The Upsurge of Interest in the ‘Relief-Development Continuum’: What Does It Mean?
by John Borton September 1994

The last few months have seen a surge of activity in relation to the `relief-development continuum’ and its various guises `relief-development linkages’, `the transition from relief to development’ and `relief-development interface’. The subject is definitely `à la mode’ with numerous reports appearing and conferences and workshops taking place.

It is our sense is that many of those involved in the provision of relief and rehabilitation assistance are finding it difficult to make sense of the various initiatives, in part because the terms are often used loosely and the discussions are often very generalised with little indication of what their practical implications might be. This article, which unavoidably reflects the personal views of the RRN Coordinator, is an attempt to explain what is going on.

Within the UN two processes have been underway.

UNDP’s `Continuum Project’ was initiated in late 1993 after a request by UNDP’s Governing Council and Management Board for the preparation of guidelines on the organisation’s role in humanitarian affairs.

This project involves an international team of researchers led by the Institute of International Studies, Geneva and has produced an overview report UNDP In Conflict and Disasters.

An Inter-Agency Working Group on the Continuum, comprising representatives of the principal UN departments and agencies involved in relief and development activities, was formed in mid-1993. The Working Group has obliged the relevant departments and agencies to develop their positions on relief and its relationship to development.

The Working Group is chaired by UNDP and this has led to some confusion between the two processes. In addition the Working Group has in the words of the Continuum Project’s overview report `brought out latent inter-agency rivalry’.

An example of the discussions outside the UN was a workshop Linking Relief and Development held at the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex University in March 1994, a report on which is available as IDS Discussion Paper 344 (tel: (44) 273 606261).

The recent upsurge of interest may be seen as a product of the increase in expenditures on disaster relief and humanitarian aid during the second half of the 1980s and in particular the dramatic increase in expenditures since 1991. Such expenditures now account for almost 10% of total development expenditures and for some donor organisations the proportion is more than twice this level.

At least in part the additional expenditures have been funded by switching resources from `development’ activities and this is providing an important motive for the upsurge in interest in the `continuum’.

Inevitably those concerned with `development’ are taking a much closer interest in `relief’ activities and questioning whether, in view of such large expenditures, there is room for using relief expenditures more `developmentally’ by strengthening local institutions, developing the `human resources’, improving local infrastructure and local productive capacity.

This source of motivation is viewed with some cynicism by relief workers, some of whom see it as an attempt by `developmentalists’ to climb onto the humanitarian aid `bandwagon’ after years of effectively ignoring the subject of disasters and relief.

A related motive is that of institutional positioning and competition. For instance UNDP’s central development coordinating role within the UN system has been threatened by the creation of the DHA and its mandate to coordinate humanitarian aid activities.

Whilst UNDP’s interest in pushing forward the conceptual thinking on the `continuum’ is yielding positive insights, it is also beneficial to the organisation in trying to reassert its central position within the UN system.

However, other factors are also contributing to the upsurge of interest in the `continuum’.

The narrowness of the definitions of disaster relief and humanitarian aid used by many donor organisations and the limitations of their response mechanisms which give greatest priority to speed of response and the alleviation of immediate needs, has been increasingly exposed over recent years.

The increased number of conflicts and the development of the notion of `complex emergencies’ where the situation is chronic rather than transitory calls for a more programmatic approach involving a wider range of activities than those within the `immediate relief’.

Yet in attempting to broaden their range of activities to include the provision of seeds and tools, veterinary programmes, education and training activities, and the local procurement of food aid and equipment, relief agencies have often found donors unable to respond as a result of their narrow and restrictive regulations.

Such definitional problem are brought into particularly sharp focus in two sorts of situation. First, as a result of their dislike of the regime in power and their poor human rights records, donor organisations have effectively halted their `development’ aid programmes in several countries leaving only a `humanitarian’ aid channel in place.

