It has been recognized for some time that the provision of aid during conflicts can intensify and prolong these conflicts. The remedy has been recommendations for aid providers to do no harm in the provision of such services, while seeking as far as possible, to build local capacity for peacebuilding. The apparent alternative – of not providing aid during civil wars – is clearly unacceptable because of the humanitarian imperative to assist those in need.
Are we then left, as Fiona Terry argues, condemned to repeat? Research to date has implied that we can do no more than try to minimize the negative impacts of aid during conflicts. This answer is unsatisfying, and led me to ask under what circumstances, if any, can aid contribute to the management and transformation of civil wars?
Looking at the impact of social services either provided through aid or as part of systems provided by welfare states, I trace changes that occurred during conflicts in Northern Ireland, Tajikistan and South Sudan. I believe that new incentives provided by social services financed by aid or provided directly by governments can result in changes within insurgencies.
These changes – including the development of political wings and/or of systems of civil administration, make political settlements easier to attain. These changes arise because insurgents are always greedy – they will always look for ways to garner resources or support for themselves, including ways of maximizing gains from aid. But under certain circumstances this greed can be good.
These kinds of changes are likely to occur only under certain circumstances:
Services provided in areas with an insurgent presence should be relatively autonomous from both the insurgents themselves and any other combatants, including state forces. Services, under these circumstances, are neither part of the government’s counter insurgency strategy, nor are they provided directly by the insurgents, as it the case in Lebanon with Hezbollah provided services, or Hamas provided services in Gaza.
The insurgents themselves must be relatively dependent on the co-operation and goodwill of local populations. This typically arises when insurgents rely heavily on local populations for support of some kind – either for volunteers to fight, or for food and shelter. If insurgents garner most of their resources from the direct exploitation of natural resources – say diamonds, or hard woods, or if they are heavily financed by an external patron, they are less likely to be interested in the gains to be made from social services. It also helps if there is a history of services being provided in these areas before conflict begins; this places increased pressure of insurgents to allow such services to continue.
This piece draws from research conducted by the author as part of his doctoral dissertation completed at The American University in Washington D.C. and was part funded by a Hurst Scholarship and a doctoral fellowship from the university. All views expressed in this piece reflect the views of the author. They do not reflect the views of any government, organization or institution.