Darfur as Biafra: Our Vulnerability and Their Capacity
The response of many to Biafra forty years ago was not just against the blockage of aid by General Yakubu Gowon but against the way aid itself was conducted. Our response to Darfur today, if learning comes from this crisis, could be not just against the blockage of aid by General Omar al Bashir but once more against the way aid is conducted.
The way we conduct aid is deeply expressed in our statements since the mass-expulsion of agencies caring for Darfuris. The fundamental theme is about our capacity and their vulnerability. There is ample truth to the narrative: with our capacity for day-to-day humanitarian maintenance undermined, the millions who have become dependent on us now face even greater vulnerability. But the full story actually begins six years ago. Suppose aid from 2003 onward had been more oriented toward our vulnerability and their capacity?
We need to support the right local capacities before our own operations are incapacitated. This means aiding their ability to get social units, economic assets, and local services on a risk footing. In each new conflict they learn such things. It is a deadly learning curve that we can help them shorten””and which is now the subject of a Cuny Center paper on “preparedness support”. An agency can hire some of the “right” expertise. But much can also be borrowed. In the 13 years before Darfur exploded, the war-affected people of Southern Kordofan””utterly cut off from our aid by General Bashir””likely learned vital lessons about safety, sustenance, and services. Our shorthand for this is “resilience” but it can to some degree be systematized and shared.
Sudan is just one country and the transition we have entered there is just one of the many deadly junctures with which the aid enterprise still struggles. Consider the lethal lapses in our work when we are unable to prevent conflict, continue our programs, transfer our work to nationals safely, guarantee our asylum or safe havens, support protection for repatriation, or prevent the slide from “post-conflict” back to conflict. As we all know, millions face violence alone at these breakdown points.
When these deadly junctures arrive we must leave them or they must leave us and we have missed our chance to help them tactically prepare for imminent threats. We are forced to leave our work””feeling that we have abandoned our beneficiaries (or, at best, outsourced risk to local staff or partners). They are compelled to leave their communities or camps””and perhaps walk straight into violence.
But under certain conditions we can help beneficiaries, local staff and partners physically prepare themselves today for violence they may face after we are separated tomorrow. The obstacle is that we do not usually see ourselves as vulnerable interveners. We are the rescuers. Most talk of the “Responsibility to Protect” refers back to us. Samantha Power captures this view of R2Pin saying that if host governments are unwilling or unable to protect their citizens “then responsibility vests upward to the international community”.(1) We never hear much about how responsibility and capacity vest downward too. Yet our own capacity to protect in Darfur has largely failed to date. UNAMID has a mandate to protect civilians. But like its predecessor AMIS and many other peacekeeping missions it has utterly lacked the capacity to protect. Similarly, UNHCR is the global cluster lead for IDP protection. But the first principle listed in its Rules of Engagement is that it “stands ready to contribute” in situations in which it has “the consent of the authorities [and is] free from undo political or military interference”. This huge caveat favors brutal powers. That has not stopped UNHCR from calling itself the “first port” and “last resort” for protection””a competency that oftentimes is more accurately attributed to locals who survive and serve long before we arrive and long after we leave.
Despite this reality our self-image barely seems to evolve or be chastened. Fiona Terry says in Condemned to Repeat? The Paradox of Humanitarian Action, that the axiomatic starting point for humanitarian aid is the “ingrained belief that our action is indispensable to the survival of [conflict’s victims].” (2) This belief can obscure a deeper truth: “victims” very often do more to save their own lives than we do. Indeed, “victims” can at times help rescue our own fragile aid and protection missions.
Fortunately, some of the most highly regarded individuals and institutions in the aid world have now said we must do more to support local capacity for self preservation in the face of violence while we are able. The Global Protection Cluster Working Group says “we must recognize the temporary nature of our presence… and our limitations… [We must] strengthen local coping strategies and protection mechanisms.” (3) The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says “the difficulties and uncertainties of humanitarian access lead logically to emphasis on local mechanisms and strategies for provisioning and protection. … When our access for protection and assistance is difficult, support for innovative alternatives is worth exploring.”(4) There is, as the Humanitarian Policy Group contends, “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.”(5)
As Mary Anderson asserts, we can support local capacities even “under conditions of social and political upheaval, and in countries where the regime in power imposes limits on NGO work. It is even possible… where the situation is extremely volatile and polarized.”(6) Indeed, she adds, agencies that work in areas prone to strife and war bear a responsibility to anticipate a population’s vulnerabilities and support its capacities through their work.(7) It is contrary to all we stand for to knowingly leave beneficiaries, local staff and partners in harm’s way. Thus the Cuny Center’s paper on preparedness support outlines numerous advisory modules for augmenting locals’ physical safety, economic survival, and indigenous service delivery after we are gone and they face violence alone.
Arguably the opportunity cost of not supporting the capacity of our beneficiaries, local staff or partners to cope with violence is as fateful to them as the necessities lost when generals block our aid. After all, who wants to join the well-fed dead? It is often said Biafra gave birth to a “small revolution” whereby we challenged the truism that aid could be limited by lines drawn a map. But today aid is limited by a truism that draws lines between “rescuer” and “victim”. Our local committee-forming and capacity-building efforts, although important, barely scratch the surface of local ability to survive and serve amid conflict. The rescuer-victim truism””a false dichotomy””still prevails, and will need a big evolution in our thinking to overcome. The Cuny Center paper (preparedness-support) offers some tools with which to put such thinking into action.
(1) Samantha Power, Chasing the Flame, the Penguin Press, New York, 2008; p. 528.
(2) Fiona Terry, Condemned to Repeat? The Paradox of Humanitarian Action, Cornell University Press, Ithica, 2002; pp. 233 and 206. See also: Paul Harvey, ‘Cash-based Responses in Emergencies,’ Humanitarian Policy Group, HPG Report 24, Overseas Development Institute, London, January 2007; p. 54. The author quotes Barbara Harrell-Bond as saying, “”˜Outsiders view African refugees as helpless; as needing outsiders to plan for them and take care of them.’ This assumption is the cornerstone of nearly all appeals for funds.”
(3) Handbook for the Protection of Internally Displaced Persons (provisional release), Global Protection Cluster Working Group, Geneva, December 2007; pp. 10 and 13.
(4) No Refuge: The Challenge of Internal Displacement, Internal Displacement Unit, Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, June 2003; p. 70. See also: Roberta Cohen (of the Brookings-CUNY Project on Internal Displacement), quoted in Response Strategies of the Internally Displaced: Changing the Humanitarian Lens, Report of the Seminar in Oslo, Norway, organized by the Norwegian Refugee Council in cooperation with the Norwegian University of technology and Science, 9 November 2001; p. 19. Ms. Cohen states that strengthening the response strategies of groups at risk is one of the most important ways we can help.
(5) 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
(6) Mary B. Anderson and Peter J. Woodrow, Rising From the Ashes, Westview Press, Boulder and San Francisco, 1989; p. 41.
(7) Anderson and Woodrow, Rising From the Ashes, p. 33
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