US Senator John Kerry reports that due to Khartoum’s decision to “engage in a new dialogue with us, some of that capacity for humanitarian assistance will be restored.” The mass-expulsion of aid agencies from Darfur six weeks ago showed in a single stroke just how vital and vulnerable “that capacity” can be. It offers an enormous chance to learn—and not repeat. If we look beyond the stratagems of the moment we can see that to restore “that capacity” in the same way is to risk leaving locals in harm’s way all over again.
Events in Darfur confirm that aid agencies and donors absolutely must heed the findings of the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) and Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance (ALNAP) in their report Where to Now? Agency Expulsions in Sudan: Consequences and Next Steps, and in other past reports. Humanitarian policy has proven resistant to certain learning. But now Darfur’s “situation has brought the modus operandi of international humanitarian assistance agencies into sharp focus.”(1) It is a time for serious stocktaking.
Innumerable public statements made since the mass-expulsion of agencies warn of threats to the survival of millions in Darfur. Are they exaggerated and perhaps self-serving—or accurate and self-incriminating? They may be self-incriminating if they reveal that we did little to support the capacity of beneficiaries, local staff and partners to face violence alone. We know by now that such capacity exists. As HPG has said before, “most people survive and do so without assistance from external parties”(2) And as ALNAP has said, “People are always key actors in their own protection.”(3) The Where to Now? paper reminds us of the “remarkable resourcefulness” of Darfur’s people. Yet there is little evidence that the many agencies in Darfur these past six years tried to brace for an uncertain future by augmenting these local abilities. Instead they focused on day-to-day humanitarian maintenance (and did that well given the pressures). But, as has been oft-repeated since Bosnia, it is not enough to maintain peoples’ food and health needs as long as humanly possible. If they are still ill-prepared for violence when we are separated, then we have essentially failed. The Where to Now? report concludes that, “The expulsion has raised key questions about operating modalities and humanitarian assistance in Sudan” including “the lack of local capacity to take over.”(4)
Clearly we support some kinds of local capacity—but too seldom the kind that helps locals survive and serve others alone amid violence.
1. Physical safety. Which presence-based, program-based, rights-based, or camp-based “protections” offered by us remain after we leave? Which are portable, adaptable, and applicable to where locals will be going or what they will face next? Which programs bolster local tactical ability to either accommodate or avoid deadly threats? Which boost local skill in information gathering, communication, safe sites, safe movement, or threat response for a day when there are no more camps or programs? In Darfur, there is little evidence this was tried beyond the limited efforts by peacekeepers to build community policing. Hugo Slim and Andrew Bonwick conclude in one ALNAP paper that we should support the viable ways that civilians evade threats. (5) “It is vital” they note “to understand the different comparative advantages of a population and an [aid] agency in regard to [building protection].”(6) But quite to the contrary, an HPG report found “one disappointing characteristic of the protection response in Darfur has been the limited emphasis on understanding and supporting community self-protection strategies.” We focused instead on “external protective capacities” and “action by third parties”(7).
2. Economic survival. The conventional economic capacity support that we offer locals is appropriate if we are going to separate from them post-conflict. But to the extent that we offer income generation or livelihood aid that needs peace to flourish and we separate from them mid-conflict, then we fail in a fundamental way. Which of our projects are designed to serve civilians who may find it evermore dangerous to access markets or to plant, gather, and herd openly? Which of our projects to help locals scale up their assets also help safeguard those assets? Which backstop locals’ own efforts to get their household economies onto a danger footing? Alex de Waal is cited as saying in an ALNAP document that the effect of external relief programs is modest relative to the far greater impact of the peoples’ own efforts at economic survival.(8) This may mean that in some situations we should support local adaptive efforts like commuting, separating, subsisting, or relying on money networks and shadow/coping economies. It also may mean we should sometimes help locals protect their assets through caching, dispersing, diversifying, dismantling, liquidating, redeeming or other tactics, and that we might help them preemptively strip and transfer their assets. In Darfur, this suggests we should have made more effort to get ahead of the displacement curve by giving more attention to still-intact rural communities. But HPG found that the focus of aid agencies was “skewed campward” partly due to “faulty analysis” and donor “earmarking”. (9) Instead of trying to help locals maintain some options in their home areas or at the very least help them be wardens of their own calculated displacement, we largely waited in camps for them to arrive stripped and destitute—as our wards.
3. Local service delivery. Just after the mass expulsion of agencies from Darfur, the Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes observed (years too late) that it is “particularly important to consider how to maximize the continuity of operations as well as the knowledge base and capacity of national staff members.”(10) Aside from nominal stockpiling and the formation of local committees to perform certain conventional aid activities—little more had been done to help prepare local service providers for working more safely in the face of violence. The Where to Now? report found that “detailed contingency plans did not exist” before the expulsions.(11) Planning with our local staff and partners should include not just their ability to serve but more fundamentally their ability to survive. But instead Holmes belatedly said “questions about the treatment of more than 7,000 remaining national staff were still being addressed.” This should have been anticipated years ago. Suppose from 2003 onward we had given attention to what locally led service delivery in the face of violence would look like and how we might support it from a distance if we had to?
