Early this month, the United Nation’s World Food Programme (WFP) acknowledged that the delivery of much-needed food aid to displaced Syrian refugees in Dayr Hafir may have been hijacked by militants of the Islamic State last September. “The baddest, most capable terrorist group in the world today” intercepted boxes filled with rations to supply up to 8,500 people for one month.[1]

Image courtesy of European Commission DG ECHO, ©2014, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of European Commission DG ECHO, ©2014, some rights reserved.

The provision of foreign assistance, especially in zones of conflict, has been a topic of fierce debate amongst members of the international community since the implementation of the Marshall Plan following World War II. While scholars at the CATO Institute in Washington D.C. assert that aid initiatives harm, rather than help, the countries that they intend to assist,[2] others such as Jeffrey Sachs make a “case for aid” in which it is argued that foreign aid can, and does, make a difference.[3] One thing that both sides seem to agree upon, however, is that transparency is absolutely essential if the delivery of foreign aid is to be successful. Thus, the manipulation of aid on the part of Islamic State supporters reiterates contemporary dialogue surrounding the transparency and efficiency of foreign aid, especially in times of crisis, such as that pervading Syria and the surrounding region at the time in which this article is being written.

As consensus is generally found in the necessity of transparency, donors including governments and international organisations are looking to accountability mechanisms as a way to achieve more reliability and clarity. One such mechanism is the “geocoding” of aid projects throughout the world, or plotting the physical locations at which these projects are being implemented. AidData, a “research and innovation lab” that I worked for last summer, has undertaken the task of tracking the funding supplied by stakeholders such as the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the U.S. State Department, and various foreign governments.[4] Through this effort to publicize information regarding the delivery of aid, AidData hopes to generate increased accountability. In theory, donors and recipients may use the methodology developed by AidData as a helpful tool to ensure optimum levels of efficiency and effectiveness.

In practice, however, the process is rendered much more difficult due to a variety of confounding factors, one of the most significant of which is war. Tracking aid is problematic in times of conflict, even using the methods that AidData relies upon, often because the real recipient of the aid is not quite clear. For instance, my own geocoding team began working with data from projects in Iraq immediately preceding the breakout of conflict there. From day to day, we experienced the challenges of adjusting our methodology to the continuously changing administrative divisions within the country. This meant that our team could not be sure of the final destination of the aid we were meant to be coding—we were always wondering which state, district, or city was the funding or other forms of assistance being sent to. In turn, the question became: who specifically is the aid being sent to?

In the case of Iraq, and many of its neighboring countries who are also riddled by conflict involving the Islamic State, the answer is ambiguous. Will the democratically elected government of Iraq and its people benefit from that aid? Or, will the newer authorities in that area—the militants of IS, who seized control undemocratically—take those advantages for themselves? Because it is difficult to determine who exactly is in control of certain areas at any given time, our team at AidData found it virtually impossible to manage our task.

Although transparency is very important, it is also incredibly difficult to achieve high levels of clarity when it comes to the delivery of aid, particularly when the recipient country is undergoing a period of conflict. Especially in the post-9/11 world, foreign aid faces “new security imperatives and risks” presented by terrorist groups such as the Islamic State.[5] Terrorist activity further exacerbates the problem of transparency because organizations relying on such tactics often target victims who are not necessarily the same as the group’s intended audience. The Islamic State is not only interacting with officially-recognized governments themselves, but is also engaging with the wider public.

The case of hijacked food aid to Syria demonstrates how the Islamic State can intercept and manipulate resources as a means not only to invoke fear amongst an immediate population—the Syrian people—but also amongst global audiences. Because foreign aid is vital to the livelihood of so many people, terrorist groups such as the Islamic State have identified the opportunity presented by the issue’s sensitivity: supplies stolen from innocent war victims are bound to garner international attention. Images of the WFP’s supply boxes, rebranded with the Islamic State’s logo, have been widely circulated online through social media platforms, and have provoked international criticisms, but also a degree of fear. Thus, when organizations such as the Islamic State may reap benefits beyond material goods when interfering with the delivery of foreign aid; that act may additionally serve to augment their image upon the world stage. For that reason, terrorist groups choose to act when the situation is most dire, and the aid is most desperately needed.

That being said, aid need not be discontinued to states such as Iraq and Syria, even if cooption by the hands of militant groups may be seen as inevitable. Instead, it is more useful to focus on aid transparency as a means to circumvent the diversion of aid. International organizations and governments should continue to share and publicize their data in an effort to limit the possibility for manipulation. Although there will always be uncertainties surrounding the delivery of aid in times of conflict, the continued development of mechanisms to increase accountability may help ensure that crucial supplies reach victims in conflict zones.

[1] http://www.usnews.com/opinion/blogs/world-report/2014/06/17/isis-in-iraq-creates-classic-foreign-policy-dilemma-for-obama

[2] http://www.cato.org/publications/commentary/killing-kindness-how-foreign-aid-backfires

[3] http://foreignpolicy.com/2014/01/21/the-case-for-aid/

[4] http://aiddata.org/

[5] http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/store/10.1111/j.1468-2346.2005.00457.x/asset/j.1468-2346.2005.00457.x.pdf?v=1&t=i5wlynrq&s=1865e7e277d67665705f0cf384817520cea21d51