Emerging from a violent past marked by battles with colonial powers and neighbouring rivals, Somali eastern Ethiopia has experienced 100 years of conflict. Conversely, a distinctive feature of the region’s aid programmes is their complete lack of any political, institutional and programmatic history. Van Brabant offers a confident précis of this turbulent history and highlights the externally imposed borders which remain a constant irritant and are largely responsible for the area’s recurring famine, drought and insecurity.

The paper illustrates how UNHCR has tried to cope with internal displacement and resettlement with a cross-mandate approach including themselves, the host government, NGOs, UN agencies and international agencies in a relief and recovery effort radiating from the refugee camps into the entire surrounding area.

A main tenet of this effort was that the reliance on free food distribution should be curtailed and all relief be employment-based. Set up alongside food-for-work schemes were local purchase arrangements, and seed and tool distribution schemes to enable the resettlement of camp population into local communities.

In the two years that this policy had operated at the time of writing, there remained 200,000 Somali refugees in the camps and considerable doubt whether the approach of the international community had led to any sustainable resettlement or recovery.

The author identifies one major problem as defining who the programme was to help: the refugees or the returnees and when does one become the other? A firm belief of the Ethiopian Government, the Somali population and NGO staff was that the hidden aim of UNHCR was to disperse the people and leave them to their fate. Van Brabant also calls attention to the persistent lack of an operational plan, absence of targeting the neediest, no time allotted for agencies to shift gear from relief to recovery support and, perhaps most basically, the limited absorptive capacity of the land itself.


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