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COLUMN

The Wrong Way To Break Bread

Guest Column
Sanjay Basu

The Geneva Conventions, adopted during a conference of nations in 1949, set out guidelines to protect the victims of war. Among the conventions is the rule that humanitarian action must be neutral, independent and impartial -- in other words, that humanitarian actors should be free from political influence and should aid victims of war in a manner proportional to those victims’ needs.

President Bush’s “bombs and bread” campaign, combining military missions with food drops to Afghani civilians, is a clear violation of these accords. And the problem of mixing military might and humanitarian aid is not merely one of principle. As most aid workers know, aid delivery that is not clearly separated from military campaigns can be claimed to be part of the war effort. When this occurs, even aid workers from other agencies become the victims of war themselves, targeted for their perceived political orientation. The numerous attacks on United Nations offices in Quetta, Pakistan, are a clear consequence of this fact; those perceiving the United Nations workers as operatives of the locally unpopular air strikes have attacked workers who attempted to help the local situation. If history predicts the future, then these attacks will likely broaden to workers from other humanitarian aid groups as well. In Somalia, the mixing of military action with humanitarian aid resulted in the complete freezing of humanitarian organization operations.

Americans who listen to this reasoning often scratch their heads. Isn’t it best, they ask, to at least bring some food to Afghanis, even if it’s dropped from military aircraft?

Those of us who work on humanitarian aid issues and have tracked the U.S. food drops have a clear answer to this question. The U.S. food drops, we have found, are not a humanitarian operation. As Austen Davis, an aid director with the Nobel Peace Prize-winning group Doctors Without Borders, put it, “It is an action that is so minor in relation to the needs, and so poorly targeted, that it is highly unlikely that any needy people would have received any of the food.” In other words, the “bread” portion of the “bombs and bread” campaign seems remarkably stale; the operation seems intent on winning international approval rather than humanitarian efficacy.

Over the past week, it also become quite clear that the drops are doing more harm than good. Because military aircraft have been used to drop the supplies, aid workers on the ground have not known whether the planes over their heads would release missiles or food. In fear, they have evacuated their posts, leaving the most effective humanitarian operations without staff. Truckers who drive on routes under these planes have been too frightened to carry food into the country. While dozens of groups once provided effective aid to locals, the actions of the U.S. military have hampered almost all of the humanitarian work in Afghanistan, and the U.S. military food drops are too poorly targeted and of too little quantity to compensate.

President Bush’s announcement that medicine was also being provided in the dropped aid packages brings to light more serious problems. If they are not properly administered, the medications included can easily be quite harmful to those who ingest them. In fact, when malnourished persons take medications haphazardly, the results can be lethal.

But even these concerns seemed to pale in comparison to the news many aid agencies received early this week from the humanitarian group Oxfam International. Oxfam reported that many of the air drops were likely to be taking place over heavily-mined territory. Because of past conflicts, Afghanistan’s countryside is littered with anti-personnel mines, and the yellow food packets dropped by the U.S. -- containing raisins, beans, pasta, peanut butter and bread -- fall from 30,000 feet without a parachute.

Each package is about the weight of a household brick, and can land on people (as some did in Iraq) or on mines, present in heavy concentration in all but three of the provinces in which packages are being dropped.

The drops can also lure hungry Afghanis into heavily mined territory. The U.S. military admits that it does not know where these mines are located, and without independent monitoring it will be impossible to estimate any toll this sad feature of the food drops will have. As drought worsens in Afghanistan, and as scurvy, malnutrition, and cholera break out, it becomes intensely clear that the manner in which food is delivered to Afghanistan must change. If aid drops must be used, then the planes dropping them should be clearly marked as civilian aircraft, preferably those operated by the World Food Program. Internally displaced persons, not only refugees, should be afforded better opportunities to receive proper care, and only a willingness of the U.S. military to cooperate with non-governmental aid groups to allow the re-entry of humanitarian workers into Afghanistan can restore hope to those Afghanis who may not make it through the winter.

Sanjay Basu ’02 is student director of United Trauma Relief, an MIT-based humanitarian aid organization working as part of the Afghanistan program of the U.N. High Commissioner of Refugees.