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Classifications questioned in protracted crises

Haitian civilians unload relief supplies from a US Navy ship
(Marion Doss/Flickr)

Classifying aid as "relief", "early recovery" or "development" does little to help countries that have been troubled for years.

This was the key message from the Second World Humanitarian Studies Conference this month during a discussion on food security response in protracted crises such as Somalia.

The UK's Overseas Development Institute (ODI) reckons there are at least 22 countries in protracted crises, by which it means countries where a large population is vulnerable to disease, death and disruption of livelihoods over a long period, with the state having limited capacity to help those affected.

"Food insecurity is the most common manifestation of protracted crises," according to Prabhu Pingali, deputy director of Agriculture Development at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Luca Alinovi, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) representative for Somalia. About 20 percent of the world's undernourished people (or more than a third of the global total if China and India are excluded) - 166 million - live in countries in protracted crises.

The problems of engagement in such countries are linked to the way "development" is perceived and how aid is used to respond, said Alinovi.

In the aid world, "development is viewed as a gradual improvement in the quality of life. Disasters or acute emergencies briefly interrupt this trend, but the expectation is that there will be a return to normality, hence the use of terms such as 'disaster', 'recovery' and 'sustainable development'," he said.

Aid responses even in protracted crises tend to be short term. "We cannot work with funding that is reviewed every year as at times there are breaks in funding, which does not help projects which have long-term development objectives," said Alinovi. "If we want to help the country emerge from the crisis we have to make a long-term commitment with no interruption in spending."

"Wrong" emphasis

Principles for Good International Engagement in Fragile States and Situations set out by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) put too much emphasis on building state institutions, said Daniel Maxwell, a food security expert at Tufts University and one of the authors of a joint FAO and World Food Programme (WFP) report on food insecurity in protracted crises.

Most developed countries and major aid donors are among OECD's 34 members. The OECD should better focus on efforts to strengthen livelihoods and local institutions that support livelihoods, he said.

"We have to become more creative in how we seek to respond to a crisis - and not with the traditional humanitarian mindset," said Maxwell.

ODI researcher Sarah Bailey in a forthcoming paper on the Democratic Republic of Congo, another country in a protracted crisis, says: "Aid architecture is divided into humanitarian and development compartments. The choice to use aid mechanisms is a political decision related to how donor governments want to engage with the state, and there is a lack of programming strategies for shifting between shorter-term and longer-term assistance approaches.

"As addressing state fragility has become an important international concern, so too has the focus widened from linking relief and development to integrating aid and security.

"Many policies and interventions now seek to `stabilize' fragile and conflict-affected settings through assistance and security responses. 'Early recovery', meaning laying foundations for recovery at the earliest opportunities, has also emerged as a framework in recent years. "

But rather than coming up with frameworks such as "early recovery" intended to plug a theoretical distinction between relief and development, the aid community should try to understand the opportunities and limitations offered by existing approaches, she says.

Flexibility key

In perhaps the most protracted crisis of all, FAO and other agencies have had to be creative in trying to help communities in Somalia. Humanitarian agencies there engage with whichever local authority holds sway, and many dispatch funds through "hawala" money transfer systems, global networks of trusted brokers, with some success, says Alinovi.

Francois Daniel Grunewald, chair of Groupe URD, a research centre, said another reason why FAO had made inroads is "because it responds to a crisis in agro-ecological zones, so it can set up those relationships in a decentralized way - which is the way to respond for aid agencies and donors even in countries like Afghanistan - and not have to spend vital time engaging with an ineffective central government". Grunewald worked in Somalia for some years when he ran the agriculture rehabilitation unit of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

ODI's Bailey suggested that donors, rather than responding to the needs of a crisis from one year to the next, should consider aid money pledged over a period of time in totality and then decide how best to spend it.

Donors and the aid community perhaps needed to better understand the impact of their assistance in terms of helping communities back on their feet. Instead of asking the question, "How can humanitarian action support recovery?" Bailey suggested they ask: "What is the most appropriate assistance given the needs, context and capacities? How can it have the greatest impact?"


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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