Calculating World. Bloomfield CT: Kumarian Press, 2004: 23 -50.
(2) Anderson, Mary. Do no Harm: How Aid Can Support Peace or War. Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1999.
(3) Anderson 40
(4) Anderson 43
(5) Anderson 53
(6) Anderson 50
(7) Anderson 34

Creative Commons License
Cet article est publié sous un contrat Creative Commons.