Can actors remain “impartial” while providing the most basic types of aid (such as food and medicine) to civilians stuck in conflict zones? I am becoming increasingly skeptical that they can.
Here is why: Civilians need food and medicine desperately, and donors (NGO’s and foreign aid agencies) are anxious to provide it, but in their desperation they become indebted to the armed groups in that region. Donors need fighters’ permission to reach civilians and there is a lot of anecdotal evidence that donors bribe fighters for this access. For instance, read the funny story of how Toyota pickups came to be known as “technical”, a type of military vehicle in Africa, on Wikipedia. At the same time, fighters can use the same power to extract all kinds of goods and services (e.g. recruits) from the civilians under their control. Therefore trying to get food and medicine to civilians somewhere will often result in strengthening the armed group that controls that region.
Unfortunately, other armed groups in the conflict may not appreciate this tragedy or they may not care that the donor’s only aim was to help civilians. They may think “if your humanitarian operation helps my enemy, then you are my enemy as well”. I doubt that donors can remain impartial for long under these circumstances.
What if donors refuse to bribe armed groups? Then civilians suffer, which is probably why the UN cannot reach the 40,000 starving Syrians and Palestinians in the Yarmouk camp near Damascus.