Conflict and relief
by John Borton September 1994

Whilst it is not the policy of the RRN to have `theme mailings’, conflict, its effects and its implications for relief agencies is a recurring one in both the Newsletter and the Network Papers which comprise this mailing.

Network Paper 4 by Koenraad Van Brabant is a fascinating and substantive examination of the political economy of relief and rehabilitation in Somali Region 5 of eastern Ethiopia. For the last century, conflict and instability have plagued this area. Over the last 20 years the conflict and instability have precipitated massive movements of people as refugees between Ethiopia and Somalia, and set the context in which relief, rehabilitation and repatriation programmes have been implemented on a more or less continuous basis. A number of lessons may be drawn from his description and critique of these programmes. At one level the paper highlights the need for, amongst other things: a greater understanding of the history, culture and socio-economic organisation of the area and its population by those involved in programme design and implementation; better coordination and more flexible interpretation of mandates among agencies working in such difficult and complex situations; and the need for more satisfactory institutional mechanisms to ensure coordination and continuity than transient Task Forces.

At a more profound level it is difficult not to draw the conclusion from his paper that peace and stability will not return to the region until the Somali people as a whole are allowed the right of selfdetermination and, if desired, the chance to recreate the `Greater Somalia’. The irrational and divisive borders have contributed substantially to the events which required relief and rehabilitation assistance efforts since the Ogaden War of 1977-78 and simultaneously have been a factor limiting the effectiveness of such programmes. The former colonial powers which were largely responsible for creating these borders bear a heavy burden of responsibility in assisting the Governments and peoples of the region to address the problem.

Since the creation of the ICRC in 1863 following the Battle of Solferino in northern Italy, conflicts and the humanitarian needs they create have been largely responsible for the creation and expansion of humanitarian agencies. Save the Children Fund, which is currently marking the 75th anniversary of its establishment, was founded in response to the refugee emergencies and malnutrition which followed the First World War and the Allied blockade of Germany.

Oxfam was formed in 1942 to provide relief to famine victims in Nazi-occupied Greece. MSF-France and Concern were both established as a direct result of experiences of their founding members during the 1967-70 Nigerian Civil War which saw NGOs in a central and controversial role in the provision of assistance to the Biafran enclave. The growth of cross-border operations by NGOs during the 1980s saw an increased involvement of NGOs in the provision of relief assistance in areas of conflict. However, it has been the ending of the Cold War, the unleashing of numerous ethnic and nationalistic tensions and a more interventionist stance by the international community that has caused the most dramatic growth in the number of NGOs involved in the provision of humanitarian assistance and the scale of their operations in zones of conflict.

With the exception of those agencies, most of them church-affiliated, which see peace and reconciliation as central to their mission, most international NGOs involved in the provision of humanitarian aid have generally avoided direct involvement in efforts to prevent conflicts actually developing. The feeling that conflict prevention activities were more properly the concern of national diplomatic services and the UN Security Council and that an involvement in peace efforts would jeopardise the `neutrality’ of humanitarian agencies are among the principal reasons why this separation between `prevention’ and `relief’ has prevailed. Recently however this separation and the generally weak links between humanitarian agencies and the human rights and peace communities are being questioned and look set to change. The appalling sequence of events in Rwanda since the beginning of April are largely responsible for this change in mood – many agencies are now asking themselves what might have been done in order to prevent the genocide and mass population movements (see the News Items section). Fearful of renewed violence in Burundi and critical of the slow response by the UN and its member states to the peace building/conflict prevention needs in Rwanda and Burundi, some NGOs are now providing support for the deployment of human rights monitors and investigators in these two countries.

It is in this context that Network Paper 5 by Kumar Rupesinghe, Director of International Alert, is particularly timely. As well as providing an overview of recent trends and research on conflicts and the responses to them by the international community it gives an indication of the range of activities, short of armed intervention, which NGOs and Governments might support or undertake themselves in the field of conflict prevention. The involvement of international and local NGOs in relief and development projects in countries where tensions are increasing often provides them with much better information on the situation in particular areas than is available to many diplomatic/intelligence services, yet often it would seem that this information is not used to best effect by agencies. To help increase the awareness among RRN members of the groups and institutions involved in the human rights and peace/conflict fields, his paper provides a useful contact list.

The events in and around Rwanda over the last six months and the massive humanitarian aid operations mounted by the international community can be expected to generate a number of papers and exchanges within the RRN. Network Paper 6 is the first such paper. Written by Susanne Jaspars who worked as a nutritionist for UNHCR in Benaco camp in western Tanzania, the paper provides an account and preliminary assessment of the food assistance operations in the camp during the weeks immediately following the initial influx of 170,000 people on 28th April. Measured in terms of malnutrition rates, morbidity and mortality, the response by the Tanzanian authorities, UN agencies and NGOs to this unprecedented influx was a success and stands in contrast to the response to the influx of Burundian refugees into Tanzania in October 1993. The paper describes the food assistance programmes in the camp and attempts to identify the factors contributing to this success.

Nevertheless the food assistance programmes were problematic in several important respects, most notably in terms of controlling the growth of the `apparent’ camp population in the absence of a formal registration. Such difficulties resulted in public differences between WFP which was responsible for the supply of food to the camp and UNHCR which was responsible for coordinating the food distributions within the camp. The paper discusses these and other issues raised by the experience and suggests some of the lessons that might be learned from Benaco.

Earlier this year eight of the largest and longest established humanitarian agencies published a Code of Conduct intended to set, for the first time, universal basic standards to govern the way NGOs work in disaster assistance. The Code represents a significant and welcome step in the overall process of improving the effectiveness and accountability of NGOs involved in the provision of humanitarian aid. The Code lays down ten points of principle to which all NGOs should adhere in their disaster response work and in three annexes describes the relationships which agencies working in disasters should seek with donor governments, host governments and the UN system. The full text of the Code is reproduced as Network Paper 7 together with a preface prepared by the RRN Coordinator.

This issue is also available in French: Échange Humanitaire No. 2

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