The Ethics of Aid


by Sid (Faisal)
9th May, 2008 at 2:00 am    

Burmese state radio states the official death toll of last weekend’s Cylcone Nargis to be 22,980 with over 40,000 missing and thousands injured. If this data is not devastating enough, fears are now growing that the figure might be as high as 100,000 deaths. According to the UN, more than 1 million people are currently without shelter. For millions, the struggle now is for survival. The real risk now is the outbreak of acute diarhhoea, malaria or even cholera.

The damage done by the cyclone of this scale would be enough to throw many developed nations into crisis. One can only imagine the strain this has put on a country as desperately poor as Burma. The damage done to infrastructure, broken bridges, thousands of scuttled river vessels in the affected Irrawady delta will only add to the mounting problems for the humanitarian agencies, whose efforts are now in full swing.

Even before the cyclone, Burma had been stricken by decades of poverty inflicted by the effects of a praetorian Military junta and it’s control and consumption of the economy. It has been reported that the government has refused some of the planeloads of food parcels, medicine and other humanitarian aid that has been offered. Although John Holmes, UN Undersecretary-General for Humanitraian Affairs has said the situation is patchy:

We are getting cooperation. We’ve had good discussions. They did accept very quickly, which some countries never do, that they would welcome international assistance. They have accepted the idea of a flash appeal which some countries do not want to do, for reasons of sovereignty or pride or whatever they may be. And they have accepted to allow goods to come and now, increasingly, to allow people to come in. It’s not quick enough, it’s not as good as we would like but it’s happening and that’s the point.

The give and take of aid is also subject to ethical dilemmas. Aid agencies can also withhold much needed relief if they think the authorities receiving the aid make all the wrong noises. As Conor Foley notes:

When Afghanistan was ruled by the Taliban, some humanitarian agencies, such as Oxfam, suspended their programmes rather than comply with the Taliban’s anti-women edicts. Oxfam eventually concluded this had been a mistake that had caused greater suffering to ordinary Afghans, but there clearly is a tension of conflicting principles in such situations.

Can there be a case for refusing to supply humanitarian aid? There is nothing to stop the Burmese junta refusing to accept aid if they feel that they are being pressured into reforms and compromises which they are simply unwilling to accept. The dilemma is that this is a government which permits it’s armed forces to open fire on it’s own citizens. If they refuse to comply with the “advocacy package” that comes with the aid, it will only increase the suffering of the poorest and most vulnerable people.


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  1. john holmes

    [...] data is not devastating enough, fears are now growing that the figure might be as high as 100,000 dhttp://www.pickledpolitics.com/archives/1948Limited Access To Myanmar Frustrates And Disappoints The United Nations Medical News TodayJohn [...]




  1. Golam Murtaza — on 9th May, 2008 at 6:55 am  

    And I bet the Burmese government knew the cyclone WAS heading for them two days before it hit and could have saved thousands of their people’s lives by warning them of that fact and urging them to get to higher ground.

    But they didn’t warn them because they don’t give a damn about them. Gits…

  2. unitalian — on 9th May, 2008 at 8:02 am  

    Only an ethical case in the event of war, I would have thought (ie, there is little point providing aid to an enemy one is trying to starve – although of course some assistance was provided to Iraq during the embargo).

    Refusing humanitarian aid (as opposed to gender-awareness workshops) under any other circumstances would make one no better than the regime one opposes.

  3. Sid — on 9th May, 2008 at 10:34 am  

    Yes, but if the Burmese authorities refuse to accept humanitarian aid, is it a crime against humanity?

    Either way, here’s how you can help:
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7389735.stm

  4. fugstar — on 9th May, 2008 at 11:01 am  

    send it though thailand, india and china, who are trusted enough to be let in. alas no british agencies (boohoo) and tax paybacks.

  5. Sid — on 9th May, 2008 at 12:40 pm  

    Except that it isn’t the supply of aid that is the bottleneck. There are stockpiles of relief building up in the airports in Bangladesh. The problem is that the Burmese government is now refusing to accept aid.

  6. Random Guy — on 9th May, 2008 at 1:47 pm  

    Please EVERYONE, donate as much as you can.

    The French govt is arguing that this may be a crime against humanity by the Burmese govt, so lets hope they can get this sorted out very quickly.

    DONATE! People are dying, they need our help.

  7. Avi Cohen — on 9th May, 2008 at 8:23 pm  

    Sid asked “Can there be a case for refusing to supply humanitarian aid?”

    No there can’t be a case for with-holding humaitarian aid as it always affects the poorest members of society. With-holding aid won’t change the junta in Burma and merely affects the normal people.

    Change can be attempted to be made without refusing to supply humanitarian aid which is critical to the well being of people who essentially have nothing.

    We’ve seen the effects on normal civilians of with-holding humaitarian aid and the lesson is it doesn’t work.

