Since the launch of the RRN in 1994, there has been a slight shift in the focus of RRN material in response to some of the major changes that have taken place in the work of relief agencies over the last five years – in particular the rapid and striking expansion of the extent and scope of their involvement in complex political emergencies. The change in emphasis has to some extent been mirrored by the decline in the use of the term ‘relief’ to describe emergency assistance and greater scope implied by the term ‘humanitarian’. This shift in focus and de facto extension of agency mandates in unstable situations, and more often than not, absence of a clear, coherent political line from donor governments and the UN security council has meant that aid workers cannot operate responsibly in ignorance of the sorts of abuses to which humanitarian assistance is subject and its role in the prolonging of conflict.

Information providers and those seeking to influence the performance of aid agencies in the field therefore have a responsibility to keep pace with these changes and ensure that aid workers have the information and support they need to carry out their tasks responsibly and with an awareness of the longer term impact of their actions. In the early 1990’s the demand was principally for information which concentrated on improving the technical, more sector-specific aspects of aid agency performance in the field – water provision, shelter, food distribution etc. While it is important to ground analysis in practical experience and there is considerable room for improvement in these more technical spheres (an area where progress is currently being made by the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response, reported on in the November 1996 edition of the RRN Newsletter), there is also a need to go further and improve aid workers’ understanding of the context in which their work is carried out and long term impact of their actions.

The RRN’s February mailing carried RRN Network Paper 19, providing a synopsis of the key human rights and international legal standards increasingly invoked in the context of humanitarian emergencies; and RRN Network Paper 20, the People in Aid Code of Best Practice in the Management and Support of Aid Workers. It is our belief that such practical information will help aid workers and policy makers in what now amounts to a dramatic reappraisal of their role in complex emergencies.

Dilemmas such as whether to withdraw assistance in the face of blatant diversion of aid to rearm warring factions, a grim feature of the Hutu camps along the Rwanda-Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire), border in 1995-6, or to scale down operations dramatically, as occurred in Liberia in April 1996, following the massive looting of agency property by warring factions, are tackled in the latest RRN Network Papers, 21 and 22.

RRN Network Paper 21, Humanitarian Principles: the southern Sudan experience, offers a practical, first-hand account of applying the humanitarian principles, enshrined in Operation Lifeline Sudan, on the ground. The author, Iain Levine, currently employed by UNICEF New York, explains the challenge to operational agencies and aid workers faced daily with ethical dilemmas, as less one of defining legal and ethical standards and more one of implementation and enforcement. The OLS experience is used to highlight the challenges confronting the humanitarian community, including the lack of coherent political leadership, sovereignty issues and the trade off between protection and assistance mandates. This theme is taken up in the Regional Focus on Burundi, where an increasingly familiar dilemma faces aid agencies: to provide assistance in the ‘regroupement’ centres, set up by the Government to ‘relocate populations to ensure their safety’ and avert a potential humanitarian crisis, or to refuse to collude with what is now widely accepted to be a military strategy, in contravention of the Geneva Conventions. RRN Network Paper 22, by Philippa Atkinson, part time RRN ‘regional representative’ in West Africa, examines the role of international economic links, of questionable legal status to the conflict in the region. She looks at the importance for NGOs of understanding the dynamics of the war economy as both the motivation and the means of perpetuating the conflict, and considers the responses of the humanitarian community, forced to consider alternatives to traditional relief provision.

Two of the articles featured in this edition of the RRN Newsletter look at another dimension affecting and affected by the provision of humanitarian assistance – that of the long term impact of international assistance programmes on and responsibility towards local organisations and capacity building. Philippa Howell of ActionAid describes a successful participatory response programme, carried out by her agency in close collaboration with local organisations, following serious crop failure in Dalocha, Ethiopia. Paul Stubbs, Leeds Metropolitan University, considers the often negative impact of international NGOs on the growth of civil society in post-Yugoslav countries.

The third article by Jennifer Klot, director of Graça Machel’s secretariat for the UN Study on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children, reports on the two year process of research, consultation and mobilisation which resulted in the most comprehensive human rights appraisal of children in armed conflicts yet debated at the UN General Assembly and reviews the steps being taken to turn the recommendations for action into reality.

The News section of this May edition highlights quite radical changes in the structure of the British mechanism for joint emergency appeals, known as the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC); progress by European NGOs in advocating and mobilising support for an EU Code of Conduct on Arms Control; a report on NOHA – the first full-time Europe-wide, post-graduate course specialising in ‘humanitarian assistance’ – Three years on; and a review of a recent meeting convened by ECHO to reflect on increased risk for aid workers working in conflict situations.

Finally, from a UK perspective, it is encouraging to note the new Labour Government’s placing of human rights squarely at the heart of its foreign policy, as well as its pronouncements on the need for firmer arms control policies, although it remains to be seen to what extent these objectives can be realised once wider trade, foreign policy considerations and lobby groups make their positions known.

This issue is also available in French: Échange Humanitaire No. 8

Issue 8 articles