Politically informed humanitarian programming: using a political economy approach

by Sarah Collinson et alNovember 2002

A widening recognition of the ethical, political and practical complexities of providing relief in situations of conflict has led to increasing debate among humanitarian agencies on the meaning, implications and delivery of humanitarian assistance amid chronic conflict and political crisis. Humanitarian agencies have come to recognise that, while they are mainly concerned with delivering neutral or impartial emergency assistance to populations in need, they are also important political and economic actors. By providing public welfare services and relief goods like food, or more directly through protection, rehabilitation or peace-building activities, agencies unavoidably form part of the local political economy.

This paper describes an ODI project exploring how political economy analysis could contribute to improved humanitarian programming in situations of conflict and political instability.

The project was based on case studies in four countries: Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Senegal and Sierra Leone. The case studies had two principal objectives. The first was to identify key themes arising from political economy analysis that could have direct or indirect implications for humanitarian aid interventions. The second was to develop practical guidelines to help agencies integrate political economy analysis into their programming. Through this work, the paper provides appropriate analytical tools that humanitarian agencies can use to help them understand the often complex and difficult environments in which they work.

A political economy approach takes context analysis beyond a ‘snap-shot’ approach to assessing the status and needs of particular groups or communities. It incorporates a wide historical and geographical perspective, seeking to explain why the relative power and vulnerability of different groups changes over time, and how the fortunes and activities of one group in society can affect others. It therefore encourages an understanding that is dynamic (by focusing on change), broad (by connecting changes in one place or group to those in another), longitudinal (by incorporating a historical perspective), and explanatory (by asking why certain people are affected by conflict and crisis in the ways that they are). If, by using this approach, agencies assess, anticipate and monitor vulnerable people’s assistance and protection needs more effectively, it follows that they will be better equipped to plan and refine appropriate responses.

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