Aid Organizations Under Fire

Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index report listed Iraq and Afghanistan in the top five most corrupt countries. Both countries are on the receiving end of billions of dollars in foreign support, mostly from the U.S. Putting aside Taliban strongholds, the official Afghan government works closely with the U.S. — not surprising given common foreign policy and security issues, American financial contributions, and the ongoing military procedure in Afghanistan. Yet despite this partnership, which is professedly for the furtherance of democracy in Afghanistan, recent developments have revealed widespread fraud originating from current President Hamid Karzai.

In a U.S.-led endeavor to further democracy, the key political figurehead in Afghanistan, one who works closely with the American administration, is suspected of corruption. For the opposition and for the people, this fraud tarnishes both the image of America and that of non-governmental organizations. These NGOs, which work to portray themselves as neutral parties in nations permeated by conflict, become the victims of perceived “western” bias.

This became abundantly clear when insurgents killed five United Nations workers in Afghanistan during a two-hour siege and an additional five workers for the World Food Program were killed in a suicide bombing in Pakistan. As a result, the UN has been forced to move 500 international staff members.

Yet aside from the official and unofficial activities of state, the UN has run into a new common theme in international relations: misplaced distrust. Put another way, the UN, its organs and its aid workers, which are traditionally seen as neutral, are increasingly coming under attack. And it isn’t just a few isolated incidents. Rather, it is the view that the UN and other non-governmental organizations are in support of the governments of the countries in which they are placed, or that they are proxies for western powers. Often, they are seen as instruments of the west and, as such, legitimate targets of violent political activism.

It would be easy if we could characterize certain groups or certain governments as in favor of or against human rights organizations. But the reality is that the UN is increasingly facing hostility from many different international actors. This reflects the complex political conflicts that have come to define the 21st century. In Afghanistan, insurgents target the UN as extensions of the government. In Israel, the UN has come under indiscriminant shooting, and their judgments on human rights are seen as biased.

In areas in need of humanitarian aid and human rights oversight, these attacks are detrimental. In Sudan, the administration recently grouped all humanitarian organizations under a western label and closed down all NGO offices in the country.

This sort of hostility can be traced back to the destruction of Afghanistan and Iraq in the name of a humanitarian cause. What the people of these countries have seen is an unmistakable path of destruction under a slogan of democracy and justice.

In countries where aid packages are distributed by soldiers and international security forces instead of humanitarian groups, it becomes difficult to distinguish neutral humanitarian aid from the political work being done by governmental actors. American soldiers in Iraq, who engage in philanthropic projects or simply socialize with the Iraqi population, inadvertently coat their actions with the politics of a particular nation. While this sounds like a wonderful way to create a positive image of the U.S. and its intentions, it has an adverse effect on organizations that are entirely devoted to the neutral contribution of humanitarian aid.

In order for violence towards these humanitarian aid organizations to cease, there must be collective responsibility for the damage in the regions, and an effort to uphold the independence of these aid organizations. While at times it may seem necessary to coordinate humanitarian aid in a centralized way, the greatest impediment to the dispersion of aid is through the attempts of various governments to coordinate the operations of mutually exclusive organizations. While governments often find philanthropy to be a legitimating factor, the reality is that it can contaminate the legitimacy inherent in non-governmental organizations.

Frida Alim is a third-year political science major. She can be reached at