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close this bookThe Courier N° 136 - Nov-Dec 1992 - Dossier Humanitarian Aid - Country Reports: Soa Tomé- Principe- Senegal (EC Courier, 1992, 96 p.)
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Humanitarian assistance: the needs and the response

by Dawit GIORGIS

The author is a specialist on the practical aspects of humanitarian aid who currently works under the aegis of the UN Development Programme in Namibia as senior UN advisor on the drought emergency, and headed the UN special relief programme in Angola for over a year. Before that he worked in the Sudan emergency operation and in the United States of America as a project analyst on homelessness and abandoned children. Between 1983 and 1986 he served as Relief and Rehabilitation Commissioner responsible for the entire relief operation in Ethiopia at a time of serious drought, famine and military conflict in the Horn of Africa.

Dr Giorgis's experiences in the fields of poverty, famine and emergency operations supplied the material for 'Red Tears' *, a book which three years ago provoked a great deal of discussion about the effectiveness and appropriateness of international humanitarian aid. Here he looks at the subject in the light of developments since that time. The views expressed are his own, not those of the UN.

The relationship between donors and recipients has been discussed frequently. This relationship becomes very crucial in times of national and man-made calamities, when the lives of millions depend on communication and cooperation between the potential giver and receiver.

Disaster management involves two parties, the donor and the recipient. It is the level of understanding and harmony that exists between these two parties that eventually determines the success or failure of all´emergency programmes. In the final analysis it is the reaction of people and governments that creates the conditions for a disaster. With preparedness, coordination and effective response, most disasters can be prevented or mitigated. The major responsibility and concern of disaster-affected countries is to build the local human and institutional capacity to plan for disaster and, when the alarm sounds, to implement a well-conceived response for which the appropriate preparations have been made in advance. Without the capacity to mobilise national and international resources and to manage the crisis it would be impossible to develop an effective plan for response. The lack of resources and management capacity have been major constraints in handling emergency situations in many African countries. This is compounded by political instability and internal conflicts. Disaster management fails mostly because of these reasons. In the last few years the burden on Africa, in terms of coping with the ever-increasing cases of disasters, has been shared by the developed countries and we have therefore been able to witness the increasing involvement of the international community in humanitarian assistance.

During 1992 the UN, the EEC and other multinational organisations have made, on behalf of the victims, unprecedented and historical decisions to intervene in disaster-affected countries, sometimes in a highly volatile and politically charged atmosphere. It would be difficult to imagine what would have happened in Ethiopia in 1984-86, in the Sudan in 1987, and currently in Liberia, Somalia and Mozambique and many other African countries, had the international community not decided to intervene and respond generously. Certainly, millions would have perished and some countries, as we know them today, might have ceased to exist. Given this positive evolution of the role of the international community in times of emergency it would be appropriate to take stock of all the achievements and begin to ask how many more lives would have been saved by the international community had it responded in good time and more effectively'

In 1974 Henry Kissinger, then US Secretary of State, addressing the World Food Council Conference, boldly stated that no child would go hungry, and that the world would not see any more emaciated and malnourished human beings at the end of the decade. Ten years later in 1984 these promises turned into ashes right before our eyes as the world witnessed once again the death and suffering of millions of starving people in Ethiopia. The world promised again in 1984 that such famines should not be allowed to take place in a world glutted with food. The situation in Ethiopia, in the Sudan and Somalia persisted and today, eight years later, the world has watched the crisis in Somalia developing into a disaster resulting in the death of hundreds every day. The death and suffering of millions in Africa continues unabated because the world failed to provide them in a timely manner with the means of survival. When it decided to intervene in a manner that the situation warranted it was already too late for many. It is not the lack of generosity or sympathy with the cause of the deprived that is the major problem. It is rather the political will and determination, the delivery system and the identification of needs and priorities that is at fault.

Donor countries must demonstrate greater awareness and concern in responding to emergency situations. A lot has been said about what recipient countries should do but less has been said about donor governments and aid agencies. Preparedness for disaster is a two-way street. An international appeal as a result of an impending or real catastrophe should trigger immediate reaction from donor countries. Preparedness also implies the parallel need for donor governments and agencies to set up an emergency response system. Since the 1984-85 experience in Ethiopia the situation has not changed much as regards the speed and timeliness of response by the international community. It still takes at least three months for food shipments to arrive in any sub-Saharan ports after decisions have been made to intervene. Even after donor governments commit themselves to donate needed supplies, the regular bureaucracy to process the delivery of the commodities takes too long a time. There is a lack of an objective assessment of the needs and priorities, and when the aid finally arrives at the ports it often creates logistical nightmares. The donors ship the relief supplies and assume that the rest will be handled by the recipient country. The capacity of the ports and lack of adequate transport facilities hinder smooth and efficient off-take and movement of aid to where it is needed. Because of the inadequacy of the roads, journey times between locations are excessive by normal standards. Journeys which can be undertaken within one or two days in more developed countries will frequently take a week or more in the areas covered by the secondary roads and, during the rains, are impossible even to attempt.

Under these difficult infrastructural conditions, which are unlikely to improve in the foreseeable future in many parts of Africa, it is essential to:

a) assist recipient countries in building and strengthening capacities, and

b) maintain adequate supplies of food and other relief supplies at strategic locations throughout the continent to ensure their availability in times of distress.

