Supporting the capacity of beneficiaries, local staff and partners to face violence alone
by Casey A. Barrs, Cuny Center July 2009

The mass expulsion of aid agencies from Sudan in March 2009 showed in a single stroke just how vital and vulnerable humanitarian capacity is. The incident offers an enormous chance to learn – and not repeat. To restore capacity in the same way is to risk leaving locals in harm’s way all over again. Humanitarian policy has proven resistant to learning, at least in some respects. But now Darfur’s ‘situation has brought the modus operandi of international humanitarian assistance agencies into sharp focus’ It is a time for serious stocktaking.

Failure to support the right local capacity

Public statements by agencies since the expulsion warn of threats to the survival of millions in Darfur. Are these claims exaggerated and perhaps self-serving – or accurate and self-incriminating? They may be self-incriminating if they reveal that little was done to support the capacity of beneficiaries, local staff and partners to face violence alone. This capacity exists, but there is little evidence that aid agencies in Darfur tried to prepare for an uncertain future by augmenting such ability. Instead they focused on day-to-day humanitarian maintenance (and did that well given the pressures they faced). But, as has been said often since the Bosnian conflict, it is not enough to meet people’s food and health needs as long as humanly possible. If they are still ill-prepared for violence when we are separated, then we have fundamentally failed: according to HPG, ‘The expulsion has raised key questions about operating modalities and humanitarian assistance in Sudan’, including ‘the lack of local capacity to take over’.

Clearly, humanitarian agencies support many kinds of local capacity – but seldom the kind that helps locals survive and serve others alone amid violence.


Physical safety

      . Which presence-based, programme-based, rights-based or camp-based ‘protections’ remain after agencies and their beneficiaries are separated? Which are portable, adaptable and applicable to the locales and circumstances people will face next? Which programmes support local ability to either accommodate or avoid threats alone? Which boost local skills in information-gathering, communication, safe sites, safe movement or threat response, ahead of the day when there are no more camps or programmes? In Darfur, there is little evidence that this was tried beyond the limited efforts by peacekeepers to build community policing. Many reports have concluded that we must support the viable ways that civilians evade threats. But on the contrary, ‘one disappointing characteristic of the protection response in Darfur has been the limited emphasis on understanding and supporting community self-protection tactics.’ The focus instead was on

‘external protective capacities’ and ‘action by third parties’

      . These are ephemeral.

2. Economic survival. If beneficiaries are offered livelihood aid that needs peace to flourish, but agencies quit mid-conflict, then they have essentially failed. Which programmes are designed for post-access scenarios in which civilians find it ever more dangerous to access markets or to work openly? Which not only help locals scale up their assets, while also helping to safeguard those assets from violence? Which support locals’ own efforts to get their household economies onto a threat footing? It is increasingly recognised that the effect of external relief programmes is modest relative to the far greater impact of people’s own efforts to ensure their economic survival. This may mean that, in some situations, agencies should support local adaptive efforts, such as commuting, family separation, non-market subsistence or relying on money networks and shadow/coping economies. It may mean that agencies should sometimes help locals to protect their assets through caching, dispersing, diversifying, dismantling, liquidating, redeeming or scorching them, and that they might be helped in pre-emptively stripping and transferring their assets. In Darfur, this suggests that agencies should have made more effort to get ahead of displacement by giving more attention to still-intact rural communities. But instead of trying to help locals to maintain some options in their home areas, or at the very least helping them to be wardens of their own calculated displacement, agencies largely waited in camps for them to arrive as our wards, stripped and destitute.

3. Local service delivery. Just after the expulsion, the Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, John Holmes, observed (years too late)that it is ‘particularly important to consider how to maximize the continuity of operations as well as the knowledge base and capacity of national staff members’. Aside from nominal stockpiling and the formation of local committees to perform certain conventional aid activities, little more had been done to help prepare local service providers for dealing with violence alone and contingency plans reportedly did not exist. Planning with local staff and partners should cover, not just their ability to serve but more fundamentally their ability to survive. Instead, as Holmes acknowledged, questions about the treatment of more than 7,000 remaining national staff were only now being addressed. This should have been anticipated years ago. Suppose, for instance, that from 2003 onwards attention had been given to what locally led service delivery in the face of violence would look like, and how it might be supported from a distance, if need be.

When expatriates are evacuated and local staff supported from a distance, risk may simply be ‘outsourced’ to those staff. This is partly because they are forced into our mould: even though our own highly evolved aid machinery, with all its administrative, logistical and financial surge capacity, is not designed to survive conflict. Despite efforts to build acceptance, protection and deterrence, agencies still bequeath these staff a vulnerable aid architecture which distance management does not alter. It does not necessarily overcome the operational dangers that cause us to evacuate in the first place. Facing danger alone, local providers thus often improvise tactics that mitigate threats to their work. One area of innovation has been to deinstitutionalise programmes, a way of coping that is counterintuitive to ingrained visions of institution-building. Local service providers have sometimes found that, by dissolving into society, they can stay in service longer. Unfortunately, we tend to give little thoughtto how local organisations cope.

There are many ways that local capacity for safety, sustenance and services can be supported before agencies themselves become incapacitated. It is time for aid agencies and donors to do some deep reassessment. The dangerous transition being experienced in Darfur is not an anomaly: over the past three years programme suspensions globally have doubled each yeardue to insecurity. Moreover, suspensions are only one of the several ways that aid work can be prematurely curtailed. Consider the lethal lapses when aid workers are unable to prevent conflict, continue programmes or transfer work to nationals safely, or guarantee asylum and safe havens, or offer protection for repatriation, or prevent the slide from ‘post-conflict’ back to conflict.

Building on strategies that locals often employ to escape violence, safeguard their assets and mitigate threats to service delivery can be painted by those causing the violence and threats as a violation of neutrality. That is the challenge to aid writ large amid internal conflicts. In the worst settings, efforts to ‘project an image of neutrality’ and ‘gain accommodation … do not carry much weight’. If, as Fred Cuny concluded years ago, ‘humanitarian neutrality in a civil war is a distinctly western concept, not necessarily welcome in the third world’, then we need to be careful about what we avoiddoing in the name of neutrality. If we do not support the ability of locals to endure future violence because it might get us forced out, then we in effect privilege our ability to stay today over their ability to survive tomorrow.


Many in the aid world have observed the limits of outsiders’ access and influence amid violence and argue for the need to support local capacity for self-preservation. This approach is sensitive and should only be tried by relief or development agencies that have strong situational awareness on the ground, and that hire certain skill sets that they do not yet have. This is challenging but possible. As Mary Anderson asserts, local capacities can be supported even ‘under conditions of social and political upheaval, and in countries where the regime in power imposes limits on NGO work. It is even possible … where the situation is extremely volatile and polarized’. Indeed, agencies that work in areas prone to strife and war bear a responsibility to anticipate people’s vulnerabilities and support their capacities through their work. It is contrary to all we stand for to knowingly leave beneficiaries, local staff and partners in harm’s way.

Fortunately, as one prescient report concludes, ‘there is much that aid organizations can do to build on the strategies that communities employ’ in order to ‘maintain their assets, escape violence, and mitigate threats’. If we are to learn from the crisis in Darfur, then one thing we must do is consider where things might have stood now had aid there, from 2003 onwards, been more oriented towards our vulnerability and theircapacity.

Casey A. Barrs is Protection Research Fellow at the Cuny Center. Tools for applying the orientation of aid argued for here are proposed in a Cuny Center paper entitled Preparedness Support, available from