Report: U.S. Uses Aid to Promote Non-Humanitarian Goals

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By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 19, 2008; 2:04 PM

UNITED NATIONS, Nov. 19--The United States, the world's largest international aid donor, is among the worst at promoting the independence, impartiality and neutrality of humanitarian aid deliveries to needy populations, according to a survey by a Madrid-based nonprofit group that monitors donors' performance.

The Development Assistance Research Associates (DARA) Humanitarian Response Index 2008 measures how effectively the world's 23 largest donors deliver aid. The United States ranked 15th in overall effectiveness and only 13th in the level of generosity measured by the size of its economy.

But it ranked near the bottom, 22nd, when it came to adherence to principles and guidelines established by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to ensure that political considerations don't exclude worthy recipients of aid.

DARA's findings reflect what it called the United States' use of humanitarian assistance to achieve military or political goals in eight crisis zones the group studied, including Afghanistan, Colombia and the Palestinian territories.

The "assessment challenges the view of the United States, deeply embedded in the American psyche and regularly reinforced in the rhetoric of public officials, as the world's pre-eminent humanitarian actor, the paragon of global compassion," Larry Minear, a retired professor at Tufts University, wrote in the report.

Silvia Hidalgo, DARA's executive director and co-founder, urged President-elect Barack Obama to improve the U.S. approach. "American leadership in the field of humanitarian relief would improve the perception that people around the world have of the United States and would also inspire other donor countries to do their best on behalf of the world's least fortunate," Hidalgo said.

DARA's survey is based on interviews with more than 350 humanitarian aid agencies in 11 crisis areas -- Afghanistan, Bangladesh, the Central African Republic, Chad, Colombia, Congo,Nicaragua, the occupied Palestinian territories, Peru, Sri Lanka and Sudan. Sweden, Norway and Denmark were the highest performers, while France, Austria, Italy, Portugal, and Greece received the lowest marks.

The findings echo concerns by humanitarian aid workers that American strategy subordinates humanitarian considerations to the need to achieve military objectives. During the past decade, the Pentagon's share of the U.S. overseas development assistance budget has grown from 3.5 percent to 18 percent, said George Rupp, the president of the International Rescue Committee.

For instance, the United States and its NATO partners channel much of their aid dollars in Afghanistan through Provincial Reconstruction Teams(PRTs), military groups that oversee military and civilian activities in the country's conflict zones. The report said that placing NATO forces in charge of some relief and development operations has "blurred" the line between civilian and military activities, threatening to expose humanitarian aid workers to attacks by Taliban militants.

The United States and other aid donors say that it is essential to use humanitarian assistance to win over the hearts and minds of the population. They have criticized DARA's index, saying it relies too heavily on the perceptions of aid workers in the field. A call to the U.S. mission at the United Nations was not immediately returned.

Rupp said his organization has refused to participate in the PRT program in Afghanistan because it "decreases the security of our humanitarian workers on the ground." Rupp said his organization delivered assistance in the Afghan town of Gardez for more than 15 years without incident. But he said locals began to "call into question our impartiality" when they saw NATO military vehicles and soldiers distributing aid and rebuilding schools in the area.

Rupp said his organization also has declined U.S. funding in Colombia because it was channeled through an anti-narcotics programs that would have made it difficult to "observe our principle of impartiality. It puts you so clearly on one side of the divide," he said.


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