Crisis aid delivery requires rethink

March 10, 2000

A humane response to 'complex emergencies' is not enough. Martin Ince reports on why a clear purpose for action is vital

You will know from the television news what a "complex emergency" is, and you will have noticed that they are getting more frequent and spreading beyond the developing world. They happen when wars are directed at human populations instead of occurring between armies, and they are followed by famine, mass migration and other forms of disaster. Many are more damaging even than the flood disaster in Mozambique.

In recent years, complex emergencies in Rwanda, Sudan, Angola, Bosnia, Kosovo and elsewhere have been the subject of responses by a wide range of agencies, including the United Nations, governments and a variety of non-governmental organisations. The responses have saved many lives, but just how well these responses are improving through time has only now been analysed for the first time.

Leading the study of the agencies' performance through the past decade has been Phil O'Keefe, a development geographer at the University of Northumbria at Newcastle. He led the first detailed study of a complex emergency in Somalia in 1994.He has been funded by the Danish state development agency Danida.

Dr O'Keefe stresses the need for a clear assessment of emergency response. About one person in 120 in the world is "displaced", a total of 60 million individuals. Worldwide humanitarian assistance spending grew from $500 million in 1989 to $6 billion in 1999. The thinking underlying its use might not have grown up as fast.

Dr O'Keefe says: "The UN agencies grew up responding to natural hazards, partly because drought is the biggest single hazard people face." This means the UN tends to respond to wars and complex emergencies as if they were natural disasters.

The big growth in spending on disaster relief has several causes, Dr O'Keefe says, beginning with the collapse of the nation-state and a government monopoly on violence in many parts of the world. Complex emergencies are getting more numerous, and they are getting closer. "It costs more to save lives in Europe than in Africa," he says - displaced Kosovar Albanians are quick to point out that "We are not Africans" and expect, for example, piped water nearby.

Working through a university-linked company, ETC (UK), Dr O'Keefe and colleagues have conducted 40 evaluations of humanitarian assistance since 1994. Sometimes the contract involves an overall policy-level look at whether it was right to intervene, while other investigations have meant looking at lessons learnt in particular interventions and at whether basic food and shelter standards have been met.

The most recent complex emergencies raise mandate-stretching issues for agencies. For example, the UN has no real right to intervene when people become displaced within their home state. Only when they cross borders do they fall within the remit of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, although this has not prevented the UN in Kenya from intervening in Somalia. In addition, the UNHCR system is designed to aid displaced individuals and families, not mass populations.

But the main growth in humanitarian intervention has come from international NGOs, which are large and which usually cooperate in even larger networks. Save the Children, the Red Cross, Oxfam and Care International are among the principal actors.

Their growth has coincided with the harsh experience of military "peace-keeping" intervention, as in former Yugoslavia or in crises in Rwanda and Somalia. In Bosnia, says Dr O'Keefe, there was "no peace to keep", while in other crises there have been complex issues about disengagement strategies.

Dr O'Keefe points out that the Danish aid effort is focused increasingly on human rights and peace-keeping rather than on the nation-states it interacts with. The Danes are one of the members of the informal "group of like-minded donors" that takes in other Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands, Canada and, increasingly, the United Kingdom: social democratic states with more concern for human rights than for the niceties of national sovereignty.

Among the Northumbria group's findings is one very political one - that countries are using humanitarian aid as a substitute for diplomacy, for example in Sudan and Afghanistan. Dr O'Keefe agrees with UK development secretary Clare Short, who said that humanitarian assistance was prolonging the problems for Sudan, especially following its 1998 famine.

There are also uncomfortable insights into the position of humanitarian aid providers on site, who often have an uneasy relationship with informal armed forces and have been known to pay for the presence of a heavily armed "technician" on their

vehicles.

This suggests the need for more valuable target-setting, such as counting the number of people fed rather than the tons of food shifted, and adding output measures of reduced morbidity and mortality to the objectives. Acting humanely is not sufficient without a clear purpose for the action. This applies especially to NGOs, which have tended to focus on activity rather than output.

But Dr O'Keefe adds that many international NGOs are becoming more professional, while new ones coming along may add something to the mix. For example, Christian charities often work well together, but in Sudan they found it hard to work with Muslim communities. The UK's much smaller Muslim charities are now getting better at connecting to government and to new sources of government and other funding. AP 'Countries are using humanitarian aid

as a substitute for diplomacy, as in Sudan and Afghanistan'

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