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Aid delivery in Afghanistan – Are military forces really responsible for the deterioration of humanitarian space?
Laurent Saillard

Much has been written about aid delivery in conflict-affected environments, with particular areas of concern being shrinking humanitarian space, civil-military interaction, and the blurring of lines between humanitarian and military interventions. In 2009 and 2010 I was the director of ACBAR, a coordinating body for NGOs in Afghanistan. At that critical time for the country, I was ideally placed to observe the behaviour of both humanitarian actors and armed forces and how they interacted. This opened my eyes to the modi operandi of aid organizations and how shifting donor interests can quickly transform the priorities of the humanitarian community working in a crisis.

My purpose here is to share my own observations after nearly nine years spent in one of the world’s most militarized contexts in order to highlight some of the problematic behaviour of humanitarian aid actors. In the Afghan context, where the tough operating environment calls for extreme discipline and consistency, many organisations instead succumbed to short-sighted actions and behaviour, losing track of the longer-term implications for themselves and for the sector as a whole. When humanitarian principles are distorted to the point where they become meaningless, it is time for all actors to take a step back and critically examine the impact of their own behaviour on future humanitarian action.

 Principled action: different interpretations, applied differently

The principles that are supposed to guide the work of humanitarian actors are understood in many different ways. Consequently, they are implemented in many different ways too. However, the ways in which I have seen these guiding principles applied and misapplied has sometimes made me question the intellectual honesty of certain actors and wonder whether they are understood or taken seriously at all.

An example that comes to mind is the fact that numerous aid organizations willingly accepted funding from Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) – funding which was distributed across Afghanistan to support politically and/or militarily motivated projects – while, at the same time, these same organizations were active in delivering relief assistance to victims of the conflict. The position of these organizations was therefore seen to be confusing and inconsistent by external actors, such as armed groups and even beneficiaries of assistance. As a consequence, they lost credibility.

This kind of extreme flexibility with principles is highly regrettable from an ethical point of view, as it constitutes a breach of the moral contract between victims and aid workers. But perhaps more seriously, and especially important in conflict-affected environments such as Afghanistan, it directly endangers the lives of both civilians and aid workers.

Without a doubt, we need to be realistic and accept the fact that differences of opinion and interpretation between different actors are unavoidable and can potentially even be a healthy sign in a community with diverse backgrounds. But nevertheless, the fact remains that the notable lack of consistency in this domain has concrete and serious effects on the delivery of aid and the possibilities for coordination. As a result, certain actors, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) tend to feel that that it is necessary to distance themselves from other humanitarian actors by, for example, not being associated with any collective communication initiatives or only having observer roles in coordination forums.