In such situations there is no development programme to complement or `provide cover’ for the funding of those activities which are considered `too developmental’ by donor officials.

Second, the (apparent) ending of conflicts in countries such as Cambodia, Afghanistan and Ethiopia around the beginning of the current decade, the enormous requirement for post-war recovery and rehabilitation, and the time lag involved in the development of state and administrative structures in these cases exposed the lack of appropriate modalities among donor organisations for providing assistance that was neither `relief’ nor `development’.

In response several donors have, or are in the process of, creating new funds specifically for `rehabilitation’ purposes or they are modifying their arrangements to make it possible to fund `transitional’ or `rehabilitation’ activities from within their existing `relief’ and `development’ budgets.

Another quite different source of motivation contributing to the upsurge of interest in the `continuum’ is that of making the `prevention’ and `mitigation’ of natural and human-caused `disasters’ explicit objectives of aid programmes generally. Intellectually this is the most exciting aspect of the `continuum’ as it involves far more than just adjusting definitions of relief and opening new `rehabilitation’ budget lines, indeed, it questions many of the assumptions underlying aid and development cooperation programmes over the last three decades. Persistent assumptions have been that development is a linear process with `disasters’ representing temporary diversions from the `development path’ and that development is, or should be, apolitical and distanced from foreign policy objectives.

Such assumptions have been seriously challenged over recent years by the slide into conflict of countries in receipt of substantial volumes of development aid; the requirement for substantial volumes of relief assistance in highly hazard-prone countries where the aid programme has effectively ignored the potential risks; the provision of substantial volumes of humanitarian aid in conflict situations where diplomatic efforts and international pressure offer the best chances for the conflicts to be resolved and the causes to be addressed; and the development of chronic, complex emergencies which may persist for a decade or more.

What is the development process supposed to be about if it does not include vulnerability reduction and conflict prevention as explicit objectives?

Assisted by the IDNDR there has been increased interest in the last 2-3 years in the prevention and mitigation of natural disasters and the role development programmes in bringing this about. For this to be achieved requires aid programmes and projects to recognise the inherently dynamic nature of environmental systems.

As noted elsewhere in this mailing conflict prevention is now also very much on the agenda and this implies the use of aid programme resources in support of tension reduction and conflict prevention measures and greater coordination between the aid and foreign policy objectives of the donor countries.

In reviewing the course of the debate so far on the `continuum’, it has to be said that the discussion has focused much more on issues associated with the `transition’ from relief to development (ie. those of narrow definitions of relief and the need for new `rehabilitation’ budget lines) rather than the more fundamental issues of reorienting aid and foreign policy programmes towards `prevention’ and `mitigation’.

The use of broad terms such as `relief-development linkages’ and `the continuum’ when the discussion is essentially about post-conflict rehabilitation and recovery is unhelpful.

The process is essentially about making relief (or at least the bulk of it) more developmental and making development more relevant by addressing variability in natural systems and socio-political affairs.

A clearer statement to this effect might have avoided some of the confusion associated with the debate so far.

How the debate will proceed over the coming months and the extent to which it will lead to changes in the modalities and objectives of relief and development programmes is difficult to anticipate at this stage.

In some donor organisations and indeed relief agencies, the recent dramatic increase in expenditures on humanitarian aid has seen a greater distance being placed between `relief’ and `development’ and those seeking to make `relief more developmental’ are likely to experience substantial resistance.

Much of this distancing has resulted from pressures on donors and relief agencies to act, and be seen to be acting, in a rapid and high profile manner in responding to emergencies.

The strength and source of these pressures will need to be addressed if substantial progress is to be made in making `relief more developmental’. In terms of making `development address variability’ UNDP’s notion of making `human security’ an objective of aid programmes – an idea pushed in both the UNDP in Conflict and Diasters Report and in the 1994 Human Development Report (see Publications) – represents a radical challenge to those concerned with development.

So far the notion has yet to elicit a substantive response from donor organisations.