This is the last Newsletter under the RRN name. Donor support permitting, the Network will now implement changes in line with feedback provided by many of you during the RRN Review to make the Humanitarian Practice Network – or HPN – of even greater benefit.

The HPN will of course continue to publish, and we already have many excellent contributions lined up for the coming year. The Network will also have an improved website. This will become one of the key reference sites for the humanitarian sector, and work to improve the site will begin in earnest in May. These changes will certainly keep us busy for the next few months. In return, we have decided to give you a Newsletter that, we hope, will also keep you busy for a while!

This Newsletter is extremely rich and has contributions grouped around a number of themes. These include the politics of humanitarian action, war economies, the structural reforms and policy challenges for the European Commission (EC), natural disasters, and the question of operational partnerships.

Last year we devoted attention to the Kosovo crisis in Newsletter 15, and also put a longer report called ‘Peace-making Through Protectorate: Operational and Political Challenges’ about Kosovo on our website. The wars of dissolution of the erstwhile Yugoslav Federation are by no means finished. The ultimate status of Kosovo remains undecided, and international pressure on Milosevic’s regime continues. The political stakes are high and, as the article about international aid and energy policy towards Serbia shows, aid becomes highly politicised under such conditions.

Our second major theme is about war economies, with particular examples from Angola and Sierra Leone. As some of the book reviews also highlight, this raises the question of who fuels conflict, and the answer is by no means that a major role is played by aid. The control over valuable natural resources such as oil and diamonds in these two countries is a major objective in the strategies of warring parties and in the dynamics of conflict. These resources need to be extracted and sold on the global market, which is where transnational corporations come in as well as hired ‘private armies’. The sums of money involved vastly exceed aid allocations. Trade sanctions, on which we have produced resource materials on our website and in Network Paper 31, stimulate smuggling and often a greater role for organised crime. This is visible in Serbia. But we can assume that the ‘protectorate economy’ in Kosovo is not totally ‘legal’ either.

Although wars obviously alter the nature and structure of the ‘official’ economy, the biggest challenge may come from the non-state actors as these are the most difficult to engage with and restrain. They also fall outside the scope of international humanitarian law. We are currently working on a Network Paper called ‘The Political Economy of War: what relief agencies need to know’.

All of this becomes a major challenge for aid agencies and for aid donors, and for the conflict management policies of foreign governments. For the EC the recent reforms have again raised the question of the link between humanitarian and development aid. The discussion is focusing on the ‘exit strategy’ for ECHO. However it could more profitably focus on the ‘entry strategy’ for the development instruments, as documented in a review of the EC experiences in three African countries. However, if we start paying more attention to war economies then we cannot avoid the question of trade and international trade. Although the member states are reluctant to give up their autonomy in this area, the push continues for a common foreign and security policy in the European Union. Will aid, and particularly humanitarian aid, be subsumed under this, as one more policy instrument, or will its political neutrality and impartiality be safeguarded? There is much talk about ‘coherence’, ie, the alignment and use of different foreign policy instruments towards the same objective. Will ‘coherence’ lead to the politicisation of humanitarian aid?

Canada seems to have found an alternative in its ‘human security’ policy. Canada has a reputation as a donor without a strong political agenda. It has been prominent in many initiatives for conflict resolution, peacekeeping, the ban on landmines, and more humane sanctions etc. Yet coherence remains difficult to achieve also within the Canadian body politic. Recently there have been debates in the Canadian press about some Canadian actions that appear to contradict at least the spirit of a human security policy. The Canadian aid budget has also been falling rapidly, and a serious debate is now going on about whether its armed forces should integrate more with the military structures of the US, which would compromise its image in peacekeeping operations. Not least there has been the recent revelation that a reputed aid agency knowingly accepted staff, chosen by Canadian government authorities, for what can only be called ‘intelligence’ operations in Serbia.

Although in a very different context this same question of coherence, and that of war economies, has posed itself with regard to the relationships of aid agencies and non-state actors involved in conflict in south Sudan. The Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement has asked NGOs to sign a Memorandum of Understanding, or leave. About 25 per cent have left. Some of the arguments for and against signing are presented here.

We are also glad to present various contributions on natural disasters, with a particular emphasis on the role of information management and on accountability. In future we hope to be able to publish more of the lessons of the international response to Hurricane Mitch in late 1998 in Central America. The evaluations we have seen so far indicate that many of these should feed into the post-disaster strategies and programmes in Mozambique. Whether such learning ability already exists in the international humanitarian system is less certain.

Perhaps still more than in Africa and the Caucasus, disaster responses in Latin America and in Asia must work with the many well-established local governmental, non-governmental and community organisations. ‘Partnership’ is the catchword of the day, but crisis situations highlight the inherent tensions that tend to exist between partners of unequal power, and with different primary constituencies. It is a theme that is touched upon here, and on which we would welcome more contributions.

But for the time being welcome to the Humanitarian Practice Network, our new name from April 2000!

Issue 16 articles