Challenges to humanitarian agencies in the field: considering the options
by Sylvie Brunel, Strategic Adviser with Action Contre la Faim, France, and lecturer at the Political Studies Institute, Paris February 1998

A recent international meeting hosted by Action Against Hunger in Paris looked at some of the challenges facing humanitarian agencies working in conflict, in particular the strategic use of famine as a weapon of war.

At this high-level meeting, a number of Action Against Hunger’s field and HQ managers put forward their views alongside representatives of the UN, francophone NGOs, academics and politicians in a bid to emphasise the importance of cooperation and joint action in responding to the new and diverse challenges facing them in their humanitarian work.


The crisis in the Great Lakes region has increasingly been used as a model to illustrate the ambiguities inherent in, and obstacles to humanitarian action faced by today’s aid agencies. Examples of such ambiguities include the systematic abuse of the system by Hutu extremists in the refugee camps in the former Zaire, causing Rwanda to intervene in emptying the camps and the forcible grouping of populations in Rwanda and Burundi.

Likewise, more recently humanitarian agencies have faced major obstacles to intervention on behalf of refugees in the forests of Eastern Zaire; Roberto Garetton (UN Special Envoy), hindered by both Mobutu and Kabila from freely carrying out his duties, commented that “no detailed survey on the human rights situation in the country is possible”.

A ‘new’ type of conflict

The first signs of food shortages are now well known and humanitarian organisations have the technical knowledge and capacity to enable them to respond appropriately and in time to an identified need. In theory therefore, famine need no longer exist.

Yet organisations continue to tackle such severe humanitarian crises with disastrous consequences for the most vulnerable populations in Somalia, Sudan, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Burundi, amongst others.

What distinguishes these countries is the continued existence of conflict in forms which have evolved over the past decade, resulting in a situation where hunger is now no longer the result of conflict but one of its tools – one of the favoured methods employed by warring factions in Liberia and Sierra Leone, described by Philippe Peccatier (Action Contre la Faim, France’s Director of Communications and Development), includes the destruction of crops, the forced displacement of civilian populations held hostage in towns where they are unable to gain access to food, and the widespread diversion and misappropriation of humanitarian aid. Worryingly, these methods seem to go unpunished and in some cases, even to meet with some success… one of the perpetrators of such tactics in Liberia, Charles Taylor, was elected President in 1997, with 70% of the vote.

For fear of returning to civil war and famine, Liberians chose officially and ‘democratically’ to re-elect him. The view expressed by the Executive Secretary of the Global Coalition for Africa and Special Representative of the United Nations in Burundi, Ahmedou Ould Abdallah, was that “we now live in an age of new autocratic rulers who starve their people to death with complete impunity”. On the same subject, Jean-Christophe Rufin (Institute of International and Stategic Research, IRIS) stressed that “famines are now no longer a question of tactics, but of strategy”.

The ‘old’ type of famine, whether it was the occupation of towns and cities or the burning of land, was aimed at eliminating the enemy (a method still being used in Sudan). Following the end of the Cold War, countless factions lost the sources of income from which they had reaped much of their power, as well as support from one or other superpower.

These groups have since had to look elsewhere for resources to continue to control whole areas or fulfill their dreams of expansion. In many of today’s conflicts, it is now a country’s own population which is taken hostage by its warlords to help them achieve their goals.

Other sources of income and power include drug-trafficking in some of the poorest parts of the world and the ‘plundering’ of resource-rich mining or foresting regions. But it is the artificial creation of famine that is seen to be the most evil method of all. It allows factions or even armed groups to loot the belongings of particular groups whilst forcing them into a state of under-nutrition, which in turn arouses compassion among the international community and leads to an increase in the supply of humanitarian aid.

That aid is then turned to the agressors advantage, helping them to attain a high profile on the international stage as they inevitably become the donors’ interlocutors – the first step towards diplomatic recognition and, consequently, new-found legitimacy.


Within the context of the situation in Iraq, Bernard Granjon (Honorary President of the French organisation Médecins du Monde) offered comment on the disastrous effects of the embargo imposed on the civilian population by the UN, pointing out that this embargo was all the more devastating as the dictator deliberately made the population suffer by refusing to implement the “oil for food” resolution.

