New Challenges to Conflict Resolution: Humanitarian Nongovernmental Organizations in Complex Emergencies
Janice Gross Stein
In an emergent global politics the definition of conflict that is interna tionally relevant has burst through the constraints of sovereignty. It is not surprising that ethnic conflict that spills across borders and secessionist movements that wish to reconfigure existing states should be the subject of global concern. These conflicts either threaten existing state borders or flow over them and are logically included in established concepts of international conflict. What is new are the scope and intensity of global attention to the actions of a state against its own citizens, when these actions violate international norms, and to the violent actions of one group against another group even when the violence does not spill over state borders.
Within this expanded definition of international conflict, new types of dilemmas are emerging that present unprecedented challenges to conflict resolution. The shape of these new challenges is only beginning to be defined as established institutions and new players work to adapt and develop strategies of conflict resolution. Conflict resolution here refers to efforts to prevent or mitigate violence resulting from intergroup or interstate conflict as well as efforts to reduce underlying disagreements (see Chapter 1, this volume). Here I look at the challenges faced by those who are seeking to mitigate violence within the context of complex humanitarian emergencies. These emergencies arise from violence inflicted by one group against another within the confines of a state, from the capture of state institutions by one group, or by the collapse of these institutions and the failure of governance. These kinds
of problems have created recurrent challenges for international conflict resolution in the past decade.
These new challenges have developed in a context of disengagement by the major powers from all but areas of core interest. After the intervention in Somalia, the United States as well as most of the other big powers have generally been unwilling to commit forces to mitigate violence and prevent humanitarian disasters. NATO’s unprecedented intervention in Kosovo—its attack against a sovereign state for violence committed against its own citizens—may well be the exception that proves the more general rule: the intervention took place in Europe, at the core of NATO’s mandate. As the great powers disengage from all but areas of core interests, international institutions are increasingly hobbled as willing troop contributors to emergency forces become ever scarcer. And not only are the great powers less willing to provide security, they are disengaging as well from the provision of emergency assistance to those who are deliberately targeted and victimized by violence. Assistance and relief to the victims of violence are also being privatized.
It is in this context of disengagement and privatization that international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) face new responsibilities in far more complex and dangerous situations than before. NGOs are playing a growing role, directly and indirectly, in international conflict resolution only in part because they can make good use of some of the less traditional, integrative strategies of conflict resolution. More importantly, states are increasingly less willing to run the risks created by strategies to mitigate violence. The humanitarian NGOs are at the forefront of those that confront most directly the consequences of great power disengagement and privatization in the complex humanitarian emergencies that are now considered legitimately as part of international conflict. This paper focuses on the challenges facing humanitarian NGOs as the paradigmatic case that best exemplifies the new set of challenges to international conflict resolution.
I first analyze the dimensions of complex humanitarian emergencies and explore how these emergencies create new challenges for conflict resolution, with special attention to the global factors that make these challenges more acute. I identify the challenges that humanitarian NGOs face and their implications for processes of conflict resolution. I then assess the troubling evidence that, on occasion, humanitarian NGOs have inadvertently contributed to the escalation of violence rather than conflict resolution. I review what NGOs have done to address the challenges and then examine three possible strategies, some of them counterintuitive, which could contribute to the mitigation of violence and promote conflict resolution. In the final section I assess how relevant these challenges and
strategies are to other organizations and institutions seeking to mitigate violence and resolve conflicts.
COMPLEX HUMANITARIAN EMERGENCIES AND THE NEW CHALLENGES
In the past several years humanitarian NGOs have increasingly found themselves facing a set of powerful and largely unprecedented choices. This challenge is best exemplified in the humanitarian work that was done with Rwandan refugees in eastern Zaire in the aftermath of the genocide and the victory of the Rwanda Patriotic Front in 1994. Agencies charged with running refugee camps, using the most tested and progressive methods of camp management, nevertheless found themselves by the autumn employing mass murderers and war criminals as local staff. The perpetrators of the genocide had reimposed authority over hundreds of thousands of refugees under the supervision of the United Nations (UN) and humanitarian NGOs and were organizing to use the camps as a springboard to attack the government of Rwanda. Humanitarian assets were being used to fuel rather than resolve conflict. A more perverse outcome from the perspective of humanitarian NGOs is difficult to imagine.
The perversion cannot be explained exclusively or even largely by NGO practices. Certainly, practices were flawed at times, but in this case better practices would not have prevented the militias from organizing the camps. The roots of the unanticipated and negative consequences of assistance are found in the attributes of complex humanitarian emergencies and in the global conditions that intensify the challenges created by these emergencies: the growing international security vacuum and the privatization of international assistance.1
Complex Humanitarian Emergencies
I define a complex humanitarian emergency as a multidimensional humanitarian crisis created by interlinked political, military, and social factors most often arising from violent internal wars that in turn frequently are the result of state failures. It almost always involves some combination of mass population movements, severe food insecurity, macroeconomic collapse, and acute human rights violations up to and including genocidal projects. These kinds of emergencies have tripled in the past decade, affecting millions of people.2
The root causes of these complex emergencies grow from failures of development, the weaknesses of the state and the withering of its capacity, or the capture of the state apparatus by organized fragments of the
population. In the violence that develops, social control over elements of the population is a key strategic objective of internal war, with civilians as a principal target, rather than a byproduct of other military activity.3 Many of these internal wars that are fought for control over resources become cyclical and self-perpetuating, as violence generates profit for those who use it most effectively.
State failure can refer to a lack of capacity on the part of state institutions to secure territory, enforce authority, or maintain a monopoly on coercive violence.4 The state cannot secure the basic rights of citizens, fails to provide fundamental protection, and becomes unable to fulfill essential international legal responsibilities. As the authority and capacity of the state weaken, it may invite attack from disaffected segments of the population who can mobilize resources. In response, a weakening state may attack its own population in an effort to reassert authority, or the state may collapse or implode.5 The Somali bombing of sections of northern Somalia is an example of the former, while the flight of Siyaad Barre from Somalia is an example of failure through collapse.
Alternatively, segments of the population can capture even a relatively strong state for parochial purposes and use instruments of the state to attack segments of the population. The militant Hutu militias, motivated by their strong opposition to a negotiated power-sharing agreement, itself the result of a major international effort at conflict resolution, captured the state in Rwanda in April 1994 and launched a genocidal massacre of Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
It is in this context that humanitarian organizations attempt to provide emergency assistance and, increasingly, to mitigate the violence. Humanitarianism occurs when the political system is in crisis or has failed; humanitarians act to relieve the human suffering that is the consequence of political failure.6 The essence of humanitarianism has been its neutrality and universality, its refusal to choose one distress over another.7 Not only those NGOs that deliver relief assistance but also those working explicitly to facilitate conflict resolution seek to promote human welfare among distressed populations. The imperative is for action, to save lives.8 This categorical imperative creates the political legitimacy for action in humanitarian emergencies.9 Humanitarian action is designed for the short term, for limited groups, for limited objectives, until legitimately constituted authority can assume its obligations.
Humanitarian action in a complex humanitarian emergency, however, occurs in a context very different from the natural earthquakes and disasters that are familiar terrain to NGO personnel. Increasingly, NGOs are struggling to provide relief and assistance under conditions of civil war, often brutal civil war. In the insurgencies and counterinsurgencies characteristic of modern civil wars, human populations are both the prin-
cipal targets and the shields. They are not the unanticipated consequences of military strategy, as they are in major conventional battles, but rather its principal targets. 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 and the protection of civilians.
In the internecine struggle for dominance in Somalia and Sierra Leone, and even more so in the openly genocidal landscapes of Rwanda and Burundi, strategies of insurgency and counterinsurgency warfare seek political control over civilian populations, inflict costs on those populations, at times force their movements en masse, and in some cases systematically kill large numbers for political or military ends. Civilian casualties are not counted as “collateral damage” but as measures of strategic gain. In Somalia and Sierra Leone, militias and army units alike looted communities, destroyed available resources, engaged in scorched-earth tactics against the local infrastructure, and attacked civilian populations. All over Central Africa in the 1990s insurgency campaigns were fought behind the shields of population groups.
