Red Cross claims War on Terror pulls agencies down wrong path

International aid agencies are failing in their "moral responsibility" to provide humanitarian assistance where it is most needed, according to the International Federation of the Red Cross.

The organisation's World Disasters Report states that the War on Terror is prompting more aid agencies to focus their efforts on high-profile crises, such as in Iraq and Afghanistan, instead of making objective assessments of where the need for aid is greatest.

"One of the main principles and moral responsibilities of humanitarian aid is that it should save lives according to need alone. In this sense aid agencies and donors are failing," said Jonathan Walter, editor of the report. "It's popular to blame politicians for diverting attention from forgotten disasters, but aid agencies and NGOs are implicated by basing the focus of emergency appeals on how much the donor market will give.

"This is not a new trend but something we have seen slowly developing over the past decade.

"We are calling for more money and time to be spent on measuring the level of humanitarian requirements across the world to build up an accurate picture of need on which to base the allocation and distribution of aid."

In Afghanistan, the number of NGOs has rocketed from 49 in 1999 to more than 350 in 2002. "In times of economic hardship there is a great risk of contract culture emerging, where NGOs and humanitarian agencies simply do what the donors tell them," said Walter. "A worrying number of these agencies have budgets almost entirely made up from government money, and this is a real threat to the impartiality of humanitarian aid."

The report also examines how military forces are assuming a greater humanitarian role in conflicts, blurring the line between civilian and military humanitarian assistance. "As is happening in Iraq, aid workers are increasingly being seen as part of the allied military machine," said Walter.

Christian Aid said debate on the issue was overdue and overseas agencies had to be wary of being influenced by political conflicts.

Dominic Nutt, emergencies officer at Christian Aid, said: "If the war on terror becomes the modus operandi of a new world order then we are running the risk of becoming sucked into a hive of conflicts that function as a by-product of an aggressive political ideology."

Jean-Michel Piedagnel, director at Medecins Sans Frontieres UK, agreed that areas of real need are often forgotten by aid agencies chasing donations triggered by media attention of a few conflicts. "At present, the basic foundations of humanitarian aid - neutrality, impartiality and independence are still mere rhetoric for many international NGOs."

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