Issue 20 - Article 11

Was international emergency relief aid in Kosovo ‘humanitarian’?

May 7, 2002
Raymond Apthorpe

There are at least a dozen agency-commissioned evaluations of the international aid response in Kosovo, together with another three dozen essays and articles similarly evaluative in intent. Although their quality, credibility and coverage vary greatly, taken together they give a broad view of an aid response. This article assesses the key messages emerging from these evaluations, and asks whether the aid community can succeed in learning from them.

Key messages

The principal message of these evaluations is that the international community – NATO included – lacked the capacity to respond rapidly to large-scale emergency needs. These evaluations also note a significant lack of professionalism. Even where they existed, training and guidelines were bypassed. Professional codes of conduct for behaviour in a complex emergency were either unknown, neglected or denied in the field. Instead, a sort of ‘institutional amateurism’ ruled.

This lack of due professionalism extended to at best an ambiguous conceptualisation – for operational purposes – of what exactly a ‘crisis’ (and different types of ‘crisis’) would and should connote for the organisations concerned. By some standards, no assistance emergency, as classically defined, actually occurred. The refugees were relatively better nourished, healthier and with better access to good resources (including remittances) than those in other emergencies. Furthermore, the quality of sanitation and environmental health interventions would probably not have been sufficient to prevent large-scale epidemics if the conflict had occurred in a more typical emergency context. Rather than emergency assistance, what was actually at stake was protection. Yet the emphasis on emergency assistance meant that no framework was in place in which even the ICRC could carry out its protection activities from March to June 1999. No provision for protection was available for civilians, either on the ground or from the air.

The evaluations of the aid response generally accept that NATO’s contributions, for example in the form of the refugee camps soldiers built, were of great logistical importance. However, there was doubt as to whether they were built efficiently, as well as rapidly. Even members of the military accept that good construction guidelines were lacking. The Americans’ Camp Hope was quickly nicknamed ‘Camp – hope it doesn’t rain’ (it did).

Weaker or contested messages

In addition to the messages that ring loud and clear, there are other signals which are weaker or more contested. All the evaluations comment on the large amounts of bilateral aid ‘thrown’ at relief, not – this time – at development. Some see this as having created problems for a population that was already fully employed in reconstruction when the international community intervened. For a decade, Albanians in Kosovo had been forced to create their own parallel civil society, from kindergartens to health clinics, architecture schools and a vibrant independent media. Thus, interventions can be seen as peremptory, non-consultative and over-dependent on ‘in-and-out’ commercial contractors; in a word, these interventions were debilitatingly dispossessing, rather than constructively supportive.

Conclusions about issues to do with human resources among the aid agencies were also less clear-cut. Where there is some evaluation of human resource management, little positive is said; one Kosovar employed by an international NGO reported to me that the organisation behaved ‘just like the communist party, powerful, rich with resources, coming in from afar, and knowing only how to look after their own – in this case foreign – staff’. Unprofessional personnel management appears to have been the norm, as in other emergencies, with a familiar pattern of short-term assignments, lack of appropriate training, lack of briefing on arrival and departure – and, as ever, gender issues were reportedly ‘forgotten again’.

As in virtually all evaluations of all international emergencies, ‘poor coordination’ is blamed for a lot. Also like most evaluations, analysis does not go much farther than that. Yet where serious comment is offered, some interesting questions are raised. Higher-level and strategic coordination was lacking, but did this in and of itself account for much in the pattern of the response overall, where good coordination was forthcoming at lower, more operational, levels? One or two of these evaluations suggest that this was not the case. None of these evaluations addresses the question of whether the high-level coordination role should have been assigned to UNHCR. UNHCR was heavily criticised from all angles. Arguably, a different division of responsibility, between the OSCE, WFP and OCHA, may have worked better.

Absences: the politics of the Kosovo crisis

Despite their merits, much is missing in these evaluations, and much is treated anecdotally or erroneously. Fundamentally, these evaluations generally failed to take into account the social and political dynamics of the conflict. This results in the ‘humanitarianising’ of a crisis that is essentially political in nature. Even the word ‘conflict’ is practically absent; instead, these evaluations tend to refer simply to the ‘crises’ that the agencies in question perceived through the lens of their own mandates. On the rare occasions when these evaluations do speak about the conflict, this is labelled simply as ‘ethnic’. This kind of phoney analysis as to ‘ethnicity’ in effect serves as a substitute for meaningful political analysis, or allows evaluations to evade politics altogether. Thus, these evaluations over-simplify the complexities of Serbo-Albanian tensions, while the politics of Western intervention and the role of NATO bombing in creating a regional humanitarian crisis are insufficiently analysed.

Was the aid intervention in Kosovo humanitarian?

The prejudiced use of the label ‘humanitarian organisation’ in these management evaluations does not in itself help answer the question whether what these agencies actually did qualifies as humanitarian. Among other things, this depends on what this key term is taken to mean. By and large, however, these evaluations did not define the term. All of these ‘independent’ evaluations treat supply-side agendas as if these pertain to donors only, and as if international NGOs did not have such organisation-driven agendas of their own, be they religious, social or even for that matter geopolitical.

If, in its narrowest meaning, to be humanitarian means to save threatened lives, did the international community’s intervention in Kosovo on balance save more lives than were threatened, jeopardised or extinguished? What is the brute arithmetic of the human lives lost and saved in this conflict? Unfortunately, this calculation is not available. NATO’s decision to launch the air campaign and rule out the use of ground forces lifted a key constraint on Milosovic and saved NATO lives. But it failed to deter an even bloodier offensive against civilians in Kosovo. As for the distribution of emergency relief assistance, emergency aid for the most part failed to reach those not in the refugee camps, that is around two-thirds of the total refugee population in Macedonia, and an additional proportion in Albania. Moreover, two or three of the most convincing evaluations suggest that this crisis, as with others, was absorbed and managed largely by the refugees themselves.

