Issue 43 - Article 11

Stuck in the 'recovery gap': the role of humanitarian aid in the Central African Republic

July 12, 2009
Kersten Jauer, UNDP

Over the past two years, humanitarian assistance has made a decisive contribution to the stabilisation of the Central African Republic while the country’s condition was at its most critical. Back from the brink of collapse, the benefits of peace and stability now have to be spread much more widely across this desperately poor and conflict-ridden country if the patient is to recover successfully. However, while humanitarian assistance is levelling off and may well decrease in 2009, development support lags too far behind to pick up the baton. The looming recovery gap now jeopardises CAR’s fragile progress.

Improving aid effectiveness

In November 2008, CAR and its partners launched a new aid management system. Widely used in Asia but still rare in Africa, the goal of this online database – in line with the Paris Declaration – is to make humanitarian and development aid more transparent, coordinated and effective. Previously, no central data source existed to help decision-makers understand who finances projects, who works in which sectors, in which locations, and where the gaps were. As in many other African states critically dependent on foreign support, the absence of reliable data undermined the effectiveness of the aid being provided. Within months of the system’s launch, detailed information on more than 300 projects was available online.

At first sight, data on aid to CAR is encouraging. Between 2005 and 2007, total foreign assistance more than doubled, from about $117 million to $244m. This increase is particularly significant given that CAR had long been a ‘forgotten crisis’. While aid to Sub-Saharan Africa as a whole went up by more than 50% between 1985 and 2005, it fell by almost 60% for CAR. During this time, the country’s development catastrophe slowly turned into a humanitarian emergency, directly affecting more than a million people and forcing up to 300,000 into displacement. After decades of coups, violence and international neglect, CAR now ranks 178 out of 179 on the UN’s Human Development Index. More than two-thirds of the population live in poverty, and life expectancy is a paltry 43 years. Reaching the Millennium Development Goals has become a distant dream.

An initial positive shift for aid to CAR came in late 2006, when the World Bank, the European Union and others helped to clear much of the country’s crushing debt arrears, paving the way for multilateral development re-engagement via the World Bank, the IMF and the African Development Bank. Greater international attention to CAR’s humanitarian crisis also led to a further increase in foreign assistance. Between 2005 and 2007, humanitarian funding jumped by almost 800%, from $10m to about $78m. New or returning donors provided most of these additional resources. Accounting for more than 30% of total assistance in 2007, humanitarian aid started to play a catalytic role in CAR’s recovery.

Development aid: too little too late

Yet a closer analysis of aid, looking separately at development and humanitarian support, shows that catching up on lost decades may well take much longer than hoped. Frequently, development projects are constrained by protracted planning and implementation delays, particularly in low-capacity countries such as CAR. A significant share of the $166m disbursed for development activities in 2007 came years late, as many projects grappled with restructuring, recruitment and procurement delays, as well as a general failure to show satisfactory results.

More importantly, large parts of the development machine had come to a standstill when the country was at its most fragile. After a virtual halt to long-term aid during CAR’s last civil war in 2002–2003, it took almost four years for development donors to return. In late 2007, they finally pledged some $600m over three years in support of the country’s first poverty reduction strategy. Yet much of these resources are burdened with lead-times of up to two years. In addition, they only cover half of the country’s basic needs, amounting to $1.3 billion for security sector reform, economic recovery, infrastructure, healthcare and education.

In 2007, the impact of increasing development funding still remained largely invisible in many parts of the country. More than three-quarters of the $158m spent on development addressed just four sectors: debt alleviation and refinancing (28%), peacekeeping and rehabilitation of government capacity (23%), health (14%) and non-specific budget support (9%). More significantly, less than 20% of development aid was spent in projects outside the capital, Bangui. It is often said that insecurity in the north, which is now infested with rebel groups and bandits, severely limited the scope for development activity in the field. Yet it could equally be argued that this very fragility reinforces the case for aid: the experience of tangible development benefits may increase support for the government and thus enhance stability in long-neglected regions.

Humanitarians pick up (some) pieces

In 2007, humanitarian assistance (not development aid) made a concrete difference in the fragile regions where development progress was most needed. Throughout the north, conflict and neglect had destroyed health posts, schools, water pumps, farms and infrastructure. Almost 90% of humanitarian funds were spent in the six northern prefectures, home to more than 1.2m people. All of these regions received more than $3m in direct humanitarian spending, and most benefited from more than $6m in concrete, visible project expenditure. During 2007, the number of international humanitarian NGOs working in CAR jumped from five to 20.

