Neutrality in humanitarian assistance: a case study from Zimbabwe
by Chris McIvor, Save the Children (UK) December 2003

Zimbabwe has suffered a series of emergencies since independence in 1980. Flooding and drought have hit the country, most notably in 1992–93, when large areas received negligible rains. Appeals for international assistance raised generous amounts of support. At the same time, the positive relations that the government enjoyed with the international community meant that much of the aid was channelled directly through line ministries such as health, social welfare and agriculture.

The picture is very different today. Since 2000, many parts of the country have been stricken with drought. Zimbabwe as a whole has experienced a severe economic downturn. The mining and commercial agricultural sectors have collapsed and foreign investment and development aid have fallen. Meanwhile, the previously positive relationship between Zimbabwe and the international community has buckled under the weight of alleged human rights abuse, political oppression and controversial land reforms. At a time when half the population needs food assistance and a quarter of adults have HIV/AIDS, donors no longer trust the government to deliver aid in a neutral, impartial and equitable manner. In the highly-charged atmosphere of Zimbabwean politics, the issue of neutrality in particular has been widely debated and contested. This article explores some of the problems that agencies have encountered in their promotion of this principle, and looks at what needs to be done to make it more effective.

Contesting neutrality

In September 2002, the Zimbabwean authorities temporarily suspended the operations of Save the Children (UK), including a food aid intervention that benefited 125,000 people. It was clearly indicated that the programme would not resume until a new agreement between the agency and the government had been reached regularising Save’s activities. This was despite the fact that the agency had 22 years of extensive and well-received work in Zimbabwe behind it. At the same time, and at the height of the food crisis, the process of registering internationally-respected humanitarian agencies was beset with difficulties and delays for reasons which were often unclear. While the activities of Save the Children have now resumed and several agencies have subsequently been registered, it is safe to say that the relationship between the government and the aid community has become much less harmonious than in the past.

At the same time, and at the height of the food crisis, the process of registering internationally-respected humanitarian agencies was beset with difficulties and delays. While the reasons were often unclear, it is safe to say that the relationship between the government and the aid community has become much less harmonious than in the past.

Agencies’ protestations of neutrality, specifically that aid will not be used to further a particular political or religious standpoint, have at times been met with considerable suspicion. The authorities have expressed concern that, for some agencies, the primary motive for assisting people in Zimbabwe has less to do with humanitarianism and more to do with the foreign policy objectives of the governments with whom Zimbabwe has conducted a war of words over several years. There are a number of reasons for this controversy and conflict.

The first is that dispensing aid to people in need is often a key means of reinforcing the legitimacy of a state in the eyes of its population. The Zimbabwean government’s highly visible control and coordination of the 1992 aid effort was often cited in later elections as evidence of the ruling party’s concern for those who had been affected. The political fragmentation that has beset the country has meant that much of that legitimacy has been questioned. The fact that the aid effort in the current emergency is much more evidently an ‘external’ intervention has created conflict. Much of the aid has been donated by those same countries that have been most vociferous in criticising Zimbabwe’s political situation, only increasing these tensions. In one discussion over resuming Save the Children’s emergency operations, a government official claimed that the aid delivered by the agency was an indictment of the government, aimed at highlighting its inadequacies.

Second, the recrimination and invective that characterise the relationship between Zimbabwe and the international community have also meant that the authorities are sensitive to any public expression of concern by agencies working in the country. What might previously have been regarded as part of the normal discourse between organisations and the government around a humanitarian issue is now viewed in Harare as an attempt to isolate the country further. Tensions have emerged, for example, around fears expressed by several agencies about the plight of 1.5 million farm workers, many of whom have lost their livelihoods as a result of land redistribution and farm closures. Such is the climate of suspicion that humanitarian concern on behalf of these people has been seen by some government officials as prompted by a political agenda, namely to discredit the land reform programme to the outside world. These same officials have also pointed to the reluctance of some donors to assist resettled farmers, many of whom, on grounds of vulnerability, are also in need of food aid. Why should they by excluded if need alone is the criterion of assistance? Such double standards, it is argued, undermine the claims to neutrality of the aid community in Zimbabwe when expressing support for farm workers.