ALNAP’s John Mitchell once charged that remote management of locals after we evacuate “seems to involve shifting danger to [them].”(12) This is partly because we force them into our mold—even though our own highly evolved aid machinery, with all its administrative, logistical, and financial surge capacity, is not designed to survive conflict. Despite our efforts to build acceptance, protection and deterrence we still bequeath them vulnerable aid architecture that distance management does not alter. As HPG says, such management does not necessarily overcome the operational dangers that cause us to evacuate in the first place.(13) Facing danger alone, local providers thus often improvise tactics that mitigate threats to their work. One area of innovation has been to deinstitutionalize programs—a way of coping that is quite counterintuitive to our own ingrained vision of institution-building. They have sometimes found that by dissolving into society they can stay in service longer. Unfortunately, as Ian Smillie notes, we give “[fairly little] thought to the coping strategies of local organizations.”(14)
It is time for aid agencies and donors to do some deep reassessment. The dangerous transition we are experiencing in Darfur is not an anomaly. A recent HPG report reveals that “each year [for the past three years] has seen “a doubling of the previous number of programme suspensions due to insecurity.”(15) Moreover, suspensions are only one of the several ways that we and our aid beneficiaries, local staff and partners become separated prematurely. Consider the lethal lapses in our work when we are unable to prevent conflict, or continue our programs, or transfer our work to nationals safely, or guarantee our asylum and safe havens, or offer protection for repatriation, or prevent the slide from “post-conflict” back to conflict. We all know that millions face violence alone at these breakdown points.
Fortunately, as one prescient HPG report concludes, “there is much that aid organizations can do to build on the strategies that communities employ” in order to “maintain their assets, escape violence, and mitigate threats.”(16) If we are to learn from the crisis in Darfur, then one thing we must do is consider where things might stand now had our aid there, from 2003 onward, been more oriented toward our vulnerability and their capacity. The tools for applying such an orientation are suggested in a Cuny Center paper entitled Preparedness Support which is available at firstname.lastname@example.org.
With Senator Kerry’s announcement, any aid agencies that are allowed to work in Darfur after the mass expulsions will feel chastened and want to reach an accommodation with the government. The Where to Now? report suggests they try to rectify perceptions of their neutrality and impartiality by placing more focus on “the needs of pro-government groups including some pastoralists [that] have been neglected.(17) In that vein, measures described in this paper to support local capacity for physical safety, economic survival, and service delivery should be offered to any sector of society truly in need.
It would of course be naive to imply that our building on the strategies which communities employ in order to maintain their assets, escape violence, and mitigate threats will not be painted by those causing the violence and threats as a violation of neutrality. That is the challenge to aid writ large in internal conflicts. In the minds of some, says HPG, “the provision of aid itself justifies attack, in that it represents an obstacle to the objectives of belligerent groups.” (18) The challenge is even greater in a place such as Sudan where the government openly tars aid work as “neocolonial” work. Many have come to agree with HPG that aid workers are sometimes “perceived as wholly a part of the Western agenda” and that efforts to “project an image of neutrality” and “gain accommodation” may not carry much weight.”(19) If, as Fred Cuny concluded years ago, “humanitarian neutrality in a civil war is a distinctly western concept, not necessarily welcome in the third world,”(20) then we need to be careful about what we avoid doing in the name of neutrality. If we do not support local capacity for future survival because it is sensitive, then we in effect prioritize our ability to stay today over their ability to survive tomorrow.
There are sometimes competing principles we must adhere to. But as the Sphere Project’s Humanitarian Charter states “our fundamental accountability must be to those we seek to assist.” It speaks of the “primacy” and of the “paramount” purpose of alleviating human suffering.(21) Likewise, the Where to Now? report discusses neutrality, impartiality and independence and then advises agencies in Darfur that “alleviating the suffering of civilians… should remain [their] paramount goal.”(22) With the mass expulsion on March 5, 2009 we left millions of Darfuris in harm’s way and quickly warned of catastrophe. “That capacity” of ours disappeared—and it can again. We cannot admit one moment that our operations did little to help locals brace for future threats—and then return to the same exact operations the next moment. In the end, who really wants to be in a business that gives civilians life-saving shots during the day without supporting their capacity to avoid being shot to death at night?
(1) Sara Pantuliano, et. al, Where to Now? Agency expulsions in Sudan: Consequences and Next Steps, ALNAP and Humanitarian Policy Group, Overseas Development Institute, London, March, 2009; p. 1.
(2) Sorcha O’Callaghan and Sara Pantuliano, Protective Action: Incorporating Civilian Protection into Humanitarian Response, HPG Report No. 26, Humanitarian Policy Group, Overseas Development Institute, London, December 2007; p. 35.
(3) Hugo Slim and Andrew Bonwick, Protection: An ALNAP Guide for Humanitarian Agencies, Overseas Development Institute, London, August 2005; p. 32.
