Mission Possible?

In northern Afghanistan earlier this year, the chief of delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Mazar-e-Sharif complained to me that the “humanitarian space” was shrinking. The local warlords were fighting, and this made it difficult for his teams to deliver food and medicines to the population south of the city. When the Red Cross went to complain, the local warlord didn’t seem to get the point. For him, humanitarianism wasn’t supposed to be neutral and impartial. It meant foreign aid workers would feed his own people while denying food to his enemies.

Humanitarian space” is a big idea in the aid business, but it is in big trouble. Aid agencies are supposed to occupy neutral and impartial ground between armed factions, between ethnic groups in conflict, and between states. Aid agencies should not represent governments even though they may get their funds from them; they serve victims and represent “civil society” back home. Aid agencies thus create a space in zones of conflict in which ordinary people from one society can help ordinary people in another, safe from government interference.

So much for the theory. In practice, this humanitarian space is shrinking so rapidly that it raises a question about whether it ever existed. Humanitarian access in zones of war is always under the control of the men with guns, while in zones of peace, access to victim populations depends on the permission of governments. So the idea that humanitarians have some entitlement to a space of their own is an odd one. Even governments with some sympathy for humanitarian action have not respected the idea. During the 1990s, Western states and their armies marched into the space that aid agencies thought was their own. For example, during the huge refugee outflow from Kosovo into Macedonia in late March and early April 1999, NATO troops almost entirely occupied the humanitarian space, at least at the beginning, flying in tents and setting up camps to shelter the refugees. I remember watching the NATO Chinook helicopters with huge bundles of tents hanging from their underbellies lowering them down into a refugee camp. A nurse from a Scandinavian aid agency almost wept with dismay. “This is a humanitarian space,” she said. “There is no place for military here!”

At the time, I thought she was crazy. How else were ten thousand people supposed to be given shelter for the night? Only the NATO military engineers had the logistical ability to respond. The NGOs were overwhelmed. Why did she care about keeping soldiers out of refugee camps, when the only people who could build a refugee camp quickly were soldiers? This was true enough, but then again, she and her agency hadn’t volunteered for the NATO war effort. It was as if she were being asked to put a NATO armband on the sleeve of her nurse’s uniform.

It’s not just that soldiers are performing functions once reserved for aid workers and aid workers are …

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