For a number of reasons, however, the impact of this work remained limited. Of the $78m donors disbursed in humanitarian aid in 2007, only around $54m could be spent before the end of the year, as significant amounts of funding only arrived in November and December. Most humanitarian organisations only started their operations in 2007, and had to devote considerable funds to start-up investments. More importantly, donors directed almost half of humanitarian aid to only one sector: food security (43%). A local pooled fund (the Emergency Response Fund) helped to redress this imbalance by serving under-funded priority projects. Overall, however, the resources available for health, education and water and sanitation projects were limited.

Nothing new in 2008

The situation did not change significantly in 2008. Total aid increased by about 20%, but much of the long-term development support remained heavily concentrated on very few sectors. Even more money stayed in the capital. Humanitarian funding picked up further (albeit some statistics overstate progress by double-counting donor contributions), but food distributions accounted for an even higher share of humanitarian expenditure.

Meanwhile, economic conditions deteriorated as the global economic crisis hit the country. According to the government, diamond mining and timber production (the two most important economic sectors) fell by some 60% in 2008, leading to massive unemployment in the south. The country’s first poverty reduction strategy and donor roundtable in late 2007 had raised enormous popular expectations. Yet, in the current year, humanitarian funding is likely to fall off significantly. The impact on field activity in the north could be drastic. At the same time, most development projects are still at the planning stage. Many basic social services may actually disappear in 2009.

Stuck in the recovery gap

Why is the transition from a catalytic humanitarian phase to effective development support so difficult in a country like CAR? Three reasons stand out. First, once foreign aid networks have broken down, it is very difficult to re-establish them. Second, fragile countries such as CAR do not fit well with traditional donor funding mechanisms. Third, appropriately qualified international staff are frequently lacking.

Over the last 20 years, as the political and economic situation became more fragile, CAR lost more and more of its support network: development donors increasingly disengaged, Western embassies closed, country representatives left and most desk officers stopped reporting. By 2007, probably only a handful of officials in Northern development ministries possessed anything other than a rudimentary knowledge of CAR. Getting access to Northern decision-makers became increasingly difficult for government and aid agency officials from CAR. Once the development aid structure collapses, enormous amounts of time and resources are required to rebuild it. Re-establishing an effective field presence, regaining lost knowledge and reconnecting decision-makers takes years.

CAR has also been the victim of an unfortunate aid ‘category mismatch’. Deemed unfit for long-term support, traditional development aid dried up. With massive internal displacement, CAR became a case for humanitarian donors – most of them eager to disengage as quickly as possible. Yet the country was not afflicted by a sudden-onset crisis, from which it could quickly ‘recover’. CAR has been chronically sick for decades. Rather, the country is part of a group of about 50 states where, according to Oxford Professor Paul Collier, the ‘bottom billion’ of the world’s population seems irredeemably mired in poverty, and traditional donor instruments have failed.

Finally, CAR is a prime example of the frequent ‘skill paradox’ in humanitarian and development work. Rarely can one find highly-skilled international staff in hard-to-get-to, low-capacity countries such as CAR (or Southern Sudan), even though these are precisely the contexts where such personnel are needed most. While certainly not the root cause of CAR’s problems, aid agencies’ inability to recruit the right staff has certainly contributed to the country’s disastrous development results. To give one example, the vital UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator post has been left vacant for almost a year.

What to do

Putting CAR (and countries like it) back on track requires more and better support. First, it is important to fight organisational ‘network loss’. A country that stands at the very bottom of all important development indicators should never be left without dedicated, specialised assistance. Research, field presence, headquarters support and bilateral relations are critical.

Second, new funding categories and mechanisms need to be created, to better address the problems of fragile or failing states such as CAR. These countries do not face sudden crises, requiring quick humanitarian action, with disengagement six months later. Likewise, they often do not have the ability to execute large development programmes themselves, making them unattractive to many development donors. Easy ‘work-arounds’, such as using humanitarian funds for quasi-development projects, are not the answer. Rather, these ‘bottom billion’ countries require new forms of funding, for long-term, hands-on support. Finally, it is time for donors to engage with humanitarian and development agencies, especially in the UN system, to improve recruitment systems. Where country offices lack the capacity to select appropriately qualified staff, headquarters must offer support.

The surge in humanitarian activity in CAR since 2007 has done much to raise the country’s profile, and bring some help to those who need it most. Now is the time to do more to ensure that this progress is not lost in the looming recovery gap.

Kersten Jauer is Senior Information Manager for the United Nations Development Programme in CAR. His email address is For more information on the aid management system in CAR see and The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations.


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