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Conflict Influence On The Provision Of Aid Politics Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

The question of how conflict influences the provision of aid subtly posits a normative assumption; the reader is immediately positioned on the affirmative side of whether aid should be provided in a conflict situation. This reflects a new reality in the global political landscape: the proliferation of conflict involving a high humanitarian cost has led the international community to prioritise intervention over sovereignty. As Duffield notes, ‘largely through a series of ad hoc Security Council resolutions, a key development has been the ability [of the United Nations] to provide relief assistance even under war conditions.’ [1] Essentially, the changing nature of conflict has provoked changes in the role and function of aid, and when, and by whom it is provided. I will be exploring the perspective that the relatively new strategy of providing aid during conflict has led to an inevitably dynamic interactive relationship between conflict and aid, characterised by both legal/ moral quandaries and delivery problems.

Initially I would like to define what is meant by the term conflict. Contemporary conflicts, as described by Kaldor, are ‘a mixture of war, crime and human rights violations’. [2] They are no longer inter-state affairs participated in by actors delineated along traditional lines, i.e. military vs. military. They are typically intra-state, characterised by “low intensity” warfare; they are facilitated by technological advances such as low cost, lightweight weaponry and speedier communication; they receive much international attention, both from the media and the international/ political community; and whilst not being inter-state, they may be facilitated by external involvement. Duffield suggests these new wars are a permanent characteristic of fragmented crisis areas, which lack political and economic cohesion. [3] Duffield explains that these areas – outside of the economically and politically integrated blocs- cannot be understood in conventional terms of war and peace. Their defining feature is ongoing instability, and furthermore this is not ‘a temporary phase in the process of development and transition toward liberal democracy’ (i.e. modernisation) [4] .

A more appropriate framework than the binary war/ peace opposition is to situate contemporary violence on a conflict-to-peace continuum. This spectrum perspective firstly accommodates the varying levels of intensity within a conflict, and also situates conflict in a timeframe. In considering the interaction of conflict and aid, one must not only consider the influence of the actual conflict enacted in the present; but the influence of past conflicts, and how aid might avoid or exacerbate potential conflicts in the future. The continuum should be viewed as linear but non-teleological, in that it includes the causes of conflict, conflict itself, and post-conflict situations which have the potential for repeated conflict. Uvin defines the transition from a state of conflict to a state of peace as a process with no definitive endpoints: ‘Sustainable peace is not something that can be produced rapidly; it is not something that can be mastered technically, with a fixed formula; it is not even a clear state that can be achieved once and for all as much as a process.’ [5] Conflict can also be defined in opposition to peace. Within Suhrke and Buckmaster’s definition of a transition to peace, the conflictual position on the spectrum is also elucidated: ‘Peace stabilization […involves securing] transition from a military to a political mode of conflict […] demobilisation, return of refugees, reintegration […] and mechanisms for dealing with the conflict in political terms (elections, power sharing), relief (especially for IDPs and refugees), and immediate reconstruction to […] offer alternatives to war economy.’ [6] 

As mentioned before, contemporary conflicts involve a range of less-clearly defined actors. Conventional distinctions such as state vs. state or state vs. rebel have dissolved, and the lines demarcating illegitimate state/ legitimate state/ military, civilian/ military/ rebel/ revolutionary are very much distorted. ­­­­­­­­In relation to this dissolution of clearly defined actor roles, an overarching feature of contemporary conflict is that whilst some are waged as legitimate rebellions over genuine grievances pursuing the objective of social transformation, the sustaining of conflict itself is often the objective. In a situation with few economic opportunities and resource scarcity, the ability to wage war is the wielding of economic and political power in itself, and sustaining the conflict may paradoxically be synonymous with sustaining the means of life. Conflicts may not just be the outcome of deep, structural causes, but also actors’ attempts to address and weather these causes.

It is also necessary to define what aid is. Aid can- theoretically at least- be categorised as either relief (humanitarian assistance) or development aid. The former will focus on material goods (food, medicine, clothes and shelter) and services (water, security), and will be provided in the short term, as emergency situations dictate. The latter will concentrate on addressing structural inequalities and divisions, aiming to transform and reconstruct society through capacity building in political, economic and social spheres; and will generally be disbursed within a longer term framework. Aid is for the relief of suffering and human needs, both the immediate need and the causes of that need. Aid is delivered by NGOs (e.g. Oxfam), international organisations (e.g. the UN) and governments (e.g. DFID) although these actors may overlap, conflict and co-operate.

