Issue 18 - Article 2

Responding to long-term crises

June 4, 2003
François Grunewald

The distinctions between humanitarian aid and development assistance need to be rethought in situations of protracted crisis.

Across the globe, seemingly interminable crises abound. Some, like the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, are ever-present on our television screens and in our newspapers. Yet others, such as those in Colombia, Sudan or Afghanistan, seem to have been largely forgotten, meriting only brief mentions in the media. These entrenched situations are competing, both for media coverage and for aid funds, with more sensational events, such as military flare-ups, hurricanes and earthquakes. In a world where economic resources are in ever-shorter supply, we need to take another look at the practices of the actors involved. In the face of protracted emergencies, which fade into oblivion or leave the public indifferent, are the tools humanitarian actors use and the practices they employ still the most appropriate ones? Are the mechanisms we use to handle information and fund our actions still the most suitable ones?

These questions were debated at a symposium entitled ‘Long-term Crises, Forgotten Crises: Humanitarian Issues and the Challenges for Europe’, held in Paris on 15 and 16 December 2000. The symposium was organised by the Plate-forme française des ONG pour l’Union Européenne, the Groupe URD and Médecins du Monde, with financial support from the European Commission Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO) and the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Participants included Charles Josselin, the French Minister for Overseas Aid, Constanza Adinolfi, the director of ECHO, and over 230 delegates from five UN agencies, the European Commission, NGOs from seven European Union (EU) countries, ICRC representatives, European researchers, African students and representatives of EU member-states, Colombia, Chechnya and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The symposium traced the problems, challenges and issues facing humanitarian agencies working in long-term crises. Today’s crises are often deliberately perpetuated for the sake of commercial gain from trafficking, speculation and the exploitation of raw materials. Why do some crises last such a long time, and how might they be influenced? When a crisis becomes entrenched and the classic emergency-aid practices are no longer workable, what can be done to protect and help civilians caught up in apparently endless disasters? Although needs remain critical, the administrative machinery in funding organisations simply seizes up because the crisis is not an emergency, but nor is it a situation calling for rehabilitation or development assistance. Which office should we apply to? What budget heading does it come under?

Rethinking ‘the continuum’

Ending these interminable conflicts requires not only political will, but also powers that governments often do not have. Although at the symposium Josselin rightly stressed ‘the danger of confusing governmental powerlessness with indifference’, he also pointed out that a government’s ability to intervene can be limited by, among other things, struggles for influence between different countries, and the role played by members of the UN Security Council. Who wants to risk getting caught up in the quagmires of the Congo, the forests of Guinea or the Afghan mountains for the sake of distant and apparently intractable conflicts? Meanwhile, however, whole sections of humanity are sinking into oblivion, worried over only by a handful of humanitarians.

Humanitarian aid itself also requires a rethink. In our practices we get the time factor mixed up with questions of content: the classic approach to emergency aid – that we must act quickly – has no meaning in the context of crises which have lasted for years. For example, supplying food aid in on-going crises has a range of negative effects: it creates dependency, it paralyses agricultural systems, it increases the security risks faced by targeted populations, and it creates a war economy based on capturing these supplies. What can be done to help local capabilities survive during crises? What can be done to improve understanding of individual and collective survival strategies? What can be done to strengthen the resilience of populations, the sort of ingenuity which enables them to absorb blow after blow and hold out against the terrible effects that such long-term crises have on the social fabric?

The timing of the symposium was particularly opportune as the European Commission was preparing its second communication on the link between emergency aid, rehabilitation and development. During the symposium, ECHO director Adinolfi emphasised that one of the challenges in the context of current reforms lay in identifying and putting in place mechanisms to ensure a smooth transition from emergency aid to rehabilitation, reconstruction and development aid. But in the context of long-term crises, the challenge is not so much to be able to move on to development, as to be able to support policies that will assist populations in pursuing their survival strategies and strengthening their resilience. Such policies sound like development, but in a crisis they are in fact humanitarian. The confusion between ‘content’ and ‘context’ is akin to that between ‘time’ and ‘content’. To clear up this confusion, strong partnerships between the European Commission and civil society will not only be useful, but also necessary.

Linking emergency and development thinking

The symposium identified several sectoral issues as being particularly complex and resonant in the context of long-term crises. The protection of civilian populations, often an uncomfortable subject, was one of the main ones. Here, the legal framework applicable to long-term or entrenched crises needs clarification. This is a major project that the ICRC is working on. Recent experiences have also shown how difficult it is to guarantee food security in protracted emergencies without creating a dependency on humanitarian aid. The difficulties faced in ensuring the shift from free aid during the acute emergency phase to more viable mechanisms once the crisis has become protracted were highlighted. In this area, we need to identify and analyse the ‘success stories’, and draw out the methodological lessons to be learned. Lastly, in a turbulent world where the old division between civilians and the military is often blurred, we must think about how to set up effective and ethical partnerships with actors within civil society at a local level.

Ultimately, high-quality analysis is key. We need to improve our ability to develop thinking and put in place appropriate and innovative policies which marry the know-how of the ‘developers’ with that of the ‘emergency aiders’. Initiatives could include setting up systems for exchanging local seeds for food aid; controlling the flow of food in order to stabilise prices and limit decapitalisation and the gradual selling-off of production apparatus; establishing mechanisms for recovering costs; setting up micro-finance systems; and providing aid to local craftspeople to fund production. Lastly, there is a need for imagination and creativity, for listening to populations in distress and for rigour and adherence to clear principles anchored firmly in strong legal frameworks.

The symposium ended with testimonies from two important witnesses, Serdjan Dzarévic, the president of the Helsinki Committee in Bosnia, and Chechen Minister of Health Dr Oumar Khambiev. Alongside the complex geopolitical, technical, methodological, economic and legal debates, their real-life suffering and personal experiences remind us that the ‘humanitarian’ is primarily to do with what it means to be ‘human’.

François Grunewald is chair of the Groupe URD and a member of the Haut Conseil de la Coopération Internationale.

Further References

Special issue of Disasters on complex political emergencies, vol. 24, no. 4, December 2000

Aid Under Fire: Redefining Relief and Development Assistance in Unstable Conditions (London: ODI, April 1995)

‘Linking Relief and Development’, IDS Bulletin, vol. 25, no. 4, October 1994

Mark Adams and Mark Bradbury, Conflict and Development, Oxfam Discussion Paper 4 (Oxford: Oxfam, 1996)

François Grunewald, ‘From Prevention to Rehabilitation. Before During and After: The ICRC in Retrospect’, International Review of the Red Cross, no. 36, May–June 1995

Sue Lautze, Coping with Crisis, Coping with Aid: Capacity-Building, Coping Mechanisms and Dependency, Linking Relief with Aid (Medford, MA: International Famine Center, Tufts University, 1996)

Claire Pirotte, Bernard Husson and François Grunewald (eds), Responding to Emergencies and Fostering Development: The Dilemmas of Humanitarian Aid (London and New York: Zed Books, 1999)


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