Issue 19 - Article 11

Practising principled humanitarian assistance in conflict: the experience of ActionAid-Sierra Leone

June 3, 2003
Michael Young
10 min read


This article describes the difficulties and dilemmas ActionAid-Sierra Leone (AASL) has faced in attempting to apply the Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief to its relief activities in Sierra Leone in the latter half of the 1990s. In countries like Sierra Leone, the idea of principled humanitarian action remains just that. Chronic political instability, conflict, factionali-sation and humanitarian crisis, coupled with international efforts to use aid as a means of influencing the parties to the conflict, mean that agencies cannot hope to apply the code to all aspects of their work.

From development to relief

ActionAid established a development programme in Sierra Leone in 1988. It began emergency work in 1995, following attacks on its areas of operation by Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels. In effect, the rapidly-deteriorating security environment rendered ‘normal’ development work impossible. AASL was faced with a choice: either suspend its activities altogether, or adapt its work, even though the agency had little experience of emergency response and was constrained by programme and budgetary requirements. The decision was taken to respond to emergencies in areas where AASL had established development programmes.

In response to the crisis, AASL initiated an internal capacity-building and training programme. CARE International delivered a crash-course in emergencies work, including how to undertake needs assessments, targeting, registration and logistics planning. Field staff also worked in IDP camps on short-term attachments to other NGOs, including the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society. An Emergency Advisor was recruited, and three senior staff attended basic emergency capacity-building foundation courses overseas.

The Code of Conduct and operational reality in Sierra Leone

In principle, the decision to respond to the emergency committed AASL to complying with the Code of Conduct. Yet at the operational level, attempts to adhere to the Code presented major difficulties.

Access and protection

The right to receive humanitarian assistance, and to offer it, is a fundamental humanitarian principle. This requires unimpeded access to affected populations. In Sierra Leone, however, there was no effective mechanism to ensure that the belligerents complied with international humanitarian law. Adherence was largely voluntary, and determined by the prevailing political, military and security climate. In some cases, access boiled down to the mood of soldiers, militiamen and officers at checkpoints, even when approval had been gained from headquarters.

In early 1995, under the military regime of the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC), much of Sierra Leone was accessible to humanitarian agencies and civilians because the government was militarily strong, and politically united. This facilitated the free flow of relief and the free movement of people in many parts of the country. Access became restricted in late 1995, when disgruntled government soldiers and officers – who came to be known as ‘Sobels’ – joined forces with the rebel RUF. Access improved again in 1996, when elections brought President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah to power, and a peace accord was signed between the government and the RUF. However, by the second half of 1997 access again became limited due to the military overthrow of the government by the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC). The RUF (already in control of a significant part of the countryside) was invited by the AFRC to participate in government in 1997.

The AFRC/RUF junta disintegrated in February 1998 at the hands of the West African peacekeeping force ECOMOG. The rebels retreated into the jungle, destroying roads, bridges and communication systems in an effort to keep communities apart, and to block relief supplies and the movement of their enemies. The discipline of soldiers loyal to the government was also suspect, and a number of warlords, militias and mercenaries emerged, further complicating the security situation. In rebel-controlled areas, providing humanitarian relief and protection meant paying combatants for access and protection, either in cash or in relief materials. On the one hand, such action would be perceived as compromising the Code of Conduct, fuelling the conflict and legitimising the AFRC/RUF. On the other, failure to assist and protect people would have meant an abdication by AASL of its humanitarian role. In response, AASL adapted its strategy to support a low-cost, low-key and life-saving relief operation, targeted at populations in areas controlled by pro-government forces.

Targeting and impartiality

AASL also had to decide how to target limited relief assistance in areas where chronic political and security instability had created a situation of extreme vulnerability. This targeting needed to avoid provoking tensions that might either exacerbate the conflict, or start a new one.

According to the Code of Conduct: ‘Aid is given regardless of the race, creed or nationality of the recipients and without adverse distinction of any kind. Aid priorities are calculated on the basis of need alone.’ Even though funding proposals submitted to donors were based on thorough assessments of the needs of the affected populations, the responses were gen-erally inadequate, especially in non-government areas. ActionAid and its partners did not have the necessary resources to provide for equitable relief, and to ensure equal access for all victims. Limited resources meant that selective targeting took place, with aid being channelled to people in government -controlled areas, where access was easier.

Involving programme beneficiaries

Effective relief and lasting rehabilitation can generally best be achieved where the intended beneficiaries are involved in the design, management and implementation of the assistance programme. The Code of Conduct states that: ‘Ways shall be found to involve programme beneficiaries in the management of relief aid’. In Sierra Leone, efforts were made by humanitarian agencies to uphold and maintain this standard. In 1995 and 1996, participatory approaches allowed the involvement of beneficiaries in the design and implementation of all relief interventions, via existing community structures. Key programming areas in which communities were involved included needs assessments; the targeting, registration and verification of beneficiaries; the distribution of relief supplies and the sharing of security information. In some cases, key informants were invited to participate in regional inter-agency relief programming, planning and coordination meetings.