However, this neat categorisation of aid is not theoretically or practically possible. It seems that whether relief constitutes aid is disputed. The OECD says: ‘Official development assistance is defined as those flows to countries and territories on the DAC List of ODA Recipients and to multilateral development institutions which are: i. provided by official agencies, including state and local governments, or by their executive agencies; and ii. each transaction of which: a) is administered with the promotion of the economic development and welfare of developing countries as its main objective; and b) is concessional in character and conveys a grant element of at least 25 per cent (calculated at a rate of discount of 10 per cent).’ [7] This definition should not technically include relief or humanitarian assistance, as generally these do not fulfil the second criterion. However, other literature does consider humanitarian assistance as a (growing) part of ODA: ‘the share of humanitarian assistance has risen sharply, from about 3 per cent of Official Development Assistance (ODA) in the 1980s to close to 10 per cent in recent years.’ [8] The problem of, and reasons for, separating these different sorts of aid in practical situations will be discussed further.

It is similarly useful to consider aid in terms of a continuum: relief-to-development. The purpose and goals of aid modulate along this spectrum, and may in fact be in opposition as well as converge. Short term provision of relief aid which bypasses a weak state will serve to effectively weaken that state further, hindering future development efforts. For example, Natsios details how the effect of one the ICRC’s interventions in Somalia in 1992, intended to improve food security, had other long term negative effects. Their soup kitchens actually destabilised society socially and politically, because the starving remained relocated near to the kitchens instead of returning to plant crops. Whilst the ICRC’s methods preserved life, they had other long term effects. [9] 

The core humanitarian value – acknowledging a responsibility to prevent human suffering, whether in the short or long term- underlies both relief and development aid. Traditional, apolitical, ‘neutral’ humanitarianism emerged, as Duffield explains, from the ‘inhumane’ political bias cultivated within the Cold War climate. [10] Humanitarianism is based on qualities of impartiality (need being the only criteria for distribution) and neutrality (not taking sides or interfering in a conflict). This is emphasised in UN Resolution 46/182, clarifying the provision of aid in conflict situations. Guiding Principle two states “Humanitarian assistance must be provided in accordance with the principles of humanity, neutrality and impartiality.’ [11] 

Duffield initially concluded that ‘neutrality is impossible in the new wars, since any assistance necessarily has political effects’. [12] He also charted the development of a ‘New Humanitarianism’ which acknowledges that there are severe difficulties in the real life provision of apolitical, ‘impartial’ and ‘neutral’ aid. [13] Duffield later suggested that humanitarianism had changed its modus operandi, supposedly maintaining neutrality with practices such as ‘negotiated access’ and the more refined ‘variable consent’. [14] Whatever the practical feasibility of neutrality and impartiality, it is important to bear in mind the importance effects of trying to maintain these principles in order to preserve the likelihood of access: Duffield suggests it is ‘a useful tool of practical diplomacy.’ [15] 

As well as delivery problems, such as maintaining impartiality, humanitarian aid faces a legal problem in conflict settings; such as the adhering to the responsibility of providing aid whilst not in the process of intervention impinging on sovereignty. Chapter One, Article 2, Paragraph 7 of the UN Charter: forbids intervention in the internal affairs of a sovereign state: ‘Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state […]’ [16] UN Resolution 46/182 reinforces state sovereignty but also emphasises the state’s responsibility towards those needing aid. Guiding Principle six states: “States whose populations are in need of humanitarian assistance are called upon to facilitate the work of these organizations in implementing humanitarian assistance, in particular the supply of food, medicines, shelter and health care, for which access to victims is essential.” [17] Within this Resolution’s framework, the state has had a much greater role in the delivery and co-ordination of humanitarian assistance: but expectations of responsibility are stressed as well. This provides aid donors and international organisations with a clearer duty and right to intervene in situations where a predatory state blocks aid to one or more population groups.

Who provides aid to whom is a complex problem, and in the reality of a conflict situation it involves a series of moral ‘tradeoffs’. Duffield pinpoints a shift from ‘apolitical’ aid to an acknowledgement of aid’s political effects: ‘the new humanitarianism involves a shift in the centre of gravity of policy away from saving lives to supporting social processes and political outcomes.’ [18] However, he is, as am I, uncomfortable with ‘the new accommodation and its willingness to sacrifice lives today on the promise of development tomorrow.’ [19] He explains that ‘the consequentialist ethics of the new humanitarianism […] in holding out the possibility of a better tomorrow as a price worth paying for suffering today, has been a major source of the normalisation of violence and complicity with its perpetrators.’ [20] Unfortunately, Duffield is left in the same position as anyone attempting to find a clear-cut, positive way to provide aid. There are problems with either viewing aid as apolitical or political. The most responsible path through this quandary is to look in detail at the actual dynamics between conflict and aid, and to approach each particular conflict situation individually with these dynamics in mind.