Ten countries of Southern Africa are currently struck by the worst drought of the century. The alarm was sounded at the beginning of the year. Needs assessment missions were sent by FAD/WFP in the month of April. Donor conferences were held in Geneva in the month of June, where impressive pledges were made covering almost 3/4 of the entire emergency request. As of the beginning of October, of their total requirement of 14.26 million tonnes of food, (most of which would be covered by imports and local stock) the SADCC countries requested 4.4 million tonnes of humanitarian assistance. Of this only 824000 tonnes of food aid has been delivered. Ten months after the early warning report, six months after the needs assessment reports were prepared and circulated and four months after donors made pledges, the international humanitarian response is less than 20% of the emergency request of the region.

Zimbabwe is one of the most severely affected, with close to five million people on the verge of starvation, and of its total need of 2.8 million tonnes of food aid it has received only 62 000 tonnes as of the beginning of October. Of its total need of 388000 tonnes Botswana has received 8 000 tonnes and of its total needs of 1 7 1000 tonnes Namibia has received only 6 000 tonnes of humanitarian food aid. This clearly shows that there is something wrong in the response capacity and system, and in the political will and commitment of donor countries. Such delay of disbursement of aid already pledged is as good as denial of aid since it would be too late for many.

Both acute and long-term disasters in Africa underline problems of poverty and development in which there is often an emergency or crisis. Needs assessment under these circumstances is usually characterised by time constraints, resource restriction (e.g. logistics) and data limitations, especially base line information. Information is needed at different points in the chain of disaster response. Donors need to have basic information on need in order to make an initial commitment. In many cases, however there has never been an agreement between donors and recipients on the requirements of the recipient country. Donors insist on assurances that their funds are utilised properly. In most cases local needs assessment is not considered credible. Donors are wary about relying on information gathered by recipient countries as a basis for their decisions. Therefore aid agencies and multinational Organisations feel compelled to gather their own information, usually resulting in conflicting figures, assessments and response strategies. In Ethiopia in 198485 the FAO estimate of need was 250 000 tonnes of food while the government estimate was 900 000. Other aid agencies came up with a figure of 400 000 tonnes. Only when the famine started taking its toll in the hundreds by the day, was a consensus reached among aid agencies that the need was actually greater than they had estimated.

It is not always the lack of information on the types and quantities of needs that causes problems in response. Sometimes undesirable foodstuffs ant other commodities end up in poor countries in the name of humanitarian assistance. Some; times humanitarian assistance is provided from the donor's surplus stocks, usually of wheat.

In Ethiopia thousands of tonnes of rice, canned meat, canned fruit and prepared food were brought in for people who are extremely conservative in their eating habits and who do not even have the know-how or the tools to open and eat these types of processed foods. Faced with this dilemma the recipient aid agencies were obliged to sell these foodstuffs and use the money to purchase needed relief supplies. These were the results of a spontaneous response conducted without any consideration of the traditions, religion and eating habits of the populations affected. Just because people are poor and hungry it does not always mean that they will eat or take whatever they get. Certainly it was not the case in Ethiopia. Donors and NGOs will have to take a more responsible role in this aspect.

Needs vary depending on the kind of disaster. In Angola the United Nations launched a special relief programme in 1991. Eight hundred thousand people were internally displaced and over three hundred thousand people made refugees

Most responses to disaster concentrate on immediate needs alone and tend to fail to address vulnerabilities. Needs are immediate requirements for survival but vulnerabilities refer to factors which affect the ability of communities to cope with crises. In sudden onset disasters such as volcanoes, earthquakes and floods, the immediate needs are shelter, medical care, clothing, reconstruction etc. Vulnerability deals with all the factors which have directly and indirectly contributed to the suffering caused by these disasters. Appropriate construction methods, facilities, public services, creating and strengthening capacities are all measures that could reduce vulnerability from such specific disasters. People become helpless victims of disaster because they are poor and vulnerable. The question that should be posed is, therefore, not just what the emergency relief needs are but how they might be met in ways that will reduce vulnerability and contribute to development in the long term.

In cases of famine the immediate need is food and medical care. But unless the underlying causes that contribute to the severity of the disaster and impede effective response are removed, there will always be shortages of food production, resulting in famine, malnourishment and continuous appeals for humanitarian assistance. Humanitarian assistance must be complimented with funds and programmes to strengthen existing local capacities and to create new ones to cope with crises. Some of the long-term vulnerabilities in a famine situation might include soil degradation, water table depletion, lack of land use policies, and poor communication and transport facilities. Ethiopia has 120 900 square km of surface water, 14 major lakes which are full even during the drought period. It is a recorded fact that in 1984-85, thousands of people living in some of these areas died of starvation. Humanitarian assistance should not simply address the issues of survival in such situations but provide assistance to enable people to use the available water and be self-sufficient. If this had been done we would not have seen the continuing human crisis in Ethiopia. Humanitarian assistance programmes which do not address these fundamental issues will always fail. They might succeed in solving the immediate needs of saving lives but will definitely fail in the greater objective of preventing these disasters from recurring.

As unemployment and under employment become major issues in disaster-affected countries, ways in which more employment could be generated using drought-related resources deserve consideration. The priorities should be labour-intensive investment projects which will generate long-term employment. Some options observed in some of the African countries are the construction of roads, building dams, soil conservation, reafforestation, water conservation projects, building of schools and clinics. Donors and recipients need continuous and serious dialogue on ways of promoting development and capacity building while carrying out relief.