Visualization in Journalism

M100 Young European Journalists Workshop
8./11. September 2014 at University of Applied
Sciences Potsdam

Image credit: swiss.frog

The Trojan Horse in the Middle East

An Exploration of Humanitarian Aid and Weapons Trade Data

Krystina Shveda, Laure Fourquet, Martín González, Maaike Goslinga, Iaryna Mykhyalyshyn, Nerea Martínez García, Miroslav Čakširan. Under the supervision of Julian Stahnke (FHP).

The following data-driven investigation explores four conflicts that took place or are still taking place in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Syria in the twenty-first century. This study shows that Middle Eastern countries have imported a large amount of weapons to support their conflicts, whilst they have also received a considerable amount of humanitarian aid from these very same exporting nations.

In the words of Council on Foreign Relations President Richard N. Haass, today’s conflicts in Middle East can be best compared to the 30 Years’ War – a series of proxy wars that go on for decades. These wars have proven to be fuelled by western interference, particularly in the form of arms trade. Interestingly, countries outside the Middle East are also major providers of aid.

The research objective of this visualisation is to identify the role of various countries in these bloody wars as both providers of humanitarian aid and of weapons. Taking these findings as a guide, it opens up the debate on whether or not humanitarian assistance is given in vain if countries benefit from foreign military imports.

Graph 1 Humanitarian aid and arms flowing to Irak.

Bloody conflicts in the Middle East

As exemplified by this map, humanitarian aid and arms are flowing to Iraq from all the corners of the globe. The international arms trade is represented by arrows in order to illustrate the connection between Iraq and its foreign partners. The map shows that conflicts such as the Second Gulf War are largely shaped by international involvement in the Middle East. Displaying the recurrent role of countries including the United States and Russia, the map highlights the economic and political rivalries of these major global players.

The charts show us that there are many countries that both sell weapons and provide humanitarian aid to conflict regions at the same time. This means that government expenditure is spent on settling a conflict or helping out those in immediate danger, whilst the private arms industry is feeding conflicts further. This, in turn, often necessitates more humanitarian help.

Graph 2 Import of weapons and humanitarian aid to Pakistan during the Waziristan conflict

In 2004, the growth of domestic Islamist terrorism in North West Pakistan became the biggest security threat the country has known since its creation in 1947. The Waziristan conflict is an armed battle that was triggered by local tribesmen, the Taliban and foreign local religious extremists. The tensions rooted in the Pakistani Army’s search for al-Qaeda members in Pakistan’s mountainous Waziristan area played an important role in the development of the war which made over 16,739 casualties during battle-related incidents.

As can be seen in the chart, a high volume of arms was exported to Pakistan from China ($4.13B) and from the US ($2.70) between 2004 and 2013. On the other hand, American humanitarian effort was $1.87B, as opposed to the almost non-existent Chinese one ($0.02B).

Graph 3 Import of weapons and humanitarian aid to Afghanistan during the Afghanistan war

The War in Afghanistan was launched by the U.S as a response to the September 11 attacks on Americans soil by terrorist group Al-Qaeda. NATO coalition forces succeeded in toppling Taliban leaders in 2001 but failed to dismantle the insurgent group.

Counting over 16,739 deaths during battle related incidents, the longest war the history of Afghanistan brought an important flow of American weapons ($1.77B) and humanitarian assistance to Afghan soil. Russia, however, sold a limited number of arms to Afghanistan ($0.39) and delivered the equivalent of $0.39B in humanitarian aid.

Graph 4 Import of weapons and humantitarian aid to Syria during 2011 – 2013

The Syrian conflict started in March 2011, as the regime launched a violent crackdown on activists demanding more civil liberties as well as economic and political reforms. This sparked a nationwide uprising against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, and eventually a civil war with armed rebels.

Armed civilians and military defectors formed the main group of opposition: the Free Syria Army. The US and the European Union imposed economic sanctions on the Syrian government. Two years after the beginning of the uprising, it appeared that Assad’s regime made systematic use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians, provoking a general outcry amongst the international community.

Our data show that Russia ($0.99B) is the only country that has sent weapons to Syria. The unusual absence of humanitarian aid from the international community, as well as the secretiveness surrounding arms trade with Syria highlight the complicated nature of the conflict.

Graph 5 Import of weapons and humanitarian aid to Iraq during the Second Gulf War

The Iraq War is better known to many as the Second Gulf War. Taking place between 2003 and 2011, the war saw Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein ousted by United States and allied forces. Many sources have put the toll of military and civilian deaths close to half a million, making the Iraq War one of the most polarising political conflict of late – especially in the light of recent Islamic State attacks.

The chart shows that the US is sender of both arms ($2.07B) and humanitarian aid ($1.6B), numbers that far exceed those of other countries. Russia has sent far more humanitarian aid ($0.3B) than weapons to Iraq ($0.01B). Most of America’s closest allies have sold more arms than they have sent aid to Iraq.


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