The rise of the Islamic State is a moral dilemma for humanitarian aid groups.
The conflict in Iraq and Syria has inflicted incredible suffering on at least some of the 3.6 million people reportedly living under ISIS’s rule. And ISIS is one of that conflict’s most brutal combatants.
If ISIS dictates terms to aid groups working in territory they control — which is exactly what it’s doing — these groups may risk legitmising ISIS further.
Aid could strengthen ISIS’s state-building project by defraying the costs of public services and allowing ISIS to distribute aid in a way that advances the group’s propoganda. Aiding the people chafing under “the caliphate” may actually buffer one of the war’s worst actors, thus solidifying the conflict’s underlying dynamics.
There isn’t an easy way around this problem, which is present in just about every conflict zone. Most aid groups work through it by adhering as strictly as possible to a principal of “humanitarian neutrality” that prohibits them from endorsing or advancing the objectives of any side in a conflict.
But some analysts wonder if neutrality is even possible. “Though providers of humanitarian aid would like to operate in a ‘neutral space,’ there is no such location in the contested battlegrounds of an insurgency,” Nadia Schadlow wrote in the context of the US’s ongoing mission in Afghanistan in March of 2011. “Neutrality not only requires turning a blind eye to hostile organisations, but also risks enriching and strengthening bad actors physically and psychologically.”
That doesn’t mean that humanitarian groups should shrink in the face of moral hazard. After all, halting aid arguably penalizes individuals for factors far beyond their control — namely, the nature of the government or armed group they’re living under. And certain aid interventions, like vaccinations against infectious diseases, could pay serious dividends long after the conflict concludes.
There is a point at which the moral hazard of aiding a bad actor might actually be worth it, even if there’s no set equation for locating it. The cost of halting American remittances to Somalia, for instance — something that’s effectively happening as a result of US counter-terror policy — is arguably greater than the risk that of some of the remitted money falling into the hands of terrorist groups.
So neutrality could lead aid groups to operate in ways that are actually exact opposite of neutral. “The very fact that an aid organisation can travel safely in a contested province often means that insurgents have calculated that it is in their interest to allow the organisation safe passage,” writes Schadlow. “The fact that an NGO-built school remains standing — while an [International Security Assistance Force] school is destroyed — is likewise because insurgents have made a political calculation.:
But the easiest way to avoid this problem is to simply halt all aid within a certain area, a position that’s problematic on its own.
Jim Hake, a California-based venture capitalist and entrepreneur, believes he’s found one possible solution to this problem. Shortly after the September 11th attacks, Hake founded Spirit of America, an aid organisation that eschews humanitarian neutrality and works explicitly towards advancing US national security and diplomatic objectives.
So in the Republic of Georgia, the organisation donates supplies to an initiative that helps soldiers injured fighting for the US-led coalition in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Syria, the group uses local partners to distribute solar-power radios that can be used to pick up stations critical of the ruling Assad regime, a project profiled in the New York Times.
As Hake explained to Business Insider, Spirit of America “builds all of our efforts on top of what either US military or civilian personnel are doing and trying to accomplish, and their assessment and analysis of what will be helpful and what will be harmful.” Right now, it’s active in countries as diverse as Columbia, Vietnam and Kenya.
In Hake’s view, security and humanitarian objectives can’t be pursued separately. In the absence of security, humanitarian aid can end up benefiting the strongest actor in a given area, rather than the most virtuous or constructive one. And in the absence of humanitarian aid, security can be fragile or even totally facile.
Spirit of America provides aid that helps advance security-minded US policy. So in Iraqi Kurdistan, the group is providing winter boots for child refugees from ISIS’s “Caliphate.” It’s also exploring the possibility of launching other refugee assistance programs in Lebanon and Jordan, with the partial aim of countering “ISIS infiltration and influence.”
Hake believes these efforts fulfil both security and aid aims. “You start to stabilise and build security where ISIS doesn’t have control and then start to move into where they do,” Hake told Business Insider. “It’s an ink-blot approach where you build the security and relationships and influence where you can and build out from there.”
Spirit of America’s solution isn’t applicable everywhere. The US is a significant force all around the world, as Spirit of America’s far-flung range of projects demonstrates. But there are still places that US policy doesn’t touch as directly. And while the organisation works around ISIS-controlled areas, it doesn’t work inside of them. Their solution is to improve conditions in areas ISIS doesn’t control, and then help stabilise places liberated from the jihadists.
Still, in moving beyond the neutrality principle, Spirit of America presents a compelling alternative to the existing framework, which arguably sidesteps the moral hazard issue and may inadvertently make conflicts worse.
Hake describes his approach as “directly responsive to what [US] military and civilian teams are trying to accomplish.” That isn’t always an option in responding to morally tricky humanitarian crises. But it’s one way of avoiding a perverse situation in which conflicts are worsened as the result of good-faith attempts to alleviate people’s suffering.
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