Issue 17 - Article 19

Evaluating the Humanitarian Response to Kosovo

June 4, 2003
HPN staff
5 min read

The war between NATO and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) in March–June 1999 precipitated a major humanitarian emergency, involving the largest and fastest movement of people in Europe since the Second World War. In turn, the international response mobilised political, military and humanitarian assets on an unprecedented scale.

The Disasters Emergency Committee in the UK (DEC) launched its Kosovo appeal in April 1999. The appeal, the largest in the DEC’s history, raised over £50m. Twelve DEC member agencies participated: the British Red Cross Society, CAFOD, CARE International UK, Children’s Aid Direct, Christian Aid, Concern Worldwide, Help the Aged/HelpAge International, Merlin, Oxfam GB, Save the Children, Tearfund and World Vision UK. The DEC agencies found themselves in the unique situation of working in a crisis in which the UK government was a leading player in the military conflict and also, as with other NATO governments, a major donor to, and participant in, the humanitarian response.

The evaluation

The DEC commissioned from the ODI an independent evaluation of Phases I and II of expenditure, covering the period between 6 April 1999 and 31 January 2000, and expenditure of £37m.

The three-volume report, published in August 2000, highlights the following features of the international response:

  • there was a general lack of readiness among aid agencies;
  • local NGOs and o
  • the coordination of the international response, particularly during the refugee phase of the crisis, was weak; and
  • the humanitarian response became politicised, serving agendas and strategies that were not purely humanitarian.

Despite these difficulties, international assistance did improve the conditions of the affected populations. In particular:

  • The assistance given by the DEC agencies was broadly relevant and appropriate to people’s needs.
  • There was a lack of public advocacy by individual DEC member agencies on some key humanitarian issues, notably the plight of the one million people who remained in Kosovo during the NATO bombing campaign.
  • DEC agencies avoided excessive alignment with NATO and governmental donors in their responses, but rarely had procedures to guide field staff in their relations with the military.
  • DEC agencies resisted the over-concentration of assistance on refugees in the camps in Albania and Macedonia by also responding to the needs of refugees in host families and host families themselves,
  • The major proportion of DEC funds was spent in Albania, Macedonia and Kosovo. However, an important strength of the DEC money was its availability for use throughout the region, and some DEC agencies were able to increase their response to growing needs in Serbia after the NATO bombing ended.


Several lessons emerge from the humanitarian response to Kosovo’s emergency. One is that, in complex political emergencies, effective preparedness and response plans depend on access to informed political analysis. The evaluation identifies a number of factors that contribute to strong preparedness capacity, such as in-house emergency staff available at short notice, well-defined expertise in a particular sector, efficient recruitment procedures and good logistics systems. An established presence within the region and existing relationships with local partners were also important elements affecting an agency’s preparedness and timely response.

Second, the general lack of assessments in the Kosovo crisis was a weakness. Gender analysis, for example, was weak in the assessments and programme designs of almost all DEC agencies. Monitoring mechanisms need to be strengthened so as to ensure that programmes are responding to needs in a balanced and impartial way. At a minimum, better monitoring of expenditure and delivery of aid resources to different population groups would help.

Third, the Kosovo crisis highlights how issues of protection can be just as important as the provision of material relief assistance in war-induced emergencies. More attention thus needs to be paid to protection in the design and implementation of humanitarian response.

Lastly, the evaluation recommends that DEC agencies support the Sphere humanitarian charter and minimum standards (see our articles in this issue), and make greater efforts to disseminate these documents. Awareness and application of Sphere and code-of-conduct principles was poor within most DEC agencies, their international networks and local partners.

Although international assistance undoubtedly improved the conditions of affected populations, several other factors served to mitigate a major catastrophe, including: the good pre-crisis health and nutritional status of the refugee population; the short duration of the emergency and quick return of the refugees; the fact that two-thirds of refugees stayed outside the camps and were supported by the local population; and the assets retained by refugees (savings and remittances) which enabled them to pay for food and accommodation.

A year after the refugee crisis, greatest progress has been made in meeting emergency needs inside Kosovo, but reconstruction requirements remain immense. The Serb, Roma and other people who fled Kosovo have little prospect of returning home and constitute a long-term problem. The political ‘end-state’ is also uncertain: no time-limit has been set for the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), and the legal status of the UN Administered Province of Kosovo remains undefined. Kosovo’s future will depend upon the establishment of a credible governance structure that meets the aspirations of Kosovo’s population, and that promotes sustainable recovery.

Independent Evaluation of Expenditure of DEC Kosovo Appeal Funds, 3 vols (London: Overseas Development Institute/Valid International, August 2000). For further information on the DEC and its member agencies, see: < >. The DEC, 52 Great Portland St, London W1N 5AH. Tel +44 (0)20 7580 6550 Fax +44 (0)20 7580 2854.


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