As the story of the tragedy in Haiti continues to unfold, the spotlight seems to have turned away from the aid and the tragedy itself, and instead now largely focuses on the U.S. military aid effort. Doctors Without Borders and the director of French aid have both complained that the U.S. military has impeded the progress of the relief mission. Regardless of what troop increases may represent, it undoubtedly highlights a problematic trend in development aid effort; aid is often militarized.
As the story of the tragedy in Haiti continues to unfold, the spotlight seems to have turned away from the aid and the tragedy itself, and instead now largely focuses on the U.S. military aid effort. Doctors Without Borders and the director of French aid have both complained that the U.S. military has impeded the progress of the relief mission. Many have noted that the priority of the military would appear to be security over rescue, causing the delivery of medical supplies to be postponed while the military brings its troops and supplies.
Both the UN and the US have raised troop levels to high levels. The Telegraph reports that the US has some 10,000 troops on the ground and the UN is expected to add 3,000-9,000 more in addition to the force that they had on the ground prior to the earthquake. This military presence may be the result of a number of factors. Some have claimed that there is an exagge-ration of security problems and violence. This could be due to historic racism and assumptions about Haitian culture. Others argue that military presence is benevolent and necessary for keeping the peace. And yet still, many have claimed that the increase of foreign military presence is an occupation and a continuation of US and foreign colonization and domination of the region.
Regardless of what troop increases may represent, it undoubtedly highlights a problematic trend in development aid effort; aid is often militarized.
Development aid has long been accused of being imperialistic, and with good reason. The concept of development aid truly came into fruition during the Cold War. Nervous about the temptations of communism for poor countries, and about maintaining hegemony in the developing world, the US developed the concept of foreign aid. In order to keep poverty stricken countries from “falling prey” to the USSR, or from forging an independent political path, the US would insure the continuation of its prized capitalist system through the extension of aid to these countries.
Even beyond the state function of development, the most benevolent forms of its practice incorporated a distinctly Western set of assumptions about what made life valuable, and what made one modern. Hoping to help the world reach the level of comfort the West had attained, many idealists devoted their life to the goal of development. While for some these actions may have been good intentioned, they were (and often are) undoubtedly Eurocentric, and in the case of governmental programs, have often been a political tool. Aid was offered as an incentive for policy changes within a country, policy changes dictated by Washington.
More recently, aid has developed into a multilateral instrument for enforcing neoliberal policies. This is evident in the requirements put forth by aid institutions such as the International Monetary Fund. Structural Adjustment Programs are enforced as a mechanism for implementing neoliberal policies in countries that accept international loans. So clearly, for many decades, the Global North has employed the concept of aid and the promise of a life like ours as a way of “winning hearts and minds,” or at least twisting wrists until we can reach a compromise.
In the last decade, however, the use of aid as a political weapon has taken on even more dangerous and overtly hegemonic posture. The trend toward the militarization of aid has been met with great concern, but also, widespread acceptance. Suddenly, under this new paradigm, human rights are used to justify wars while help comes in the form of military presence. This trend is far from exclusive to Haiti, which up to this point may be amongst the mildest of such cases. Human rights violations were used to justify US intervention in Yugoslavia/Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Militarized aid, and aid as a mechanism of counterterrorism, can be seen in countries such as Mali and Northern Uganda. Militaries have been sent to aid in disaster relief in New Orleans and Haiti. In an effort to galvanize popular support, US military efforts in Afghanistan have also begun to focus on the concept of aid. While these cases vary greatly in their justifications (disaster, drug trafficking, human rights violations, disasters, etc.), they all result in military presence as a function of delivering on the promises of humanitarian aid and protection of human rights.
Beyond the obvious questions that the militarization of aid raises about possible occupation, this phenomenon is problematic for a number of other reasons as well. It raises questions about the importance of expertise, priorities, dangers and risks, and the intent of providing aid.
If we learn nothing else from the Haiti example, it should now be obvious that the military’s area of expertise is not humanitarian aid. Many argue that the military is able to mobilize faster and more efficiently than many other organizations and institutions. This is true, in the case of war. This is not necessarily the case with aid, however. The military consists of a highly trained group of individuals, but these individuals are not aid workers. They are trained to be able to kill other human beings. This training, even when there is a humanitarian component, does not develop the type of expertise necessary to be a good development practitioner. Regardless of how great the need and how well development workers knew the land, no one would ever suggest that they help fight a war, much less lead the battle. It is equally ridiculous to expect trained killers to run a humanitarian relief effort.
Perhaps due to the fact that their training largely focuses on combat rather than relief efforts, the military tends to hold a distinct set of priorities. These priorities do not always bode well for relief missions. For example, the US has been widely criticized because during the critical 72 hours after the earthquake, the US military, which seized control of the airport, prioritized military flights over flights carrying medical supplies, doctors and relief experts. After a firestorm of international condemnation, they agreed, at least on paper, to give aid flights precedence. These actions were not simply due to lack of expertise in running a relief operation. They were due to the fact that the military sees its primary objective as creating and maintaining a secure atmosphere. Because their priority is security, rather than simply providing supplies, they often do not do as well with supplying aid. Moreover, when aid is slow to arrive, it creates more desperate situations of violence and chaos.
Another major issue that many aid organizations have taken with the militarization of aid is that it ruins their appearance of neutrality amongst warring populations. This critique, while based on the faulty assumption that a NGO can be neutral, does point to the increased danger that the militarization of aid has caused. In order to pursue a truly sustainable development, it is impossible to be apolitical. If relief aid and development are to be successful, it can only happen through a process of empowerment in which the marginalized confront the systems of power that have oppressed them. Political neutrality (in which power structures and systems of disenfranchisement are not challenged) is not a viable solution for organizations that wish pursue a sustainable development that addresses the root causes of marginalization.
That being said, it is possible to avoid taking sides in particular conflicts. NGOs can attempt to stay out of local disagreements and official political disputes. But, when the military, often from the same country as the aid worker, arrives and plays the dual role of warrior and aid worker, NGO workers have difficulty distinguishing themselves and their political views from their armed countrymen. This jeopardizes not only the safety of the workers, but the success of the entire aid project.
Aid, especially disaster relief aid, should not be used as a way to introduce economic policies, a way to exercise military might or a way to recruit supporters. Even if the aid supplied by militaries and governments were entirely altruistic, the fact remains that militaries are not aid experts. They do not have the same priorities that successful aid workers share. Their mere presence often endangers the relief and aid efforts, the local civilian population, aid workers and their own lives, by creating an atmosphere of fear and confusion. Aid should never (even appear to) be used as a weapon.
During great tragedies, many of us wish to supply help. But, despite the emergency atmosphere, we must be willing to take the time to look at the implications of our actions. In the case of Haiti, a history of violence, domination and paternalism is largely to blame for the almost unimaginable scope of the disaster. In this moment of need, we must not respond with more of the same. The global North’s relief and aid efforts must not be shows of strength and power. Instead, they must simply assist Haiti as it determines its own future. As Haitians define their own rebirth, aid workers need to follow their lead, and the military needs to go home.
* Jamie Way holds a M.A. in Political Science and is the Research and Communications Coordinator at the Alliance for Global Justice.
Photo by Marc Becker.