Counter-Terrorism and Humanitarian Action: The Perils of Zero Tolerance

Summary of Study

Bottom Line: Humanitarian organizations and world governments have radically different incentives when dealing with areas plagued by terrorism. Humanitarian organizations are focused primarily on helping those in need, while governments are focused on counter-terrorism. When these objectives come into contact, it is often to the detriment of humanitarian aid. To ensure success, governments should work to accommodate aid groups, rather than force these groups to line up with their counter-terrorism plans.

Providing aid to victims of terrorism often requires dealing with terrorists

In order to provide relief to people in need, humanitarian groups will often come toe-to-toe with the terrorist groups. In some cases, this simply means providing aid to people who were "formerly affiliated" with terrorist groups. In other cases, this means negotiating with, or paying fines to terrorist groups who control land where in-need people live. Either way, humanitarian groups employ people who understand how to navigate these choppy waters, and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars complying with government counter-terror regulations.

Governments' counter-terror objectives make it hard for humanitarian groups to work

Like humanitarian groups, many governments are committed to providing aid to people in-need. However, these governments also have counter-terror objectives that humanitarian groups lack. In instances where the distribution of aid requires dealing with terror groups, governments' counter-terror incentives tend to crowd out the humanitarian incentives. This is especially true of the United States government, since "winning the global war on terrorism is an overarching imperative and rationale of U.S. foreign policy."

Government attempts to work with humanitarian groups tend to stifle humanitarian missions

When humanitarian groups have to go above and beyond to ensure they aren't funding or otherwise enabling terror groups, aid delivery is often delayed or compromised. Of course, compliance is necessary to ensure that humanitarian groups aren't unwittingly playing into the hands of terrorists, but aid groups have experts in place to ensure this doesn't happen. Further oversight from governments puts aid at risk. For instance, in September 2010, aid groups were able to deliver food to drought-stricken Ethiopia and Kenya faster than they could deliver it to Somalia, since donor governments were concerned with fighting the terror group Al-Shabaab. By the time aid made it to Somalia, more than 260,000 Somalis -- half of them children under five -- had died.

Rather than pushing "zero-tolerance" policies on humanitarian groups, governments ought to share the risk with them

As long as aid agencies commit to doing their due diligence before providing aid to victims of terrorism, governments need to take stock of the risks associated with emergency aid delivery. Governments cannot simply retreat into a position of "zero-tolerance" and expect humanitarian groups to work miracles. Instead, aid groups and governments need to have a frank conversation and come to a firm understanding about what each party is expected to put in to humanitarian efforts, and the results they expect in turn.

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