NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – As a senior United Nations official in Afghanistan during the 2001 invasion, Antonio Donini saw firsthand the damage done as a result of humanitarians allying themselves with warring parties.
There is a risk of the same mistakes being made in Somalia, he said, as the West throws itself wholeheartedly behind the new government.
Donini was speaking in Nairobi at the launch of his book, “The Golden Fleece: Manipulation and Independence in Humanitarian Action”, which focuses on the manipulation of humanitarian aid to achieve political, military and other objectives.
What mistakes did the humanitarian community make in Afghanistan?
After the demise of the Taliban regime [in 2001], the international community decided that the war was over, that a legitimate regime had been built around [President Hamid] Karzai.
There was a lot of pressure by donors for NGOs and the U.N. to work with this government and to work to support the government. You know: ‘The war is over. We are in a post- conflict situation. We don’t need the humanitarian principled approach any more.’
We told ourselves that the conflict was over. But of course, the conflict didn’t go away.
The war escalated, but the aid system got stuck in supporting the government. Many NGOs were double hatted, dual mandated – doing some humanitarian relief and some development work.
The U.N. was perceived as having taken sides, as being joined at the hip with the military intervention.
What parallels do you see with Somalia today?
There is a risk that the story telling in the case of Somalia might be similar. I think we should be wary of being carried away by rhetoric as was the case in Afghanistan - the rhetoric of post conflict - when in reality conditions for the continuation of conflict were very present on the ground.
You will potentially see some of the same pathologies: the subordination of the humanitarian agenda, the protection agenda, the human rights agenda even, to political objectives.
In a real post-conflict situation, it’s okay for all the arms of the international community to work together. But in a situation like Afghanistan or Somalia, where there’s an active conflict, I think it makes sense to keep the humanitarian people separate from the political agenda as much as possible.
They have to address need wherever it is and try to negotiate access with whoever’s on the ground. If you are seen as being part of a political mission that’s based in one part of the country, you will be seen as having taken sides.
As head of the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Afghanistan, were you free to work according to humanitarian principles?
We were told we must not do anything to rock the boat, that might derail the peace process and the support that we were providing to the Afghan government.
Violations were occurring. Groups were being victimised. Forced recruitment was happening in some of the militias. And we were told: ‘No, don’t raise these issues. Now is not the time.’
Why were humanitarians so blind in Afghanistan?
I think they were blinded by the perspective that peace was finally going to come to Afghanistan after 30 years of war.
With all the money coming in – and of course money orients you in certain directions –there were very few agencies who said: ‘We are not going to work with belligerents. And all the main donors, except Switzerland, are belligerents in Afghanistan.’
So very few agencies were able to maintain some kind of ethical humanitarian position in a situation where there was an enormous pressure to be part of this peacemaking agenda.
What should they have said?
It was a victors’ peace. It was bringing back the warlords that were despised by the Afghan population and that had been expelled from power by the Taliban.
Very few voices actually spoke out to say that: ‘This is an agreement among victors. The Taliban are not part of the deal.’
Issues about justice were never put on the agenda. There was no provision in the peace deal to address the violations of the past.
I think we made a bad situation worse by this perceived – and real – alignment of NGOs with their donors and the political agendas of donors.