The Politics of Aid: Helping Darfur?


Darfur has widely been called the first genocide of the 21st century. In a context where the Sudanese government remains highly resistant to allowing more AU or UN troops into the region, humanitarian aid appears to be the only way that ‘outsiders’ can help. However, experience from previous humanitarian operations in the Horn of Africa shows that aid can be utilised as a tool of war by violent factions, it can exacerbate the causes of war, and it can substitute effective political engagement from donor states. Whilst numerous aid agencies and NGOs have attempted to overcome these problems by adopting a ‘principled’ and ‘politically aware’ approach termed ‘new humanitarianism’, this study will demonstrate that difficulties remain. In Darfur aid keeps over 2 million people alive amidst huge insecurity and the mobilisation of extremist politics. However, the humanitarian effort appears to be having unintended political consequences. There is some evidence that humanitarian access is being manipulated to suit government interests; IDP camps have become integrated into the conflict dynamic through the manipulation of population movements; aid is being diverted by military factions; and inter-tribal tensions are being exacerbated. Further research is required to determine the extent of these processes and exactly how they are affecting the course of the conflict.


The humanitarian catastrophe in Darfur has widely been called the ‘first genocide of the 21st century’. Due to the absence of forcible intervention to halt the killing, aid agencies and NGOs have played a central role in sustaining over 2.5 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) as well as 200,000 refugees (mostly in Chad). It is estimated that, in total, more than 3.8 million people in Darfur and the surrounding region are reliant on humanitarian aid (Oxfam, 2006; MSF, 2007; OCHA; 2007). The Sudanese government has remained highly resistant to allowing more AU or UN troops into Darfur and the conflict shows little sign of ending. In this context the central importance of aid looks set to continue; indeed, it appears to be one of the few ways that outsiders can help.

This study will critically assess the impact of humanitarian aid in Darfur by exploring its political consequences. It will draw on theories which have emerged from numerous conflicts in order to create a framework through which the Darfur case can be analysed. Throughout the study, the competing imperatives which aid agencies and NGOs face will be highlighted: it is not merely a case of overcoming technical difficulties; there are ideological and moral dilemmas which the humanitarian community must attempt to reconcile.

Chapter One will briefly introduce the characteristics of ‘New Wars’ before analysing some of the broad problems that they pose for the effective distribution of humanitarian aid. It will demonstrate the potential for aid to have unintended political consequences, arguing that it can function as a tool of war, exacerbate the causes of war and substitute serious political engagement.

Chapter Two will examine how academics and practitioners have sought to resolve these problems through technical changes to the relief system and a ‘new humanitarianism’. This has seen many aid agencies and NGOs sacrifice ‘political neutrality’ and instead deploy aid in support of peaceful actors and institutions in an effort to achieve long-term stability. However the chapter will conclude that the deliberate political deployment of aid has raised its own moral and practical dilemmas.

Chapter Three will draw on the framework developed in chapters one and two to analyse aid’s political consequences in Darfur. It will consider problems associated with both the ‘political neutrality’ and ‘new humanitarianism’ approaches.

Accordingly, this study seeks to identify the potential for aid to have unintended political consequences, analyse the difficulties in addressing these problems, and then in light of this discussion, tentatively assess the political impact that humanitarian aid may be having in the Darfur crisis.

Reasons for Study

Since the end of the polarised politics of the Cold War, Western donors have placed a new emphasis on circumventing corrupt governments, especially in Africa (Clark, 1991). As part of this shift in policy, funds are increasingly channelled through aid agencies and NGOs (de Waal, 2002: 79). Simultaneously, both the mandate and role of these organisations has expanded due to the ‘declining power’ of African states to ‘restrict’ humanitarian activities (African Rights, 1994: 7). As a result of their newfound prominence, humanitarian actors have become subject to a progressively more rigorous critical analysis (Macrae, 1998: 28). Numerous thinkers have highlighted the potential for aid to have negative impacts. This in itself provides an incentive to study aid politics in Darfur; is there a possibility that aid could be exacerbating or contributing to the violence? Furthermore, previous conflicts in the Horn of Africa have ‘provided groundbreaking cases in terms of crisis response’ (Prendergast, 1996: 63). There is thus a wealth of comparative material to draw upon and a possibility that insights gained from the study may be applicable to the region as a whole.

However, several factors have resulted in a very limited amount of attention being devoted to the subject: there is a large gap in the literature. The severity of the humanitarian situation, combined with the international community’s lack of will to end the conflict forcibly, has meant that ‘doing something’ (indeed, doing anything) is seen as the priority. As was the case during the Rwandan genocide, aid agencies have launched a plethora of high-profile fundraising initiatives advertising the need for action in the region (Prendergast, 1996: 5; BBC, 2004). Meanwhile the academic community and media have focussed on justifying intervention and highlighting the plight of Darfur’s civilians. Both of these debates have often centred on the question of whether the situation should be termed ‘genocide’. Discussing the practical and moral dilemmas associated with aid politics has, understandably, been very much a lesser concern. Yet, as becomes evident when one looks at the unintended consequences of aid in Rwanda and, more recently, in Afghanistan, merely because something needs to be done should not mean the options (even if they are few) are applied without critical analysis (Fox, 2001: 282-284).

Limitations and Scope

This study of Darfur’s aid politics does not escape any of the limitations which have dissuaded others from tackling the issue. The author is unable to visit the region, therefore information transmitted by people and organisations in Darfur will be of central importance. This has implications for the methodology which will be discussed below. As a result, it is important to acknowledge that the findings will be put forward tentatively, and will not be authoritative. However, gaining an indication of whether aid may be having a negative impact remains a worthwhile exercise.

There are also limitations in terms of scope. As seen time and again in Africa (and especially in those countries which comprise the ‘Horn’ of the continent) instability within states frequently becomes a regional issue; this has been the case regarding the Darfur crisis. Huge refugee flows and cross-border raids by militia have resulted in the situation in Chad deteriorating to such a degree that it has been compared by the UN to Rwanda in 1994 (BBC, 2007). It is therefore inevitable that the political consequences of aid will not be confined by state boundaries. However, due to limited space, the research will be restricted to considering aid’s impact in Sudan itself.

Definition of Terms

It is important to clarify that in this study, ‘aid’ will refer to goods and services provided by international NGOs (for example Oxfam) and UN agencies; together, these will be referred to as ‘humanitarian organisations’. Direct state-to-state bilateral assistance will not be considered. The terms ‘aid politics’ and ‘the politics of aid’ will be used interchangeably to denote the concept that emergency relief has consequences beyond its immediate humanitarian value to the recipient. 


In seeking to address the question it is recognised that a comprehensive study is problematic. A quantitative approach is rendered impossible due to the limited data available, yet qualitative methods also raise difficulties. Documents emanating from the region will be a central source of information for the final chapter. However, by the very nature of the situation existent there, much of the material produced on the subject comes from aid agencies themselves. The ‘institutional demands’ of these organisations mean that they have vested interests in the material made available for public consumption (De Waal, 2002: 66). There is an incentive for agencies and NGOs to dampen fears that aid may be having negative consequences, and instead to emphasise the number of people they are helping so as to encourage public donations. Thus, under the banner ‘Oxfam is there’, the organisation proclaims it is providing essentials for more than half a million people (2006a). Prendergast warns that such observations bury ‘nuances’ and provide a crude ‘measure of success’ (1996: 3). Meanwhile, it is interesting to note that the single self-evaluation carried out by Oxfam in Darfur ‘was written for internal use only, and contains… confidential information which was not intended for public release’ (Oxfam, 2006, personal communication, 9 November). Whilst there have also been some ‘independent’ evaluations and extensive media coverage, one might question whether these can be considered objective (de Waal, 2002: 65). Reports from organisations which have less institutional interest in the humanitarian response, for example Human Rights Watch (HRW), will be utilised in order to overcome this problem.

Nonetheless, many of the ‘primary’ sources are deeply integrated and embedded within the politicised issue of aid and therefore cannot be understood as factual in their own right. This magnifies the importance of gaining numerous different sources, triangulating them where possible and analysing them with a critical mindset. Important questions will need to be considered such as: on behalf of whom were the documents written? What audience were they intended for? And do they further a certain agenda? Whilst taking such a critical approach may overcome the limitations of the study to a degree, it is inevitable that problems typically associated with qualitative research will remain (Grix, 2004: 121).

Chapter One: The Unintended Political Consequences of Aid in New Wars

In order to discuss the politics of aid effectively, it is essential to consider the broader context in which emergency relief operations occur. In her seminal work, ‘New and Old Wars’, Mary Kaldor has argued that ‘a new type of organised violence’ has become dominant, ‘especially in Africa and Eastern Europe’ (2006: 1). Whilst these ‘new wars’ bear many similarities to their predecessors, they also have distinct characteristics which require ‘a very different kind of response’ to the ‘industrial wars’ which dominated the 20th century (Kaldor, 2006a: 4-5; also Smith, 2005). This has important implications for the analysis of aid politics (Bowden, 2001).

