By Robert M. Hathaway
Director, Asia Program

Presenter: Patricia Gossman, Visiting Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center

Commentary by: Eric Schwartz, Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Multilateral and Humanitarian Affairs, National Security Council and Paula Newberg, international consultant and author of Politics at the Heart: The Architecture of Humanitarian Assistance to Afghanistan

Does helping the world's disadvantaged sometimes sustain war and conflict, and thereby foster further suffering? Does the provision of humanitarian assistance lend legitimacy to repressive regimes? How should humanitarian agencies function in countries where the policies of the governing authorities force aid donors to compromise their basic principles? Can good works serve bad ends?

These were some of the provocative queries raised by Wilson Center Visiting Scholar Patricia Gossman at a November 29th Wilson Center seminar sponsored by the Asia Program and the Middle East Project.

Relief organizations, Gossman argued, often offer the only support system the disadvantaged have. Moreover, in addition to providing life-sustaining assistance, these agencies also can provide at least a modicum of human rights protection and accountability -- essential services that justify the "duck-and-weave" practices international groups frequently must follow in Afghanistan in order to work there. Nonetheless, success is almost always incremental, if not marginal.

Eric Schwartz, a senior director at the National Security Council, cautioned that policy officials must continually weigh the costs of not acting in the face of disaster with the danger of sustaining or promoting bad policies on the part of unsavory governments. Another issue that can only be determined on a "situation-specific" basis is whether the international community should condition humanitarian assistance on progress on broader concerns, either to leverage the impact of aid or to avoid seeming to endorse undesirable behavior. In the case of life-threatening disasters, he argued, the provision of assistance should take precedence over all other concerns. While international aid risks conferring respectability on a government such as Burma's, where many international actors are looking for an excuse to trade or invest, he thought that conferring legitimacy was less a danger in a case like Afghanistan, where the government is widely condemned by the international community.

International consultant Paula Newberg, who has extensive experience as an advisor to the United Nations on Afghan issues, was more critical of international efforts to provide humanitarian assistance and human rights protections, as well as to carry out peacekeeping responsibilities. According to Newberg, these three functions frequently require different policies, and can be in direct competition with one another. They each require different types of organizations and personnel, Newberg insisted. Asking aid donors, for instance, to monitor human rights violations, in Afghanistan or elsewhere, can be self-defeating or even counterproductive. In contrast, both Gossman and Schwartz were more sanguine about the possibility of reconciling different objectives; Schwartz pointed to international intervention in Sierra Leone as an example where peacekeeping and human rights accountability went hand in hand.

As for the seminar's underlying query - does helping the poor in Afghanistan prolong the conflict? - Gossman and Schwartz each doubted the causal links between international relief efforts and the war's continuation, whereas Newberg was more apt to emphasize the unplanned and unwanted consequences of even well-intended international action.

This seminar, while focusing on Afghanistan, succeeded in raising both practical policy questions and moral dilemmas with a relevance far removed from South Asia. After the event one member of the audience noted with a mixture of astonishment and appreciation that this was the first Afghanistan program he had attended in several years where neither alleged terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden nor Pakistani support for the Taliban was mentioned, except in passing.

Among the approximately 70 people attending this program were students from a peace and conflict resolution class at American University.