Third, many of the communities that are receiving humanitarian assistance are familiar with the organisations assisting them. Much of the aid is distributed by agency personnel who were previously involved with development activities in the same locations. These individuals, and their politics, are well-known within communities. Agencies, including Save the Children (UK), have stipulated in contracts with national staff that political views should never be expressed at emergency food distributions. Nevertheless, the very presence of such personnel has, in the eyes of some, undermined the claims to neutrality made by the organisations that employ them: ‘Your organisation in London might be neutral, but on the ground you have national staff with political views that undermine that principle’ was one comment passed during the suspension of Save the Children (UK)’s operations. This perception becomes more problematic still during the registration process for beneficiaries, when food aid recipients are targeted selectively. A community member who is excluded on the grounds that their livelihood status does not merit assistance may believe that the real reason is that the person tasked with registration is a member of an opposing political party.

Lastly, the principle of neutrality has also become a source of controversy at the level of community politics. In traditional Zimbabwean society, one of the obligations placed on local leaders is to assist their people in times of need. In return for discharging such an obligation, the legitimacy of the chief in the eyes of the population is considerably enhanced. Within such a system, the arrival of an aid programme, where beneficiaries are selected through a broad-based community consultation supervised by an external agent, has been viewed by some traditional leaders with suspicion. These concerns are reinforced by the fact that agencies have sought as much as possible to ensure that no political capital should be made out of such interventions. But if chiefs can claim no credit, they come to see the principle of neutrality as further undermining their role as guardians and benefactors of the poor in their communities.

What can be done?

To minimise the problems agencies are facing, more needs to be done to publicly disseminate the principles that inform emergency programmes. On reflection, the formulation of an agreement in 2001 between Save the Children (UK) and local authorities, which emphasised the agency’s commitment to neutrality, was flawed because little attempt was made to discuss its provisions and win support from the people tasked with enforcing it. This lack of information dissemination locally has meant that agencies’ insistence that neutrality must be respected is often interpreted as a condition on aid imposed by an organisation with a political agenda. The fact that it is in conformity with an internationally-recognised set of standards is rarely appreciated, because agencies have taken insufficient time to promote this realisation among councillors, chiefs and other officials.

The principle of neutrality, in company with the other provisions stipulated in the Code of Conduct, provides a basis of accountability not only to donors but also to the intended beneficiaries of emergency programmes. If conformity to these principles depends not just on the willingness of agencies to uphold them, more needs to be done to inform aid recipients of what the code means to them. Very little of this has taken place in Zimbabwe. Communities may be informed about ration rates and the place, time and frequency of distributions, but the standards that agencies should uphold in their operations are rarely discussed. Unless communities themselves begin to press for these standards to be realised, including the prohibition on furthering a political or religious position through aid deliveries, too much depends on the goodwill of implementing agencies to enforce them. Feedback structures at local level are needed so that people who believe that a standard has been infringed have a clear, transparent and independent mechanism of registering their complaints.

What can – should – agencies working in Zimbabwe do when neutrality is actually undermined? During the early phase of the food crisis, several agencies met to discuss their concerns around monitoring humanitarian principles in such a politically-charged environment. Nevertheless, when SC (UK)’s operations were suspended, no collective response was forthcoming. This was partly because no agreement was reached on what circumstances might provoke a response by other agencies in other locations if any one member of the group had their activities undermined. This lack of clarity has compromised organisational solidarity in the current crisis: individual agencies have become vulnerable to local pressure, and some officials believe that, if put to it, the aid effort will continue regardless of what standards are infringed.

While pragmatism, experience and accumulated local knowledge are often more useful than a set of rigid rules around humanitarian principles, good practice guidelines on this issue would be welcome. To achieve this, humanitarian agencies need to document and analyse the challenges that face them in their pursuit of standards in complex emergencies, so that others can benefit and learn from this experience. A principle such as neutrality needs more solid practical literature behind it, especially documentation at the margins where it is tested, so that field staff tasked with its implementation can do more than merely recite its provisions.


Chris McIvor has been programme director for Save the Children (UK) in Zimbabwe for the past five years. Before that, he was director of programmes for Save the Children in the Caribbean and Morocco. He has written extensively on emergency and development issues, including child rights, children and the environment, the rights of disabled people, and Zimbabwe’s commercial farm-worker communities.


References and further reading

‘The Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movements and NGOs in Disaster Relief’, Annex VI to the resolutions of the 26th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, Geneva, 1995.

The Sphere Project, Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Disaster Response, 2000.

Inter-Agency Standing Committee, Policy Statement and Terms of Reference on Protection from Sexual Abuse and Exploitation in Humanitarian Crises, April 2002.

International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, World Disasters Report 2003, chapter 3.

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