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Professor Jennifer Hyndman: Humanitarian aid can fuel a war if not done carefully

Professor Jennifer Hyndman: Humanitarian aid can fuel a war if not done carefully

York sociology and geography Professor Jennifer Hyndman knows a little about disasters. She also knows a benign water project run by humanitarian aid agencies can fuel a war if careful attention is not paid to the political and cultural landscape.

Hyndman was in Sri Lanka within months of the 2004 tsunami. She saw first-hand not only the devastation wrought by the tsunami, but the complications of delivering humanitarian aid in areas of Sri Lanka and Indonesia that were already conflict-riddled and impoverished. She also witnessed how the natural and man-made disasters intersected to change the political dynamics of both countries – a peace accord in Indonesia and the end of war in Sri Lanka between the government and the Tamils.

Her experiences led to the recently released book, Dual Disasters: Humanitarian Aid after the 2004 Tsunami and companion videos by Hyndman and geographer and humanitarian aid worker Arno Waizenegger, Hidden in the Limelight of the Tsunami: Aceh's Silent Disasters and Two Solitudes: Post-Tsunami and Post Conflict Aceh. To watch the first video, enter the password, "Lhokse". Waizenegger also co-wrote one of the book's chapters with Hyndman.

The earthquake-triggered tsunami is estimated to have killed or displaced more than one million people – three women for every man – and billions in donations flowed in for relief efforts. Dual Disasters addresses pre- and post-humanitarian aid concerns and offers suggestions that are still relevant today.

“I examine two war zones that were then hit by the 2004 tsunami and trace how the conflict and the environmental disaster shaped one another in terms of outcomes,” says Hyndman of York's Department of Social Sciences in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, who has studied humanitarian emergencies, conflict-related human disaster and displacement for more than a decade. For the book, she focused specifically on Sri Lanka and Aceh, Indonesia.

Left: Jennifer Hyndman

The book examines the inequitable delivery of humanitarian aid, but also looks at how the cultural and political situation in both countries played into that. If more aid was given to the coastal areas of Sri Lanka, because of their tourist appeal, than to the people in the hinterland, who are hardest hit by war, that imbalance created a “potential and real threat to peace.” Similarly in Aceh, Indonesia, international tsunami aid was earmarked exclusively for tsunami survivors and not for civilians who had lost their homes and livelihoods in the decades old conflict. This became the cause of tensions and threats recorded in the book by Hyndman and her research assistants.

The problem was that aid agencies had little latitude to spend donated money. As it's often designated for specific things, some agencies collected more money than they could ethically spend, she says. That led to the hiring of sub-contractors who not only didn’t necessarily do the best job, but it also made it more difficult to monitor the funds. This could be remedied if donors gave aid agencies more leverage to spend their donations where needed, says Hyndman, associate director of the Centre for Refugee Studies.

In addition, aid workers can unintentionally become wrapped up in the politics. “You need to pay very close attention to the political climate, otherwise you can become a political player in what you think is a humanitarian operation.” That can play out in as simple an act as talking to people living on one side of a road. What the aid workers may not realize is that the people on one side of the road are enemies with those on the opposite side, and the workers are seen as allies to one side only. “The unintended result is that humanitarian aid can actually fuel a conflict or create tensions."

Or, as in the case of the water pumps, what seemed like an easy and fast solution – provide villages with water pumps so they no longer had to dig wells – turned out to be not so simple in an area of Sri Lanka where tensions were already high between various factions. Bringing in water pumps heightened conflicting interests, instead of making life easier. “So unintentionally, a benign water project can fuel a war.”

It is just as important for aid workers to be aware of a country's cultural practices. One aid agency built much-needed, but culturally inappropriate housing. The new houses only had one room, when two were required to keep the women separate from the men. Hyndman says many of these issues could be avoided by providing regional cultural and political sensitivity orientation and training to humanitarian aid workers.

Competition between aid agencies for donor dollars was another issue raised by the book, but it has, at least in Canada, been addressed to some extent. Care Canada, Oxfam Canada, Oxfam Quebec and Save the Children formed a coalition after the 2004 tsunami to work together.

“It’s an excellent step in the right direction,” says Hyndman.

For more information, visit the Kumarian Press Blog.

By Sandra McLean, YFile writer

Republished courtesy of YFile– York University’s daily e-bulletin.