(4) Sara Pantuliano, et. al, Where to Now? Agency expulsions in Sudan: Consequences and Next Steps, ALNAP and Humanitarian Policy Group, Overseas Development Institute, London, March, 2009; p. 8.
(5) Hugo Slim and Andrew Bonwick, Protection: An ALNAP Guide for Humanitarian Agencies, Overseas Development Institute, London, August 2005; p. 65.
(6) Hugo Slim and Luis Enrique Eguren, Humanitarian Protection: An ALNAP Guidance Booklet, Pilot Version, no date provided; p. 22.
(7) Sara Pantuliano and Sorcha O’Callaghan, The ‘Protection Crisis’: A Review of Field-Based Strategies for Humanitarian Protection in Darfur, Humanitarian Policy Group, Discussion Paper, Overseas Development Institute, London, December, 2006; pp. 8, 11 and 19.
(8) Quoted in: John Mitchell, et. al., ALNAP Review of Humanitarian Action in 2004: Capacity Building, ALNAP, Overseas Development Institute, London, 2005; pp. 95-96.
(9) Sara Pantuliano and Sorcha O’Callaghan, The ‘Protection Crisis’: A Review of Field-Based Strategies for Humanitarian Protection in Darfur, Humanitarian Policy Group, Discussion Paper, Overseas Development Institute, London, December, 2006; pp. 7 and 19.
(10) Press Conference by Emergency Relief Coordinator on Sudan, Sri Lanka, United Nations Department of Public Information, 09 March 2009; p. 2.
(11) Sara Pantuliano, et. al, Where to Now? Agency expulsions in Sudan: Consequences and Next Steps, ALNAP and Humanitarian Policy Group, Overseas Development Institute, London, March, 2009; p. 10.
(12) John Mitchell, et. al., ALNAP Review of Humanitarian Action in 2004: Capacity Building, ALNAP, Overseas Development Institute, London, 2005; p. 34.
(13) Abby Stoddard, et. al., Providing Aid in Insecure Environments: Trends in Policy and Operations, Humanitarian Policy Group, Report 23, Overseas Development Institute, London, September 2006; p. 43.
(14) Ian Smillie, Ed., Patronage or Partnership: Local Capacity Building in Humanitarian Crises, Humanitarianism and War Project, Tufts University, Kumarian Press, 2001.
(15) Abby Stoddard, et. al., Providing Aid in Insecure Environments: 2009 Update, Humanitarian Policy Group, HPG Policy Brief 34, Overseas Development Institute, London, April 2009; p. 10.
(16) Sorcha O’Callaghan and Sara Pantuliano, Protective Action: Incorporating Civilian Protection into Humanitarian Response, HPG Report No. 26, Humanitarian Policy Group, Overseas Development Institute, London, December 2007; pp. 4 and 35.
(17) Sara Pantuliano, et. al, Where to Now? Agency expulsions in Sudan: Consequences and Next Steps, ALNAP and Humanitarian Policy Group, Overseas Development Institute, London, March, 2009; p. 12.
(18) Abby Stoddard, et. al., Providing Aid in Insecure Environments: 2009 Update, Humanitarian Policy Group, HPG Policy Brief 34, Overseas Development Institute, London, April 2009; p. 6. See also: Janice Gross Stein, ‘In the Eye of the Storm: Humanitarian NGOs, Complex Emergencies, and Conflict Resolution,’ Peace and Conflict Studies, a Journal of The Network of Peace and Conflict Studies, Volume. 8, Number 1; p. 4 of the article. The author states that “The aim of much contemporary military strategy in civil wars is to make the civilian population hostage, and, if possible, to prevent or undo the effects of emergency relief.”
(19) Abby Stoddard, et. al., Providing Aid in Insecure Environments: 2009 Update, Humanitarian Policy Group, HPG Policy Brief 34, Overseas Development Institute, London, April 2009; p. 6.
(20) Frederick C. Cuny with Richard B. Hill, Famine, Conflict and Response: A Basic Guide, Kumarian Press, West Hartford, Connecticut, 1999; p. 146.
(21) Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Disaster Response, The Sphere Project, Geneva, 2000; pp. 2, 6 & 9. See also: Fiona Terry, The Limits and Risks of Regulation Mechanisms for Humanitarian Action, Médecins sans Frontiérs, Humanitarian Exchange, HPN, Overseas Development Institute, 2000; p. 2 of article. The author states that “In situations of conflict, honoring one principle might entail violating another, yet no hierarchy of principles is offered beyond putting the humanitarian imperative first.”
(22) Sara Pantuliano, et. al, Where to Now? Agency expulsions in Sudan: Consequences and Next Steps, ALNAP and Humanitarian Policy Group, Overseas Development Institute, London, March, 2009; p. 13.
Casey A. Barrs is a protection research fellow with The Cuny Center, an applied research and educational institute that pursues practical solutions for the needs of societies affected by conflict. It was founded by Fred Cuny. He has extensive experience with humanitarian work in conflict-affected societies. email@example.com