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Published: December 9, 2014

Foreign aid and counter-terrorism measures: unintended consequences for the humanitarian sector?

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Raquel Vazquez Llorente is a Researcher at the European Interagency Security Forum (EISF). Raquel is responsible for producing original research papers that help share and promote best-practices amongst the humanitarian sector, with the aim of building the capacity of security and risk managers. Raquel also collaborates with other bodies undertaking research projects in the sector.


The debate on the unintended consequences of humanitarian action is not new. The role of aid agencies in conflict and the instrumentalisation of aid by warring parties have both been long at the center of a storm, from Biafra to Syria. With the political agenda of donors becoming increasingly intertwined with that of countering extremism and the global terrorist threat, ink is already flowing about the connection between counter-terrorism and aid. Some interesting questions have been raised, such as where to spend foreign aid to counter terrorism? Or whether terror increases aid.

But what happens when we swiftly move the debate and ask ‘what is the impact of counter-terrorism measures in humanitarian assistance?’ Not many voices come up with answers. Reasons are varied, but at the heart of the problem is the complexity of counter-terrorism laws and regulations: neither donors nor recipient organisations seem to be able to navigate smoothly across a typhoon of measures. These rules and regulations have generally been put forward without acknowledging the particularities of the aid sector, and the contexts in which agencies operate.

Under the counter-terrorism framework, problematic situations extend from Colombia to Yemen through any country where one of the parties to the armed conflict is listed as a terrorist organisation. Likewise, some activities that are at the core of humanitarian action cannot be undertaken without making contact with proscribed groups.

What happens then, when two ideas collide? It was not long ago when we were talking about the early stages of the professionalisation of the aid sector. Counter-terrorism laws and regulations may be putting it now at stake by indirectly encouraging humanitarian assistance delivered by ‘briefcase’ NGOs or smaller organisations with a lower degree of accountability to donors. These NGOs do not rely on institutional funding as much as bigger aid agencies, and their appetite to take reputational and legal risks is higher. We are already seeing this transfer of risk towards local and smaller organisations in some conflicts, such as Syria. If risk tolerance gets transferred down the line, we may push the sector years back.

Bigger and more powerful INGOs have started to dedicate resources to comply with counter-terrorism laws and regulations because they have the capacity (and willingness) to do so. If we make the work of these organisations more difficult and we elevate the reputational and legal risks of operating in certain countries, we open the door to other actors, potentially less professional and more independent from institutional donors (and therefore more difficult to make accountable). These organisations will also fall under the radar more easily, and escape existing and future counter-terrorism measures.

From counter-terrorism and humanitarianism we have created a confrontation between principles, actions and agendas. This can and should be reversed. It can be reversed by continuing engagement between foreign aid donors and humanitarian organisations. It should be reversed so humanitarian principles are not undermined, and activities at the core of humanitarian assistance are not criminalised. A more fluid dialogue between donors and agencies has already started. Now the humanitarian sector as a whole needs to establish what exactly it wants out of it.


Sources and background reading:

Counter-terrorism laws: what aid agencies need to know, Overseas Development Institute, November 2014, http://www.odihpn.org/hpn-resources/network-papers/counter-terrorism-laws-what-aid-agencies-need-to-know

Could aid to Syrians be prolonging the war? Boston Globe, 1 June 2014, http://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2014/05/31/could-aid-syrians-prolonging-war/ue0PJAyjozIT5xEyTqCwgO/story.html

Where to spend foreign aid to counter terrorism, Azam and Thelem, 2012, http://www.tse-fr.eu/images/doc/wp/dev/wp_tse_316.pdf

Does terror increase aid? Dreher and Fuchs, 2011, https://ideas.repec.org/p/got/gotcrc/086.html

Counter-terrorism and humanitarian action: Tensions, impact and ways forward, October 2011, http://www.odi.org/sites/odi.org.uk/files/odi-assets/publications-opinion-files/7347.pdf

Aid Policy: Crippled by counter-terrorism laws, Irin News, 20 October 2011, http://www.irinnews.org/report/94015/aid-policy-crippled-by-counter-terrorism-laws

Aiding and abetting: how international humanitarian assistance can inadvertently prolong conflict and how combatants respond, UC San Diego, 2011, https://escholarship.org/uc/item/3t5937pg

The Impact of Humanitarian Aid on Conflict Development, International Review of the Red Cross, No. 323, 30 June 1998, https://www.icrc.org/eng/resources/documents/misc/57jpcj.htm


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