The US militarization of humanitarian aid

President Obama announced last week an expanded U.S. response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. The lion’s share of personnel assisting in the response comes from the U.S. military – an estimated 3,000 troops will be deployed to the region.

Many humanitarian actors are concerned about the militarization of aid in a variety of global contexts –  some note that the presence of militaries in humanitarian crises can make humanitarian aid actors seem to favor one side of a conflict. Doing so violates two of the basic principles of ethical humanitarian aid: neutrality and impartiality.  In general, aid agencies are supposed to help any civilian who needs it without regard for their ethnicity, religion, or the “side” they might support in a conflict, and most work hard to avoid even the appearance of favoring one side over another. Introducing a country’s military into a crisis can make it difficult for aid actors to appear neutral and impartial. In a worst case scenario, this can put aid workers’ lives at risk.

In the current West African Ebola outbreak, however, concerns about non-neutrality have been trumped by the need for immediate action. The AFRICOM deployment comes in response to a direct request for assistance from Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

There is no question that the United States military has logistics capabilities that far outstrip those of any humanitarian aid agency worldwide. But is AFRICOM in particular up to the task? This is the first, large-scale operation AFRICOM has undertaken with what might be called a purely humanitarian purpose.

The last time U.S. military forces engaged in a large-scale humanitarian operation in Africa was the Somalia intervention of the early 1990s. Originally intended to be an operation to help get food aid to Somali civilians, that operation, which began under President George H.W. Bush and continued under President Bill Clinton’s administration, quickly turned into a combat operation very unlike what its proponents had envisioned. American involvement in Somalia ended almost immediately after the “Black Hawk Down” incident of October 1993 in which 18 American military personnel were killed in Mogadishu.

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