The human costs that nongovernmental agencies address are not incidental to the conflict; rather, they are its essential currency. Civilians, and those humanitarian NGOs that would protect them, become the objects of military action. They and their resources stand not apart from but directly on the battlefield. Becoming part of the battle challenges all of the fundamental precepts of humanitarian action and creates qualitatively new challenges for conflict resolution.
Disengagement by the Major Powers and the Consequent Security Vacuum
The challenge to NGOs of engagement where civilians are deliberately targeted is made far more difficult by the repeated unwillingness or incapacity of the major powers to act through the UN Security Council, regional organizations, or through other appropriate instruments, to provide security first for endangered civilians and then for NGO personnel who are in the field offering protection. Somalia was the exception at one stage of its emergency, but so negative were the experiences of the UN and particularly the U.S. “military humanitarian” missions in Somalia, and so limited the strategic goals in comparison to the apparent costs, that Somalia set a “Mogadishu line” of active engagement that the U.S. and other Western forces were thereafter unwilling to cross in the African context. The great exception was the NATO engagement in Kosovo, in the heartland of Europe, when the abuse of a population by its government was transparent; even then, military involvement came only after a
decade of experience with the abusive government. Almost everywhere else the nongovernmental sector has found itself working in a political/ security vacuum created by a decline of interest on the part of the major powers. It is the absence of an adequate security envelope, I argue, that creates many of the observed negative externalities of assistance and relief and creates unprecedented challenges for conflict resolution.
Even levels of support far less demanding than military engagement to provide security for beleaguered populations are dropping. The substantial increase in what the humanitarian community calls the “internally displaced” is telling; it reflects an increasing inability of populations in distress to seek asylum across borders and become officially recognized “refugees” with access to the political and humanitarian rights of refugees.10 The growth in the numbers of internally displaced persons reflects the growing tendency for the international community to disengage politically and economically from these conflicts, to attempt to contain their effects, and to ensure that the costs are “internalized” in the affected communities.11 This strategy of containment gives relief priority over protection of the basic rights of displaced populations.12 Containment also constrains and limits available strategies of conflict resolution.
The Privatization of International Assistance
As the major powers become more unwilling to engage directly or through the UN, they are channeling ever-larger shares of their assistance through NGOs. Their funding to NGOs has increased even as their spending on bilateral emergency assistance programs has diminished.13 In 1996, for example, more aid to Africa was channeled through NGOs than through official development assistance programs. Of course, Western government aid agencies are still the largest source of resources, but in complex emergencies in particular NGOs are increasingly the principal conduit of assistance and so face an ever-larger share of the challenges that complex emergencies generate for humanitarians.14 The major powers are increasingly privatizing their assistance programs.15 They expect—unrealistically—that the community of NGOs can fill the security vacuum left by inaction on the part of states.16 International institutions have also vastly increased the proportion of their funding for emergency assistance that is channeled through NGOs; the European Commission, for example, raised its funding for NGOs from zero to 40 percent, with a corresponding reduction in bilateral emergency aid from 95 to 6 percent between 1976 and 1990.
The growing importance of NGOs as international actors is a function both of the privatization of assistance and the withdrawal of states and international organizations from the field. Increasingly, it is NGO person-
nel who are providing relief and assistance to the victims of conflict in the space vacated by states and international institutions. These NGOs, with a long-standing commitment to a humanitarian ethic, now find themselves in the eye of the storm. Particularly since the end of the Cold War, NGOs have become more prominent—and more controversial—especially in the complex humanitarian emergencies that arise from local conflicts.17 For several of the worst months of the Somali famine in 1991, for example, a handful of NGOs and the ICRC were the only international presence in the country providing relief and assistance. In Sierra Leone, NGOs provided relief in parts of the country declared off limits by the UN. In Rwanda/Zaire the flood of refugees in the autumn of 1994 was met by NGOs, working without an official UN presence. In Burundi, where military activity kept the UN out of important regions of the country, NGOs were again at the front line in the delivery of humanitarian relief assistance.18
As governments have retreated and assistance has been privatized, the responsibilities of humanitarian NGOs to channel aid directly to vulnerable populations has grown. As their responsibilities—and power— have grown, NGOs have become targets of opportunity for both the local governments that are losing power and the militias that seek to control resources, to finance their own activities and to bleed the government. NGOs consequently become “targets at best and enemies at worst,” similar to the civilian populations they seek to help.19 In 1998, for the first time in the history of the UN, casualties among humanitarian workers exceeded those of military peacekeeping missions.20
Increasingly, the large NGOs specializing in traditional development assistance and relief have adopted components of a conflict resolution agenda in their emergency programming. Action Aid, for example, has explicitly designed programs for internally displaced persons around principles of reconciliation. CARE Canada is running a theater program for young people in Sarajevo that is explicitly designed to promote reconciliation. This represents a significant departure for most of the large NGOs and one that is likely to represent a growing trend in their activities, as political backing and funding for these kinds of conflict resolution activities increase. Conflict prevention and resolution are now squarely on the NGO agenda.
Here I focus on the role of the large humanitarian NGOs in the context of a complex humanitarian emergency that grows out of violent conflict, in order to examine some of the central challenges of contemporary conflict resolution. Analysis of the challenges facing humanitarian NGOs highlights attributes of violent conflicts in the current system: most importantly, the growing security vacuum that is creating painful choices for NGOs and impeding effective conflict resolution. Before examining
these interrelated challenges that have important implications for conflict resolution, especially for the mitigation of violence, I briefly describe the cases and the evidence I use in my analysis.
EVIDENCE AND CASE SELECTION21
This study draws on three principal case studies as well as ongoing tracking of other complex humanitarian operations in Africa. Somalia, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone are three of the best-known cases where political violence led to a large-scale humanitarian disaster that required a multidimensional response. They are the principal case studies.22 Liberia and Burundi share some of these characteristics and have been the location of important humanitarian programs; eastern Zaire was the site of a multifaceted response to a complex emergency and the focus of some of the most vociferous debates about strategies of conflict resolution. These three cases have been tracked as important checks on evidence drawn from the principal cases.
The cases were chosen at different points along the “crisis” time line: Sierra Leone, at the time a case of incipient state failure; Rwanda/Zaire, an ongoing crisis; and Somalia, a postemergency in the aftermath of large-scale intervention. This variation in time line permits some consideration of competing theoretical propositions against different bodies of evidence. Restriction of the cases to Africa was deliberate. Once the Cold War ended, the attention Africa received from the major powers dropped precipitously. As the major powers withdrew and economic failure and violence increased, and in some cases states collapsed, development and humanitarian NGOs significantly increased their presence.
THE CRITICS: HUMANITARIANISM AS AN OBSTACLE TO CONFLICT RESOLUTION
Drawing on the experience of humanitarian intervention in complex emergencies in Africa in the past several years, critics have concluded that the relief effort can jeopardize conflict resolution and, at worst, prolong and even fuel war and conflict through the diversion of assistance. They identify several interrelated ways in which the unintended consequences of humanitarian assistance can impede conflict resolution.
When Humanitarian Relief Fuels War and Conflict Through Asset Transfer23
The evidence is strong, though not determining, that in recent complex humanitarian emergencies the assistance that NGOs have provided
to endangered populations has at times become the fuel for continued and renewed warfare.24 In Somalia, for example, food was extraordinarily scarce as a result of drought and civil conflict and, consequently, its absolute value rose to unprecedented levels. Its high price, in the context of economic collapse, mass unemployment, and a dramatic drop in family income, increased the relative value of food. Therefore, food brought into Somalia through the relief effort was plundered by merchants, by organized gangs of young men profiteering from the black market, and by militia leaders who used the wealth that the food brought to buy weapons and the loyalty of followers.25 In Rwanda and Sierra Leone, as well as Somalia and Sudan, assistance has been “taxed” or stolen to fuel processes of conflict escalation rather than promote conflict resolution.
