LONDON (AlertNet) - Humanitarian aid sometimes does harm and it will take a combined effort by aid professionals, politicians, academics and the media to change that, experts say.
Humanitarian principles and the reality of delivering aid in poor and often lawless environments create real dilemmas for relief workers, difficulties discussed in two recently published books, "War Games: The Story of Aid and War in Modern Times" by journalist Linda Polman and "The Thin Blue Line: How Humanitarianism Went to War" by aid worker Conor Foley.
"Armies, rebels and militias steal food supplies from warehouses or from international aid convoys and either consume them or sell them to top up their war chests," Polman wrote in her book, a searing account of all things wrong with humanitarian aid as it stands.
"On balance, bringing food aid to a war zone can amount to a form of arms delivery," she added.
Withholding aid in war zones altogether, however, is a highly controversial option, Foley said, speaking this week at a debate in London centred around the two books.
"The idea that if you give aid to people ... some of it is going to be misused is undeniable. But if you don't do it, more people will die," he added.
FEEDING THE KILLERS
This controversy emerged starkly in refugee camps on the edge of the Congolese town of Goma after genocide of about 800,000 people in Rwanda in 1994. The killings were carried out by Hutu extremists who targeted ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
When Tutsi-led rebels stopped the massacre and took control of Rwanda, thousands of Hutus fled across the border to the Democratic Republic of Congo, fearing reprisals.
Aid agencies, who are expected to help anyone in need irrespective of which side of the conflict they are on, stepped in to assist the refugees.
It took the relief organisations a while to realise the people they were helping included large numbers of killers, some of whom continued attacks on Rwanda from the safety and comfort of the refugee camps.
"Aid has had perverse and at times catastrophic effects, most notably in Goma's refugee camps," Britain's Overseas Development Institute (ODI) wrote in a paper that one of its researchers, Sarah Bailey, quoted from at the debate.
In one of the most extreme present-day examples of this conundrum, a recent report by a U.N. panel of experts said that up to half the food aid for needy Somalis is being diverted, including to Islamist militants who have waged a three-year war against the transition government.
Foley noted there is no empirical evidence that aid can prolong conflicts and called for research into this.
But there are cases where "the aid industry can do harm, can do great harm", he told the audience, citing the case of food aid sent by rich countries to poor ones during food crises.
When a local market is flooded with free food, prices tend to fall, hurting poor farmers who struggle to make a living. Sometimes food aid arrives too late, especially when it is shipped from far away. The food crisis may have ended but the aid disrupts the market for the next seasonÂ?s harvest.
DO NO HARM
The aid industry is governed by a code of conduct and a wide range of standards and guidelines that aim to ensure aid at least does no harm.
"No standards or codes, however, can guarantee effective action on the ground, and humanitarianism remains messy and imperfect," the ODI wrote.
In situations where relief agencies cannot get the aid into a country without having to pay off local militias - potentially doing harm - they should lobby for the introduction of a U.N. peace-keeping force, Foley said.
But, as his book shows, military humanitarian intervention is never straightforward and not always successful.
For Polman, one of the main reasons relief agencies rarely make the hard but in her view right decision to withhold aid is the competition between them for media attention and for the funds it brings.
"If they make a moral choice of not aiding someone, the competition will do it. So what's the point of making a moral choice if it doesnÂ?t change anything?" she said.
The media too need to reconsider their role in the cycle of war and aid, Polman added. Warring parties often use journalists to draw attention to their conflict and so win more aid.
"Without violence and devastation, no aid. And the more ghastly the violence and the more complete the devastation, the more comprehensive the aid," Polman wrote in her book.
At the debate, she also bemoaned what she said was insufficient accountability on the part of aid workers for the consequences of their actions, and the fact that no specific education or local knowledge were required to start bringing aid to an area.
"We can all decide tonight to start an NGO and the only thing we need is money ... We can do with that money whatever we want," she said.
Any change in the current system should start with a more open discussion among aid agencies about the effects of aid diversion and corruption - both extremely sensitive subjects in an industry whose funding and jobs depend heavily on its reputation, the panellists said.
For example, Foley is being sued for an article he wrote for Britain's Guardian newspaper in which he suggested an NGO was misusing funds.
Similarly, a former corruption investigator who attended the debate said his aid organisation had threatened him with dismissal for doing investigations into the use of funds.
"I don't give any money to Haiti or to the tsunami not because I donÂ?t care - because I went into this business because I do care - but because I donÂ?t know where it goes," he said, requesting to remain anonymous.
The ODI questioned to what extent aid workers can be held responsible for aid's impact on wars.
"Influencing the course and conduct of conflict is ultimately the business of politicians, diplomats and soldiers, not aid workers," the ODI paper said.
"More needs to be done, but this should not mean making the perfect the enemy of the good, abandoning our common humanity and leaving the victims of conflicts and crises to fend for themselves."
You can watch a recording of the debate at the Frontline Club here.