NEWS IN FOCUS: The march to war is long for humanitarian groups

Nick Cater

War in Iraq will challenge the ability of aid agencies to carry out their work, not least because of scant funding. Nick Cater reports.

Relief charities are increasingly concerned about the potential impact of the looming military assault on Iraq, which could leave millions displaced, hungry or sick. They warn that investment in preparations to avert a humanitarian disaster are too little, too late.

Conflict and its aftermath will offer aid groups major challenges, from the risk of being manipulated to suit military interests to fears about the use of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, to the expectation that US companies will secure valuable post-war work that charities could tackle.

Concerns about their impartiality being undermined by military interference have prompted several charities to either bar funding from belligerent states during hostilities - such as Oxfam International and Medecins Sans Frontieres - or refuse any finance that comes with strings, as CARE International UK, Save the Children, Christian Aid, the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development (CAFOD) and the International Rescue Committee have affirmed.

The UK and US governments are expected to spend around $100 billion in attacking and occupying Iraq this year, with almost $1 billion in reconstruction contracts already being placed by the US with American companies. But less than $100 million has gone into humanitarian preparedness by the UN and governments and almost nothing has been offered to charities normally on the front line of every disaster or crisis.

Last week, relief groups were offered new funding as the Government faced tough criticism by the parliamentary select committee on international development that its preparations for Iraq's humanitarian needs were "inadequate".

The Department for International Development doubled its donation to a UN Iraq appeal to £7 million and asked charities to bid for £3 million for their contingency planning.

But Christian Aid commented: "The gap between needs and resources is still huge." Even Development Secretary Clare Short later admitted preparations had been limited, assumptions about the capacity of the UN and NGOs might be over-optimistic and warned of "serious risks".

With such limited funding, charities have dipped into their own reserves and contingency funds to make basic preparations in case of war, with Oxfam allocating £200,000 and Christian Aid saying it has already spent £100,000. Many are working from existing bases around Iraq to explore what relief operations may be possible and likely levels of need.

With 24 million impoverished people at risk of being displaced, injured or left sick or hungry by conflict, the UN, the US government and charities have been stockpiling supplies around the Iraq borders. But neither the camps nor the stockpiles will be enough if there is a prolonged or intense conflict, especially if chemical or biological weapons are deliberately used or accidentally discharged.

Few British or other international agencies are operating in Iraq, which reflects the tough political and military situation, from the Iraqi regime's monitoring of foreigners to the lack of independent community groups - although the Iraqi Red Crescent has a nationwide presence - and the tight controls imposed by the UN sanctions. Iraq also offers the problems of a vast desert country with limited communications.

Save the Children, Christian Aid and Aid International have been active directly or through partner agencies in the mainly Kurdish northern Iraq on development projects, including water and sanitation. CARE International UK and CAFOD support work in healthcare and water supply from Baghdad, and Islamic Relief has co-operated with the Iraqi Red Crescent to help hospitals and distribute food.

If war starts, the multi-agency Disasters Emergency Committee has warned that "the combination of geographical, military and political factors would make independent humanitarian intervention difficult" and early assessments of needs all but impossible.

One key factor will be the way aid agencies will have to work within an overwhelmingly US-led military environment, which many fear could undermine their humanitarian principles.

Serving or retired officers are working in every US agency that charities will deal with on the ground. That ranges from one or two soldiers within the US disaster assistance relief team, which will go in behind the troops to decide on needs and give funding to relief groups, to the US Army-controlled Co-ordinating Humanitarian Operations Centre in Kuwait.

Advised by the "civil affairs" and "humanitarian" officers of the fighting units invading Iraq, the alphabet soup of DART, HOC and ORHA will assess humanitarian needs and offer money to charities that fit in with their plans, while the US military command will decide if areas of Iraq are secure for aid agencies to enter.

With an overwhelmingly urban population, Iraq's civilians will be very vulnerable if water supplies, sanitation and healthcare are affected by damage to electricity supplies from either the expected aerial bombardment or ground assault. Food supplies will be easily disrupted since 60 per cent of the population depends on the rationing system, in which around 50,000 distribution points handle 500,000 tonnes a month.

Assessing the challenges faced by relief charities last week, Raja Jarrah, programme director of CARE International UK, warned: "While we can't predict the exact consequences of war, we can predict that they will be dire and, for many households, catastrophic."

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