New wars are closely tied to the notion of failed states. Within this environment, the distinctions between ‘war’, ‘organised crime’ and ‘human rights violations’ is blurred (Kaldor, 2006: 2). The actors which are party to the conflict are not merely regular armies, but ‘paramilitary units, local warlords, criminal gangs, [and] police forces’ (ibid: 9). Although they ‘may fight for one side, they are rarely under the full control of the structures of war’ (Anderson, 1999: 12). Where no one group can prevail militarily, actors must ‘try to control political territory politically’; however, in the absence of the ability to win hearts and minds, ‘fear and hate’ are utilised (Kaldor, 2006a: 7). Anderson writes that ‘rather than appeal to a constituency by enunciating a set of principles’, leaders have searched ‘their national histories and selected characteristics that differentiated people from each other’ (1999: 9). Thus, the population is controlled ‘by getting rid of everyone of a different identity’ and ‘most violence is directed against civilians’; Kaldor asserts that ‘the strategic goal’ of new wars ‘is to mobilise extremist politics’ (2006: 9; also Rupesinghe, 1992). The ethnic cleansing and systematic displacement, which have been witnessed in numerous post-Cold War conflicts are therefore not simply a side effect of war, but ‘an explicit objective’ (Bradbury, 1995: 5). The degeneration of national frameworks and structures which facilitate these processes (Shaw, 2000: 17) can also leave aid agencies and NGOs as the sole providers of security and essential services for millions of targeted civilians (DeMars, 1996: 81). Simultaneously however, the strong emphasis on identity within new wars means that aid distribution can easily aggravate tensions between communities; this point will be elaborated below when aid’s potential to exacerbate the ‘causes’ of war is discussed.

Kaldor has also highlighted the ‘criminalised economy’ of new wars, contrasting it to the state controlled, centrally planned economies of World War II (2006a: 7). Far from mobilising for the war effort, domestic production and tax revenues often collapse. As a result, actors must ‘finance themselves through plunder… the black-market or through external assistance’ (2006: 10). This observation has very serious repercussions for the analysis of aid, which, as will be shown below, can be used by actors as a resource to help fund and prosecute conflicts. Because resources (in this case, aid deliveries) ‘can only be sustained through continued violence… a war logic is built into the functioning of the economy’ (ibid: 10). Efforts to ensure that aid only benefits civilians are rendered almost impossible by the indistinct divisions between the general population and military groups (Barber, 1997: 9). Indeed, even if a clear dividing line existed, the pervasive nature of black market economies and organised crime allows goods to flow relatively freely between actors. It is in the context of these new wars that this study will analyse the potential for aid to have political consequences.

Aid as a Tool of War

The military benefits associated with controlling access to resources have long been recognised (for example, see Sun Tzu’s Art of War). However, it is only relatively recently that the humanitarian community has begun to investigate the implications of this for the politics of aid. Actors can control aid access through various means. Most commonly noted is the sovereign government’s ability to deny agencies and NGOs the necessary permission or security guarantees to work in rebel held areas (African Rights, 1994: 3-4). Meanwhile, Prendergast reports that in turn, rebels have used violence ‘to limit aid flows into government areas’ (1996: 18). Such strategies have been employed to devastating effect; Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) estimates that dead to wounded ratios increased from 1:4 to 10:1 in Burundi because of limitations on humanitarian access (in Buckley, 1996: 9; MSF, 2004). However, the implications go beyond the inevitable increase in immediate mortality rates; the deployment (or not) of resources has ‘profound impacts on economies and power structures’ (Prendergast, 1996: 58).

Even when actors cannot limit the humanitarian response, aid can become integrated into the conflict dynamic when population movements are manipulated. Macrae and Zwi observe that ‘food has been used to lure civilian populations into areas controlled by government or rebel forces’ (1994: 20). Conversely, by ensuring desperate people settle on territory under their command, actors can guarantee aid agencies and NGOs will follow behind. This dynamic therefore becomes self-sustaining, attracting more civilians and in turn, more aid; it can serve military, political and economic ends in a number of ways (Le Billon, 2000: 22; LeRiche, 2004: 108). If armed factions are able to attract aid to a region and local populations follow, their legitimacy is likely to be increased: they are seen as providers in a time of need (Okumu, 2003: 125; Natsios, 1997: 88). This is reinforced if aid agencies appear to endorse such groups through negotiations and cooperation. IDP camps can also function as a large and vulnerable recruitment pool, a potential PR opportunity and a ‘human shield’ for military forces.

By violently depopulating ‘opposition’ territories, actors ensure that their rivals are denied the military, political and economic benefits associated with controlling large numbers of civilians (Keen and Wilson, 1994: 210). If they can force the ‘opposition’ populations into their own territory, actors can maintain political control over ‘hostile’ groups by denying aid access and through a policy of harassment and violence. Furthermore, as will be shown, large humanitarian operations are often the source of substantial resources which can be used to prosecute conflicts.

Aid is perhaps most clearly seen as a ‘tool of war’ when it is directly used by military groups. Prendergast reports that by ‘moving a large displaced population’ between aid camps, militia can guarantee strategic access to supplies (1996: 21). Aid resources can also be gained through black markets thanks to the high levels of corruption often evident during humanitarian emergencies (Duffield, 1993; Transparency International, 2006). In recent African conflicts huge quantities of relief are thought to have been ‘diverted’ from their intended humanitarian objectives and integrated into the conflict dynamic. Aid is stolen ‘in bulk’ (literally ‘by the truck load’) from agency and NGO premises, and is taxed or requisitioned from civilians who ‘have weaker property rights over aid supplies than over their own produce’ (African Rights, 1995: 6). It is then either consumed by the military group in question, or sold across borders as a ‘principal method of obtaining arms’ (Prendergast, 1996: 22).

Sceptics assert that ‘the economic value’ of ‘minerals, hardwoods, and drugs dwarf the impact [that] aid can [have] on a war economy’ (Shearer, 2000: 190). Whilst this is certainly true, it does not detract from aid’s potential to fuel conflict. Leader notes that food is usually the commodity ‘most sought after and most abused by belligerents’ (2000: 55); as Napoleon Bonaparte famously remarked, ‘an army marches on its stomach’. The diversion of just 5 percent of Ethiopian humanitarian aid in the late 1980s would have fed up to 400,000 people, the equivalent of the entire armed forces (Africa Watch, 1991). In reality, many NGOs ‘regularly include a 30 percent loss in their budgets’ (Okumu, 2003: 130, emphasis added). Such figures suggest that diverted aid may have a very significant impact. Indeed, in some cases, diversion emerges as an end in itself which directly fuels violence. Stolen aid is integrated into the war logic and criminal economy.

This was seen in Somalia, where some estimates suggest that over half of all food aid was diverted, although de Waal asserts that the actual figure is likely to be even higher (1994: 146). Natsios concludes that aid was ‘exacerbating the violence and reinforcing the power of the warlords’ (1997: 83). Whilst the war itself was undoubtedly ‘fuelled by more intractable impediments’ than aid diversion, ‘humanitarian agencies certainly provided an economic bonus’ which aggravated regional tensions (Shearer, 2000: 195). The stealing of humanitarian resources sometimes had ‘little or nothing to do with winning the war’; they were taken for profit. Violence was used as a means to gain the resources, and in order to confer legitimacy ‘on actions that in peacetime would be punishable as crimes’ (Keen, 2000: 29). In some cases, this dynamic has even led to cooperation between rival armed factions; for example ‘taking turns to raid villages’ for economic reward (Keen, 1998: 321). Aid can thus become an objective of violence, fuelling instability and insecurity.

Resources to prosecute conflict can also be obtained by hijacking the ‘humanitarian infrastructure’, defined by Prendergast as ‘the assets, agreements, and personnel that facilitate the delivery of aid’ (1996: 26). As well as taxing imported humanitarian goods, militia regularly conscript workers trained by NGOs, ‘borrow’ trucks (without always returning them) and exploit access agreements and airstrips to transport military equipment (ibid: 27). In an effort to protect themselves some NGOs have paid ‘militia to guard relief supplies’ and ‘local army units to transport food safely; or in other words, paid the people who would otherwise attack their lorries’ (Okumu, 2003: 130; also Natsios, 1997: 86). In southern Sudan, the ability of the government to profit from the humanitarian infrastructure empowered it at a crucial stage of the conflict (Prendergast, 1996: 27).

It has been argued that aid can become integrated into the conflict dynamic when utilised by militia and criminals. Such actors can control access to relief, manipulate population movements, and hijack the humanitarian infrastructure. However, even when aid is not actively manipulated by actors it can cause significant problems.