The dynamic influence conflict has on aid results primarily from the new types of actors involved in conflict. For example, a state which offends human rights (i.e. not fulfilling its security role) has a direct impact on how aid will be provided. Unable to ignore the human rights offences of predatory states, donors will target aid and incentivise it for peace. Uvin suggests that ‘the international community has become active in so-called ‘democratic policing’ – a matter which would have been considered far beyond the reach of ODA only a decade ago.’ [21] The tools used to foster democracy and other liberal goals include, among others, the use of conditionality, which has evolved into less strong-armed methods such as DFID’s promotion of: ‘ownership, alignment and harmonization’, as detailed by Goodhand. [22] But it is unclear how these positive governance-related behavioural results can be used as tools in the same way that aid can be leveraged.

Conflict attracts aid: it creates a need for it, and negatively impacts successful disbursement and provision in a variety of ways. Aid is unavoidably a source of political, economic and social power and combatants will use it for their objectives. Conflict is a perverse economic, political and social system, an imbalance of powers: when the power associated with aid is introduced into that system or conferred on one party, it cannot be expected to fulfil a pacifying role, immediately solving the conflict and its effects. It will interact with, and within, the conflict’s dynamics.

Parties involved in conflict will misuse, deplete and misdirect aid. Lischer outlines these: firstly, aid will be given to combatants, both unknowingly, and on purpose (in efforts to adhere to the impartiality criterion of humanitarian aid). For example, after the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and massive subsequent refugee movements into neighbouring countries, UN aid was disbursed in refugee camps in eastern Zaire. These camps and aid received were controlled largely by the RDR, a combatant group of Hutus who had perpetrated genocide. Secondly, Lischer notes that as well as supporting combatants, aid will support their dependents (families, political supporters) thus allowing them to use their resources to pursue conflict. Thirdly, aid will be coercively taken instead of donated. Lischer outlines the following methods of diversion: ‘Refugee leaders levy war tax on refugee populations […] refugee leaders control distribution, […] militant leaders divert aid by inflating population numbers, […] raiding and stealing.’ [23] The resource scarce and hungry dynamics of conflict means aid inevitably supports combatants, thus sustaining conflict.

Conflict also creates the economic conditions in which aid is expected to function. Donors may intend aid to work in one way, but the context of the conflict economy will distort this intended impact and actual provision of aid may differ greatly from operational policy. War economy and war markets will be reinforced. Natsios details the way in which this was evident in Somalia. Civil war, drought and resulting famine meant that attempts to improve food security were distorted by the perverse dynamics of Somalia’s conflict economy. Natsios explains that the scarcity of food in Somalia increased its value: as food aid was disbursed, relief food was an ‘attractive objective of plunder’. [24] In addition, ‘market demand was driving some of the looting’ – the normal disposition of merchant classes supporting law, order and stability as essential to commercial exchange was reversed, because of distorted markets. [25] Conflict and aid also interacted to produce very variable food prices rather than affordably low ones, as the influx of food aid was supposed to produce. Natsios explains how prices fluctuated, rising as warlords hoarded substantial tonnage, and dropping as these same warlords dumped food on the market preceding the US airlift. As flooding the market had little effect in the conflict context, OFDA began a policy of monetization. However, even though a reduction in food value was achieved, the effect of this aid policy had an adverse effect due to the conflict economy. Instead of making food relatively invaluable and improving security, ‘the drop in food prices increased [the level of violence] as warlords and thieves alike stole a greater volume of food to make up for its diminished value.’ [26] The conflict economy’s dynamics meant peverted the intended effects of food aid.

The disbursement of aid is not only prey to conflict’s perverse economic forces, but to its socially divisive nature. Conflict is waged along and facilitated by divisions in society (ethnic, territorial, religious) and the provision of aid will be influenced by these cleavages: aid will reflect adverse group relations. This can be on an operational policy level (ostensibly aiding refugees, but prolonging their segregation from society), and at the level of delivery; Anderson suggests that the practice of targeting aid reinforces divisions rather than ‘connectors’ in societies. [27] However, if social connectors are facilitated and reinforced instead of undermined, as Natsios exemplifies in the case of Somalia, aid can avoid the vicious effect of conflict on social dynamics. He details how the irrigation project in the Shabeelle valley bolstered Somalian society’s connectors, the tempering ‘natural stabilizing force’ of the clan elders, as they were given the resources and money to create employment. [28] 