Resources channeled into Somalia by UN agencies and NGOs became part of a complex economy of warfare between rival militias and clans. Theft of those resources by militias was common. Equally significant was the ability of militias, in the absence of a security envelope for the local population and NGO personnel, to use force and the threat of force to compel NGOs to hire some of the same forces to guard relief supplies and convoys that were the source of the humanitarian crisis.26 In so doing, the NGOs legitimated those who were preying on local populations.27
In Sierra Leone and Liberia conflict analysts and medical NGOs learned that they could plan by following the pattern of UN food deliveries: when food was distributed to a village or displaced-persons camp, the militias would quickly attack to steal the relief supplies, killing dozens of villagers as they did so. In Sudan, food, agricultural tools, and livestock were transferred from weaker to strong groups through restrictions on the passage of food aid by government forces and militias. In Somalia as well as Sudan, this transfer of assets was integrated into a parallel black economy controlled at the highest political levels.28 The one supported the other.
UN and NGO resources in eastern Zaire were subject to political control and taxation by the forces that perpetrated the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Less by theft and diversion than by controlling the distribution of relief supplies and the flow of information, Rwanda’s genocidaires turned UN-managed and NGO-operated refugee camps into political and resource bases for continued and renewed genocidal warfare, in both Zaire and western Rwanda.29 When the post-1994 Rwandan regime sought to break the genocidaires’ control of the camps, civilian refugees became moving shields between two armies. Relief supplies and the NGO presence were used to lure starving refugees out of hiding in the forests of Zaire, and these refugees were then slaughtered by the tens of thousands. At the extreme, NGOs were transformed from sources of protection into resources for destruction.
The diversion of humanitarian assets by warring parties, at the same
time they are targeting civilians, is the most serious challenge that NGOs face. If the assistance that humanitarian NGOs provide is significant in perpetuating and fueling the processes of violence, humanitarian assistance can be a serious obstacle to the resolution of conflict. To the extent that humanitarian NGOs are inadvertently perpetuating the cycle of violence that is making populations vulnerable, they and those they seek to help are trapped in a vicious process. Yet to abandon populations at risk to predators is an almost unthinkable choice.
How can these painful choices be eased? Some suggest that better local knowledge would help NGOs avoid some of the traps that became obvious only in hindsight. It is almost universally acknowledged that NGOs need a higher degree of knowledge of the societies in which they work—their cultures, histories, and languages—if they are to be effective in mitigating violence, in conflict resolution, and in reconstruction in the wake of violence. In Somalia and Rwanda, for example, few NGOs had long-standing experience in the country, few were fluent in the local language, few appreciated the social and cultural norms, and few were experienced in working at the grass roots.30 Of the large number of expatriate NGO staff in Rwanda in 1994, only a handful were conversant in Kinyarwanda. Knowledge of local parties, their networks, and their purposes and strategies is a necessary but far from sufficient condition to minimize some of the negative consequences of relief assistance that prolong rather than resolve conflicts. NGOs must find far better ways of giving voice to the people they wish to help.
Closely related, humanitarians need better skills in conflict resolution. In Somalia traditional systems of authority, which did not depend on violence and could have attempted to resolve the conflict, continued to exist even after the violence erupted. A peace-building initiative sponsored by an NGO at the local level was successful because it drew on these customary Somali conflict management practices.31 The relief effort, in contrast, helped to cripple the traditional systems because it did not channel assistance through traditional structures but strengthened the militia forces that relied on violence.32 NGO personnel certainly needed far greater knowledge of the local systems of conflict management and the importance of elders as authoritative voices in society. One experienced analyst is deeply pessimistic, however, that any strategy of conflict resolution could have succeeded in Somalia, given the structural constraints created by the collapse of the state and the complex emergency.33
The violence is perpetuated as well, critics continue, because humanitarian organizations have reluctantly acceded to the constraining conditions imposed by governments and militias to gain access to populations at risk.34 In complex humanitarian emergencies, NGOs indeed have experienced enormous difficulties in gaining access to populations vulnerable
to violence.35 These difficulties are deliberately created by warring parties that exploit the vulnerability of civilian populations for political or military purposes.36 NGOs find themselves constantly renegotiating access and facing new designations of previously consented space as off limits. Variants of these negotiations have occurred in Sudan, Angola, Ethiopia, Bosnia, and Rwanda. The warring parties in turn frequently use negotiated access agreements to build international credibility. At the extreme this leads to the perverse outcome that the more killing that is done the more NGOs respond with additional resources.37
NGOs have attempted to address the issue of secure access to areas controlled by hostile forces through the negotiation of ground rules. Ground rules to notify faction leaders of the movement of aid convoys have been established to ensure that groups lower down in the chain of command do not compromise the protection of humanitarian assistance. In southern Sudan, for example, Operation Lifeline Sudan negotiated ground rules in the wake of the murder of three expatriate workers and a journalist.
Ground rules provide at best a limited and partial solution to the problem of access. In southern Sudan diversion of assistance remains very high. In Liberia and Rwanda the Department of Humanitarian Affairs attempted to negotiate ground rules but did not succeed. With no good choices, NGOs have consented tacitly to unilateral changes in access and so empower belligerents who impose conditions that clearly violate international humanitarian law.
When Humanitarian Assistance Interferes with the Social Contract
Critics level a deep structural challenge as well. They allege that political accountability, through contractual arrangements, is the critical constraint on government violence against civilians, an important component of complex humanitarian emergencies. Third-party humanitarian assistance, they maintain, interferes directly with the formation of social and political contracts in Africa that are essential to restrain violence.38 Analysis of the political and economic purposes of those who prey on their own civilian populations does not suggest, however, that the perpetrators are likely candidates for accountable governments. The authoritarian quality of many governments, the absence of institutions that can meaningfully hold leaders accountable, and the high levels of corruption make contractual constraints unlikely as a near-term solution to complex emergencies and violent conflicts. Acknowledging these obstacles, optimistic analysts estimate that it will take at least a decade for political contracts to form; others are even more pessimistic.39
No matter how bumpy and slow the trajectory, humanitarians must contribute directly and indirectly to the seeding of this accountability if the vulnerable populations they seek to help are ever to be given voice. At best, however, the evidence suggests that empowerment and accountability will be painfully slow processes. Political contracts cannot provide a near-term solution to violent conflict and humanitarian emergencies. Until they do, if they do, the complex emergency continues and the third party and the local humanitarian challenges intensify.40
When Humanitarian NGOs Are Manipulated by States that Seek to Contain Violence Without Direct Engagement
Critics insist that NGOs are being substituted for effective action by the major powers and exploited as a cover for their absence.41 As I argued earlier, there is indeed a growing international indifference to humanitarian crises. Governments have privatized their assistance policies and adopted strategies of containment.42 They are increasingly resistant to accepting refugees and unwilling to grant asylum as mandated by the international refugee regime, even as they are less inclined to intervene politically or militarily to protect populations at risk.
It is far from apparent, however, that humanitarian assistance is the cause of disengagement by the major powers. It is rather the consequence of the withdrawal by the big powers once southern societies were no longer a theater of competition in the Cold War. Here too, as in the analysis of accountability of political leaders, the alternative is not clear. Were NGOs not present, there is no evidence that states and international organizations would return as providers of security and assistance. The one is not fungible for the others.