Aid Exacerbates the ‘causes’ of War

Far from ‘helping’ those in need, aid can exacerbate conflicts by aggravating inter and intra community relations. It will be argued that this occurs in at least two ways: First, when vertical structures of accountability and authority are affected; and secondly, when horizontal relations within groups and sub-groups are undermined.

Recent analysis of famines demonstrates that humanitarian aid affects social and political contracts between groups and their leaders. When outsiders provide substantial relief, the result may be that leaders are abrogated of their welfare responsibilities and can instead devote their energies and resources to war-fighting. De Waal has noted that ‘history is replete with successful methods of preventing famine’ and that ‘common to them are versions of [a] political contract that impose political obligations on rulers’. These ‘anti-famine contracts’ are enforced by holding leaders accountable for their actions (2002: 5). They assert that famine is not a failing of the system, but instead occurs as a result of deliberate political violence (Sen, 1981). When an emphasis is placed on assigning responsibility for crises leaders are held accountable by society and as a result there is an incentive for them to work for the interests of their people (de Waal, 2002: 5). Conversely, when aid agencies and NGOs take responsibility for the welfare of populations, the disaster is reframed as humanitarian and the political responsibilities which leaders have to their people are undermined (Edkins, 2002: 12; Bradbury, 1995: 168). Equally worrying, if substantial aid is diverted to militia leaders, they may be able to use the resources to secure power without having ‘to earn the trust and support of local populations’ (Prendergast, 1996: 35). Both of these processes have been observed in the Horn of Africa (Prendergast, 1995: 42).

However, some academics believe that aid’s role in damaging accountability structures has been overstated (Shearer, 2000). Regardless of aid agencies’ activities, many leaders have merely a ‘fragile obligation’ to their people – either because the political and social mechanisms to hold them accountable do not exist or because turmoil is not understood as a ‘political scandal’. Furthermore, the analysis assumes that local actors are entirely responsible for the situation; it risks ignoring the many external factors which have contributed to Africa’s plight (Stockton, 1998: 355). Aid deployment can not affect these realities within a context of conflict and political instability (Duffield, 1997). Thus criticising agencies and NGOs for damaging accountability structures seems unjustified if they are neither initially responsible for the political problems, nor capable of seriously improving the situation (Harvey and Lind, 2005).

Whilst it is certainly true that aid has a limited potential to affect positive political change, by engendering the dependency of civilians on outsiders, it may reinforce cultures of impunity and inhibit the formation of a ‘political contract’ in the long term. Gross Stein therefore argues that agencies and NGOs ‘must contribute to the seeding of… accountability if the vulnerable populations they seek to help are ever to be given voice’ (2001: 25). There is little incentive for leaders to even begin thinking about the welfare of their people if international aid agencies and NGOs assume all responsibility when crises erupt (Duffield, 1992). Indeed, it is probably in the interest of local authorities to encourage such external dependency as it enables them ‘to maintain compliant populations in areas that they control’ (Prendergast, 1996: 33).

Experience from numerous conflicts in the horn of Africa, shows that vertical power structures can also be affected when aid communicates values and legitimises actors (Okumu, 2003: 128). Due to the complex nature of humanitarian emergencies, agencies and NGOs are often forced to turn to those who present themselves as community leaders for help in implementing programs. As a result, warlords and militia are asked to ‘organize control of local distribution structures [and] participate in and agree to negotiated access processes’ (Prendergast, 1996: 32). This is sometimes a deliberate strategy to get potential spoilers ‘on side’, but can also be a consequence of agencies and NGOs failing to recognise non-military actors. Anderson has noted that ‘such apparent support for the legitimacy of a regime can prolong oppression and resultant warfare’ (1994). Even if it is possible for humanitarian organisations to avoid dealing with violent actors directly, local leaders can still ‘claim credit’ for aid provisions, and use stolen aid to ‘underwrite hearts and minds campaigns’ (Prendergast, 1996: 32; also Natsios, 1997: 83).

Aid may also cause inter and intra societal tensions by undermining horizontal relations between communities and between sub-groups within communities. As a result of its potential to have significant impacts on the conflict dynamic and because of its humanitarian value, aid distribution is a politically sensitive issue. Prendergast warns that if ‘there is a perception (accurate or not) of unbalanced aid provisioning’ then ‘competition and suspicion in resource-scarce environments’ can result (1996: 28).

Such perceptions arise (or are created for political purposes) when the benefits of aid are seen to be directed to certain areas and communities, and when agencies base themselves in ‘opposition’ territories (Fanthorpe, 2003: 61). Anderson notes that aid was distributed along ethnic lines in Rwanda following the genocide, thereby emphasising the difference between the Hutus and Tutsis and exacerbating tensions between them (1999: 46). Similar problems have been seen in Somalia and Somaliland where ‘aid imbalances are constantly cited… as a fuelling factor’ in the violence (Prendergast, 1996: 28). Agencies and NGOs increasingly seek to hire skilled locals rather than bringing in ‘western’ workers; however, skills and qualifications are ‘often related to educational access that, in turn, is correlated with patterns of privilege and discrimination’. Therefore, ‘aid’s profit and wage effects’ may empower certain groups at the expense of others, causing tensions in the process (Anderson, 1999: 47). Host populations can also be alienated if refugees receive large amounts of aid, or if their own local coping mechanisms are adversely affected by humanitarian operations (Adams and Bradbury, 1995: 45).

Furthermore, aid can undermine intra-group relations; a phenomenon commonly seen during the return of refugees. For example, tensions may emerge between subgroups of communities if returning refugees are prioritised over those who stayed during a conflict. Alternatively, if refugees return to find aid agencies and NGOs helping people settle on their land then violence is a foreseeable consequence (Prendergast, 1996: 28). Such tensions are perhaps harder to resolve than they otherwise might be, because aid has been shown to weaken solidarity within communities by undermining the social basis of informal safety nets and sharing agreements (Dercon and Krishnan, 2003).

It becomes clear then that, when the benefits of aid are seen to be unfairly distributed, it can damage relations both between and within groups. Yet it is generally accepted that ‘aid agencies target subgroups for good reason’. Indeed, ‘when aid is given without regard for group differences, people with power can use it for their own ends and further disadvantage those without power’ (Anderson, 1999: 46). Political solutions are clearly necessary if community tensions are to be resolved. However, humanitarian relief is increasingly seen by donor governments as an alternative to political engagement.

Aid Substitutes Serious Political Engagement

It is widely recognised that in order to address the underlying roots of any specific conflict effectively, ‘political engagement’ is crucial. However, numerous thinkers have cautioned that emergency relief is being provided by donor governments as a substitute for any serious attempt at tackling political problems.

Faced with images of yet another African crisis, Western publics sometimes demand intervention where there is little incentive for their states to act (Shearer, 2000: 198). Sending emergency aid provides a useful means for Western governments to redefine the crisis as humanitarian whilst leaving the ‘underlying political dilemmas… untouched’. Shearer asserts that the ‘message is simple: give to alleviate the suffering of these people’ (2000: 198). Such analysis has led to concerns that humanitarian aid is ‘serving as a smoke-screen for a policy vacuum in the industrialised countries’ (Hendrickson, 1998: 6). NGOs and aid agencies are expected ‘to undertake the tasks that the international community is unable to fulfil’ (Kaldor, 2006: 129). Humanitarian aid is thus an increasingly significant tool in international relations, which western policymakers resort to supporting and promoting when they are unwilling to politically engage.

However, the restricted mandates and power of humanitarian organisations leave them ‘throwing food at political problems’ (in Prendergast, 1996: 8-9). The Joint Evaluation of Emergency Assistance to Rwanda found that the international community had, ‘in effect, and by default, left both the political and humanitarian problem generated by the Rwanda crisis in the hands of the humanitarian community’. It concludes that, ‘this is untenable. It puts burden on the latter that it cannot and should not assume’ (Eriksson, 1996). Kaldor summarises that ‘in the context of war’, if ‘the local state does not provide the conditions in which alternative politics can develop’ NGOs and aid agencies simply ‘cannot operate’ effectively; the political situation must be addressed (2006: 129). Some academics believe that the internal institutional demands of humanitarian organisations mean that they ‘have been content to accept their newfound importance’ without highlighting their inability to solve the issues at hand (Shearer, 2000: 199). Hendrickson goes further and asserts that aid agencies and NGOs ‘are being co-opted into covering for the absence of political action’. This is a situation which he considers to be ‘especially the case’ regarding ‘those NGOs which are heavily reliant on government sources of funding’ (1998: 7).

Chapter 2 will argue against these claims; humanitarian organisations have sought to address the lack of political engagement in African crises – however, the steps they have taken have not always yielded positive results.

Chapter Two – Embracing Politics: Intending Political Consequences

‘It is impossible to really do no harm’ (Rieff, 2002: 22). Nonetheless, it is clearly in the interests of aid agencies and NGOs to address concerns that their work may have negative political consequences. This is not only so that they can meet their stated humanitarian aims, but because if such a critique were to gain currency with the public, their funding and reputation would be adversely affected. As will be shown, aid agencies and NGOs have therefore sought to dampen fears that aid may do more harm than good.

