Article looking at the use of 'humanitarian' aid as a way of perpetuating war and reproducing capitalist social relations, as a means of social control, during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.
In Yugoslavia, as in Somalia and in every other war-torn region, humanitarian aid functions as a means of maintaining the war effort. Outside the affected region it provides a wonderful alibi for intervention by the armies of the most powerful states and makes these states appear caring. Inside the region it directly supports military operations through the large percentage of food aid which is used to feed front-line troops.
This reality is clearly expressed in an article from the Slovenian magazine Mladina (April 1993) entitled "The Battle of the Parcels". Here are some excerpts:
"On both sides of the front line the humanitarian parcels nourish the combatants. Serbs, Croats and Muslims eat the same canned food. Inspected, looted, the humanitarian convoys have become a means of political blackmail. A battle by itself. Up to the point where TV networks have become more interested in what is happening to them than to the war victims.
... Coming from the sea side near Mostar, the trucks belt along day and night. Trucks with multicolour stickers on them: Equilibre, Merhamet, ICRC, Médecins sans frontières, Pharmaciens sans frontières, Egyptian Agency for Humanitarian Aid, Nachbar in Not, Red Cross, UNHCR, Secours populaire français, Caritas, Agir pour réagir ...From a distance you would think it was an army of crusaders whose standard is children with outstretched arms, children protected by adult hands, children that look at the world ... On each parcel, on each box or bag the same labels have been stuck, mentioning its origin: donated by UNHCR, donated by the European Community, donated by the Government of the Netherlands, donated by the people of Germany. So that people won't mistakenly think that these parcels have just fallen down from heaven. The most incredible box of all has the form of a pyramid, a box of beef cooked in its juice, wrapped up in blue paper with the twelve stars of the EC printed on it in gold letters, but without any indication of its content. Just the thing itself, the "Twelve" cooked in their own juice! On some other trucks you can see the images of Jesus on his cross, of a crescent moon on a green background, or an incredible variety of logos of the UN.
... Those who are entitled to receive the humanitarian aid are claiming it. The others just take whatever they think they deserve. From the moment when the Croats and the Serbs of Bosnia-Hercegovina understood that the Muslims had definitely lost the war and that the international community was ready to ratify their defeat in official documents, they didn't see any reason to continue the war. Whatever could possibly be looted, already had been. The economy broken down, the shops empty: the only wealth left is the humanitarian convoys. They have a double function. On one hand, they are the basis of some additional profit, the basis of a new economy and they serve the logistics of several armies, because all army units that make war in Bosnia-Hercegovina eat the same cans from the same humanitarian convoys. On the other hand they are a means of political blackmail.
The convoys that arrive from Split are progressively relieved of the fuel they transport while the arms are transferred to Croatian garrisons and the most valuable freight simply disappears. At Kiseljak, on the border between the Serbian and Croatian territories, the convoys arrive much lighter. At Ilidža the Serbs prepare a humanitarian trap for them:
"Your convoy is humanitarian, isn't it?"
"Yes, completely. We want to help our fellow man."
"Fine. So the political differences don't interest you?"
"Not at all."
"So you will willingly leave 30% of your cargo to the Serbian Red Cross, won't you?"
What can the man in charge of the convoy do when he's got a machine gun pointed at him? He willingly leaves 30% of his cargo while slipping 1000 or 2000 DM in to the hands of the chief of police so that no additional problems arise. What this 30% means, only the Serbian police can say. What determines this, of course, is the quality of the contents. If it's coffee, then "30%" means "to the last bean". With some luck the convoy has been able to keep half of its cargo upon arriving in Sarajevo. The other half can be found either with the soldiers in the mountains or with the Serbs who sell it to the Croats of Kiseljak, who in turn sell it to the soldiers of UNPROFOR, to the drivers of the trucks and to the population who were entitled to receive the cargo in the first place. A convoy that does not respect these rules can wait for days or even weeks to get through."
More subtle is the use of aid as a means of social control. Food aid can be used to lure people to a refugee camp that they don't want to go to or to persuade them to stay in a besieged city that they would rather leave. It can be distributed selectively – as in Sarajevo where the authorities have prevented aid from reaching the families of draft dodgers.
Occasionally, starving proletarians have resisted the capitalist logic of aid in the most direct way: by plundering aid convoys. In January 1994, angry crowds from around Kakanj on the main road between Zenica and Sarajevo set up a barricade of logs to stop an aid convoy guarded by the Bosnian military police (Guardian, 29 January 1994). According to the UN, the crowd shot at the cops and threw a grenade, injuring six of them. They then looted several trucks. A senior official of UN High Commission for Refugees admitted that there was a "suspicion" that supplies were being used to feed the Bosnian Army at the expense of civilians and refugees. He added: "We've now got Bosnian shooting Bosnian to steal food. This is a dangerous escalation". Indeed it is "dangerous" – for those who would rather see a thousand proletarians slaughtered on the battle fields than see a single cop fall in the class war.
Even where it reaches people who are really starving, humanitarian aid is always a conservative enterprise because it aims to provide people with food so they can go about their capitalist daily lives, working for "their" bosses and fighting for "their" country. What appears to be a favour to starving proletarians is actually a subsidy to the local bourgeoisie. It reduces their bills for wages and military supplies, as well as enabling them to make fortunes by simply selling aid goods – across ex-Yugoslavia it's not at all unusual to find "humanitarian" medical supplies on sale in private pharmacies. This is particularly obvious in situations where the aid organisation simply hands over supplies to the local authorities to distribute as they see fit. This also has the advantage that the aid organisation can deny all responsibility for blatant cases of corruption and diversion of goods to the military, as UN spokespeople are fond of doing.
In the case of the humanitarian aid organised by the UN and the big charities all this should be clear to anyone with a grain of class consciousness, but it's equally true of leftist versions of humanitarian aid such as the Trotskyist-organised "Workers' Aid to Bosnia". Despite their workerist (usually trade unionist) rhetoric and their refusal to give part of their aid to the Croatian Army in return for safe passage, their aid was not going to workers in struggle but to citizens fighting to defend their state. This was particularly true because the heroic Tuzla miners that the Trots are so fond of were almost all in the army on a part-time basis. The aid was largely distributed by the miners' union, which is a good old-fashioned Stalinist state-run union which happens to have switched its allegiance from the Yugoslav state to the Bosnian one.
The only kind of "aid" which doesn't aid the capitalist war machine is that given selectively to proletarians in struggle – to draft dodgers and deserters and not to loyal troops; to strikers and not to cops and scabs.