When Humanitarian Assistance Unintentionally Disempowers Those in Society Who Are Important for Reconstruction
Critics of classical humanitarian relief insisted that it had negative consequences for development, removed initiative and responsibility from local parties, empowered “expatriates” rather than community leaders, and undermined the local economy.43 In response to those criticisms some NGOs have shifted their emphasis to a new paradigm of “developmentalist” models of relief, usually called the “relief to development and democracy (RDD) continuum.” To avoid creating a culture of dependency and to move a population toward peace as quickly as possible, some analysts insist that relief and development should and can occur simultaneously, even while violence is ongoing.44 The purpose is to create alternative livelihoods for those associated with war
and a criminalized economy and thereby reduce the attractiveness of violence as a career.45
Developmentalist strategies of conflict resolution posit a quick end to the complex emergency and a return to stability where peaceful development is possible. The fundamental elements of the strategy are local partnerships based on capacity building and the empowerment of local communities as the choosers and managers of strategies of postwar reconstruction. The approach is multifunctional and loosely structured, and on the continuum the boundary between relief and peace building blurs and indeed virtually disappears.46
Local partnerships and community empowerment should be central elements of any process of conflict resolution. Vulnerable communities must be given voice if predators are to be constrained in any way and a sustainable process of conflict resolution is to begin. Ironically, however, the emphasis on more “participatory” emergency relief led more or less directly to the greatest crisis of conscience and credibility in the nongovernmental sector. In eastern Zaire where aid agencies were setting up camps for the influx of thousands from Rwanda, they used the latest techniques of camp management involving, among others, “refugee self-management.” The goal is to use indigenous leadership in refugee populations to govern themselves. In this case, however, the leadership cadres were precisely those who had engineered the genocide and then the forced mass migration. The painful choices that resulted stretched over two years, with no obvious solution.
This new model that blurs emergency assistance with postwar reconstruction also ignores the scope of the violence and the extent of the emergency that make an early return to “stability” extremely unlikely. In some cases—Liberia and Somalia—the emergency has continued for a decade or more. In other cases—Rwanda and Sudan—the premature declaration of an end to the emergency to fit with the new agenda is belied by the continuing, indeed, escalating violence in the country.
In Rwanda the governing expectation for planning in 1996 was gradual but progressive rehabilitation and development. There were positive trends: return of the refugees, restoration of some basic government services, and limited economic improvement. By December 1997, however, 50 percent of Rwanda was again considered “insecure” and the number of internally displaced persons was increasing rather than diminishing.47 The emergency had not ended; it had ebbed briefly before intensifying again. The expectation of stability proved wholly unrealistic in the context of intensifying violence. Similarly, in Sudan, despite ongoing hostilities, an end to the emergency was declared. The government subsequently permitted NGOs to register only for development and rehabilitation, despite the growing numbers of people in desperate need of
emergency relief.48 The premature end to the emergency served the political purposes of a regime that was oppressing vulnerable populations.
The RDD approach also creates pressure to reclassify emergencies so that the multifunctional approach can begin to work. Premature relabeling has led to the “normalizing” of emergencies and the raising of thresholds of civilian violence before an emergency can be declared.49 More generically, developmentalist approaches to relief seriously underestimate the difficulty of implementing reconstruction and peace-building programs in the context of the acute violence and extreme insecurity that are characteristic of protracted humanitarian emergencies. They do so in part because they ignore the politics of those who benefit from the prolonged emergency. I return to this point later.
There is little systematic evidence, moreover, to sustain the argument that relief generally displaces the reconstruction of war-torn societies. It may well do so under certain conditions, but we do not know enough to differentiate the conditions under which relief does block postwar reconstruction. Given the limited amount of relief that is provided and the relatively short duration of most, though not all, large relief operations, it seems unlikely that relief would be an attractive option compared to the alternative coping strategies usually available to subsistence populations. It is more likely that acute violence disrupts these coping strategies, and vulnerable populations have no choice but relief assistance.50
It is worth noting the risk in a tight linkage between emergency assistance as a process and conflict resolution as an outcome. Conflict resolution and good governance, when they succeed, are the result of complex processes as yet poorly mapped and understood. It is unreasonable to expect emergency assistance to achieve conflict resolution; indeed, such an expectation is virtually certain to be unmet and, when it is unmet, to lead to the inappropriate politicization of aid as publics and governments become cynical.51 Cautious modesty far better reflects the available evidence and the political environment of complex humanitarian emergencies.
When Humanitarian Aid Emphasizes Reconstruction at the Expense of Accountability
When there is attention to reconstruction, it is largely focused on restoring services and rebuilding economies, not on the political accountability that is central to a reformed political system. At times the governments that created the economic and social disruption are invited to partner in processes of reconstruction. Humanitarian relief, in part because of its commitment to impartiality and neutrality, avoids dealing with the political ambitions and past actions of predators.52 This criticism of NGOs that deliver relief assistance, which is apt on its terms, applies equally,
however, to the conflict resolution NGOs when they work in complex humanitarian emergencies. Reconstruction of any kind assumes a benign rather than a predator state or militia that systematically targets civilian populations for economic or political ends. Yet it is often precisely those who originally created the massive disruption who are subsequently invited to participate, first in reconstruction and finally in conflict resolution.
Critics disagree radically on the appropriate solutions to these challenges of conflict resolution, postwar reconstruction, and peace building. Some urge that relief assistance be radically restructured or even eliminated. There is agreement among radical critics that conflict can be resolved only through a long process of creating a vibrant civil society that can demand and contract for good governance, but there is considerable difference of opinion about how civil society can best be promoted. Some urge the virtual exclusion of third-party humanitarians, so that governments and populations have no alternative but to create contracts; at the other extreme, some urge a high level of partnering between “progressive” northern and southern NGOs to force governments to be accountable.53 Assistance would be made conditional on good governance and respect for human rights.
I have already examined the real and serious obstacles to the development of binding contractual relationships as near-term strategies to mitigate violence. In the fragmented politics of those marginalized by the global economy, some claim that even evolutionary processes toward political accountability are delusional.54 Society is fragmented, politicized, and incorporated into black or gray predatory economies, where “nonentitlements” accrue from raiding, illicit drug trade, extortion, and diversion of assets.55 In this context the model of a civil society separate from a centralized state does not fit; there simply is no civil society to strengthen. One pessimistic analyst of “postmodern violence” concludes that “war and famine do not stand out from normal social relations; they are simply a ‘deepening’ of exploitative processes.”56 The same kind of contextual challenges would confront those northern NGOs that partner with their southern counterparts to demand that local militias and predators be held accountable.57
The overarching critique—that emergency assistance inadvertently prolongs violence and retards conflict resolution—is important. From this inadvertent but negative consequence flows many of the related challenges that critics have identified. It is important to note, however, that not only relief but also many other economic activities fuel and sustain violence. The importance of relief is likely to vary by context: in eastern Zaire relief assistance was a critical resource to militia leaders, while in other cases the drug trade, smuggling, and thriving gray and black economies were far more important generators of resources to predators. No
study systematically investigates the proportionality of effects on war, yet only careful empirical analysis can resolve the question of the proportional impact of humanitarian aid on the prolongation of violence and specify the conditions when negative externalities are likely to be greatest.
ADDRESSING THE CHALLENGE
There are no easy or obvious solutions to the fundamental challenges that humanitarian NGOs face as they seek to both help populations preyed on by governments or militias and help reduce the violence and resolve the conflict so that vulnerable populations will no longer be systematically targeted. Indeed, analysis of the structure and context of complex humanitarian emergencies offers little grounds for optimism about a quick end to violence. Accumulated experience in attempting to manage these emergencies and resolve the internal conflicts of the past decade is no more encouraging. For humanitarians the challenges are likely to persist and intensify.
Two conclusions are clear from the analysis. First, complex humanitarian emergencies of the kind we have seen in the past decade in Africa are likely to continue, and not only in Africa, well into the future. Second, NGOs committed to humanitarian values will continue to engage on behalf of vulnerable populations. Disengagement is not an option for humanitarian NGOs, even if it is for states. If anything, given the privatization of assistance and the retreat of the UN, NGOs will play an even larger role than they have in the past.58
Minimizing the Negative Consequences of Aid on Protracted Violence
The central challenge from the perspective of conflict resolution is to find ways of minimizing the negative externalities of assistance as aid flows to the most vulnerable populations. NGOs are looking for ways to prevent the transfer of assets to warring parties, so that their work does not fuel the cycle of war. Humanitarian NGOs must constantly evaluate their practices to assess whether alternatives exist that would minimize the negative consequences of their work in the context of a complex emergency. In the past five years there has been considerable progress in exploring alternative ways of mitigating the contribution of emergency assistance to violence.59 I consider only a few of a large number of strategies that have been tried and programs that have been put in place in the past several years.
