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Policy highlights from Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition

June 03, 2004

The warfare in Iraq is taking its toll not only on that country's civilian population but also on the humanitarian organizations seeking to assist people in need. What does the experience mean for humanitarian endeavors in Iraq and beyond? That was the subject of a Tufts-initiated "humanitarian mapping exercise" and also of a recent one-day stock-taking exercise in New York. Participants in both initiatives included officials from non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the United Nations, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, and governments. The closed-door session was part of a reflection process led by the Feinstein International Famine Center's Humanitarianism and War Project, chaired by Center Director Peter Walker.

When Humanitarian Space is Occupied Territory Larry Minear, director of the Humanitarianism and War Project, frames the issue this way: Humanitarian work in Iraq is being done in occupied territory with many of the humanitarian workers and aid organizations from the country that leads the occupation. That injects numerous tensions into the aid response. First, the crisis in the country is not a humanitarian one but a political one. In the food sector, for example, the nutrition needs of most Iraqis were being met before the war by an international food aid effort. However, as the violence continues and with national infrastructure disrupted, the needs of the population, not only for emergency assistance but also for protection and safety, are becoming more acute.

Second, the work of humanitarian organizations takes place within the framework of the occupation and is mediated to one degree or another by coalition troops. Aid officials attending the meeting organized by Tufts expressed different views about the bearing of their nationality on their work. Some felt that funds from the U.S. government, despite its status as a party to the conflict, should be accepted by U.S. aid groups and used for urgently needed relief. Others preferred not to accept such funds, fearing that their work would become politicized by its association with the political-military presence of the U.S. and its coalition partners.

Principled vs. Pragmatic Humanitarianism - Need for a More Universal Approach Indeed, the blurring of lines of humanitarian space in Iraq and, before that, in Afghanistan has sharpened divisions among aid practitioners on the relative merits of principled vs. pragmatic humanitarianism. There was consensus, however, that the predominantly western composition of the international humanitarian apparatus was interfering with its effectiveness. "The need for a more universal approach, moving beyond the western cast of most of today's institutions and aid personnel," continued Larry Minear, "is one of the major lessons that agencies are taking away from the current situation."

Rules of Disengagement?

Another action item for aid groups that has emerged from recent discussions has been recognition of the need to formulate ground rules for disengagement from difficult situations, whether because of inability to work effectively or because of the insecurity of humanitarian personnel. The Humanitarianism and War Project meeting sought to identify ways and means to enable aid workers to stay the course, inasmuch as suspension of aid operations represented at least a temporary frustration of their objectives. However, the group identified costs and benefits of both engagement and disengagement.

Numerous other issues were also raised: the need for fuller interpretation of humanitarian work to Iraqis, the opening of a dialogue with Islamic academic institutions and aid agencies, the impact of private contractors on humanitarian aid, and the distribution of aid according to need. A write-up of the discussion is available under Policy Dialogues on the Project's web site.*

The Humanitarianism and War Project reviews the experience of the international community in responding to complex emergencies around the world. It examines the interplay between humanitarian action and political-military forces. Relying primarily on the data gathered from interviews with those involved in crises, most recently by visits to Iraq itself, it frames recommendations to improve the functioning of the world's humanitarian system and disseminates these widely for discussion by practitioners, policymakers, and academics. The Humanitarianism and War Project and the Feinstein International Famine Center are part of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University.
*For more information on the Humanitarianism and War Project at Tufts University, please see For more information on the Feinstein International Famine Center at Tufts, please see

The Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University is the only independent school of nutrition in the United States. The school's eight centers, which focus on questions relating to famine, hunger, poverty, and communications, are renowned for the application of scientific research to national and international policy. For two decades, the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University has studied the relationship between good nutrition and good health in aging populations. Tufts research scientists work with federal agencies to establish the USDA Dietary Guidelines, the Dietary Reference Intakes, and other significant public policies.

If you are interested in learning more about this topic, or speaking with a faculty member at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, or another Tufts health sciences researcher, please contact Siobhan Gallagher at 617-636-6586 or via email to

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