Will one company’s mixed mission in Yemen sow suspicion of aid groups?

For aid organizations, especially those in conflict zones, remaining politically neutral is crucial for trust. A New York Times investigation found that the conduct of a logistics company could drive suspicion that aid groups in Yemen were somehow acting as agents of the U.S. government. William Brangham speaks with The New York Times' Eric Schmitt and Daryl Grisgraber of Refugees International.

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    Aid organizations, especially those working in conflict zones like Yemen, say it's crucial that they remain politically neutral. They say it's the only way they can safely do their jobs.

    But a recent investigation by The New York Times reveals how one company may have endangered that neutrality for many humanitarian groups.

    William Brangham has that story.


    UNICEF and the Red Cross are two of the humanitarian groups working in Yemen, where a brutal civil war has killed or injured at least 12,000 people.

    The Times today revealed that a logistics company known as Transoceanic Development wasn't only helping those aid groups get their supplies into Yemen, but the company was also secretly helping U.S. special forces do the same. The Times reports how this dual relationship could drive suspicion that the aid groups were somehow acting as agents of the U.S. government.

    I'm joined now by Eric Schmitt. He's one of The Times' reporters who broke this story. And by Daryl Grisgraber. She's a senior advocate at Refugees International, which is an aid group that operates in the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia. She previously worked for Amnesty International.

    Welcome to you both.

    Eric Schmitt, I would like to start with you.

    Let's just go over some of these details again. So this logistics company, Transoceanic Development, is working to deliver and help deliver aid supplies to Yemen for these aid groups, while they're also doing some work for U.S. special forces.

    Can you explain those two relationships a little bit?

  • ERIC SCHMITT, The New York Times:


    So, Transoceanic is this giant global logistics company. And its job is really to ferry materials and shipments all over the world for various customers. And a couple of its customers, as you mentioned, are the Red Cross and for UNICEF. And, in this case, they did some warehousing, they did some basic bringing materials and shipments of supplies into Yemen that would then be delivered to — through other humanitarian organizations to the needy in that strife-torn country.

    So that's one of their jobs. And they were very open about this. And when Mr. Darden was kidnapped, his story became quite public, because …


    This is the main, the central character in your story, who was sort of organizing this organization in Yemen. He was kidnapped by some rebels there, and then was released after several years.


    That's right. Scott Darden was the country director for Transoceanic. So, he was responsible kind of at the front end for getting these shipments of aid into Yemen. So, that story is quite public.

    What's new here is that it turned out that Transoceanic and Mr. Darden were also working on secret contracts involving shipping similar types of materials into Yemen for the military, specifically for the very specialized special operations forces, the commandos, who are operating in Yemen today.


    And just for the record, there's no evidence that the aid groups had any idea that the company they were hiring to do work for them was also doing this work for the U.S. government.


    That's right.

    Spokesmen for both UNICEF and for the Red Cross said they had no idea that Transoceanic was carrying out these kind of contracts with the military on the logistics side of things. And had they known, they may have opted for another company.

    But I must say, there aren't a lot of companies that get into these kind of very dangerous war zone type of places. So it's not unusual to find a company like Transoceanic dealing with multiple kinds of customers.


    So, Daryl Grisgraber, what is your reaction? You read this story. What was your response?

  • DARYL GRISGRABER, Refugees International:

    Initially, we were all quite dismayed as humanitarians, because there's meant to be a very strict separation between military assistance, political assistance, and humanitarian assistance.

    And there is quite a lively debate that goes on right now in the humanitarian world about keeping those separate and when and how is it possible to combine them.

    But the initial reaction then is, because these got combined, it's going to look bad for humanitarians everywhere. Humanitarians tend to be a little bit under suspicion anyway, just because they're foreigners often in a country, where we talk about the U.N. or big INGOs.

    And they operate very significantly on trust, building trust with the people they serve, as well as the governments that allow them to operate. And to know now that the humanitarian principle of neutrality in particular has potentially been compromised or even perceived to be compromised is going to affect all humanitarians.


    So, the concern, just to spell it out even more clearly, is that if a government or groups operating in a certain country somehow thought that you were receiving shipments from a company that was also working for a partisan group in that nation as well, that the humanitarian aid workers might come under attack.


    Oh, for sure, yes.

    Organizations could be banned from operating in a country. The humanitarian individuals could come under attack. And, in general, it's really important to remember that this just erodes the trust that allows humanitarians to do work everywhere and get access to the people who really need them the most, because that often involves really emphasizing the fact that you are neutral and not on the side of a conflict, and so it's OK for you to be serving people.


    Eric Schmitt, in your piece you remind us that there was a more notorious incident where the CIA was operating in Pakistan, and it literally did blur these very lines that we're talking about. Can you tell us what happened in that story?


    Sure, absolutely.

    In an effort to try and determine whether Osama bin Laden was actually hiding in a walled compound in Abbottabad, in this town in Pakistan, they devised a system where they would go door-to-door in that city and do inoculations, and hoping that somebody would come to the door, they would be able to come inside, take inoculations from presumably family members, and then get some type of DNA readout on this.

    Well, this all came to light, of course, after the death of bin Laden, and it very much jeopardized not only the doctors that were involved, but it basically turned much of that community in Pakistan against polio vaccinations.

    So, it became — actually, it was very counterproductive for public health reasons in that country. And the CIA has said it won't do that again.


    Daryl Grisgraber, what do you — what is your sense of what revelations like this could do for the effort in Yemen right now?


    Well, there are very few aid groups, relatively speaking, operating in Yemen as it is because of the security situation.

    There are many U.N. agencies and INGOs, international non-governmental organizations, that had to withdraw their staff. And so compared to the need in Yemen, there are really very few groups addressing it.

    And if this breaks trust or puts humanitarian under fire in some way, it will be completely comprehensible that organizations pull their staffs out of there. But that means even less help for — what are we talking at, at this point? Potentially, 17 million people might begin starving to death in a few weeks.


    All right, Daryl Grisgraber, Eric Schmitt, thank you both very much.


    Thank you.


    Thank you.

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