Why soldiers shouldn't hand out aid

 Television images in recent days have shown British soldiers attempting to hand out food and water to Iraqis. We have seen desperate crowds fighting to get their hands on supplies with soldiers struggling to keep order. Why are these aid handouts going so wrong? Nick Guttmann, Christian Aid's Head of Emergencies, reports. Soldiers are trained to fight wars and aid workers are trained to deliver aid. Distributing humanitarian supplies is not as simple as it sounds and, if done incorrectly, can lead to danger both for recipients and for those handing out the food packs. It can also do long-term harm. Indeed, we have seen soldiers on television in a state of panic trying to hand out relief supplies under great pressure from crowds of people desperate to get much-needed help. First of all, what are the essentials for good distribution of food? It must be based on a thorough assessment of needs - ho is most vulnerable and who needs what? This should be done using local information, for example by working through community leaders and by using agreed criteria. For example, should supplies go to female-headed households, the elderly, the sick? Secondly, lists of beneficiaries with names and numbers of dependants must be produced, through community structures. Aid agencies must decide between themselves who will deal with what. They must co-ordinate their activities, make sure that there is no overlap and make sure they cover all the needs. And finally, communication is essential. The agencies and recipients must all know who is giving what to whom, when and where. Furthermore, the process must be explained to the recipients. It must be made clear how the distribution take place, who is entitled to receive what and most importantly why. Security at the distribution point is essential. Without it there is the risk of diversion of the aid and potential for violence usually resulting in the most vulnerable not getting their fair share. Most of these elements were missing in recent food handouts made by British troops in Iraq. And in the case of the distribution by the Kuwaiti Red Crescent in Umm Qasr, there was no evidence of any sort of control of crowds. Trucks appeared apparently without any evidence of preparation and the crowds fell on the trucks as soon as they arrived, so the strongest and fittest took what they wanted leaving those in need - the weak and vulnerable - with little or nothing. soldiers were there but they were obviously badly briefed and were unable to help. What we saw backs up the call that Christian Aid has been making that aid delivery must be overseen by the United Nations and carried out by trained aid workers, whenever possible. However, if circumstances arise where only military forces have the logistical capacity to provide protection and assistance to innocent civilians and there is no other humanitarian option we recognise that it may be necessary for the military to play a humanitarian role. But they should hand it over to civilian control as soon as possible. However they must distribute based on need and not use the assistance to control or coerce civilians. We do not believe these conditions where met in the recent distribution seen on TV. Soldiers are not neutral - they are partisan warriors. The risk is that humanitarian aid distributed by the military could be seen as tainted, partial, and as furthering US and UK government policy. This contravenes the Code of Conduct for agencies working in emergencies, to which Christian Aid, CAFOD and other agencies are signatories.

Share this story