Epilogue: and now Afghanistan

Will the international emergency response in Afghanistan turn out to be ‘humanitarian’? All these Kosovo questions are pertinent here. Once again, there is significant military involvement in the emergency, raising questions as to whether it is deserving of the label ‘humanitarian’. Any number of international NGOs are also involved. However, the problems for evaluations to address in Afghanistan are even more complex, given the unstable regional situation and the interplay of interests in the US. To what extent, and how effectively, will the victims of the war be reached, by the relief service agencies or units concerned, as well as by evaluators? Will the nature of the conflict be taken into account by agencies in their programmes? Will institutionalised amateurism rule again? Will human rights issues again be translated just into emergency assistance issues? Will the analysis that is brought to bear be sufficiently historically, socially, economically and ethically informed to be credible – and useful? There will also of course once again be the gruesome arithmetic of lives and deaths to be done. Compared with how many lives are lost, how many were saved, and whose? And why did things have to turn out this way again?

Raymond Apthorpe is Visiting Professor at the Australian National University (ANU)’s National Center for Development Studies, and a Research Professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. His e-mail addresses are:; and This article is based on an extract of a presentation made at the Collegium of Development Studies, Uppsala University, in May 2001.

References and further reading

M. Barutciski, ‘Western Diplomacy and the Kosovo Refugee Crisis’, Forced Migration Review, August 1999.

Peter Gowan, ‘Making Sense of NATO’s War on Yugoslavia’, in Leo Panitch and Colin Leys (eds), Necessary and Unnecessary Utopias (New York: Socialist Register, 2000).

Adrian Wood, Raymond Apthorpe and John Borton (eds), Evaluating International Humanitarian Action: Reflections from Practitioners (London: Zed Books, 2001).

Kosovo evaluation reports held on the ALNAP Evaluative Reports Database

Reports restricted to ALNAP Members

J. Nagel Connolly and L. Larsen, An Evaluation of OFDA’s Emergency Response Program in Kosovo, June 1999–March 2000 (Washington DC: USAID/OFDA, June 2001)

P. G. Nembrini, Evaluation of the Water and Sanitation Program in Kosovo (Geneva: SDC, August 2001)

G. Kieffer, C. Paoli and M. Van Bruaene, Evaluation of the Coordination Between ECHO, Political Authorities, Military Forces and Other Donors During the Kosovo Crisis: Final Report (Brussels: ECHO, August 2000)

C. Capouillez, G. Kieffer and M. Van Bruaene, Evaluation of ECHO Action in the Republic of Montenegro following the Kosovo Crisis: Final Report (Brussels: ECHO, August 2000)

S. Jadavji, M. Van Bruaene and J. Welch, Evaluation of ECHO Action in the Republic of Albania following the Kosovo Crisis: Final Report (Brussels: ECHO, August 2000)

J. Alderson, E. Picard, S. Roeh and E. Rogier, Evaluation of the ECHO Actions in Serbia following the Kosovo Crisis: Final Report (Brussels: ECHO, August 2000)

J. Alderson, E. Picard, S. Roeh and E. Rogier, Evaluation of the ECHO Actions in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia following the Kosovo Crisis: Final Report (Brussels: ECHO, August 2000)

I. Agger, M. J. Alderson, M. S. de Boer and E. Sondorp, Evaluation of the ECHO Actions in Kosovo following the Kosovo Crisis: Final Report (Brussels: ECHO, August 2000)

O. Bakewell, W. Hume, R. Lavy and C. Piper, Tearfund Balkans Emergency Response April 1999–July 2000 Evaluation (London: Tearfund, July 2000)

A. Paludan, Lessons Learnt from the Danish Refugee Council’s Involvement in the Kosovo Crisis 1998–1999 (Copenhagen: DRC, November 1999)

F. Anema, M. Stone and H. Wissink, The Balkans Evaluation: An Examination of the Role of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement’s Response to the Balkans Crisis (Geneva: ICRC/IFRC, March 2000)

M. Greene, K. Madi, R. Stevens and J. Telford, UNICEF Preparedness and Response in the 1999 Kosovo Refugee Emergency: A Joint UNICEF/DFID Evaluation (London: UNICEF/DFID, January 2000)

C. de Ville de Goyet and E. Sondorp, Internal Evaluation of WHO Response in Kosovo from June to December 1999 (Geneva: WHO, May 2001)

C. Schulte-Hillen, MSF Response in Macedonia to the Kosovo Refugee Crisis: A New Humanitarian Order? (Amsterdam: MSF-H, December 1999)

Public reports

J. Telford, Coordination in the 1999 Kosovo Refugee Emergency: The Emergency Management Group (EMG), Albania (London: DFID, January 2000)

G. Kieffer, T. de Klerk and T. Silkin, Report of an Evaluation of EUBK91 (Geneva: ACT, January 2000)

P. Wiles et al., Independent Evaluation of Expenditure of DEC Kosovo Appeal Funds (London: DEC, August 2000)

R. Garlock, M. Barutciski, P. Sandison and A. Suhrke, The Kosovo Refugee Crisis: An Independent Evaluation of UNHCR’s Emergency Preparedness and Response (Geneva: UNHCR)

B. Schelhas, Full Report of the Evaluation of the Kosovo Emergency Operation 6040 (Rome: WFP, May 2000)


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