The escalation in fighting from 1997, increased human-rights abuses against civilians, massive internal displacement and high levels of vulnera-bility all frustrated these attempts at participation. Increasing insecurity made it difficult, and sometimes impossible, to apply participatory approaches to relief programming. Between 1997 and 1999, for instance, it was difficult for humanitarian agencies to obtain adequate planning information, such as needs assessments and problem analyses.

Aid and politics

Following the coup that brought down Kabbah’s government in 1997, the international community, led by the UK government, suspended major aid programmes and tied their aid to the restoration of Kabbah’s administration. An arms and petroleum embargo was also imposed. This effectively constituted a shift in focus away from people – the victims of Sierra Leone’s humanitarian crisis – towards political processes – the restoration of democratic government. In effect, aid became a political tool of international diplomacy, contrary to the Code of Conduct, which states that ‘Aid will not be used to further a particular political or religious standpoint’.

The embargo had immediate effects on the work and position of agencies like AASL. Whatever goal it was meant to accomplish, the embargo increased the suffering of Sierra Leoneans, and restricted the flow of humanitarian support into a country where armed insurgency had already disrupted farming and other livelihood sources. The embargo also changed perceptions of aid agencies, and generated a climate of dangerous mistrust. Relief supplies were looted by officials of the AFRC/RUF, and aid workers were intimidated and attacked. In practical terms, the petrol shortages that ensued created severe logistical difficulties in the delivery of aid. Many agencies suspended their activities and relocated to neighbouring Guinea. ActionAid scaled down its field activities and sought official authorisation to operate as a Sierra Leonean NGO, in collaboration with Aid et Action, a French NGO registered in Guinea.

In response to the embargo, humanitarian agencies working in Sierra Leone agreed to collaborate, and developed operational procedures and principles of humanitarian action: the Sierra Leone Code of Conduct. A committee representing national and international NGOs, concerned donors, UN agencies and the ICRC was set up to monitor the implementation of the Code, and to advocate on its behalf. Unfortunately, the humanitarian space agencies needed to deliver aid did not exist. AFRC/RUF elements intimidated people crossing the border from Guinea, and raided goods crossing the frontier. This created an atmosphere of general insecurity, which affected the flow of humanitarian goods and services. From Guinea itself, members of Kabbah’s ousted regime attempted to block the flow of relief goods into Sierra Leone for fear that international assistance would help legitimise the new government.

Aid programmes from international donors, led by the British government, remain politically-driven, rather than politically-informed. The aim remains to sustain and support reform, rather than primarily to render humanitarian assistance; the focus now is on the disarmament and reintegration of ex-combatants. Under these circumstances, implementing the Codes of Conduct in Sierra Leone has not been feasible. Principles of humanitarian and human-rights law have consistently been violated, suffering has continued, and access has remained difficult.

Towards a principled approach to relief

The idea of principled humanitarian action is still far from a reality, especially in a situation of chronic political instability like that in Sierra Leone. Brutal conflict, factionalisation and human-rights abuse, together with the lack of serious international humanitarian commitment, all make principled assistance in Sierra Leone difficult, if not impossible.

Part of the problem lies within the humanitarian community itself. All too often, there is insufficient consensus over guidelines and principles, and a lack of agreement over their applicability, relevance and utility. Many agencies saw advocacy on human rights and humanitarian principles as too political, and thus as contravening the principle of non-political assistance, as well as raising security risks in such a volatile environment. For some agencies, principles were pursued in so far as mandates required this, but no further, and there was confusion over what a principled approach really meant in practice.

In recent years, humanitarian agencies have been working in conflicts where belligerents have no interest in respecting international law, and where international political action to enforce this respect has been weak or ineffective. Sierra Leone’s armed groups were neither fully aware of the Code of Conduct, nor did they consent to its implementation. Humanitarian action was seen at best as interference, or as an unfriendly act. Humanitarian personnel and assets were neither respected nor protected at all times. Payment was demanded at checkpoints, relief items stolen and aid workers threatened because of their control of resources and assets.

As humanitarians, it is incumbent upon us to address some of the shortcomings within the humanitarian system which complicate efforts to apply and adhere to principles of conduct. We must also seek to raise awareness of the existence, and the value, of these principles among the populations we seek to help. This must include military and police forces and officials. Principles are useless if no one knows about them. Lastly, we must be more consistent and effective in our lobbying of home governments against the use of aid as a tool of diplomacy. All the principles in the world will do little to improve the delivery of aid if powerful governments continue to turn a blind eye to abuse.

Michael Young is Programme Manager, Emergencies for ActionAid-Sierra Leone.


The Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief, RRN Network Paper 7 (London: Relief and Rehabilitation Network, 1994)

Joanna Macrae, Aiding Recovery? The Crisis of Aid in Chronic Political Emergencies (London: Zed Books, 2001)

Nick Leader, Humanitarian Principles in Practice: A Critical Review, RRN Discussion Paper, 1999

Nick Leader and Joanne Macrae, Terms of Engagement: Conditions and Conditionality in Humanitarian Action, Report of a conference organised by the Overseas Development Institute and the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, 2000


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