Neutrality: Widening the Gap Between the IS and the OUGHT

A fundamental principle at the heart of almost all aide organizations is the concept of “neutrality”. On the American Red Cross website , the organization explains that “in order to continue to enjoy the confidence of all, the Red Cross may not take sides in hostilities or engage at any time in controversies of a political, racial, religious or ideological nature” (“Mission & Principles”). Therefore, when it comes to providing aide, this means that the American Red Cross “makes no discrimination as to nationality, race, religious beliefs, class or political opinions. It endeavors to relieve the suffering of individuals, being guided solely by their needs, and to give priority to the most urgent cases of distress” (“Mission & Principles”). Based on these principles, anyone that seems fit and deserving of aide shall receive it. But what if providing aide means feeding soldiers that kill innocent people by night? What if providing aide means paying a tax that supply war lords with weapons? What if providing aide means that the murder, rape, and dislocation of people will continue? Can we then decide who and when to give aide? As Polman points out in her book War Games, humanitarian aide money often finds its way into unintended hands. Even so, the aide industry sees no reason to reform its policies. In attempting to provide help to those in need, humanitarian organizations continue to supply wars, allow for violence, and finance corrupt leaders. Instead of turning a blind eye to these negative consequences, aide organizations ought to look at the bigger picture and access if their work is actually more harmful than helpful.


Humanitarian efforts in Goma highlight the fundamental ethical, social, and cultural problems with the concept of “neutrality”. After 800,000 Rwandan Tutsi’s and moderate Hutu’s were murdered by Hutu extremists, a Tutsi army from Uganda was able to put an end to the genocide (Polman 16). This caused thousands of Hutus to flee Rwanda, many of which ended up in the refugee camp in Goma. Once the mainstream media got footage of the camp, specifically the outbreak of cholera within the camp, aide organizations rushed to the scene and created the largest aide gathering “together in a single ‘humanitarian territory'” (Polman 20). But what the media failed to highlight was that many refugees were not killed by the cholera outbreak, but instead by the orders of Hutu militia. In fact, the Hutu’s had moved to Goma as a “tactical withdraw” (Polman 24). They had come to the camp for free supplies, access to medicine, and collect “tax” money for their war fund. And the plethora of aide organizations at the camp happily provided those needs and more. Hutu extremists had access to jobs, great schools, restaurants, bars, bakeries, theaters, and other luxuries that the Tutsis in Rwanda would never see. Polman explains that the “entire extremist Hutu government had relocated to Goma” to regroup (Polman 24). And as the Hutu extremists were planning their next move against the Tutsi’s back in Rwanda, they were also murdering any Hutu in the camp who seemed to disagree with their plan of action. Hutu extremists would even leave the camps to kill Tutsis in surrounding areas. Polman explains that this violence was allowed to continue as the “Hutus went unpunished” (Polman 26).

A picture of the camp in Goma that provided aide to Hutus.


In reflecting on the Humanitarian aide work in Goma, it is hard to believe the aide provided was truly “neutral”. Aide organizations not only supported a group of extremists who participated in genocide on a horrific scale, but also funded their plans to continue to killing Tutsis. Workers in the camps were aware of the violence, but seemed to simply ignore it. Fiona Terry, a doctor in the camp, recognized the problems the aide was creating. Terry wondered if we should “respect conventional medial ethics, treating anyone who needed it regardless of their history, or should we recognize our larger responsibility?” (Polman 30). The truth seems to be that the principle of neutrality is simply not realistic for humanitarian aide.

What does this mean for current crises in areas of the world like Syria? Will it have a similar fate as Goma? According to USAID, the United States alone has contributed more than $385 million to the crisis in Syria (“Syria”). However, their is still no way to ensure all of this funding is used for its intended purpose. After the money has been spent, there is no governing body that checks where the money actually went and how it was spent. Michael Landler and Mark Gordon reported in The New York Times that “President Bashar al-Assad’s gains on the battlefield have called the United States’ strategy on Syria into question, prompting the Obama administration to again consider military options, including arming the rebels” (Landler and Gordon). As the United States can decide to take sides, based on what it believes is best for the people of Syria (or more likely what is best for the United States itself), should humanitarian aide organizations do the same? There seems to be no way to escape bias in this situation. However, it is clear that the aide industry needs to look at their long term effects and decide if they are truly helping the people of Syria, or simply helping prolong crisis. If the latter is true, maybe it would be best for humanitarian aide to leave the crisis until they can be sure their efforts are truly benefiting the people of Syria. Humanitarian aide in Syria needs to accurately report the consequences of their efforts so the can effectively access how to move forward with the situation in Syria. 

Syrian refugees receiving humanitarian aide.


Can an aide organization really ever be completely neutral? Does our emphasis on neutrality actually bring harm to those receiving aide? Does the idea of neutrality seem to block the larger picture of what is going on? It seems that our current focus on neutrality is not helping aide organizations reach their primary goals. Instead, wars are prolonged, violence is encouraged, and actual victims never see the benefits of the millions of dollars. Aide organizations ought to shove aside their concern with neutrality and public image and focus on the true needs of victims.



Landler, Michael R. Mark Gordon. “As Rebels Lose Ground in Syria, U.S. Mulls Options.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 10 June 2013. Web. 11 June 2013. <>.

Polman, Linda. War Games: The Story of Aid and War in Modern times. London: Viking, 2010. Print.

“Mission, Vision, and Fundamental Principles.” Mission & Principles. Web. 11 June 2013. <>.

“Syria.” Crisis in. USAID. Web. 11 June 2013. <>.

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