Interview: ODI’s Eva Svoboda on Aid and Islamic State

Daniel Rey

Eva Svoboda of the Overseas Development Institute

Eva Svoboda of the Overseas Development Institute

Eva Svoboda, Research Fellow at the Humanitarian Policy Group of the Overseas Development Institute spoke to Future Foreign Policy’s Daniel Rey on questions arising from her IRIN/HPG Crisis Briefing Paper, ‘Aid and the Islamic State’, co-authored with Louise Redvers.

Daniel Rey: Eva, your recent paper analyses the gap in the analysis of humanitarian action in ISIL-affected zones. What can policy-makers, governments and NGOs try and do to get more information about the humanitarian activity in those regions?

Eva Svoboda: It’s difficult, but it’s not a new phenomenon. Since 2006, parts of Iraq have been largely inaccessible. Having said that, we work with local organisations. International organisations will have contacts to get a sense of what is happening, but it is more challenging. Working with local groups is one area this can be strengthened which could mitigate the effects of international organisations not being present.

DR: And how do NGOs make sure their partners on the ground are bona fide?

ES: You have to do due diligence: where they’ve been working, what aid they provide, whether they provide impartial humanitarian assistance. You would also provide training if need be. The humanitarian imperative – the need to reach people – cannot be achieved if you have very strict requirements. Terror legislation can hamper humanitarian aid as international organisations have to navigate it, which has a negative impact on humanitarian work.  In 2011, international organisations were quite reluctant at times to work in areas that were under al-Shabaab control for fear they would be prosecuted.

DR: Which means the aid organisations have to use resources that could be spent on aid…

ES: Yes, absolutely. We’ve seen this ever since this counter-terror legislation has been introduced. What is crucial is that, in a conflict where there are humanitarian needs, they need to be met, and if they cannot be met, there are restrictions on what organisations can achieve. They need to be able to negotiate with all actors, potentially including those aligned to terrorist groups. But they can’t do that if they fear prosecution. A balance needs to be struck. Humanitarian aid should not further any political objectives: it is meant to alleviate suffering, wherever it might be.

DR: Moving on to logistics, what can governments do to improve the effectiveness of the work NGOs do in areas controlled by ISIL or other illegal groups?

ES: States can provide the funding. States can’t do much in terms of logistics: that’s the work of humanitarian agencies. Military assistance in aid provokes an ethical dilemma. Militaries should not provide aid: that’s the task of humanitarian agencies. Militaries are not trained to provide assistance. It is important to keep the two separate. It is true that in natural disasters militaries have the logistical means, but it needs to be clear that military assets should be used as a last resort, especially in conflicts. In Afghanistan for instance, foreign militaries were engaged in aid assistance, and that poses a problem because humanitarian agencies become associated with the forces, which affects their independence.

DR: On that issue, I’m interested on a point from your paper that ISIL are providing humanitarian aid for the people in its territory. Is there any research indicating how that aid provision is looked upon by those in its territory?

ES: We didn’t look at it in the paper, but there is enough indication that people will take any aid they can get. The Islamic State is not an exception. The Taliban and al-Shabaab for example have sophisticated aid infrastructure and established their own style ministries for humanitarian aid. Any sort of insurgent or rebel movement will want to be a service-provider. Also you have to put this in the context of the turmoil of Iraq. The Sunni population was quite discouraged with the central administration so initially they might have been quite receptive to Islamic State as representing some of their views.

DR: Have the internally displaced Iraqis who have gone to Kurdistan met any sort of tension?

ES: Not tension that would spill over into violence. There is a mind-set that ‘migrants equal additional burden’. That might be the case, but there would certainly be solidarity. The Kurds have faced a long struggle themselves and in the Islamic world, providing refuge is a very important element of its religion. The question becomes, what do you do in the long run in terms of education and job-creation?

DR: And finally Eva, what are your thoughts on the next six months with respect to aid and ISIL?

ES: If only I had a crystal ball! ISIL is not going to go away now they control a large geographic territory. The main concern for aid organisations is that winter isn’t over yet and that Iraq has extremely hot summers. Humanitarian assistance will be needed, so some thought must be given to negotiation so we can have access to places where people are in need. It will not be easy because of the operational legal, reputational risks, but humanitarian organisations need to think about how they provide aid and negotiate.

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