Jeremy Konyndyk is a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development and teaches humanitarian field operations at Georgetown University. He served from 2013 to 2017 as the Obama administration’s director for foreign disaster assistance at USAID.
Relief trucks on fire. Aid volunteers and protesters tear-gassed and shot. Humanitarian supplies stuck outside the country while politicians fight. These scenes from last weekend’s disastrous aid standoff on Venezuela’s borders with Colombia and Brazil reflect the pitfalls that inevitably emerge when relief aid is conflated with power politics. In a moment of devastating humanitarian suffering in Venezuela, the first step toward helping people must now be to urgently depoliticize the relief effort.
This is not just a matter of doing what’s right — it is a matter of doing what works.
From the birth of the Red Cross movement on the 19th-century battlefield of Solferino to more recent relief operations in Darfur or Syria, the effectiveness of humanitarian action in politically contested environments has always hinged on separating lifesaving aid from wider power struggles.
This is not necessarily easy: Aid can confer power, and political leaders inevitably try to align that power with their own aims. In Venezuela, National Assembly leader Juan Guaidó wants to harness it to advance his claim to stewardship of the country. For embattled President Nicolás Maduro, whose own mismanagement of the country has driven the economy to ruin, accepting aid would be an acknowledgment that his regime cannot satisfy people’s basic needs.
Yet this is precisely why depoliticizing the aid operation is so urgent. As long as aid delivery is seen by both sides as a proxy for their own political objectives, relief operations will remain blocked. Heated rhetoric linking the international aid effort to political support for Guaidó — amid U.S. government saber-rattling — no doubt confirms to Maduro and his international backers that humanitarian aid is a stalking horse for regime change. This will hardly make him more inclined to accept it.
Conditions in Venezuela are beyond urgent. The national health system has collapsed to such a degree that parents must scour empty pharmacy shelves, black-market suppliers and WhatsApp groups to find basic medicines for sick children. Hunger is reaching such extreme levels that only 1 in 10 people is consuming enough food, and severe malnutrition is spreading. Not surprisingly, this has driven more than 3 million Venezuelans to flee the country.
The well-being of millions of Venezuelans depends on credibly distancing the aid operation from either side’s immediate political aims. Instead of high-profile confrontations over aid deliveries, focus must shift toward the painstaking work of negotiating neutral humanitarian access. Securing an import license for a U.N. agency or a registration document for a nongovernmental organization makes far less of a splash than flying American aid shipments in on military aircraft — but it makes a far greater difference. While this approach is frustrating and often imperfect, it does have the virtue of being better than any of the available alternatives, as last weekend vividly demonstrated.
There are several immediate priorities.
First, the United States should explicitly commit to impartial aid and stop tying the relief effort to its political aims. This does not mean abandoning Guaidó or accepting Maduro. But it does mean the United States and regional partners must walk and chew gum at the same time: pursuing political and humanitarian aims as distinct tracks and objectives, while dialing back their overheated rhetoric casting aid as a political tool.
Second, to depoliticize aid deliveries, the United States and other donors should cede leadership of the relief effort to more neutral players such as the U.N., the Red Cross and NGOs. This will require the Trump administration to look past its frequent antipathy toward the U.N. In 2015, the U.N. played a similar neutral-facilitator role when Iran sought to use aid shipments to undermine the controversial Saudi blockade of Yemen, prompting threats of Saudi retaliation.
The U.N. stepped in with an offer to receive, verify and deliver aid; this arrangement later expanded to verifying commercial imports as well. This called the bluff in both directions — the Saudis could not justify blocking U.N.-verified shipments, and the Iranians could no longer use aid shipments as cover to provoke them. This approach didn’t resolve every aid obstacle in Yemen; but it did preserve space for aid and food to continue flowing.
Finally, the U.N. should ambitiously scale up its relief efforts and push back on the Maduro regime’s denial of the crisis. Continuing the U.N.’s heretofore low-profile approach will leave a vacuum that further feeds the politicization cycle. Secretary General António Guterres could appoint a high-profile humanitarian envoy to immediately engage with the Maduro regime, the opposition, the United States and other regional players to begin objectively assessing needs and negotiating an aid access mechanism. This arrangement should be free of manipulation and rely on local Venezuelan voluntary organizations in partnership with international relief agencies. The U.N. should also trigger a surge of humanitarian personnel toward the country and launch a robust public appeal for funding.
It is still possible that Maduro would refuse all of this. But putting a U.S. government (and military) face on the aid operation all but ensures his refusal to cooperate. A credible and neutral U.N.-brokered aid operation might not advance anyone’s political objectives, but it does stand the best chance of actually saving the lives of suffering Venezuelans.