First, there has been an effort to address technical weaknesses within the relief system and develop measures which minimise the risk of aid having unintended political consequences. Secondly, in response to criticism that aid substitutes political action and exacerbates conflict, many humanitarian organisations have adopted a more explicitly political agenda; namely, they seek to promote peaceful actors through ‘new humanitarianism’. However, it will be argued that sacrificing political neutrality has created its own moral and practical problems.

By showing the steps humanitarian organisations have taken in an effort to minimise aid’s unintended political consequences, and by analysing the practical and moral dilemmas associated with these moves, a framework will be developed through which the impact of humanitarian aid in Darfur can be analysed in the final chapter.
Technical Solutions to the Aid’s Unintended Political Consequences?

Following criticism that aid is often integrated into conflicts, academics and practitioners have sought to address the technical weaknesses within the relief system. However, as will be shown, there is only so much that can be achieved through technical changes.

There is no panacea regarding the establishment of reliable humanitarian access (Weissman, 2004). Negotiated access, whilst not always possible, ‘is the most common vehicle for providing assistance to populations’ (Prendergast, 1996: 63). In theory, humanitarian access to civilians is guaranteed by international law (O’Neill, 1999: 12). However, Anderson writes that if inter-group tensions are not to be exacerbated, ‘for anyone to gain, everyone must gain’ (1999: 47). As such, negotiations must build long-term relationships between all parties; they cannot be purely outcome driven (Toole, 2001: 6). Yet Duffield highlights the dangers of legitimising violent factions in such circumstances; especially because the emphasis on negotiating has seen an ‘unprecedented integration of so-called neutral humanitarian assistance with the dynamics of violence’ (1994: 10). Humanitarian organisations are ‘not…powerful negotiating partner[s]’ (Weissman, 2004); therefore, when negotiations will yield unsatisfactory results, other options must be considered.

Military humanitarianism can have various manifestations (Holt, 2006: 55-56) and is recognised by agencies and NGOs to be playing an increasingly crucial role (in Slim, 1995). However, the political will to support humanitarian operations with military action is often absent and, where it exists, there are numerous practical and moral dilemmas to overcome (Roberts, 1993; Prendergast, 1996: 64-65; Wheeler and Harmer, 2006: 17; Van Brabant, 2001).

In Somalia and, more recently, Afghanistan, utilising commercial channels has been seen as a practical alternative when negotiations have proved fruitless and military options are unviable. It has the advantage that ‘traders assume responsibility for the safe delivery of their own goods’ (CARE USA, 2001: 3). However, merchants are not necessarily politically neutral; they may support or finance certain factions. Furthermore, cartels might ‘try to manipulate markets and bring malnutrition levels up in order to increase the international response, and hence their profits’ (Prendergast, 1996: 68).

If feasible, non-negotiated access across borders (of the type promoted by MSF) can provide a route to vulnerable populations even when governments deny permission. Such strategies were successfully utilised in Ethiopia throughout the 1970s and 1980s (Duffield, 1993: 147). However, Richardson cautions that this approach requires tact if it is not to provoke a negative reaction which jeopardises existing access and security agreements (2002: 81). In sum, without political solutions to instability, agencies and NGOs are limited in their ability to address questions of access.

Responding to the manipulation of population movements has proved another challenge for the humanitarian community. Natsios writes that the first step is to ‘encourage people voluntarily to stay in their villages’ because famine theory ‘shows that when people leave their homes… they die at much higher rates’ (2001). In order to achieve this, local coping mechanisms need to be encouraged and the geography and timing of relief must be carefully considered; aid should be delivered to individual villages before the ‘final stage’ of ‘out-migration’ (Keen and Wilson, 1994: 212-214). This limits many of the problems associated with militias’ integration into large refugee populations and reduces the dependency often inherent within camps. However, when people are moving not in search of food but in search of security, technical solutions alone are again clearly inadequate.

If diversion is to be minimised, the type, timing and quantity of aid is important. Gross Stein observes that ‘NGOs have begun to distinguish types of food aid by their market value. They ask how “lootable” their assistance is’ (2001: 30). For example, because rice was a prime target for diversion in Somalia, NGOs and aid agencies substituted it for (the less marketable) sorghum (Natsios, 1997: 87). Prendergast notes that the timing of aid distribution is also instrumental: ‘when food is delivered during harvest time, communities often have less interest in protecting their rights to the assistance’ (1996: 43). Perhaps most importantly however, accurate needs assessments should be made (Darcy and Hoffman, 2003). The inflation of population figures (which sometimes even stretches to the ‘registering [of] nonexistent villages’) results in excess aid being delivered; this is sold in unofficial economic channels where there is no control over who benefits (de Waal, 1994: 146). Hyndman cautions however, that when conducting headcounts in camps, sensitively must be displayed in order to maintain refugees’ dignity and prevent tensions from erupting (2000: 127).

Whilst the humanitarian community’s efforts at improving their practices are laudable, there is clearly only so much that can be achieved through technical changes to the relief system. Aid’s impact is intimately tied to the political, military and economic dynamics of conflict; the insecurity experienced by civilians in Africa’s new wars does not have technical solutions.

Promoting Peace and Embracing Politics: ‘New Humanitarianism’

The same characteristics of new wars which have left donor states reluctant to engage politically have also caused many aid agencies and NGOs to become uncomfortable with the traditional constraints on their ability to ‘speak out’. The complex manipulation of extremist identity politics, together with the seeming lack of any clear geo-strategic goals, means conflicts are often perceived by western publics and governments as ‘inevitable’, ‘internal’ and ‘tribal’. Simultaneously, the huge numbers of civilian casualties inherent in new wars has left aid agencies and NGOs vociferously demanding political action to stop the crises.

‘Speaking out’ –which might include calling for justice, condemning human rights violations by certain factions, and advocating international humanitarian law– has not always been a policy of the humanitarian community. Indeed, as the ICRC’s controversial silence regarding the Holocaust demonstrates, under the banner of political neutrality ‘humanitarianism can operate… very close to the victims of genocide and yet remain… very far from providing protection for them’ (Slim, 2001: 141). However, in a context ‘where the belligerents refuse to acknowledge the limits of war’ and where political intervention is not forthcoming, ‘many humanitarians are questioning whether they should still respect the condition of non-interference imposed on them’ (Leader, 2000: 13). ‘Neutrality’ has increasingly ‘become a dirty word’ (Slim, 2004: 196). It is seen as morally undesirable (because it denies the space to publicly criticise those committing gross human rights abuses) and impossible to achieve with the limited resources that most organisations have at their disposal (Slim, 2004). Ed Vulliamy argues that ‘to be neutral is to be on the side of the criminal’ (in Fox, 2001: 277). At the very least, it leaves aid agencies and NGOs ‘open to that most shameful moral charge of… being a bystander’; an accusation the ICRC has frequently faced for its inaction concerning the Holocaust (Slim, 2001: 131).

The turn of a new century has witnessed new genocides, albeit in a different context to the mechanised slaughter orchestrated in Nazi Germany. Remaining silent is simply no longer considered an option for many agencies and NGOs when unarmed civilians are being subjected to ethnic cleansing and systematic displacement (Rieff, 2002: 22). No one wants to be a bystander whilst innocents are being killed and less still does anyone want to be accused of fuelling the violence with ‘relief’. It is therefore not simply humanitarian organisations’ rhetoric which has changed; they have sought to ward off the ‘bystander critique’ and react to the charge that they contribute to conflicts by deliberately deploying aid in support of their advocacy work (African Rights, 1994: 6). In other words, aid is being explicitly utilised as a political instrument by humanitarian organisations in an effort to promote long-term goals such as peace and stability (Duffield, 2001: 75). This approach has been termed ‘new humanitarianism’.

By gaining an appreciation of ‘how aid can support peace – or war’ (Anderson, 1999), agencies and NGOs are not only able to take steps to minimise aid’s unintended political consequences, but also to maximise its newly intended political consequences. Anderson argues that the first step is to ‘do no harm’; the ‘capacities for war, sources of tension and dividers’ must be identified so humanitarian organisations can avoid reinforcing them. These include gangs, armies and weapons distribution networks; violent ‘attitudes and actions’; ‘different values and interests’ (especially when defined by identity or location); and different experiences or perceptions of issues (1999: 31-33). Step two ‘involves identifying and assessing connectors and local capacities for peace’ such as trading and communications networks or markets; ‘nonwar’ attitudes and actions; shared values and interests; common experiences; and common symbols and occasions (ibid: 25-31, 71). These can be used by humanitarian organisations as the ‘building blocks of systems… that can ensure stable, peaceful, and just futures’ (ibid: 24). Keen and Wilson explain that if utilised in support of ‘democratic, peaceful elements in society’ aid has the ‘potential to diminish violence’ (1994: 216).