Paying explicit attention to the diversion of food aid to warring parties, NGOs have begun to distinguish types of food aid by their market
value. They ask how “lootable” their assistance is. In Somalia, for example, rice was extraordinarily attractive to looters while sorghum evoked little interest. When a food convoy organized by CARE was attacked along the Jubba River in Somalia, the thieves left without stealing anything when they discovered that the trucks carried sorghum.60 Blended foods, generally less tasty, are less attractive, and foods that can be stored for extended periods of time can be hidden from predators. The ICRC, for example, moved to cooked food to reduce the interests of looters. Careful monitoring, important on its own as NGOs seek to become transparent and accountable, was remarkably successful in Rwanda and Angola in reducing diversion.61 Similarly, seeds can be selected so that they are less attractive to looters: those that are easily stored, that match local habits of consumption, and that displaced populations can take with them as they move to different locales are less likely to be diverted.
The Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, of the U.S. Agency for International Development, tried an innovative strategy of “monetizing” food that was delivered to Somalia. Insofar as food had become a medium of exchange, flooding the country with food would depreciate its attractiveness and diminish the incentive for looting.62 Selling cereals as well as cooking oil to merchants would permit people to buy food with their limited incomes as the price of food declined. The monetization strategy was also designed to force onto the markets all of the food hoarded by organized criminals and warlords. Monetization did affect market prices by 1993 and produced enough currency to fund significant rehabilitation and reconstruction. It did not succeed, however, in reducing diversion; the drop in food prices drove the warlords to “tax” at higher levels. Only after military intervention did monetization accelerate and break the hold of the warlords.
NGOs are also trying to increase the ratio of nonfood to food aid within the constraints imposed by a complex emergency. There is much greater emphasis on supporting sustainable livelihoods—distribution of fishing nets where fish are available; vaccination programs against measles, a perennial killer of children in complex emergencies; and portable educational materials so that schools can continue even as populations are forced to move. None of this is easily “lootable” material that can fuel a wartime economy.
NGOs have also recognized how the economic side effects of their operations can contribute to a wartime economy. Collaboration among NGOs, difficult as it is, to standardize physical costs can drastically reduce the negative externalities of assistance. In Baidoa, for example, all agencies collaborated to reduce the costs of vehicles. In Rwanda, Save the Children (U.K.) organized some NGOs to standardize the prices of housing and transport. In Goma the UN High Commissioner for Refugees
(UNHCR) and the NGOs cooperated to put a ceiling on labor costs; salaries were immediately reduced by 50 percent.63
Proposals have also been developed to share information, coordinate and plan better, improve institutional memory, and increase area expertise so that NGO personnel can learn quickly about local politics and structures. Since the genocide and mass exodus from Rwanda in 1994, some NGOs have consciously begun to develop their capacity to collect information about and analyze political and security developments that might have an important impact on diversion of aid and, more generally, on operations. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has an ongoing global country watch; Action Aid has created an office called Emergency Response and Information Collection (ERIC) for the Great Lakes Region; and many NGOs feed into and from the UN’s Department of Humanitarian Affairs Integrated Regional Information Network for the Great Lakes and for West Africa. UNICEF has created a global Rapid Response Team and CARE is examining how it can pre-position experienced staff in areas where populations seem particularly at risk. NGOs recognize that they need good operational knowledge of differentiation along identity and class lines if they are to succeed in minimizing the diversion of aid to warring parties.64
Political Options in a Politicized Environment
Strategies to minimize diversion, alone or together, can reduce the scope and severity but never completely eliminate the transfer of assets to warriors and other negative externalities of emergency assistance. Analysis of these cases suggests that the more complex the conflict, the more chaotic the security markets, and the more traumatized the social order, the more important an adequate security envelope is for effective delivery of humanitarian assistance. For humanitarians working in complex emergencies, painful choices will continue to arise as long as the UN or regional organizations are unable to provide security as a public good and the major powers continue to disengage and privatize assistance as a substitute for political action.
NATO’s intervention in the humanitarian emergency in Kosovo in 1999 may be the beginning of a reversal of the pattern of major power disengagement. The military action was precedent setting: NATO used force against a sovereign state that was systematically abusing its own population. It is difficult to extrapolate from this one intervention in NATO’s core area of interest, however, to a more general pattern of reengagement, particularly in Africa. Even in Europe some officials in NATO regard the “successful” operation as a high-risk, never-to-be-
repeated action. There is no solid evidence that the supply of security as a public good is likely to increase. Until it does, the range of choices for humanitarian NGOs will frequently be narrow, and at the extreme there will be no “good” strategies of conflict resolution. Some analysts are even more pessimistic: one concludes that “there is literally no space for conflict resolution or development activities when deep insecurity prevails.”65
In the camps in eastern Zaire in 1994 and 1995, for example, there was considerable resource transfer, misappropriation, taxation, and theft by militias. Here, the genocidaires unquestionably drew their main political support from the physical presence of the humanitarian effort; the humanitarian presence provided an economic base from which they and, most importantly, their key strategic resource—Rwandan civilians—could live. The critical and agonizing issue for NGOs was whether to stay and fuel the capacity of the genocidaires to make war or leave and abandon the civilian population that the militia had targeted and exploited. The choices were cruel and stark, not amenable to any technical solution available then or now. NGO personnel may not be able to choose to do no harm, if by doing nothing they abandon civilian populations at risk, deprive them of their voice, and violate their humanitarian ethics.66 In the face of those who are determined to do harm to civilians, NGOs may well be forced to choose the option that does the least harm. To make that choice, humanitarian NGOs must situate their work in its larger political context. In this context three strategies are worth considering.
First, humanitarians must acknowledge that their actions in a complex emergency can have profound political consequences. Even as they insist on the imperative of legitimate authorities assuming responsibility, they must explicitly analyze the political consequences of their strategies to mitigate violence—relief delivery, refugee protection, election monitoring, postwar reconstruction, peace building—and plan for those consequences.67
NGOs traditionally have insisted, and many still do, that only strict adherence to principles of neutrality and consent of the parties can insulate relief assistance from political and military agendas.68 Neutrality, it is argued, contributes to the amelioration of violence and conflict resolution by effectively inducing UN agencies and governments to provide assistance, by deterring violence through the capacity to witness by their presence on the ground and their access to the media, and by their capacity to mediate among the warring parties.69 I, and others, allege that the context of relief assistance has changed so radically that apolitical neutrality is a useful fiction but no longer a viable option. As the president of MSF’s International Council argued in Oslo when he accepted the Nobel Peace
Prize on behalf of MSF, “the humanitarian act is the most apolitical of all acts, but if its actions and its morality are taken seriously, it has the most profound of political implications.”70
Neutrality is appropriate in a neutral environment, but the environments of complex emergencies are generally predatory rather than neutral. As Weiss argues, the fact that humanitarian space cannot be opened or sustained by humanitarians alone suggests the clear benefit of thinking politically and coordinating with diplomatic and military institutions.71 If the political purposes of those who target civilian populations are ignored, NGOs will miss the inherently political nature of the relief they deliver to those targeted populations and miscalculate the politics of protecting those they seek to help.
NGOs in increasing numbers have consultative status at the UN and are invited to participate in policy discussions.72 If they are to be effective in shaping policies to mitigate violence, they need to improve their analytical capacities to be more effective at the policy table. NGOs will have to begin as well to invest time and resources in long-term policy research and development. National donors, governments, and the UN system all devote considerable effort to policy analysis and development. For the nongovernmental sector to be able to contribute effectively, it must begin to do likewise.
