Safety or survival?

Aid agencies’ reputation in Iraq is tarnished

International aid agencies have created some bad PR for themselves in Iraq by putting the safety of their employees ahead of their humanitarian mission, according to a new report from Tufts’ Feinstein International Center.

Iraqi women raise their hands to receive aid in Baquba, 35 miles north of Baghdad, in early August. © AFP/GETTY IMAGES

And they’ve forfeited any appearance of neutrality by subscribing to a U.S. view that makes it impossible to talk to insurgents, when that might make more sense, according to the report, “Taking Sides or Saving Lives: Existential Choices for the Humanitarian Enterprise in Iraq,” which is based on field research conducted in and around Iraq last November and December.

In Iraq, many aid agencies have been in touch with only one of the warring groups, if they’ve stayed in the country at all. They tend to have contact with the U.S. military, while rarely talking at all with insurgents, the report says. The insurgents are generally characterized as a single unit, despite evidence that there are now multiple conflicts occurring in Iraq between a range of players.

Many aid agencies’ willingness to talk to the U.S.-led coalition, combined with the fact that most international groups still in the country are bunkered down in the Green Zone in Baghdad, has helped give many Iraqis the impression that aid workers are in bed with the Americans, the report says. Even before Saddam Hussein’s fall, aid agencies were often perceived as Western spies, and for some Iraqis, those suspicions are confirmed when they see relief organization vehicles driving into Army bases.

It also means that the aid workers in these heavily protected areas, described as the “Baghdad bubble,” are out of touch with what is really happening in the country.

One veteran aid worker told the Feinstein researchers that something has to change: “At some point, individual staff need to say to their headquarters and staff associations, no, this isn’t what we want. Living in our bunker doesn’t help us do our job.” The alternatives to seeking shelter in the Green Zone are pulling out altogether, or trying to keep safe at a distance from the U.S. military.

Before the U.S-led invasion in March 2003, there were just a handful of mostly European-based aid agencies working in Iraq. But many agencies pulled out after attacks on the United Nations and the Red Cross/Red Crescent movement in 2003 and 2004, an act that shocked humanitarians around the world.

Aid agencies’ reputations also have been tarnished because most people haven’t seen them doing anything. Many Iraqis perceive the agencies as corrupt and wasteful.

“There is resistance against the idea that there is a humanitarian problem in Iraq because it’s seen as an admission of failure,” the report says. “Couple that with the die-hard assumption that Iraq is a middle-income country that is awash in oil wealth.”

The Feinstein report can be found at

This story ran in the September 2007 issue of the Tufts Journal.