Joanna Macrae is a Research Fellow at the ODI and was a member of the OLS Review Team.
Following close on the heels of the Joint Evaluation of Emergency Assistance to Rwanda, comes a critical review of one of the worlds longest running relief programmes Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS). The OLS Review [available in six parts: I, II, III, IV, V, VI] complements the Rwanda evaluation; while the latter study focused on international response during an acute phase of an emergency, this report analyses the evolution of responses to a chronic political emergency. Given the protracted nature of conflict-related emergencies, including those in the Great Lakes Region, the OLS review raises issues likely to be familiar to many of our readers.
Operation Lifeline was initiated by the late James Grant, Director of UNICEF in 1989. It was created in the aftermath of one of the most severe war-created famines ever recorded in which over 250,000 people are estimated to have died. Bahr el Ghazal region, the epicentre of the 1988 famine, was also the frontline between government and opposition forces. Since famine creation constituted an important part of the military strategy of the government, and since the donor community and the UN chose to respect the sovereignty of the government, the scale of the crisis in southern Sudan was underplayed by the international community, and the area remained largely inaccessible to the UN and NGO relief agencies.
OLS was created to respond to the final phases of this catastrophe. It was constituted as a mechanism to access civilians living in both government and rebel-held territory, through a series of formal and informal agreements between the UN and the warring parties. In common with all relief programmes, OLS was designed to be a short-term, rapid response focusing primarily on the provision of food aid. What makes OLS unique, however, is the emergence of distinct operational and regulatory regimes in government- and rebel-held areas of the country.
In government-held areas, largely in the north of the country, a conventional UN structure has developed, with UNDP acting as the representative of UNDHA and coordinating the operational work of WFP, UNICEF and other UN agencies; the Government of Sudan remains the sovereign authority. In rebel-held territories, the UN, specifically UNICEF, acts as the de facto governmental authority; providing the regulatory and coordinating framework for the relief operation at least. NGOs wishing to operate in rebel-held areas sign letters of association with the UN, not with the Khartoum government; on signing these letters they gain access to the OLS logistics network in particular access to air transport for personnel and cargo.
Thus, over the past seven years OLS has moved from a short-term, ad hoc initiative to become one of the most complex and largest relief operations in the world, costing an estimated US$264 million between 1993-1995 alone. The Review concluded that OLS, despite its scale and complexity, has lurched from crisis to crisis and is presently confronting what might be described as the humanitarian impasse. In other words, relief aid, designed as a short-term response to primarily natural disasters, is unable to cope with protracted, highly political emergencies.
The report is long over three hundred, dense pages. In addition to reviewing seven years of several UN and multiple NGO activities, it covers issues as diverse as food security programming, cost effectiveness and social impact of relief. In a short space it is difficult to do justice to the report, but two key issues stand out as particularly salient:
First, the continued importance of sovereignty in influencing international relief programming, particularly that of the UN. Despite increasing claims that humanitarian interests are taking precedence over sovereignty concerns, in Sudan respect for sovereignty continues to take precedence over adherence to humanitarian principles. Thus, for example, counter to the principles of neutrality and impartiality, the coverage of the OLS needs assessment is determined by the governments political criteria, not according to need. Similarly, it is the Government of Sudan which has ultimate control over flights into rebel-held territories in the south: by mid-1996 increasing government restrictions on the type of aircraft and conditions for their flights meant that OLS-southern sector food aid and non-food aid delivery rates were only 20% and 30% of their targets, prompting the heads of WFP and UNICEF to make formal representations to the UN Department of Humanitarian Affairs to act. What this suggests is that where states are also a party to a conflict, sovereignty continues to act as an important obstacle to achieving impartial and neutral allocation of relief resources.
A second key area is that of the content and strategies of relief programming in the context of a chronic political emergency. The protracted nature of the emergency has prompted different responses in government and rebel-held areas. In government-held areas the primary response has been to promote the idea of the relief-development continuum. In practice, since the donor community is unwilling to commit development aid to Sudan, this has meant reducing free food distributions and increasing allocations of seeds and tools. However, having been stripped of the bulk of their assets, the large population of war-displaced in Sudan are still unable to return home neither they do not possess sufficient land and or other assets to provide a basis to restore livelihoods. As if this wasnt enough, they continue to be subject to often violent harassment by the government and civil and military authorities. In Khartoum, for example, some 600,000 war-displaced have had their shelters demolished since 1991 and been forcibly relocated by government authorities. In south Darfur, war-displaced populations are unable to access sufficient land and agricultural inputs to subsist; in the absence of relief they are therefore forced to work as share-croppers, typically leaving them in debt and without sufficient food. In this context, far from enjoying an improvement in their position, many war-affected populations in Sudan have experienced a deterioration in their living conditions and nutritional status.
