Peanut butter falls on Kandahar – NGOs after September 11

Ian Smillie

September 11 was a watershed for Afghanistan. People who had been starving for the better part of a decade would soon experience ritual bombing and destruction. But then long-awaited aid would start to arrive. Some Western politicians would speak of rebuilding the country from the ground up, and some would even speak of an entirely new global approach to development assistance. In Afghanistan the politicization of aid perhaps reached its zenith.

Funding for Afghanistan had been disappointing through the 1990s. As soon as the Soviet adventure there ended in 1989, Western aid for refugees and reconstruction plummeted. The 1999 UN Consolidated Appeal reaped about 60 per cent of the $188 million it had requested for priority programming. In 2000, the appeal netted less than half the $221 million requested to deal with drought, 700,000 internally displaced people, millions of refugees and civil war.

The rush to aid

When the bombs started to fall, however, international aid taps opened. The United States alone pledged $320 million for food and medicine – triple what all donors combined had contributed during the previous year. It also generously offered to buy back old US-provided Stinger missiles from the Mujahedeen for $150,000 each. By the end of
January 2002, donor commitments had reached $4.2 billion.

Within two months of September 11, there were almost 100 NGOs on the ground and many more were on the way. And there were as many US military-issue food packets – complete with peanut butter – raining down on Afghanistan as bombs. In Taliban-free Khoja Bauhuddin, little-known NGOs were tripping over each other to do good works. Edward Artis, head of a Los Angeles-based organization called Knightsbridge International, distributed wheat, oil and sugar in a nearby refugee camp and told a reporter that he had ‘been on the front page of every paper in the world’. ‘There aren’t enough people with the guts to come here,’ he said. The opposite, in fact, appeared to be true. Without demeaning Mr Artis, and without deprecating the many who arrived to do important and useful work, this was very reminiscent of the NGO rush to Kosovo, East Timor, Bosnia, Rwanda, Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Cambodia and Biafra.

A military-humanitarian coalition?

Beneath the surface of this rather typically frenetic and uneven scramble, there may be deep currents of change. Emergency assistance has always had political overtones, but with Afghanistan it has become more overt than ever before, a roller coaster ride of ups and downs which began during the Cold War and which today has perhaps reached its zenith.

On 10 September, the day before the terrorist attacks in the United States, Mohammed Haneef Atmar, Afghanistan Program Coordinator for the International Rescue Committee, wrote about the low levels of assistance at the time, and about punitive donor conditionalities:
‘In these conditions, humanitarian aid works at best as a fig leaf for political inaction, at worst as an instrument of foreign policy … The principles of humanitarianism – humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence – are increasingly coming under assault.’

Assault, perhaps, but the assault weapons include more than just the withholding of money; they include the opposite. Not long after Atmar wrote his article, George Bush and Tony Blair called on NGOs to form a ‘military-humanitarian coalition’ to combat terrorism. US Secretary of State Colin Powell told the State Department and US ambassadors abroad to maintain good relations with NGOs because of their role in supporting US policy.

Tackling the root causes of terrorism

‘So what else is new?’ a cynic might ask, especially one with experience of Kosovo, Bosnia or Rwanda. There was one thing new in the immediate aftermath of September 11. A handful of Western politicians began to ponder some of the root causes behind the September 11 attacks. This was a chancy business, because sensitivities were high and such talk ran the risk of being construed as either anti-American or an apology for terrorism.

Deep-seated poverty, disenfranchisement and hopelessness, however, are widely accepted as contributing factors in much of the world’s violence. On 9 October, Canadian Finance Minister Paul Martin said that the international community had a record of setting goals – such as ensuring that all children receive a primary education – without putting the structures and finance in place to meet them. ‘We have to go far beyond the ad hoc arrangements that we have now,’ he said. World Bank President James Wolfensohn urged increased development spending by rich countries. ‘The notion of two worlds, the rich and the poor, or the developed and the developing world, collapsed with the World Trade Center,’ he said. At a meeting of G20 finance ministers in November, British Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown called for a doubling of aid to poor countries.

Will this happen? Not if the United States is expected to be part of it, according to US Treasury Secretary, Paul O’Neill. ‘Over the past 50 years,’ he said, ‘the world has spent an enormous amount of money in the name of development without a great deal of success.’ Greater effectiveness rather than greater spending is the issue, he said, as American government peanut butter fell on Afghanistan. And as the armies of several Western countries geared up to provide high-cost relief services better left to NGOs. The irony of O’Neill’s statement cannot be lost on the NGOs that have for years campaigned for more effective aid, blocked every inch of the way by government policymakers, corporate interests and Bretton Woods institutions.

Certainly development assistance can be made more effective, but the effectiveness issue – especially for NGOs – has to do with the objectives of aid, and the end-purpose of improved effectiveness. In 1990, the World Bank’s World Development Report spoke of a billion people living in absolute poverty, but predicted that with effective and sustained levels of aid and continued economic growth the number would decline to about 700 million by the turn of the century. The specified levels of economic growth, even in Africa, were surpassed. Aid, however, declined dramatically. And despite the end of the Cold War, aid was used as relentlessly as ever to promote strategic, economic and ideological agendas. Basic human needs and the poorest countries continued to take a back seat. The result? In 2000, the World Bank reported that 1.2 billion people were living in absolute poverty, and that 2.8 billion were living on less than $2 a day.

The challenge for NGOs

Will September 11 be a genuine watershed, causing rich countries to examine the factors that allow such conditions – breeding grounds for hatred and violence – to fester unchecked? Or will heads be buried deeper in the sand, perspectives further shortened and narrowed, the wagons drawn into tighter circles against enemies once perceived but now ever more real?

There is a real challenge here for NGOs, because the issue is no longer just about responding to humanitarian needs and doing projects, regardless of who pays. It is about how the publics in rich countries understand the world. And it is about the permission they give their governments to deal with its problems.

Ernest Hemingway once recalled that as a young reporter on the Kansas City Star, he was told to find out what happened, when and where. But not why; never why. The job ahead for NGOs will be to start thinking a little less about dealing with events in the way the editor specified, and to begin explaining to their supporters some of the reasons behind the events that are making the world such an increasingly dangerous place for everyone in it.

Ian Smillie is an Ottawa-based consultant and author. His most recent book is Partnership or Patronage: Local capacity-building in humanitarian crises (2001), Kumarian Press/IDRC. He can be contacted at

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