Some six years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, international political and aid systems are struggling to redefine their roles. Major changes in the financing and organisation of the aid system are taking place in the post-Cold War era. Overall aid budgets are declining – at the same time the proportion of funds allocated to relief is rising. This change in financing reflects in part the growing number of complex emergencies and the trend for increasing international intervention, which themselves are raising new questions and challenges for relief and development agencies.

In this issue of the Relief and Rehabilitation Network Newsletter we explore three related themes concerning the organisation and management of aid responses in emergencies. How can aid agencies adjust to a context of instability? What is the relationship between relief and development assistance? What methods can be used to ensure the effectiveness of aid interventions in emergency contexts?

Network Paper 9 reports on the experience of an NGO consortium, ACORD, of working in four unstable countries: Angola, Mali, Sudan and Uganda. It argues that development is an essentially turbulent process, likely to generate conflict which may become violent. The issue for ACORD is therefore how to cope with, and adapt, to these unstable situations in a manner which protects the interests of the poor.

The paper details how the implementation of long-term development projects has been affected by instability and influenced by the large-scale relief programmes carried out around them. It makes a number of recommendations concerning NGO strategies in unstable situations relating to the design, management and financing of programmes. The paper argues that long-term programmes need to be judged against their ability to strengthen people’s resilience in crises. NGOs can contribute to this process by providing material resources, but, more importantly, through participatory, community-based strategies which strengthen local institutions and enlist the skills of individuals.

It also addresses a number of familiar management dilemmas facing NGOs in unstable situations. When should agencies withdraw? What skills do staff – national and expatriate – need to cope in conflict situations? What provision should be made to protect national staff? How can communications be maintained between headquarters staff and projects isolated by conflict? Innovative suggestions are made to improve management and communications in unstable situations. Also highlighted are issues of project financing in turbulent environments.

The ACORD paper highlights the important operational and conceptual reasons for rethinking the relationship between relief and development. An additional spur to the ‘continuum’ debate has been concern over relief and development financing. As discussed in the Newsletter (see page 4), the proportion of official development assistance allocated to relief continues to rise sharply, resulting in greater scrutiny of relief expenditures, and increasing concern to ensure their efficiency and efficacy. Historically, evaluation of relief interventions has been poor, and only rarely have the outcomes of relief programmes been assessed systematically.

The scale of the human catastrophe in Rwanda and the enormous costs of the international response have demanded a renewed emphasis on the evaluation of relief efforts. The Newsletter reports on a multi-donor evaluation of international intervention in Rwanda, and discusses the issues which need to be addressed in the search for improved accountability and efficiency in relief responses.

It has often been argued that the urgency of relief responses militates against detailed research and evaluation. This view is challenged by Patrick Ward and Martin Rimmer, authors of Network Paper 8. Building on a study in northern Iraq, they discuss the role of formal survey methods in ensuring effective targeting of food aid in a chronic emergency. The need for quantitative socioeconomic studies to complement qualitative, informal methods such as rapid participatory appraisal is emphasised, in order to gain valid and useful information about beneficiary groups. This paper provides an example of how such studies can be implemented at relatively low cost and in a short time period, and includes examples of questionnaires which could be used in other settings. The authors caution, however, that the results of such studies are useful only in so far as there are clear policy objectives against which to measure the success or failure of relief interventions. The lack of such clarity in contexts such as that of Iraq means that efficiency and effectiveness cannot be assessed only in relation to technical criteria – careful examination of policy aims is also required.

The contributions to the network papers and the newsletter highlight a range of important challenges facing relief and development practitioners. The need for debate and exchange of information is more important than ever. We look forward to hearing your views and experiences on relief policy and practice.

This issue is also available in French: Échange Humanitaire No. 3

Issue 3 articles