NGOs must also improve their capacity to monitor the consequences of their actions on a scale of “perverse outcomes” so that they can properly assess the consequences of their strategic choices. I discuss this challenge later when I examine the potential of “diagnostics” to improve policy monitoring and evaluation. NGOs need as well to enhance the knowledge and skills required for effective negotiation with implementing partners, other NGOs in the regions in which they are working, and with potentially predatory forces so as to define appropriate conditions for engagement.
It will also be important to develop a sophisticated understanding of the political economy of the humanitarian assistance “marketplace” in which NGOs are embedded if they hope to influence the critical set of contractual relationships with the UN and donor institutions that can severely constrain strategic choices. A little-understood dimension of the international humanitarian system is the economic relationship between NGOs and their institutional funders. In a complex emergency, NGOs function as contractors and implementers on behalf of multilateral agencies. This relationship resembles an oligopoly: many sellers and very few and, at times, only one buyer. In the humanitarian marketplace the buyers are national and multilateral aid organizations, and the sellers are the NGOs. Without an implementing contract from one of the UN agencies, it is unlikely that an NGO will be able to deliver relief. During a typical complex emergency, a humanitarian NGO can obtain the necessary funds
from one of at most six agencies in the UN family and normally the agency of the national government where the NGO resides. Often the national agency will provide funding only after one of the UN agencies has committed itself.
The dependence of an NGO is even greater than this structure suggests. UN agencies often behave as monopolies: the World Food Program (WFP) manages food from donor countries, the UNHCR is charged with caring for refugees, and the World Health Organization is responsible for health. Because both NGOs and UN agencies tend to specialize, most NGOs are consequently quite limited in their contracting options. For example, an NGO with food logistics expertise generally has one potential partner, the WFP. Any NGO with refugee camp management experience must as a general rule contract with the UNHCR. At the national level, governments have an inherent monopoly over domestic funds devoted to international assistance.73
This economic structure conforms broadly to what economic theory would suggest: the contracting UN agencies have fixed nonnegotiable rates, penalty clauses, payment schedules, and reporting requirements and are able to enforce compliance by an individual NGO seeking a contract in the broader field of available NGOs. As a practical matter, while the UN can no longer do without NGOs in general, it can do without any particular NGO. These conditions often constrain the strategic choices that an individual NGO can make and limit its capacity to act politically.
If NGOs are to assess the impact of emergency assistance in an arena of civilian conflict and make effective political choices to reduce any negative externalities and mitigate violence, they will have to act collectively to establish new guiding principles that will reduce the inflexibility of current funding arrangements with the UN. An individual NGO cannot be effective politically by acting alone. This collective-action problem is a recurrent and generic challenge for the humanitarian community.
The second strategy worth considering is for NGOs to urge the UN secretary-general to provide security from private markets when public security for humanitarian operations is unavailable. This analysis suggests that the more complex a conflict is, the more chaotic are the security markets. Yet the more traumatized the social order is, the more important is an adequate security envelope for effective delivery of humanitarian assistance.74 Complex emergencies feed on themselves, enfeebling and even wiping away legitimate security resources, spreading chaos and violence, and generating the need for even greater security resources from outside. The cycle can only be broken if security is again supplied as a public good, ideally by the major powers acting through international institutions or by members of regional organizations acting collectively. This analysis suggests, however, that the prospects of repairing the shred-
ded security envelope in which humanitarian NGOs currently operate are not promising.
The major powers that are critical to authorization of a UN force are likely to consider most of the humanitarian emergencies as “discretionary” and, consequently, be unwilling to commit forces, directly or through the UN, to a crisis that humanitarians consider urgent. The falling budget for UN peacekeeping speaks loudly. Given the demographic and social forces that reinforce the aversion to casualties in postindustrial states, this caution can only become more pronounced over time. The Mogadishu line became at the close of the 1990s a military and political firebreak that, other than in exceptional circumstances, major powers outside the region seem increasingly unwilling to cross.
UN Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Sergio Vieira de Mello, in observing the general lack of willingness of members of the UN to provide security forces for humanitarian operations, noted that states are not at all “averse to letting humanitarian staff go where they dare not send their…invariably better equipped, better trained and better protected [troops].” He proposed the creation of “regional humanitarian security teams” trained and equipped to support humanitarian personnel on short notice; teams would be drawn from “selected troops from a variety of nations in the region concerned.”75 This proposal is consistent with the so-called regional or subregional approach to conflict resolution in which the responsibility for peacekeeping and security rests with the countries closest to the problem.
In the wake of the terrible failure first to prevent and then to stop the genocide in Rwanda, the United States, Britain, and France supported the African Crisis Response Initiative, a project to help train and equip a standby rapid-reaction peacekeeping force; this has yet to be put to the test.76 By far the most extensive trial of regional peacekeeping has been the eight-year-long deployment of a multinational force or “monitoring group” (the Economic Community Monitoring Group, or ECOMOG) first in Liberia and more recently in Sierra Leone by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). The record of ECOMOG has been mixed, but no more so than UN and NATO forces deployed elsewhere.77
African peacekeeping and peace-enforcing efforts have been effective in providing a security envelope where they have been deployed, but the overall pattern is nevertheless not encouraging. Forces have been infrequently deployed and the choices as to where and when to intervene have been essentially arbitrary. There is also growing concern at the UN about compliance with international standards in regional operations that the UN authorizes. The UN secretary-general recently urged the UN Security Council to confirm that regional organizations have the capacity to carry out operations consistent with international norms and standards and to
put in place mechanisms to monitor regional peacekeeping forces operating under the authority of the UN.78
When security is scarce as a public good, the security of NGO personnel in the field is, as I have noted, not surprisingly increasingly at risk. There are, however, very limited arrangements currently in place through the UN to promote their security, even when they are contracted to the UN. Within the UN, the United Nations Security Coordinator (UNSE COORD) coordinates, plans, and implements safety programs and acts as the nexus for interagency cooperation on security issues, exclusive of peacekeeping forces.79 These arrangements are restricted to personnel engaged in operations specifically authorized by the Security Council or the General Assembly.80 In a memorandum of understanding circulated in early 1997, NGOs that are implementing partners of agencies in the UN may request to be included in UN security arrangements; to do so they must agree to pay their share of the costs and abide by UN security guidelines. These arrangements are restricted to expatriate staff of NGOs that are implementing partners and to those employees directly engaged in fulfilling the contract; they do not include local staff, or even all expatriate staff, much less extend to vulnerable populations.81 It is not surprising that NGOs objected to the loss of autonomy, the inequities, and the cost. Here donors could be helpful: they could emphasize as a priority and fund security costs as part of their envelopes for humanitarian assistance, and they could also press for a long-overdue review of the role of UNSECOORD. Even if more inclusive agreements were to be negotiated with the UN, they would not address the fundamental challenge of the deep insecurity of the vulnerable populations that humanitarians seek to help.
When security is not being provided as a public good, as it frequently is not in a complex humanitarian emergency, NGOs should reluctantly consider urging the UN secretary-general to draw on private resources to provide security. The absence of international public security forces, and the lack of effective and legitimate alternatives, empowered the militias of Somalia, eastern Zaire, Sierra Leone, and Liberia to terrible effect. It is only when security is absent that humanitarian assistance prolongs rather than mitigates violence. Under these circumstances and only under these circumstances, the UN might consider hiring paid volunteer professionally trained security personnel, employed without regard to national origin and beholden to their employer rather than to any single government, to secure the delivery of emergency assistance. This concept was seriously considered in Rwanda in late 1994, and some official UN circles appear to be exploring the concept as well.82
The primary purpose of private security guards would not be to protect NGO personnel but to avoid the need to hire local providers from
among belligerents to protect convoys of relief assistance. In eastern Zaire, for example, after months of inaction, two battalions of Zairean troops were hired to maintain security in Rwandan camps under UNHCR authority. The presence of the troops significantly improved law and order in the camps and diminished the authority of the militias among the refugees.83 Even then the Zairean troops were not impartial in the broader conflict in Rwanda nor were they mandated to deal with the central issue of separating refugees from militia leaders. At the very least, private security personnel from outside the region would not fuel the local war economy or sustain those who preyed on local populations.