Mario Bettati, Lecturer in International Law and often considered as the ‘founder’ of the principle of intervention, also stressed the failure of the embargo – a catastrophe for the civilian population, but a ‘godsend’ to the governments targeted by the embargo as well as the countless traffickers whose businesses flourished within the black economies created by the embargo. One of the worst consequences of the embargo was that the Iraqi government could play the victim and demand the lifting of sanctions whilst at the same time strengthening its domestic legitimacy.

What should be the international community’s response in this minefield?

The question facing all NGOs now working in these situations is – does their intervention and implicit tolerance of such actions help legitimise criminal regimes?

Their scope for action is seen as ‘walking a tightrope’: bringing aid to those in need without denouncing the true causes of their situation means that humanitarian organisations unwillingly become accomplices of the ‘famine-makers’, thus enabling them to continue their manipulation, yet standing up to their excessive demands means jeopardising the security of their staff or running the risk of being expelled from the country altogether and abandoning those they set out to assist. Jean-Luc Bodin, the new General Director of Action Contre la Faim, France, described the experience of working in South Sudan where uncovering the real cause of persistent malnutrition in the camps, despite food distributions, led to the organisation being immediately thrown out of the country.

How, then, can humanitarian organisations continue to be efficient without being manipulated by aggressors. A number of key points emerged:

  • the importance for NGOs to take a joint position, as inconsistent negotiations make any attempt at taking a firm stance virtually impossible. Although stressed by Christian Captier, Director of Operations of Action Contre la Faim, France, many NGOs are in agreement on the same humanitarian principles – impartiality, freedom of access to victims, independence, integrity and the appropriateness of aid to correctly assessed needs, but their joint implementation in the field and the cohesion and cooperation of field-based humanitarian workers still need improvement. Despite the existence of the 1994 Code of Conduct (see RRN Network Paper 7, ODI 1994), it has not been signed by all NGOs, nor can it alone provide a satisfactory response to the strategy of those who deliberately starve their populations to death, or even at times to the possible ‘hidden’ interests of donors.
  • although the right to life, and therefore the right to food and life-saving assistance, is enshrined in Article I of the supplementary protocols (1977) of the Geneva Conventions as well as all the Human Rights Conventions, without an international police force responsible for safeguarding these rights, international law remains almost meaningless in the face of malign intent on the part of certain regimes and warring factions.
  • political or strategic interests also pose obstacles to the application of the law which helps to explain the reluctance of the UN Security Council to act in response to clear violations of the law as in Rwanda (a view expressed by Michel Rocard (President of the European Parliament Commission for Development) and former French Prime Minister. In this context, the creation of ‘safe havens’ in Rwanda, while ostensibly providing security for the victims, also sheltered the perpetrators of the genocide during the French operation ‘Turquoise’.
  • the need for an International Criminal Tribunal, a permanent and independent criminal court, to help to put an end to such impunity by translating this form of crime into law, and minimising delays caused by the cumbersome setting up of ad hoc Tribunals, was also discussed (see next RRN Newsletter (May 1998) for more extensive coverage of this issue).
  • In the absence of such a body, and in light of current inadequacies in the law, the commitment of humanitarian organisations, their duty to intervene and testify against human rights abuses and ‘mandate to act’ are now more important than ever, even if they themselves do not always act without fault and cannot always deny being influenced by the deliberations of their own donors. As Olivier Longué, Director of Acción Contra el Hambre, Madrid, pointed out, NGOs therefore have to apply an ever stricter code of ethics to prevent self-indulgence and, above all being blinded by their own activities. This implies that they have to accept the idea that “it is not because it is some kind of humanitarian intervention that it is automatically a good intervention”.


Action Against Hunger is comprised of Action Contre la Faim, France, Action Against Hunger, UK, Action Against Hunger, USA, Acción Contra el Hambre, Spain.

For more information on the Symposium hosted by Action Against Hunger, Paris, at the Sorbonne on 15th October 1997, please contact:

Sophie Noonan
Action Against Hunger, UK
+44 171 831 5858
Annie Blaise
Action Contre la Faim, France
+33 1 53808842