The logic behind new humanitarianism dovetails with studies undertaken by thinkers such as de Waal (2005), Duffield (1991) and Keen (1994) which have demonstrated that, whereas an end to violence has a significant and positive impact, aid plays a relatively marginal role in sustaining people during conflict. De Waal writes that ‘aid rarely accounts for more than 10-15% of the total food consumption in an area stricken by famine, with the consequence that enabling people to help themselves is a far more effective means of overcoming hunger than sending relief’ (African Rights, 1994: 13). Using aid to promote peace and stability, thereby allowing farming and trade to resume, makes sense in light of such findings.

Thus, new humanitarianism appears to be a more effective approach which offers solutions to the failures of the past. Fiona Fox summarises the widely held perception:

‘It is ‘principled’, ‘human rights based’, politically sensitive and geared to strengthening those forces that bring peace and stability to the developing world. It offers humanitarian relief agencies a new moral banner to march behind. It serves to re-legitimise an arena of aid that has been blamed for fuelling conflicts, prolonging wars and standing neutral in the face of genocide, It helps agencies adopt to the New World Order –and the new emergencies– that have emerged from the cold war’ (2001: 275).

As such, new humanitarianism has won ‘widespread application in programmatic work’ (Longley and Maxwell, 2003: 32). However, as will be seen, it has raised its own moral and practical difficulties.

The Dangers of Sacrificing Political Neutrality

The problems associated with aid’s unintended political consequences have been well documented. However, this study will argue that new humanitarianism, which deliberately attempts to deploy aid politically – in support of peace, also raises moral and practical questions for aid agencies and NGOs.

Anderson asserts that ‘too often, when international assistance providers arrive in a conflict area, they are so overwhelmed by the violence that they fail to see or recognise the capacities for peace’ (1999: 23). However, one might question whether humanitarian organisations are capable of deciding ‘who’ or ‘what’ is potentially peaceful and, even if they are capable, what mandate they hold to make these decisions. ‘Economic, political and social forecasting’ is notoriously unreliable; aid agencies and NGOs do not have the ‘benefit of 20:20 future vision’ (Stockton, 1998: 356). Stockton argues that this was demonstrated during the Biafran war, when Oxfam took sides, and predicted an emergency which did not happen (in Fox, 2001: 281). This causes Fox to question ‘whether aid workers should be making important political decisions. Suddenly the unelected, often unaccountable and usually foreign aid workers’ are asked ‘to decide which strategy would best deliver peace and stability’ in the long-term (2001: 281). It also presumes that there will be broad agreement within the humanitarian community with regards to identifying who the peaceful actors are; a task which is far from easy in the context of Africa’s new wars. These problems become even more acute when one makes clear the potential human consequences of Anderson’s guideline that ‘not all capacities in a recipient society are ones we really mean to strengthen’ (1999: 31).

The emphasis placed on promoting peace not war within new humanitarianism, has caused some aid agencies and NGOs to withdraw aid where it is considered to be supporting violent actors and institutions. Following the 1994 Rwandan genocide, a population movement of unprecedented scale occurred as over one million Hutus fled the country in fear of retaliation. The refugee camps in Tanzania and Zaire were widely cited as being controlled by the extremist Hutu regime which had led the genocide. MSF reported:

‘Relief workers are becoming increasingly outraged about being unwilling accomplices to alleged perpetrators of genocide in Rwanda. To work in refugee camps where killers walk around freely, are often in control of the distribution of relief items and where preparations are being made for a new attack, poses a great moral dilemma for relief workers… MSF is forced to consider the question to what extent its humanitarian relief activities are sustainable’ (1994).

Only 5 of the initial 150 NGOs which had sought to help the Rwandan refugees did not leave (Duffield, 2001: 81-82). Taking such an approach is problematic for a number of reasons. Withholding aid on the basis that ‘those in need may be criminals… is the arbitrary application of punishment before trial’. It is ‘ethically and morally indefensible’ to use humanitarian assistance as a ‘substitute for judicial action’ (Stockton, 1998: 354-355). This is especially the case because clearly not all of the Hutu refugees were responsible for genocide; indeed of the 100,000 that are estimated to have died due to cholera and malnutrition in the camps (Oxfam, 2007) over half ‘were children under five, most of whom had never set foot in Rwanda’ (Stockton, 1998: 354). Thus, new humanitarianism’s emphasis on not fuelling conflict, leads to the concept of the ‘undeserving victim’ (ibid: 355). Entire communities become associated with ‘building capacities for war’ merely because of their identity or (often forced) geographic location. This has been seen not only in Rwanda, but also Iraq, Afghanistan and Serbia (Fox, 2001: 282). Stockton writes that ‘it represents an outright rejection of the principles of humanity, impartiality and universalism, fundamental tenets of human rights and humanitarian principles’ (1998: 355).

Speaking in favour of new humanitarianism, Tess Kingham MP, a member of the UK’s International Development Committee has asserted that, despite the human costs associated with withdrawing aid, an emphasis should be placed on ‘the wider good… to actually achieve real stability and development’. She concludes that ‘it may be better to withdraw aid now, to ensure that in the long-term, it is in the best interests of the people’ (in Fox, 2001: 280). However, this attitude buys into the notion that aid drives the agenda of new wars. Whilst it has contributed to violence and should therefore be distributed with care, there is little evidence that simply withdrawing assistance will cause peace and stability (Fox, 2002; 2001; Leader, 2000; Duffield et al. 1999). Indeed, it may even exacerbate the conflict further: Duffield writes that by cutting off aid when people need it most (i.e. when insecurity and instability is rife), new humanitarianism ‘has been a major source of the normalisation of violence’ and suggests ‘complicity with its perpetrators’ (2001: 107). Similarly, Stockton argues that ‘extra-judicial killings and deaths arbitrarily meted out through ‘humanitarian sanctions’ simply serve to reinforce fear, prejudice and to fuel the cycle of violence, revenge and retribution’ (1998: 355).

The denial of aid therefore appears to be ineffective (even detrimental) with regards to ending conflict. By the same token, the prospect of aid supporting long-term peace also seems unlikely within the context of new wars. Macrae writes that ‘complex emergencies are essentially political crises, in which the tactics deployed by warring parties are deliberately designed to negate the opposition’s opportunities for development of any form’ (1998: 29). To expect positive long-term results from humanitarian aid is thus perhaps unrealistic; by its very nature it ‘has a more limited function’ (ibid: 31).

However, the repercussions of new humanitarianism are not limited to recipient communities; there may be serious consequences for aid agencies and NGOs themselves as the humanitarian space is eroded. The desire to speak out and support those who are seen to be peaceful ‘involves taking sides’ (Slim, 2005: 207). When the political neutrality of humanitarian organisations is undermined, they become obvious targets for those they are not supporting –i.e. ‘violent’ actors. Thus a ‘growing pattern’ has emerged whereby humanitarian personnel have been attacked and, in many cases, killed (Wood, 2007). Factions are also less likely to negotiate access and security agreements for civilians if humanitarian organisations are seen to be partial to the other side.

It is for these pragmatic reasons that, despite the many faults associated which so-called ‘political neutrality’, the ICRC (and some others) refuse to adopt new humanitarianism. Sandoz writes, ‘silence has never been set up as a principle by the ICRC. The question has always been considered from the angle of efficiency in achieving the objective set by the principle of humanity’ (in Plattner, 1996). There are simply no easy answers with regards to the effective and principled distribution of humanitarian aid. It is clearly desirable that aid should support peace not war, however implementing this ‘in the field’ has proven ethically controversial and limited in its efficacy. Danish diplomat Sorren Jessen-Peterson came to a similar conclusion with regards to the dilemma agencies and NGOs faced with Rwanda’s Hutu refugees; regardless of the approach taken, it would be ‘lose-lose’ (in Rieff, 1999: 39).

Thus, this study has identified two broad humanitarian approaches, both of which have unintended political consequences. The first is when aid is deployed ‘neutrally’, purely according to human need and humanitarian capabilities. It has been shown that this leaves aid liable to be manipulated as a tool of war by violent factions; it may unwittingly exacerbate the ‘causes’ of war by undermining accountability structures and increasing tensions; and it may substitute serious political engagement. In response to these criticisms, many aid agencies and NGOs have adopted a second approach (new humanitarianism) which is more explicitly political. However, this has raised its own moral and practical problems. When aid is deployed in an effort to support peaceful actors and institutions, humanitarian personnel (who are mandateless, often unaccountable, and sometimes ill-informed) are rendered responsible for judging who is peaceful and who is violent; it risks creating a hierarchy of victims which can leave civilians uncared for; and it may sacrifice life (indeed, legitimise violence) in pursuit of long term goals which there is little evidence to show are achievable. A number of these problems have been seen in Darfur.