Despite this, an unlikely coalition of interests has emerged to defend the reduction in free rations. This includes some donor and UN representatives, the Government of Sudan, and NGOs, each of whom caution against the emergence of relief dependency, each of whom stand to benefit in different ways in financial, institutional and political terms from promoting the idea that the position of war-affected and other populations is stabilizing. Evidence suggests however, that the extent of developmental space is extremely limited; until it increases populations remain in need of food aid to maintain their health and nutritional status.
Promotion of the concept of the relief-development continuum in government-held areas has taken place without a clear analysis of the continuing political and economic dynamics and impact of the war. This stands in contrast to the evolution of UN and NGO responses in rebel-held territories. Here, far from ignoring the war, the UN has placed it at the centre of its analysis. It has made humanitarian principles neutrality, impartiality and accountability explicit in informing programming strategies. Furthermore, in a move which links humanitarian operations with human rights, OLS has promoted the concept of ground rules which aim to encourage rebel movements to respect the rights of civilian populations under their control.
What this signals is the emergence of conditionality on relief aid. Conventionally relief aid is seen by donors to be unconditional, in contrast to development aid which is usually provided subject to economic and policy conditions. The OLS Review concludes that the introduction of conditionalities on relief aid is justified in the south and should be extended to government-held sectors. It emphases that it is humanitarian principles, particularly neutrality and impartiality, which must be maintained, not the political or economic conditions associated with development aid lending. It argues that only through active inclusion of principles in programming can relief aid be effective and efficient. It is only by active implementation and monitoring of these humanitarian principles that manipulation of relief supplies by warring parties can be minimised, the interests of war-affected populations be safeguarded and subsequently the impact of relief maximised.
At the same time, the idea that relief workers and organisations can remain uncritical observers of violent strategies of warring parties has also been questioned by the OLS experience: the introduction of Ground Rules for the warring parties derives from the recognition that it is the conduct of the war, more than the organisation of the relief operation, which primarily determines the welfare of civilians. Advocating respect for human rights in wartime is therefore a critical task for donors, the UN and NGOs.
These themes will be familiar to veterans and observers of the Red Cross Movement, particularly ICRC. For over a century the Red Cross has attempted to both improve the conduct of war and to facilitate the provision of relief. What the OLS review has highlighted is the need to reassert humanitarian principles throughout the international relief system. As more actors, some such as the UN working within multiple mandates, begin to work in conflict zones, so the need to define and defend the terms of humanitarian engagement has become an imperative. Humanitarian conditions provide a means of protecting the entitlements of conflict-affected populations to continued relief support if it is indicated by objective assessment, not political or financial imperatives. They also inform strategies of delivering assistance in order to ensure that aid reaches the intended beneficiaries, reducing scope for manipulation of relief resources by powerful interest groups.
Operationalising humanitarian principles requires an appropriate institutional framework. The OLS Review concluded that existing UN institutional arrangements in government-held areas of Sudan are inappropriate. The UNDP Resident Representative also coordinates the humanitarian aid programme: in the view of the Review Team this is inappropriate. For example, it is difficult for the same person to one day reprimand the government authorities for violations of humanitarian principles and the next to work with the same authorities as counterparts for development programmes. The Review therefore recommended clear separation between relief and development activities.
It also emphasised the importance of investing in good information systems and analysis; meaning both people and data. Politically neutral and impartial aid programming is not the same as politically uninformed programming: capacity for careful assessment, monitoring, evaluation of relief programmes is a necessary condition for improving their effectiveness. This will not be a cheap option, therefore. Donors will need to invest in developing information and management systems to ensure that their investments in food aid and other supplies are used effectively.
Copies of the report by Ataul Karim et al (1996): Operation Lifeline Sudan: A Review, are available from:
UN Department of Humanitarian Affairs
Palais des Nations, 1211 Geneva 10
Tel: +41 22 788 1404
Fax: + 41 22 788 6389