Humanitarian Travesty in Darfur
Within a few hours of the issues of the arrest warrant for President Omar el Bashir, the Government of Sudan revoked the licenses of ten international aid agencies working in Darfur and two Sudanese human rights organisations. Since then a further three organisations have been expelled from the country. The international organisations expelled are no small fish; they are heavy hitters, with an estimated total of around 6,500 staff (40% of aid staff in Darfur) who carried out the lion’s share of humanitarian work in Darfur. They ran camps for displaced people and provided shelter, security, food, water and medical services to hundreds of thousands of displaced people.
For now, the organisations have put in place “˜contingency plans’ using volunteers to continue to do the work they cannot, but spokespeople for the agencies say that this is merely a stop-gap measure and cannot work for more than a short period of time; fuel for water pumps in the camps for example, will run out within weeks. Amnesty International warned that 2.2 million people’s lives are at stake. There is a high level of international concern for the millions of people in Darfur and aid agencies, the UN and governments rightly call this is a humanitarian tragedy. All are requesting the Sudan government to repeal the expulsion.
The first impulse of the media and international community has been to focus on the urgent need for aid to continue. But I think many people should consider why aid needs to continue so desperately, despite years of work and billions of dollars invested. How can it be that after 28 years of being there (as one organisation proudly states), 2.2 million people are dependent on international aid agencies for basic needs? For me, this is the real tragedy. Speaking to a very senior and respected African activist, he tells me that life in a camp is generally like being in prison: in most camps there is no farming, no jobs – no way to be self sufficient in the least; the lack of security outside the camp makes it impossible to leave; while aid workers come and go, people live in these camps for many, many years.
This is no new revelation. For many years, people have argued that aid creates dependency which disempowers people from taking control of their own lives. It even has its own developmental term: the dependency syndrome. What is called “˜sustainability’ – the ability of people to carry on after the end of an aid intervention – is now a mainstream facet of aid programming which is generally required to be addressed in proposals and plans. Yet it is almost universally acknowledged that in emergencies such as in Darfur, people must depend on outsiders to provide for their basic needs and that aid is a vital part of their lives, without which they cannot survive. This kind of attitude to aid is sponsored and supported by governments, the UN and the large NGOs, who spend billions of dollars a year, keeping the life support machine to millions of people beeping. It is of course questionable to assume that people in emergencies require aid on such scales and that indeed aid plays such a major role in people’s lives, as Alex de Waal argues in Famine that Kills, Darfur, Sudan. In this case however, the current camps and other aid operations in Darfur are set up and run in such a way that hundreds of thousands of people depend on aid for their day-to-day survival.
I’d like to quote from the website of an organisation called Action Africa Help International, who has worked in Sudan for more that two decades:
In a classical “emergency”, there is a short and devastating event followed by a breakdown of capacity within the affected community to cope. Life-saving interventions, such as the provision of food, water and shelter combined with essential health services are indispensable inputs. The emphasis is on saving life, often at extremely high cost. The attitude that prevails is one of doing things to people by providing food, water, shelter, health services and immunising the vulnerable.
While this approach is valid in the early stages, it is essential to move rapidly to allowing the community to return, as soon as possible, to a more normal and productive way of life. A key element is to re-empower the community to make vital decisions affecting them, by themselves, and to create and support a capacity within the community to once again care for their own vulnerable: doing things with people.
Not to do this, means to create a dependency on external assistance and the marginalisation of their traditional leadership and the innate ability of communities to deal with their own vulnerabilities: the dreaded but all too common dependency syndrome.
In 1987 a group of organisations worked with displaced communities in a town called Yei in South Sudan, completely cut off from aid: “There was little hope of receiving much in terms of food or other humanitarian aid: road access was blocked by the rebels and limited to military-escorted convoys every few months”. They agreed the only way to truly help communities was to encourage them to grow food wherever possible, help them to run their own medical and education services themselves, and support them to govern themselves in their traditional manner. Compared to camps in the nearby town of Juba, where malnutrition, alcoholism, divorce and delinquency were rife, communities in Yei resumed an almost normal life, providing for themselves, educating their children and caring for their sick. Although Yei was a displaced camp, it was unrecognisable as such. It was from this experience that AAH-I emerged.
There are many examples of work in the emergency context undertaken by organisations that demonstrate the very real possibility to leave communities near self-sufficient in a few years. In fact as the AAH-I website explains more often situations which are classified as short-term emergencies are in reality long-term “˜chronic disasters’, where communities have an innate capacity to adapt to normalise their lives. Humanitarian aid, if it is to be truly supportive to communities, must consider from the very beginning how best to leave people with the maximal ability to cope without external inputs. Darfur is a complex, volatile situation and the government has a history of creating barriers for aid implementation in the region. Planning for this very situation (where aid is halted by political/security dynamics) must have been undertaken by agencies, but seems to have fallen far short of the mark.