Chapter Three: The Politics of Aid in Darfur

Fig. 3.1: Map of Sudan. Darfur is outlined in blue and ‘the South’ is outlined in green. (adapted from UNDPKO, 2006)

Darfur’s New War in Context

The current conflict in Darfur is, in many ways, an archetypal new war. The collapse of state power in the region has seen the emergence of various (relatively weak) violent factions which have manipulated ethnic politics in an effort to achieve hegemony. As such, ‘African’ and ‘Arab’ identities have been constructed and mobilised in opposition to one another, resulting in ethnic cleansing and population displacement on a huge scale.

Whilst Sudan itself is not a failed state, ‘the most basic functions of government’ have been largely absent in Darfur (which is the size of France) since the 1980s (de Waal, 2005: xv). Law and order has ‘collapsed almost entirely’ in a context where the state is unable to monopolise violence and there is little framework for the mediation of disputes (ibid: xv). It is against this background that tensions between Darfur’s Islamic tribes have increased because of competition for ‘fertile land and water’ (ICG, 2004: 4). Although this is a longstanding issue which has intermittently generated conflict ‘for several decades’, desertification and droughts have exacerbated the problem in recent years (HRW, 2004: 7). Broadly speaking, tensions erupt when predominantly Arabic nomadic herders migrate south in search of suitable grazing and clash with agricultural communities (ibid: 7). The nomads have traditionally been armed and supported by the government who have been eager to ensure their backing in other domestic and regional disputes (de Waal, 2005: xvi-xvii; Prunier, 2005: 81-88). HRW reports that this ‘introduction of automatic weapons’ into the region has caused clashes over land rights to become ‘progressively bloodier’ (2004: 7).

Partly in response to the raiding of nomadic militia (known as the Janjaweed), two rebel groups gradually emerged between 2001 and 2003 (Flint and de Waal, 2005: 76). The Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA) sought to defend the agricultural communities of southern Darfur from increasingly indiscriminate attacks (HRW, 2004: 8-9; ICG, 2004: 20). However, their formation was not simply a product of historical tensions over land rights.

Following international pressure, serious negotiations had begun in 2002 in an effort to resolve the 20 year long ‘north/south’ war, which had been fought between the Arabic government and the Christian ‘Sudan People’s Liberation Army’ (SPLA) in ten southern states (see figure 1). Khartoum and the SPLA were on the verge of signing the Naivasha peace accords which would lead to the formation of a ‘National Unity Government’. Non-Arabic Darfurians feared that they would be marginalised in the process; thus the formation of JEM and the SLA can also be seen as an effort to secure a greater share of power and wealth in the restructured Sudanese political system (ICG, 2004: ii). The government, having already made concessions to the Christian South, was eager not to lose yet more power in Darfur.

On April 25th 2003 the rebels launched a major attack on a military airbase in Al Fasher, Northern Darfur (see figure 1). Numerous bombers and helicopter gunships were destroyed and over 100 troops, pilots and technicians were killed or captured. Flint and de Waal conclude that ‘the armed forces had been humiliated’ (2005: 99-100). In July, the government responded ‘with heavy bombing by Anatov aircraft plus ground offensives by government troops’ (HRW, 2004: 9); however, the Sudanese forces were ‘unfamiliar’ with the ‘lightning attacks’ of the SLA who ‘were running rings around the army’. Khartoum therefore unleashed the Janjaweed, buying their support with cash, weapons and the promise of development projects (Flint and de Waal, 2005: 100-103; de Waal, 2004).

In the knowledge that international censure would not be forthcoming for fear of upsetting the delicate north/south negotiations, the government used a break in the peace talks to launch a ‘massive military offensive in Darfur’ (ICG, 2004: 2; also Keen and Lee, 2007: s15). Mobilising 20,000 armed Janjaweed as well as conventional forces, they sought to control territory by destroying ‘the support base of the rebels’ (HRW, 2004: 15, 22). This has been achieved by implementing ‘a strategy of ethnic based murder, rape and forcible displacement’ which has resulted in over 2.5 million civilians fleeing their homes (ibid: 1). Prunier writes that this is ‘not an attempt to kill everybody; rather… [it is] aimed at terrorizing and displacing the population’ (2005: 102).

Thus, the ‘nature of the conflict’ has shifted substantially. Whilst its beginnings were rooted in localised clashes over land access and the political demands of marginalised communities, ‘government weakness and manipulation of the ethnic fabric of the region’ mean that ethnicity is now the ‘major mobilising factor’ (ICG, 2004: 5; also Prunier, 2005: 100). As raids by the government-sponsored ‘Arabic’ Janjaweed have intensified, so ‘the communities under attack… have begun to identify themselves as African’ or ‘black’ (HRW, 2004: 6). Some fear that inter-ethnic tensions will be present for decades to come (Flint and de Waal, 2005: 102); already ‘tribal fighting is killing more than clashes between government forces and rebels’ and a ‘bloody free-for-all’ has erupted in some areas (Georgy, 2007; also OCHA, 2007a). The signing of a peace agreement in 2006 has ‘widely been accepted as an abject failure’ and the ‘insurgency has grown more fragmented and dispersed’ (BBC, 2007a). ‘Darfur now resembles Somalia – with warlords recruiting private militias to extort money, wield power and terrorise civilians’ (BBC, 2006). The Sudanese government remains resistant to allowing more AU or UN troops into the region, and ‘about 2 million’ civilians are ‘fully dependent’ on aid (BBC, 2007b). There is little sign of an end to the conflict; indeed there is concern that, even should Khartoum seriously engage in negotiations, it no longer has control over the Janjaweed (HRW, 2004: 42). Meanwhile, the fragmentation of JEM and the SLA, together with an upsurge in banditry, means that identifying and communicating with rebel leaders is becoming increasingly difficult (Georgy, 2007).

Within this context, highlighting the ‘political consequences’ of aid may appear to be somewhat missing the point; the humanitarian assistance in Darfur is essential. Without it, hundreds of thousands –possibly millions– of people would die. However, as the Rwandan experience has shown, that aid is necessary does not negate the possibility that it may have serious unintended political consequences. Therefore, without denying the crucial nature of humanitarian assistance in Darfur, this study seeks to reveal some of the political consequences that it may be having.

Aid as a Tool of War in Darfur?

Aid has been utilised as a tool of war in Darfur in at least two ways. First, the government and Janjaweed have limited humanitarian access to ‘rebel’ populations; and secondly, IDP camps have become integrated into the conflict dynamic through the manipulation of population movements. There is also some evidence that diversion is on the rise due to instability associated with the factionalisation of the conflict. However, the scale and consequences of this are currently unclear.

The denial of humanitarian access in Darfur is a significant problem. At the height of its military offensive against the rebels in late 2003, ‘the Sudanese government almost entirely obstructed international humanitarian assistance to displaced civilians’ (HRW, 2004: 33). Between February 2004 and July 2005 coverage notably improved following international pressure; however, the situation deteriorated significantly over the following 6 months (BBC, 2004a; OCHA, 2005,a,b,c,d,e). By January 2006 the UN had access to less than 40 percent of the population of West Darfur (HRW, 2006: 9). Recent humanitarian access maps (see figure 2) ‘shows Darfur-wide access is about 64%’ (OCHA, 2007). This has caused aid agencies and NGOs to warn that humanitarian operations are ‘on [the] brink of collapse’ (BBC, 2007c). It is estimated that ‘more than 900,000 people are living or hiding’ in areas that are cut off from help (Polgreen, 2007). As yet it is unknown whether a new agreement signed between the UN and Khartoum on March 28th will yield more reliable access to the region’s 2 million type=”#_x0000_t75″ style=’position:absolute;left:0;text-align:left;
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<!–[if !vml]–><!–[endif]–>IDPs (Reuters, 2007).

The government has deliberately limited aid flows into Darfur to weaken the rebels’ support base – i.e. the ‘black’ population. This has been achieved through delaying tactics and threats and violence. Natsios claims that ‘onerous bureaucratic requirements’ on humanitarian actors are ‘paralysing the relief effort’ (BBC, 2007b). The process begins long before aid or personnel have even reached Sudan, with visas and the necessary paperwork difficult to obtain. Once in the country, aid is often impounded in customs for long periods and internal-visas for travel to Darfur are sometimes withheld for months on end (MSF, 2004a). As the new UN undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs recently found, even when access has been ‘assured’ by the government, soldiers often turn humanitarian personnel away at road blocks (BBC, 2007d). Agencies and NGOs which have established themselves in the region are also liable to be expelled without any reason or justification (HRW, 2006: 19; OCHA). Although Khartoum has sometimes ‘cited insecurity as the rationale’ for such actions, evidence on the ground suggests a strategy aimed at ‘further weaken[ing] potential civilian support for the SLA by rendering the entire Fur, Masaalit, and Zaghawa populations destitute’ (HRW, 2004: 34). The government strategy has resulted in ‘blanket denial [of aid] to all rebel-held areas’ (Vraalsen in Prunier, 2005: 131-132; also Minear, 2005: 97-98). HRW has noted that even when bureaucratic difficulties subside, they are ‘balanced by a new policy of increased harassment and intimidation of aid workers’ (2006: 16).

