Thursday, July 29, 2004

The PR value of drinkable water

Médecins sans frontières, the Nobel-prize group of doctors offering their services to troubled areas around the world, has decided to pull out of Afghanistan after 24 years of continuous work, joining the chorus of independent help groups saying the behaviour of United States troops is turning aid workers into targets.

American troops and others (including our own Canadian troops) have been busy building schools, repairing roads and purifying water, hence blurring the line between soldiers (bad guys with guns who shoot people and ride in armoured personnel carriers) and aid workers (good guys with shovels riding in pick-up trucks). Aid workers have been noticing that the more soldiers do reconstruction work, the more aid workers get shot at. Just a month ago, five Médecins sans frontières volunteers were killed in an ambush.

So what's going on here? Is the campaign by occupation forces to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people - occupation PR - pushing aid agencies out? Since the military is doing the job, should the aid agencies even be there?

The potential benefits of rebuilding a country's infrastructure - or build it from the ground up as is largely the case in Afghanistan - is deemed worth the enormous manpower necessary. If in the bargain people get clean water and a roof over their heads, everyone's a winner right?

Not quite.

If the military is good at building things, they're no experts at giving aid, as last year's food distribution disaster in Southern Iraq showed. How to effectively feed a population while preventing profiteering is just not part of military training.

Actually, feeding people and winning acceptance for the occupation may not even be the main objective of the occupation forces. Aid workers indicated one reason they were being confused for military personnel is the troops have been distributing leaflets implying only those who gave information on guerrillas would receive assistance.

Winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan people? Bullshit. Blackmail has never been a public relations tool.

So in the end, the American "food for snitches" intelligence-gathering operation is pushing out legitimate humanitarian efforts in Afghanistan. I'm sure the command staff is rejoicing to see all those independent observers leave.

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