This kind of proposal will not be well received in the humanitarian community, and many would consider it infeasible. For both practical and normative reasons, NGOs undoubtedly would prefer to avoid such a solution. There are already indications, however, that the hiring of security guards from the private sector is acceptable under specific conditions in the humanitarian community. The ICRC prohibits the hiring of local armed escorts for relief convoys but acknowledges that the hiring of guards to combat crime and provide security for personnel may be necessary if there is no other option. When armed guards are necessary, the ICRC recommends that they be hired from “an established security firm or the police rather than the army.”84 A report recently submitted to the European Commission proposed that donors could field security units to protect humanitarian work, either from national resources or “through funding specialist third parties.”85 It is worth considering whether the hiring of security guards from specialized third parties is an appropriate strategy not only to combat crime but also to mitigate the violence that flows inadvertently from current policies. Private providers of security working under the authority of the UN may be the least harmful response to both the privatization of assistance and the absence of security as a public good.86
A third strategy to consider is that of conditionality and exit. Finally, and only as a desperate last resort, NGOs must be prepared to consider seriously the option of temporary withdrawal when assistance intended for humanitarian purposes is being diverted into renewed cycles of conflict. Withdrawal during an emergency flies in the face of the most fundamental humanitarian commitment and impulse to protect lives at risk: NGOs cannot justify the loss of access and witness. Withdrawal of the humanitarian presence, I argue, should be only the last in a staged series of options, and even then it has negative consequences because those who are watching and reporting to the outside world will no longer be there, even as a mild deterrent and as a witness. Yet only if humanitarian actors are willing to suspend delivery and withdraw presence when their assistance is forming part of a cycle of violence can they regain sufficient
leverage to retain or recapture control over the delivery and management of relief supplies and reconvert their presence into protection. When other options are exhausted, NGOs must be willing to take the necessary organizational steps to ensure that they are not part of the problems they are committed to alleviating. Strategic withdrawal can also send crucial signals to future would-be perpetrators of violence hoping to use relief resources for their own purposes.87
To argue that NGOs must consider withdrawing if assets are being diverted to fuel a wartime economy raises difficult operational, strategic, and ethical questions.88 Can NGOs withdraw in the midst of an emergency? In the past, humanitarians have withdrawn largely when their staff was harmed or at risk—the ICRC from Burundi and Chechnya, Caritas from Burundi—or when necessary infrastructure was destroyed— CARE from Mogadishu.
Withdrawal as a strategic choice is rare, but humanitarian NGOs have very occasionally made this choice. In eastern Zaire in November 1994, 15 NGOs withdrew from Mugunga camp in the Goma region in the face of attempts by militias to assert political control over the camps. The decision was made in response to untenable security conditions and unacceptable ethical compromises but also to increase pressure on the international community to respond to the security dilemma. At the same time, in a controversial decision the Economic Community Humanitarian Office (ECHO) decided to stop all funding for NGOs serving the internally displaced camps in Rwanda, hoping to create a “push” for people to return to their homes. The impact of the withdrawal was unclear, since agencies with independent funding that considered continued assistance a humanitarian imperative remained in the camps.89
In the autumn of 1998, even though it was the first humanitarian organization to gain access to the population in North Korea three years earlier, MSF explicitly chose to withdraw when its leaders concluded that assistance could not be delivered independently of state authorities and that assistance was being used by North Korean leaders to sustain the system that created the vulnerability and starvation among millions. Again, in November 1999, MSF withdrew from refugee camps in Burundi when MSF concluded that it was helping the government sustain the camps. Not surprisingly, the withdrawal was strongly criticized by other humanitarian groups that have continued to deliver assistance. The dilemmas of the humanitarian organizations were sharpened by the withdrawal of staff members of the WFP after two UN staffers were executed in southeastern Burundi. As a result, those NGOs that remained have taken on some of the responsibilities of the departed UN staff. In a somewhat different context, in 1996, after all NGOs were evacuated from Liberia to surrounding coun-
tries because fighting had destroyed the local infrastructure, for the first time NGOs organized to “coordinate the resumption of NGO-implemented humanitarian assistance.”90
An important constraint on strategic withdrawal to mitigate violence is the oligopolist structure of contractual relationships with donor agencies that I have detailed. Inflexible funding arrangements create incentives for NGOs to continue relief operations even when security deteriorates. Fixed schedules and penalty clauses can work against a decision to make assistance conditional insofar as the NGO violates the contract either by politically motivated withdrawal or by allowing waiting time for compellent strategies to work. Instead of an obstacle, agency contracts could create incentives for relief conditional on appropriate behavior toward vulnerable populations. Contracts could include incentives to assist in the monitoring and reporting on abuse of vulnerable populations and require regular reporting of agreed-upon indicators of diversion of assistance. They could also eliminate the penalties for failure to deliver and for changes in the types of assistance delivered when these changes are a response to deteriorating security and increased diversion of assistance. Contracts should also explicitly commit UN agencies to continue funding their NGO partners even when they withdraw or evacuate their staff temporarily because of deteriorating security, as long as that withdrawal occurs within defined parameters and in accordance with agreed-upon principles. If NGOs are unable to pay their staff when they are pulled out because assistance is fueling violence, perverse incentives will work to keep staff members in the field.
A more formidable constraint is the generic difficulty of collective action. A unilateral withdrawal by one NGO, no matter how large, is unlikely to be effective in constraining the behavior of predators. Even the collective withdrawal from Mugunga had only limited impact; the NGOs that withdrew continued to provide relief in other camps, and the flow of resources into Mugunga continued.
At least two conditions are necessary if a strategic withdrawal by NGOs is to have any impact. First, there must be coordination among the principal NGOs that are providing assistance to act in concert. This kind of decision will not be reached easily; many NGOs continue to believe that withdrawal violates the fundamental humanitarian ethic, that it is tantamount to abandoning the most vulnerable, that it will provoke looting and violence, that it furthers the lamentable processes of privatization of assistance and disengagement by major powers, and that the politics of withdrawal compromise humanitarian neutrality and impartiality. The most serious criticism leveled at a strategy of political withdrawal is that it is ineffective. In the aftermath of the cessation of humanitarian aid to Rwandan refugees, violence and war increased, and several hundred
thousand people died; the Great Lakes region became more violent after international humanitarian assistance was withdrawn.91
This intense debate among humanitarians may limit the possibilities of coordination to arrangements between those who leave and those who stay so that there can be both public statement and quiet assistance.92 Within the limits of the possible, consulting the recipients of assistance— rather than the predatory leadership—as to whether agencies should remain silent or protest abuses even if they lose their access would empower local populations, enhance accountability, and make it easier for NGOs to reach a collective decision.93
Second, a withdrawal should be accompanied by a clearly stated set of conditions for return—an end to diversion of relief, unobstructed access to vulnerable populations, and/or cooperation in the registration of refugees or displaced persons. There are cases where conditionality has succeeded. In response to looting of cars in eastern Equatoria, four NGOs and agencies collaborated to make continuing assistance conditional on safety on the roads, as an essential component of the larger principle of unfettered secure access. The Sudanese People’s Liberation Army was concerned enough about the consequences of a cessation of aid that it made certain that the raiding of vehicles stopped.94 A consortium of NGOs working in southern Sudan insisted on independent access and monitoring as conditions of continued assistance. Only if withdrawal is coordinated and strategic, if the conditions NGOs set can be met by the targets, can concerted withdrawal have any impact whatsoever on the behavior of a predatory government or militia.
If humanitarian NGOs are to consider withdrawal as a strategy to influence warring parties and reluctant major powers and participate effectively at national and global policy tables, above all they need the analytical capacity to assess the severity of the negative consequences of their aid and a set of diagnostics they can collectively use to judge that they may be doing relatively more harm than good. I have already addressed the importance of developing the analytical capabilities of NGOs so that they can enhance their contribution to policy debates. Development of diagnostics ideally flows from an enhanced analytical capability among NGOs. I suggest three such diagnostics as a first cut.
