Humanitarian assistance provided in recent years by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Africa has saved hundreds of thousands of lives. While the value of these efforts is increasingly recognized and appreciated, some analysts have begun to assert that this kind of assistance on occasion exacerbates conflict rather than contributing to peace. The urgency of this issue led the United States Institute of Peace to organize a day-long symposium in October 1995.
The most direct negative impact occurs when warring forces gain control of supplies intended for civilians, either through imposing levies or through theft. More indirectly, when international NGOs meet the needs of civilian populations, the government and rebels are freed to use their resources for war-making. Humanitarian assistance may also unintentionally convey negative ethical messages.
NGO representatives at the symposium pointed out the complicated and sometimes compromising context in which their organizations must operate. NGOs largely function as implementing agents for donor governments and the United Nations. Since these donors are often not well informed about field conditions, they may impose unrealistic restrictions and inappropriate mandates on NGOs with whom they contract. Moreover, emergency situations usually do not permit time for the requisite planning to avoid all negative consequences. In any case, the positive outcomes from providing humanitarian assistance almost always outweigh the negative outcomes.
Symposium participants identified eight major steps NGOs can take to minimize or eliminate the negative impact of humanitarian aid: (1) improve planning; (2) assess need more accurately; (3) analyze the consequences of agreements negotiated to gain access to needy populations and obtain security for NGO personnel; (4) provide aid that will have the longest term benefit to particular targeted groups; (5) contract for independent monitoring and evaluation of assistance programs to reduce mismanagement and the diversion of supplies; (6) make the empowerment of local institutions a high priority; (7) coordinate closely with other assistance organizations operating in a particular crisis situation; and (8) deploy human rights monitors to help protect local populations from exploitation and repression by the fighting factions.
While political neutrality is a time-honored principle, most faithfully observed by the International Committee of the Red Cross, several symposium participants asserted that some conflicts in Africa require political involvement by NGOs. Some also argued that NGOs should provide humanitarian assistance only when local populations and factions agree to conditions that will ensure the most effective use of relief supplies.
Many agreed that the provision of humanitarian assistance could be an endless and futile process unless accompanied by efforts, probably spearheaded by other bodies, to build peace. The symposium ended with a shared conviction that despite the travail that Africans have recently suffered, African people are generally resilient and hopeful. Africans will continue to grapple with their issues and make progress in promoting peace. International NGOs should remain engaged with Africans on this journey.