Aid in War: The Pros and Cons of Humanitarian Action

August 18, 2014

RAF plane airdropping food during 1985 famine (Wikipedia)

From Ebola vaccine distribution to aid for Yazidis fleeing Iraq, the scourges of war necessitate international help. However, humanitarian aid all too often comes with political and economic strings attached, bringing with it long range repercussions. In her upcoming class, “Aid and War: The Investigation of Humanitarian Action”, instructor Rebecca Timsar explores the complex world of humanitarian aid in time of conflict. We spoke with her to find out more.


WIH Reporter: What is important for us to know about the issue of humanitarian aid?

Timsar: First of all, this subject is very timely in view of what is happening in the Middle East and Africa at the moment. Secondly, I will give an insider’s look at the aid world and its key players. Finally, we will look into important humanitarian principles such as neutrality and independence and investigate why these are important when giving assistance in a war zone.

For example, in Iraq, US military assistance is certainly not neutral, especially given our long history of war in this country. Thus questions regarding perception and security of the victims as well as independence from political power arise. We will delve into these and many other topics on humanitarian assistance. Another example is the recent concern over delivery of Russian humanitarian aid to Ukraine. The international community was calling for distribution by the International Committee of the Red Cross and not Russian soldiers – we will probe the reasons behind this.

WIH Reporter: What would surprise people to know about aid during conflict?

Timsar: Aid most often comes with strings attached. It is not impartial and neutral at all, even in the most acute situations. In my class, we will use lectures, witnesses, PowerPoint slides, news media, video, and guest speakers to enrich the 8-week odyssey we plan to undertake. I have worked in the field of humanitarian aid for almost 2 decades and will certainly be calling on my own experiences to add complexity to the problems we study.

WIH Reporter: In a nutshell, can you tell us the biggest misconception we have about aid?

Timsar: The biggest misconception we have about humanitarian aid during conflict is that all aid is good aid.