  8. Roger — on 10th May, 2008 at 6:16 am  

    Oxfam didn’t withhold much needed relief because they thought the Taliban made all the wrong noises. They refused to allow them to impose terms on how relied should be done- specifically the insistence on employment of men- and Taliban-approved men at that.
    In Burma there’s the same dilemma as in Zimbabwe but in a more immediately lethal way. The government intends to use aid to strengthen itself. The question is, how much aid will get through to those who need it?

  9. Sid — on 10th May, 2008 at 12:08 pm  

    Oxfam didn’t withhold much needed relief because they thought the Taliban made all the wrong noises. They refused to allow them to impose terms on how relied should be done- specifically the insistence on employment of men- and Taliban-approved men at that.

    Well this seems to be the case n Burma, where the Yangon government is saying they are happy to receive the aid but not the foreign aid workers to go with it. So in essence, the aid will only be distributed by Junta-approved men.

    If Aid agencies refuse to supply aid on these terms, does it make it a humanitarian crime, or would they be correct in doing so? My question is, if refusing to accept aid, on other’s terms is humanitarian crime why is refusing to supply aid on others’ terms seen as a responsible act? To believe that there is a sliding rule is moral relativism weighted in favour of Western aid agencies.

  10. Don — on 10th May, 2008 at 8:21 pm  

    To believe that there is a sliding rule is moral relativism weighted in favour of Western aid agencies.,

    Aid agencies, Burmese junta, moral relativism?

    What are you talking about, Sid?

    It is not refusing to accept aid, the bastards doing the refusing do not need aid. It’s refusing to allow the needy to get aid.

    As far as I can tell from the latest media reports, aid agencies have accepted that the only priority is to get supplies into the country, while accepting that it will be minimally effective. Already there are reports that aid from Thailand is being re-labelled as ‘Gift of General X’ and distributed according to political advantage rather than need.

    Handing money and material to the junta does not necessarily equate to humanitarian aid.

  11. Sid — on 11th May, 2008 at 12:48 pm  

    It is not refusing to accept aid, the bastards doing the refusing do not need aid. It’s refusing to allow the needy to get aid.

    Yes, the important thing is that we’re not talking about development aid here, but humanitarian aid for the survivors of a natural disaster.

    In that situation, if you are appalled that the Burmese junta can withhold this relief from the desperately needy because of stupid venality, corruption, political vanity or what have you then you should be equally appalled by Aid Organisations who withhold the supply disaster relief based on the recipient’s compliance to political advcocay, however well intentioned that advocacy may be. That means if North Korea were to suffer a natural disaster, then for Western aid agencies to insist that aid will only be distributed if he softens his stance towards the West would be ethically implausible, not to mention criminal. It is not for aid agencies to play politics during disasters, in my opinion. I was aware it happened but I was shocked by the way Conor Foley put it in his article.

    Disaster relief should have no impediments to distribution and this means any kind of string-attached supply, as in the Oxfam example, or partisan obstruction, as in the Burmese case, should both be seen for what it is: a crime against humanity.

  12. El Cid — on 14th May, 2008 at 11:05 pm  

    Liberal intervention anyone?

  13. Sid — on 14th May, 2008 at 11:09 pm  

    No oil, no US interests, no scud missiles pointed at Israel: No chance.

  14. El Cid — on 15th May, 2008 at 1:22 pm  

    Yes, but would be in favour of it, Mr super-cynical almost middle aged man?
    What a dilemma eh, hundreds of thousands of dead, but at least it ain’t our fault.

  15. Justforfun — on 15th May, 2008 at 1:44 pm  

    EL Cid Liberal intervention anyone?

    With what? the UK has no military left to intervene with. Ok to you mean the USA, India and China?

    Perhaps if there is whole scale refugee crisis on the scale of 71, when the threat of millions fleeing from Bangladesh into India forced the Indian Army to prepare to be the mid-wife for Bangladeshi Independance, then in in this instant the Indian Navy may be forced to be the mid-wife for Burma. However there will have to be alot more ‘shoving’ and ‘contractions’ before any action is actually taken.

    justforfun

  16. Sid — on 15th May, 2008 at 2:19 pm  

    What a dilemma eh, hundreds of thousands of dead, but at least it ain’t our fault.

    Liberal Intervention is Military Intervention and no amount of clever wordplay will obscure it. How exactly will cynical bombing of civilians solve the problem when the real issue is “Milbus” – military elites and their cronies’ control of Burma? Bangladesh was already mired in 10 months of a brutal war in 1971 when India stepped in. They didn’t instigate the war. Likewise, Serbia and Bosnia were well into 2 years of civil war before the US and UK forces stepped in 1999. There is however, no such meltdown in Burma.

    The Burmese junta and their venal control of Burma *isn’t* our fault. But do you really see a moral right for the West to militarily intervene because a third world (totalitarian) government mismanages aid distribution in a natural catastrophe? Does your ethical relativism cover bombing the USA because of Hurricane Katrina? I doubt it.

    The reason why the Burma junta has remained in power for decades is because it is a poor, third world country in the thrall to China. But we already know all about how we have ignored Chinese expansionism for decades, don’t we.

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