Conflict engenders a need for aid but also jeopardises its integrity, as the humanitarian imperative to fulfil this need means aid donors interact with less than ethically robust actors still pursuing conflict. In order to gain access and begin peace building, a short-term pragmatic attitude is required, resulting in engagement with combatants in positions of control, and thus conferring legitimacy, both domestically and internationally. Uvin posits a ‘sliding scale of principle/ pragmatism/ complicity’ which is positions the problem usefully: as policy slides down this scale, the dangers of ignoring the humanitarian objective reform into being complicit in or fuelling an illegitimate actors’ actions. [29] 

Conflict creates gaps in state function, which aid presumes to fill (not close): for its very nature is substitutive. Uvin points out that ‘During conflicts, many governments cease functioning, particularly in areas with heavy violence.’ [30] Filling this ‘gap’ of capacity or service delivery may have the adverse effect of weakening and undermining state and local capacities: for example governance in Afghanistan, and food provision in Somalia. [31] Stewart and Samman suggest that in the long term, conflict and the aid it attracts perpetuates the situation: ‘Even when [CONFAID] does help prevent starvation in the short term, it can prolong suffering over many years by contributing to the financing of the war and diverting people from their normal economic activities.’ [32] 

The political context of conflict influences the provision of aid dramatically. By political context, I mean that a) aid’s impact is unavoidably politicised, and b) the political context and objectives of international involvement, and various recipient actors, will be influential.

The political context of donor actors involved in the conflict-peace continuum, will determine how aid is used. For example, Goodhand and Sedra argue that ‘international engagement in Afghanistan has been Janus headed […] tension between one face prioritizing the ‘war on terror’ and short term stability and the other durable peace through state building.’ [33] The donor’s short term focus and commitment due to domestic political pressures meant that long term goals were undermined.

The political context of non-state actors receiving aid is also a factor. Lischer argues that the extent to which a group is politicised will determine for what purpose aid is used, and how successfully. The greater the level of political cohesion among the refugees, the more likely they (or their leaders) will attempt to divert refugee relief in support of their political and military goals.’ [34] 

The political context of state recipients can influence the on-the-ground provision of aid in adverse ways. Stewart and Samman contrast the way in which successful aid provision depended on the political stance of the governments in Sudan in 1983 and Mozambique in 1975- 1982: CONFAID was manipulated and used to pursue conflict by a predatory government in Sudan, but in Mozambique the Frelimo government, whilst less predatory, was still associated with aid provision. This made the opposing Renamo areas inaccessible despite having an impartial mandate. [35] 

Furthermore, the combination of political contexts of both recipient and donor results influences at whom the aid is targeted: Uvin exemplifies this: ‘in Rwanda, many donors abandoned targeting for fear of being seen as partial to any one side; in Afghanistan, they strengthened targeting to women, for fear of acquiescing to government policies that exclude women.’ [36] 

In conclusion, having looked at the intricacies of the conflict-aid dynamic, I would like to position the question of conflict’s influence on aid within the wider spectrum of debate about conflict. Conflict is often seen as a breakdown or transgression from a normal state of affairs: however, as Anderson notes, ‘it is normalcy that gave rise to the emergency initially.’ [37] Relinquishing this idea will obviously have an effect on the role that aid is expected to play: it is not merely a temporary measure, but a whole new start. Related to this is the fact that conflicts have structural (deep) and immediate (light) causes requiring long-term development and short-term aid solutions, but the two are rarely successfully reconciled. As Uvin notes, ‘outside pressure for democracy […] tends to take more time, consistency, knowledge, finesse and commitment than the international community typically has.’ [38] This is perhaps because the traditional view of conflict attributes blame to internal problems; whereas aid and development are imposed, technically and professionally, from a sphere ‘external’ to the conflict. But as Uvin explains, aid can be an integral part of the system; which, in the case of Rwanda, perpetrates and perpetuates ‘structural violence’; ‘development aid interacts in manifold and important ways with profound social processes of inequality, exclusion, humiliation, impunity, and despair, on which the genocidal edifice was built […] Domestic politics are inseparable from external aid: foreign aid is constitutive of domestic processes.’ [39] Lastly, the impossibility of neutrality and apolitical action within complex situations of conflict does not mean that we must retreat back to neutrality: politicisation is inevitable. Beyond neutrality is an acknowledgement of responsibility, for both the successful and unsuccessful results of aid provision.

3448 words.


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