Violence is used in Darfur both to physically prevent humanitarian operations and, in tandem with threats and intimidation, to pressure agencies and NGOs into leaving. (HRW, 2006: 3; Broughten and Maguire, 2006: 26). The government frequently arrests humanitarian workers when they are travelling to and from rebel-held territory; ‘at least twenty’ personnel from various agencies and NGOs were detained in one 5 month period alone during 2005 (HRW, 2006: 17). Humanitarian organisations and their staff are also increasingly targeted by violent factions (HRF, 2007). The second half of 2006 saw 30 direct attacks on compounds, 12 aid workers killed (a further 5 remain missing) and over 500 personnel relocated due to insecurity (Sudan Tribune, 2007; OCHA, 2007b: 5; HRW, 2007). Whilst many of the attacks can doubtless be attributed to generalised instability in the region, HRW has noted specific incidents where the Janjaweed have attacked convoys to block ‘relief going to civilians in rebel-controlled areas’ (2006: 17). The government’s actions are widely recognised as a deliberate strategy to prevent aid flows into Darfur, and especially into those areas where the SLA are known to be operating.

With 2 million people reliant on aid in Darfur, it is almost inconceivable that the restriction of humanitarian access to the ‘black’ population will not have political consequences. Whilst insecurity is the primary concern for most civilians, Broughten and Maguire have observed notable increases in population movements to feeding centres and camps after aid access to remote communities has been disrupted by government and/or Janjaweed forces (2006: 3, 26). It is worth recalling at this point, that people are more likely to die if they leave their homes (Natsios, 2001). Simultaneously, ‘the government is directing food into urban areas, so that people are drawn out of the countryside’ (Refugees International, 2004; also NRC, 2005: 61). As will be shown, manipulating population movements into centralised IDP camps and urban areas potentially benefits pro-government forces in a number of ways, altering the politico-military dynamic of the conflict in the process.

Prunier reports that, ‘in practice’, increased ‘humanitarian access to many of the IDP camps’ does not necessarily constitute a significantly positive development (2005: 135). He quotes an MSF press release which states: ‘The same militias who carried out the initial attacks [forcing the villagers to flee] now control the camp’s periphery, virtually imprisoning the people who live in constant fear’ (ibid: 136). The rape of women, children and men on the outskirts of camps has become ‘very common’ (MSF, 2005; also BBC, 2006) and there is the constant risk of government and Janjaweed raids (Wax, 2004). Aid agencies and NGOs face a dilemma: ‘keeping the camps where they [are] or dispersing the populations’. Prunier asserts that the first option is ‘bad and the other worse’. The government, ‘fully aware’ of this situation, has changed its tactics ‘from a massive murder campaign to random harassment’ of IDP settlements, humanitarian workers and rebels (2005: 136; also Marshall 2007).

By generating a climate of fear and insecurity around IDP camps, pro-government forces are able to ‘keep the refugee populations penned up… making their survival very difficult without full humanitarian support’ (Prunier, 2005: 137). Thus the government is able to maintain an emergency in Darfur ‘on the cheap’ (De Waal, 2004). This is to the political and economic advantage of elites in Khartoum, who have ‘massive financial interests’ in oil, construction and the service sector (as well as in the relief operation itself), and who do not wish to share revenues with Darfurians (Vaux, 2006: 67; Keen and Lee, 2007: s16). Furthermore, in centralised IDP settlements, ‘rebel’ populations are ‘more easily managed by government troops’ (Refugees International, 2004). By preventing civilians from utilising local coping mechanisms and by forcing their dependency on aid, the government is able to maintain political and military control over vulnerable populations and their territory. Simultaneously, rebels are ‘overloaded with their own IDPs, thereby losing some of their combat effectiveness’ and the ‘humanitarian ship’ has come ‘dangerously’ close to capsizing (Prunier, 2005: 137). In this way the humanitarian response appears to have become integrated into the political and military dynamic. Pro-government forces have used aid to manipulate population movements, and then changed their tactics accordingly to maintain control over vulnerable IDPs in government territory. Of course, this is not to say that alternative approaches to the relief operation would necessarily yield better results.

There are numerous accounts of aid being diverted and of ‘the humanitarian infrastructure’ being hijacked in Darfur. However, the scale of these problems is difficult to uncover and, due to the increasingly factionalised nature of the conflict, it is often unclear who benefits from the stolen resources.

In January 2006 the UN OCHA reported that, ‘despite the prevailing insecurity, losses due to banditry only amounted to 0.2%’; a remarkably low figure compared to previous experiences in the Horn of Africa (OCHA, 2006). However, throughout the following year, a more sobering picture has emerged. The October report noted that ‘between July and September, 21 humanitarian vehicles [were] hijacked and 31 convoys ambushed and looted’ (2006a). A more recent update (January 2007) has warned of an ‘intolerably high incidence of increasingly violent hijackings’ which has seen ‘50 humanitarian vehicles… hijacked and 17 convoys looted’ in just 3 months (OCHA, 2007a: 4-5). The frequency and scale of the problem has left the UN to conclude that rebel groups are attacking and looting convoys as a deliberate policy which has been ‘approved by [their] leadership’. There are also several ‘reliable reports that the vehicles are taken with the aim of converting them into battlefield platforms’ (UNSC, 2005: 2; also OCHA, 2007b: 5). As the SLA and JEM have split into separate factions, humanitarian organisations have been increasingly targeted because new rebel groups require vehicles and supplies to build their legitimacy and operating capabilities (Georgy, 2007; Marshall, 2007).

Aid programme evaluations have also noted that high value goods are sometimes stolen by guards (Minear, 2005: 104) and ‘reports of manipulation by sheikh cartels’ are ‘widespread’ (Young, 2007: s50). Inaccurate assessments, which in some cases have overestimated camp population numbers by 100%, render the concept of targeting ‘meaningless’ and increase the likelihood of diversion (Wilding and Capdegelle, 2006: 7; also Broughton and Maguire, 2006: 36). Young summarises that:

‘…there [are] recorded examples of food aid abuse and organized misappropriation of food aid on a scale that [goes] beyond individual cases of theft… but how far these [are] linked with emerging local war economies, cross-border trade and the interests of the various combatant groups, including bandits, is far from known’ (2007: s51).

Thus, there appears to be a broad consensus that, to some extent, humanitarian resources and infrastructure have been diverted into the conflict dynamic, but the political consequences of this are unclear. However, some agency and NGO self-evaluations (as well as some ‘independent’ evaluations) maintain that aid has been delivered ‘without political manipulation, hoarding or diversion’ (Hamid and Salih, 2005: 37; also Wilding and Capdegelle, 2006: 8). Whilst this study is unable to conclude definitively that aid’s use as ‘tool of war’ has had significant political consequences in Darfur, humanitarian organisations would be well advised to exercise caution in light of other relief operations in Sudan and the Horn of Africa more generally (Jaspars, 2000; Minear, 2005: 105).

New Humanitarianism: Exacerbating Problems in Darfur?

The international community has ‘conspicuously failed’ to halt the Sudanese Government’s ‘systematic campaign of atrocities in Darfur’ (Grono, 2006: 621). Speaking on the BBC’s Panorama, Kofi Annan has declared that the political response is likely to be judged ‘hesitant [and] uncaring’. He concludes ‘we have learnt nothing from Rwanda’ (BBC, 2005). Instead, many believe the international community has stuck ‘humanitarian Band-Aids over gaping human rights wounds… world leaders cite the millions of dollars in food aid they are sending to exonerate themselves’ for their failure to take the necessary political action (Cheadle and Prendergast, 2005; also Minear, 2005: 101). Indeed, there is concern that the humanitarian effort is not only substituting effective political engagement, but exacerbating the conflict. One aid worker has commented:

‘The UN needs a reality check in Darfur. We’re keeping 3 million people alive artificially so there is no incentive for a peace agreement. We’re perpetuating the conflict… If the violence lessens, it’s because there are not many villages left to burn’ (in Mowjee, 2006: 18)

In this context, Mowjee reports that ‘the issue of taking a political stance has been… acute for aid agencies’ and international NGOs (2006: 18). Sensitive to the accusation that aid is substituting political action, humanitarian organisations have sought to ‘speak out’, advocating political (and often military) measures to protect Darfur’s civilians. Simultaneously, eager to ‘do no harm’, care has been taken to avoid delivering aid which might reinforce warring parties, specifically the Janjaweed. As will be shown, this has raised a number of problems typically associated with ‘new humanitarianism’.

