Food Rations in Darfur: Humanitarian Needs and Political Entitlements
Another excellent and invaluable report from the Feinstein Center at Tufts University. The somewhat dry title, Targeting in Complex Emergencies: Darfur Case Study does not do justice to the richness of the material and analysis””and its implications for resolution of the Darfur crisis. Embedded within the report is an account of how the mechanisms and rationale for a huge and ongoing relief effort have generated new political dynamics. The Darfur relief effort is now stuck in a modality that is vastly expensive and inefficient for donor, and unsustainable for both donor and recipient. Food rations, which began as a means of emergency survival, have become the center of a new political dynamic in Darfur that has drawn humanitarian governance into the heart of the crisis.
Tufts is studying the mechanisms used for targeting in several complex humanitarian emergencies, of which Darfur is one. It’s an important case because of the sheer scale of the operation (Sudan is the World Food Program’s biggest operation in the world, and WFP reached 3.7 million Darfurians in 2008) and because of the high political stakes. As the at-scale food relief operation is now into its sixth year, it is no longer clear what the massive food distribution is actually for. Written by two of the most experienced researchers and analysts in the business, Helen Young and Dan Maxwell, it makes a fascinating read.
At the center of the story are the Food Relief Committees, set up in 2005 with the aim of making food distributions more participatory and representative. In the event, the FRCs have become a system of managing distributions, not achieving a great improvement in representation (the involvement of women in particular remaining very low) and have not undertaken any household level targeting. Humanitarian assistance in Darfur isn’t targeted according to any measurement of need (such as a food security survey) but on the basis of population category. Several groups get the relief: IDPs, mixed IDP-host communities, and rural communities that have not been displaced. Some nomads get food aid too. As the humanitarian indicators have normalized and new “multi-nodal” patterns of livelihoods have emerged, the key issues in food relief management involve the governance structures established and the related politics of entitlement. Livelihoods and needs have been transformed, with the central parts of camps around the cities coming to resemble towns with permanent structures, and a steady trickle of camp residents to return to partial rural residence so they can resume farming. Amid this dynamic context, the categorical targeting of food rations remains fixed, too politically charged to be challenged.
The Food Relief Committees have become a third set of governance structures in parallel with””and overlapping with””the governmental civil service and the native administration. In 2005, as the forced displacement of the counterinsurgency campaigns was replaced by a multi-factored drift to the camps, the in-need population in Darfur was re-registered. This was an effort to ensure that the numbers did not become unduly inflated (which is common among refugee and IDP populations) and to try to wrest power away from a combination of traditional leaders and new political-humanitarian entrepreneurs who had emerged as power brokers during the emergency. The idea was to create direct linkages between international agencies and communities, encouraging greater participation and representation. But because the FRCs do not have the authority to dispense ration cards or to decide on allocations among households (a task they would not want to undertake anyway), they have become a management instrument, with their autonomy inversely related to the security situation in the particular area and the oversight which the agencies and government authorities can exercise.
The targeting is based on group status. Eligibility is based not on food insecurity or vulnerability at household or community level, but on membership of one of these categories plus possession of a ration card, usually dating from the 2005 re-registration. Because these categories, especially the category “IDP,” are politicized, the result has been that claims to food rations have been translated into a political entitlement. It is becoming akin to an old-style south Asian public food distribution system. The authors write (pages 34-5):
“The particular status of IDP, resident, nomad, etc. relates explicitly to the conflict and implies a powerful hierarchy of rights to food according to the degree or way in which households have been affected by conflict. IDPs are at the top of this hierarchy as many directly experienced forced displacement as a result of conflict, while the legitimacy of the claim of people lower in the hierarchy””particularly nomads””is frequently called into question (mostly by those further up the hierarchy). The IDP claim or “˜right to food’ is closely interwoven with the claim for protection more broadly. As such the right to humanitarian food assistance has become strongly embedded within the IDP’s own narrative or IDP identity and was similar from one situation to another. The almost universally heard story was that all IDPs are vulnerable, that they risk attack if they leave the relative safety of the town or camp, that returns are impossible partly because of this, that the government is at fault and at worst is responsible for direct attacks on civilians, that they are due compensation for their former losses, and that all IDPs are entitled and have a right to humanitarian food assistance. Thus the claim for food is directly linked with the highly politicized claims of IDPs, which can only be realized through local, national, and international peace processes.”
“This story was presented by respondents so often that eventually it was dubbed the “˜IDP narrative.’ Often this story was presented even in the face of substantial evidence to the opposite””including evidence that had been discussed with the same groups at the same time (for instance, numerous empty tukuls in some areas of camps, which were explained in terms of people having “˜gone for farming activities’ but who were still technically resident in the camp). This “˜narrative’ tends to forestall any discussion about alternative forms of livelihood support, reducing the ration, or targeting””which is probably its purpose. But it makes accurate assessment extremely difficult, and therefore is a major impediment to planning and targeting.”
“While the categorization of beneficiaries as IDP, resident, etc., is a pragmatic and practical response to the problem of targeting, the risk is that it continues to reinforce a politicized claim for food aid. So far, food aid and benefits from a handful of other humanitarian programs are the only forms of compensation that IDPs have received since they incurred their earlier losses as a result of forced displacement. The ration card is a potent symbol for IDPs and probably represents the only tangible form of identification linked to their conflict-affected status. Not only that, it has served them well and assured them access to food since receiving the cards in 2005. It is therefore not surprising that there is massive resistance to change. A large number of interviewed IDPs said that violence would increase in the camps if the food entitlement was changed or removed, including IDPs against CPs [Cooperating Partners, i.e. agencies involved in food distribution]. In addition threats to their own security would increase if they were forced to rely on livelihood strategies outside the camp (presenting another perspective on “˜food for protection’). If WFP or others were to remove or tamper with the cards and linked entitlements it could directly threaten to undermine a cornerstone of IDP identity and therefore risk seriously de-stabilizing the situation and trust that has been built up. But as a result, the criteria for inclusion in food distributions are based on membership in a group that is defined by status other than food security.”
Any attempt to reform this system””to change to one based on economic or humanitarian need, for example””will run up against strong political and possibly military resistance. It will be seen as an assault on rights and political identity. The report describes how when there has been an attempt to reassess the food distribution process it has become a question of “hard-nosed bargaining” between agency and camp leadership about the total number of IDPs instead of effort in changing the way that assistance is targeted. Because it is so difficult to negotiate any beneficiary numbers downwards, the overall numbers have become “sticky upwards,” meaning that newly displaced people may be registered but those who leave the camps, provided they retain their ration cards, remain in the system.
Young and Maxwell conclude (p. 46): “This report has shown that indeed there remains room for maneuver and for tailoring a relevant program more in keeping with the needs and realities on the ground in 2009. Continuing business as usual in response to claimants is likely to reinforce the way in which these claims have become deeply politicized. Not only does targeting and participation need to be rethought in the Darfur context, the role of food aid itself should also be reconsidered.”