There is, of course, significant variation within complex humanitarian emergencies, and the diagnostics will be sensitive to differences in underlying conditions. Two such underlying conditions have been plausibly suggested. The likelihood of negative externalities of assistance depends in part on the degree of coherence among militias and their
capacity to organize effectively; when it is very high, as in Rwanda, diversion is more likely than when coherence is low, as in Sierra Leone. The coherence of militias in turn depends in part on the shape of export markets. When primary commodities dominate exports, militias can generate revenues from the taxation of these commodities, either directly by imposing levies or by demanding contributions in kind and then exporting through extra-legal marketing channels. It is far easier to market generic products illegally than to disguise the origins of branded products.95 Under these conditions, militias are likely to do well in civil war and to seek to prolong the violence.
The political taxation of relief is an obvious diagnostic indicator that aid is being diverted. Initially, diversion can be difficult to assess since theft and hijacking can be high but not part of a pattern of systematic political diversion. The better informed NGO personnel are about local political and military organizations, about ethnic and religious fault lines, and about local social, economic, and political structures the more easily they will be able to distinguish simple theft from systematic diversion. Systematic political diversion that is not reduced by the strategies considered earlier should trigger consideration of coordinated political strategies to mitigate the violence.
A second warning light is the unwillingness of local authorities to cooperate with the UN and NGOs to register recipients of relief assistance, especially in refugee or displaced-persons camps, and to make available lists of the registrants. Failure to cooperate in registration suggests that local authorities are seeking to supplant or subvert existing distribution mechanisms in order to divert relief assistance. If local authorities are willing to use force to monopolize control over a registration process, there is a very high likelihood that aid will subsequently become a resource for violent conflict.
Third, negotiation of access to populations at risk often provides predatory governments and militias with the opportunity to impose inequitable political conditions, which privilege some vulnerable populations at the expense of others. Especially when access is obstructed after consent has been obtained, relief is being used as an instrument to assert control over local populations for political purposes. The government of Mobutu Sese Seko repeatedly denied access to large groups of refugees and displaced persons. Access is central to protection, support, and witness.
These three diagnostics are suggestive of the kind of indicators NGOs might agree to use collectively. No set of indicators performs entirely satisfactorily, but agreement among NGOs on several diagnostics on a trial basis, to be tested in the field and refined and then benchmarked in time, would significantly enhance the analytical capability of NGOs, their
capacity to monitor the political consequences of their actions, their ability to coordinate and reduce collective-action problems, and their collective capacity to act politically to reduce violence.
Wittingly and unwittingly, humanitarian NGOs have become important participants in conflict resolution as assistance has been privatized and security has become a very scarce public good in many parts of the world. In large part because of the failure of the wider international community to provide security as a public good, humanitarians increasingly find themselves confronting painful choices. In complex humanitarian emergencies, where security is absent, some of the assistance NGOs provide has gone to those who prey on the vulnerable and has prolonged and even fueled the cycle of violence. Rather than contributing to conflict resolution, humanitarians have inadvertently contributed to conflict escalation.
The painful choices that NGOs face is most acute for but not unique to humanitarians. International financial institutions, the family of UN agencies, and regional organizations are grappling with the same kinds of painful options, although not often with front-line personnel on the ground. They and humanitarian NGOs all suffer from the disappearance of security as a public good and, to a greater or lesser degree, require a security envelope to help resolve conflicts, reconstruct war-torn societies, and build peace. Without a minimal security envelope, the assets they commit to conflict resolution and peace building can be diverted to fuel rather than break a cycle of violence. Those who do well out of war have every incentive to perpetuate the violence and to continue to prey on those who have no protection.
I have argued that these painful choices have grown out of the disengagement of the major powers, the privatization of assistance, and the complexity of contemporary emergencies. Humanitarian emergencies are triggered by the failure of states or their capture by one group that uses the instruments of the state against another and the violent economic and social disruptions that follow as societies break apart and refugees spill across borders. A recent study concluded that humanitarian emergencies constitute the most serious contemporary threat to security and that they are likely to continue into the foreseeable future.96
The strategies of conflict resolution that I have identified as appropriate for humanitarian NGOs are no panacea even for the humanitarian community. On the contrary, each raises deep ethical, political, and strategic problems. Collectively, they underline the continuing importance of states, regional organizations, and global institutions, the traditional pro-
viders of security as a public good. When security is scarce—or absent— no strategy of conflict resolution, postwar reconstruction, or peace building is likely to succeed.
Nicholas Berry, War and the Red Cross: The Unspoken Mission (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997).
Orbinski, “The 1999 Nobel Prize Speech.”
Weiss, “Principles, Politics, and Humanitarian Action,” p. 21.
Forty-one NGOs were granted consultative status to the UN in 1948, 377 by 1968, and more than 1,200 by 1997. John Stremlau, People in Peril: Human Rights, Humanitarian Action, and Preventing Deadly Conflict (New York: Carnegie Corporation, 1998).
There are some circumstances in which the monopolistic forces are less powerful. Anecdotal evidence indicates that in the United States the number of effective funding “windows” available at the U.S. Agency for International Development and its relatively decentralized structure combined with the large volume of funding tend to mitigate the agency’s monopoly power. In addition, some NGOs—CARE International, for example— have developed their own multilateral structures that create opportunities for field operations to access multiple national donors.
Natsios, “Humanitarian Relief Intervention in Somalia,” p. 93.
DHA News, December 1997, no. 23, pp. 5, 7–8.
Council for a Livable World, Project on Peacekeeping and the United Nations, prospectus, www.clw.org/pub/clw/un/acri.html.
The lead African state in ECOMOG, Nigeria dominated the force that was seen by other Africans as serving regional hegemonic interests. The UN exercised virtually no control over the force once it had authorized its operations through a Security Council resolution. See Edwin M.Smith and Thomas G.Weiss, “UN Task-Sharing: Towards or Away from Global Governance,” Third World Quarterly, February 1997; Michèle Griffen, “Retrenchment, Reform and Regionalization: Trends in UN Peace Support Measures,” International Peacekeeping, Summer 1999, pp. 21–25; Stremlau, People in Peril: Human Rights, Humanitarian Action, and Preventing Deadly Conflict, pp. 57–58; Sylvester Ekundayo Rowe, “ECOMOG—A Model for African Peace-keeping,” African Law Today, October 1998; and Colin Scott, with Larry Minear and Thomas G.Weiss, Humanitarian Action and Security in Liberia, Occasional Paper #20 (Providence, R.I.: Thomas J.Watson Jr. Institute for International Studies, 1995).
Report of the Secretary-General to the Security Council on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict (New York: United Nations, Office of the Secretary-General), p. 34.
UNSECOORD also helps agencies identify field security officers, and a designated official, usually a senior official from a UN agency, reports to UNSECOORD in New York. Security of Relief Workers and Humanitarian Space, Background Document to the Commission Working Paper (European Commission, ECHO, April 1999).
The Convention on the Safety of United Nations and Associated Personnel of 1994 entered into force on January 15, 1999. The UN secretary-general has recommended the addition of a protocol to the convention that would extend the scope of legal protection to all UN and associated personnel. Report of the Secretary-General to the Security Council on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict, pp. 3, 10.
Security of Relief Workers and Humanitarian Space, pp. 14–15.
In the fall of 1994 the UN received a proposal from a British company to provide training and support to Zaire’s army in order to wrest control of the camps from the militias. The idea received support from one permanent member of the UN Security Council, but other members rejected the idea on the basis of cost and principle: using a private company to fulfill an international public responsibility was wrong. None of the states rejecting the proposal on principle subsequently offered troops and resources when requested by the secretary-general.
prendergast, Frontline Diplomacy, p. 66.