It is ‘widely recognised’ that Darfur is a ‘crisis of protection rather than a simple assistance crisis’ (Mowjee, 2006: 18). However, by promoting the rights of communities which have been targeted by the government, aid agencies and NGOs are inevitably perceived to be acting politically. As Pantuliano and O’Callaghan observe, ‘any advocacy on the conflict in Darfur’ challenges the Sudanese government’s line that the situation is a minor and internal issue. In speaking out against the government and the Janjaweed, aid agencies and NGOs appear to have solidarity with the ‘black’ population and rebel groups (2006: 21-22). This is especially the case when they call for military intervention, something which the government is determined to prevent, and which the rebels desire (BBC, 2007a). Those organisations that ‘publicly advocate on the behalf of civilians’ have thus been targeted by the government and Janjaweed, who use violent attacks, intimidation and threats of expulsion to discourage them from exposing human rights abuses (HRW, 2006: 16; also BBC, 2005). One aid worker laments: ‘I don’t know how we are going to protect humanitarian space if we’re party to the conflict’ (in Mowjee, 2006: 19).

The distrust of aid agencies and NGOs is amplified because ‘black’ populations receive a disproportionate amount of aid compared to Arab communities. Young writes that ‘certain groups (particularly rural and Arab groups) did not receive any international assistance until 2005. Thus it was not entirely surprising when in late 2004 humanitarian convoys of food aid started to be targeted on route to their destinations in Darfur’ (2007: 251). A perception of unbalanced aid provisioning is not only negative in terms of maintaining a neutral ‘humanitarian space’ however; it may also have disastrous consequences for inter-tribal relations.

In their evaluation of the Darfur response for the UK Disasters and Emergency Committee, Wilding and Capdegelle remind NGOs that ‘not all Arabs are Janjaweed aggressors’ (2006: 10). It appears that a hierarchy of victims has emerged in Darfur ‘because the aid groups [have] tended to equate [Arabs] with the Janjaweed’ (McCrummen, 2007: 8). Thus Flint writes that Arab nomads ‘have been collectively stigmatized for the crimes of the Janjaweed and their suffering has been ignored’ (2006). As will be shown, this is a situation that ‘will almost certainly inflame tensions’ (Young et. al., 2005: 32).

Whilst for some of the Arabic militia ‘Islamic fundamentalism and Arab supremacy’ motivates their actions in Darfur, for many ‘it is a livelihood choice – a coping mechanism carried to genocidal extremes’ (Flint, 2006). They side with the government ‘because they feel they have no security’ (in McCrummen, 2007: 8). As Flint observes, ‘the Abbala, the camel nomads of North Darfur, have always been the most vulnerable, the most neglected, of the region’s many communities. So it is no coincidence that the hard core of today’s Janjaweed militias… come from their ranks’ (2006).

However, rather than addressing the concerns of Darfur’s Arab nomads, if anything, recent ‘peace’ talks and the international relief effort may have actually reinforced their insecurity. Sanders reports that, having been left out of negotiations between the Government and rebel groups, the Janjaweed ‘are starting to panic’ about their role in ‘Darfur’s political future’. This has increased inter-tribal conflict over land and resources, which nomads had been promised by the government, but now fear they will not receive (2007). The stakes are high, because the conflict has left many nomadic tribes destitute, having ‘cut off traditional migration routes… [and] disrupted the once-lucrative camel trade’ (McCrummen, 2007: 8). Tensions are therefore not merely erupting between ‘Arabs’ and ‘blacks’, nomads and agriculturalists, but between all of the various tribes. ‘Inter-Arab clashes’ are thought to ‘have killed nearly 200 people in southern Darfur’ since the turn of the year and ‘thousands of Arabs have been forced into makeshift displacement camps’ (Sanders, 2007). Rather than providing aid for Arab tribes, agencies and NGOs have left them ‘at the back of the queue for relief… they are usually considered last and receive less than their fair share’ (Young et al, 2005: 46). Wilding and Capdegelle conclude that ‘this can only have very negative medium and long-term impacts in terms of peace and reconciliation’ (2006: 10). Not only is an unbalanced humanitarian response likely to fuel resentment between communities, but in the absence of outside help, Arab nomads may believe they have no choice but to fight for their survival.

In sum, it appears that the advocacy work of aid agencies and NGOs in Darfur has resulted in the ‘humanitarian space’ shrinking; they have been the subject of threats, harassment, and violent attacks for exposing human rights abuses and calling for intervention. More worryingly perhaps, in their attempt to deploy aid without feeding the armed factions whom they have publicly condemned as responsible for the atrocities, aid agencies and NGOs seem to have created a hierarchy of victims. This may exacerbate tensions further by raising the stakes for destitute communities which are receiving no help, and by increasing resentment between tribes.


Previous experience in Africa’s ‘new wars’ demonstrates that aid has the potential to have unintended political consequences: it can be used as a tool of war; exacerbate the ‘causes’ of war; and substitute serious political engagement. Furthermore, ‘new humanitarianism’, which it was hoped would overcome these problems, has created its own practical and moral difficulties.

The situation in Darfur is, in many ways, a recipe for aid to ‘go wrong’. Instability has rendered –the already limited– land and water resources difficult to exploit, meaning millions of people are dependent on ‘outside’ assistance. Within this context, populations are vulnerable; they are in the hands of those who control humanitarian access. Simultaneously, the mobilisation of ethnic politics leaves aid especially liable to aggravate tensions between communities if it is perceived to be distributed unfairly. Meanwhile, the increasing breakdown of security in the region means delivering aid is an expensive and difficult process. Reaching rural communities is fraught with danger; ensuring aid does not get into the ‘wrong’ hands is very difficult; and securing IDP camps is near impossible.

It is perhaps not surprising then that aid should have had unintended political consequences in Darfur. The denial of humanitarian access to ‘rebel’ populations has been a high-profile problem: both the government and Janjaweed militia have deliberately prevented agencies and NGOs from working in rebel-held areas so as to weaken their civilian support base. Predictably, people who have been forced to leave their villages have tended to move to centralised IDP or refugee camps where humanitarian aid is more reliably available. There is some evidence that the government is deliberately manipulating this dynamic in order to move people into territory which it controls. Thus, pro-government forces are able to contain vulnerable and compliant ‘rebel’ populations through a campaign of harassment and terrorisation of the IDP settlements. Some aid workers have even suggested that, as a result of this process, the humanitarian effort is ‘perpetuating the conflict’ (in Mowjee, 2006: 18). A further concern is that humanitarian resources and ‘infrastructure’ are being diverted to fuel military factions. Whilst reports are sometimes contradictory and the extent of the problem is difficult to uncover, rebel groups have stolen vehicles and hijacked convoys. This is occurring on a scale which suggests an organised and deliberate policy rather than isolated incidents of theft.

The international community’s political engagement with the Darfur crisis has been conspicuous in its absence; many commentators warn that humanitarian aid is being used as a smoke-screen for donor-states’ inaction. Aid agencies and NGOs, keen to see an end to the crisis, have been advocating on behalf of ‘peaceful’ elements in society. Many have called for an effective political (and in some cases, military) response to the atrocities seen in the region. This appears to have contributed to the high levels of violence and intimidation towards humanitarian organisations, something which, in its extreme, has critically undermined the ‘humanitarian space’ and made operations untenable. However, one must be careful not to assume a simple causal relationship between advocacy-work and attacks on aid agencies and NGOs, as even the ‘neutral’ ICRC has been targeted (HRW, 2006: 9).

What does seem relatively clear is that in their attempt to deploy aid in support of their advocacy work (i.e. by doing no harm and only helping ‘peaceful’ actors) humanitarian organisations have created a hierarchy of victims. Aside from the ethical problems associated with denying aid on the basis that an individual might be violent, the policy has rendered entire communities ‘undeserving’ by association. Thus, whilst just 10-20 percent of Arabs are estimated to have taken part in the government-led attacks, the entire population has been largely ignored by aid agencies and NGOs (Sanders, 2007). This is likely to have disastrous human consequences; some reports suggest 20 percent of Darfur’s Arabs have already died (Flint, 2006). However, because the suffering of Arab communities receives relatively little academic, practical or media attention, it is difficult to uncover the scale of their plight.

The creation of a hierarchy of victims is also likely to exacerbate tensions between the region’s tribes. Arab communities were already among the poorest in Darfur before the conflict began and numerous thinkers suggest this deprivation was part of their motivation to fight. Their situation is now, by many accounts, more insecure than ever. That aid agencies and NGOs have neglected to help them, may lead Arab tribes to conclude that they have little choice but to continue fighting. Furthermore, the creation of a hierarchy of blacks over Arabs is likely to foster resentment between communities and hamper efforts at reconciliation in the long-term.

Thus, this study has identified numerous ways in which aid appears to be having political consequences in Darfur. However, further research is essential in order to determine how widespread these problems are, and the extent to which they are affecting the course of the conflict. 

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Written by: Adam Groves
Written at: Aberystwyth University
Date Written: 2007

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