Issue 6 - Article 7

Do No Harm or Do Some Good? NGO Coordination in Liberia

November 1, 1996
Philippa Atkinson

NGOs working in Liberia have been grappling with the difficulties of delivering aid in a neutral and impartial fashion since the beginning of the conflict in that country in 1990. The highly complex environment in which relief agencies work has continually jeopardised their ability to provide aid to those who need it most, and has at times produced perverse outcomes where relief aid has contributed directly both to the violence of the war and to the efforts of the warring factions. There have been at least two occasions where food distributions have been followed by massacres of civilians by fighters, including at Sinje this year in September, and countless incidents of looting of relief convoys and the property of relief agencies. Property targeted for looting includes vehicles and radio equipment, used for logistics purposes by warring factions, while relief food aid is often taken directly from civilians by fighters in a form of taxation. As the conflict has deepened over the years, with increasing factionalisation of the country and increasing internal displacement necessitating the continuation of external assistance, the contradictions inherent in the traditional relief response of delivering food and medical aid have become clearer.

The large amounts spent in the Liberia region on food aid alone over the seven year crisis, of over US$500m, highlight the ineffectiveness of the “band aid” approach to relief, which focuses purely on temporary responses to the humanitarian crises caused by wars. In Liberia, the relief community has been there throughout to mitigate the civilian hardship caused directly by factional fighting over territory, resources and power, while international commitment to finding a political solution to the conflict has been lacking. Many commentators have suggested that the major humanitarian effort of the US government especially, has served to mask in some way its responsibility to try to develop a political solution to the war. As in other conflicts, some believe that the very presence of the relief community lessens the pressure on warring factions themselves to seek a political solution. In Liberia, where the faction leaders have clear national political ambitions, it is certainly useful for them that responsibility for the basic needs of their citizens has been taken on by the international humanitarian community. The prolonged engagement of the humanitarian community in Liberia may thus have had the unintended effect of helping relieve pressure for a political solution both internally and externally.

A growing awareness of the political issues involved in delivering aid led last year to the adoption of an operational code of conduct by the relief community in Liberia including the United Nations, based on the Red Cross/NGO Codes of Conduct (see RRN Network Paper 7). The adoption of the code was an attempt to ensure that all agencies in Liberia would abide by humanitarian principles of neutrality and impartiality, thus limiting the possibility of manipulation of aid by the warring factions, and helping to ensure that it reaches targeted beneficiaries. This year, following the massive looting of property from relief agencies during six weeks of fighting in the capital, Monrovia, with total losses of the humanitarian community estimated at up to US$20m, the NGO community has taken the unprecedented step of restricting its work to “life-saving” operations only. This policy, of minimal capital inputs and carefully targeted interventions, was agreed by a group of twelve international NGOs still active in Liberia after the April crisis. It was designed to demonstrate to the faction leaders the seriousness of NGO commitment to limit their own contributions to the war, and as a way to put pressure on faction leaders to respect the principles of humanitarianism.

The new policy of NGOs marks an important step in its recognition of the ambiguous role of relief aid in the conflict, and shows progress in the crucial area of policy coordination between relief agencies. The presentation of a “united front” to the faction leaders was seen as an important aspect of both agreements, and UN agencies, although not officially signatories to this year’s joint policy statement, have adopted a similar stance in limiting their replacement of stolen equipment for example. However, although both these policy statements demonstrate an increasingly sophisticated analysis and understanding of the situation by the agencies, and thus represent important progress, in practice, both the commitment of all agencies to the Operating Principles, and the willingness of the warring factions to cooperate when their own interests lie elsewhere, have proved lacking. The difficulties faced by relief agencies in conflicts in which they have for a number of years been important institutional players do not diminish even as their own appreciation of them improves.

Thus, just as the extent of the looting suffered by the relief community this year exceeded all previous incidents, the recent crisis in western Liberia surpassed previous manipulations of relief aid as civilians were, some maintain, kept as prisoners and deliberately starved by fighters in order to attract food aid to the area. Relief agencies and CNN arrived in the area, and the situation took on crisis proportions which many believe exaggerated the extent of the humanitarian need. The increase in relief activity, with new NGOs setting up operations in Monrovia, has served to undermine to an extent both the cohesion of the joint policy of NGOs, and some of its component principles, including that of minimal inputs. As relief aid has been delivered to this highly volatile and strategic area, fighters have stolen food from civilians, at Sinje killing up to 25 people immediately after a distribution, and have taken convoys of aid personnel hostage on two occasions. The situation demonstrates the difficulty of maintaining cooperation amongst the relief community, and shows the extent of the manipulation of relief by the warring factions. Major abuses of human rights have taken place throughout the war in Liberia, including the taking of civilians as hostages for fighting and labouring, and the massacre at Harbel in June 1993 of 600 people occurred following a distribution of relief food. However, this latest incident is unprecedented as it entails human rights abuses directly linked to the provision of relief food, and it demonstrates the increasing sophistication of fighters in Western Liberia in their ability to manipulate the relief community.

Some of the problems raised by this situation can betackled within the context of the existing joint policy. Better coordination with new members of the relief community, including the dissemination of available information on fighters’ tactics, and thus the rationale for the policy of minimal inputs, would help limit avoidable mistakes. Mechanisms for responding to violations of humanitarian principles by factions must be implemented, as with the recent strike by agencies operating in Gbarnga following the looting of a food warehouse involving faction members. It is crucial for the humanitarian community to convey to the factions their unwillingness to work in the context of these abuses. However, such incidents in which the factions’ very tactics are shown to involve the deprivation of civilian populations and manipulation of relief supplies, highlight the basic inadequacy of humanitarian principles. The benefits of opening up humanitarian corridors when the humanitarian need is deliberately created in the first place in order to attract relief aid are questionable. This raises very difficult issues for the relief community, but ones which must be faced. The counterproductive effects of prolonged emergency aid programmes must be analysed, and the importance of advocating for respect of civilians’ human rights must be acknowledged.

The need for informed research on various aspects of the conflict is increasingly being recognised by the NGO community. A detailed study on the dynamic role of aid in the war commissioned by the Fondation Médecins sans Frontières has been completed this year. This report documents the multiple negative impacts of aid on the conflict, from the looting of relief items to the important symbolic political recognition afforded to the factions by the institutions of the relief community. It concludes however, that the perverse effects of relief aid are not decisive in determining the causes and dynamics of war. Therefore, aid can and must be redesigned to limit its harmful effects, and not simply be abolished. A rethinking of food aid policy is suggested, and the use of minimal capital inputs to reduce the possibility of diversion. NGOs in Monrovia recently held a workshop to discuss coordination and policy, and ways to implement a “do no harm” approach to relief as developed by the Mary Anderson consultancy group. It is important however that in working to analyse and limit the perverse and negative effects of aid, that NGOs do not lose sight of their responsibility to also “do some good”. An increased role for NGOs in advocacy is one component of the joint policy statement, and an advocacy strategy is currently being developed, both at field and head office level, with research already being funded. Advocacy work involves a recognition and understanding of the political aspects of conflict, which may challenge the traditional neutrality of the relief community. However, it is only with this acknowledgement of the political role of the humanitarian community that real progress can be made in the provision of aid that can have a positive impact in conflict situations.


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