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close this bookDisplaced Persons in Civil Conflict - 1st edition (DHA/UNDRO - DMTP - UNDP, 1991, 52 p.)
close this folderPart 3: Operational considerations
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentPolitical constraints
View the documentLogistical difficulties
View the document''Structural'' problems
View the documentReaching people in conflict zones
View the documentAvoiding pacification
View the documentSetting priorities
View the documentStrengthening counterpart organizations


This part of the module provides insights into the problems associated with the implementation of assistance programs for displaced persons. Some of these are:

· political and logistical constraints
· constraints of the international aid "system"
· inaccessibility of displaces
· pacification schemes
· safety of relief teams in conflict zones

This part also provides guidance in strengthening counterpart organizations.

Political constraints

Assisting displaced persons is one of the most politically sensitive activities carried out by the UN staff. In cases where the government is one of the parties in a civil conflict, UN staff is often placed in the difficult position of having to deal with government agencies who are reluctant to provide assistance to people whom they consider "enemies." In many cases, government actions or policies may be root causes of the conflict

The fact that the UN may provide assistance through the host government often leads to charges that the UN is not a neutral agency. Many liberation groups mistrust the UN and most donors and NGOs find the UN's position frustrating. Unfortunately, this is a working reality. When the UN is involved, humanitarian assistance can only be provided within certain limits. However, those limits can be quite broad and the UN has a major role to play in humanitarian operations which cannot be discounted. In any assistance program for the displaced, all UN staff must clearly understand what these limits are and how to operate effectively within the constraints.

Assistance is often provided to internally displaced persons from the government side. This is because most of the displaced migrate to government-controlled areas, due to migration routes, family ties, language differences and economic survival. Displacement is often as much an economic survival strategy as a flight from conflict. The displaced must earn a living. They cannot rely on international relief, so they must go where the economy is functioning. They may migrate to the government side because they are familiar with, and have a right to participate in, the national economy. They are not necessarily, as is often claimed, making a political statement or choosing one side over the other. There are obvious political obstacles for any international organization to aid displaced persons in opposition-controlled areas.

Logistical difficulties

It is often quite a challenge to reach the displaced with assistance. In many cases, they reside in remote areas where access and transportation may be difficult. The topography may be rugged and seasonal rains may make surface transportation hazardous and difficult. In the conflict zone, security conditions may prohibit or severely restrict travel. In areas adjacent to the conflict zone, security conditions may be marginal at best, especially for the displaced.

In these situations, full attention must be given to advance planning. It is often necessary to stockpile supplies in, or near, areas to which the displaced migrate to avoid shortages during times when these areas are isolated by conflict or climatic conditions.

Logistical problems are hampering the delivery of assistance.

UNHCR/J. Crisp
REFUGEES Magazine, June 1990

In some cases, the UN may have to rely on extraordinary means of transport. Garrison towns may have to be supplied by aircraft. On-site management may require the use of small planes to move quickly over vast areas where needs can change instantaneously. Emergency operations are often said to require planning in three dimensions: air, land and sea. However, operations planners should be aware that long-range relief operations, especially when aircraft are involved, are extremely expensive. Emphasis should be placed on procuring as many relief supplies as possible from local or nearby sources. It is often possible to use a broad range of market interventions that can have the same results as bringing large amounts of relief supplies from outside the affected area.

''Structural'' problems

Many relief workers talk about the "international relief system." However, no one system exists. Rather, there are groups of organizations that provide different types of assistance at different levels. In any situation, these groups may band together formally or informally to provide relief to the displaced. Some organizations act in the capacity of fund raisers; others act as donors. Some provide funds directly to the displaced while others provide funds to other agencies that will help the displaced.

There are many difficulties with this ad hoc structure. NGOs are often seen as the primary operating agencies in emergencies. While many agencies have excellent capabilities, most can only provide a fairly limited range of services. Many of the most important areas where lives can be saved are overlooked. For example, only a handful of agencies have the capability of providing assistance in the sectors of water and sanitation. Few agencies are experienced in setting up and maintaining the "heavy" logistics system required for providing massive food aid.

Once the displaced are no longer in an emergency situation, few agencies are in a position to provide assistance to help people integrate into their new communities. Agencies rarely can provide the necessary jobs, education and temporary support to enable the displaced to take care of their own needs.

The system for international assistance is vastly over-stretched. The needs have grown far beyond the capability of international agencies to meet all requirements. Experienced personnel are often drawn from one operation to another before completing each contract. For this reason, UN staff should focus its attention on building up cadres of national emergency management personnel, both inside the government and in the private sector. By so doing, the sudden transfer of international personnel will not disrupt an ongoing program.

UN staff should focus its attention on building up cadres of national emergency management personnel, both inside the government and in the private sector.

Reaching people in conflict zones

Many people may remain in the areas of conflict In recent years, donors and relief agencies have shown an increased willingness to run the risk of providing assistance to people in those areas. Agencies have begun to realize that most people are usually better off remaining in or near their homes where they can remain at least partially self-sufficient. The nature of long-term, low-intensity civil wars often permits people to stay home with an acceptable level of risk. In many cases, people are safer in rebel-held areas than if they were to flee to government-held zones. The UN has recently been involved in helping to arrange corridors through which relief aid can pass unmolested (in Angola, Ethiopia and Sudan), in establishing temporary cease-fires so that civilians can be assisted (in El Salvador) and in establishing cross-line feeding programs where people can come into government-held areas, obtain the assistance they need and take it back to their villages in the conflict zone (in northern Ethiopia).

Q. List three logistical considerations which should be taken into account in operations plans for transporting supplies to displaced persons.




Considerations mentioned in this section include: area topography, seasonal climate, security conditions, changes in needs, and expense of long-range operations.

Q. Some of the difficulties with the ad hoc structure of the international relief system include: (Circle the letter next to each correct answer.)

a. Many important areas where lives can be saved are overlooked

b. The system is vastly underutilized

c. Experienced personnel are often drawn from one operation to another before completing each contract

d. few agencies are in a position to provide assistance with longer-term post-emergency needs.


Correct answers are a, c and d.

Avoiding pacification

A number of programs styled as assistance to displaced persons are actually pacification programs. These include relocation projects designed to resettle the rebels' popular support base and programs designed to force neutral peasants to choose sides (usually the government's side), or to establish effective control over populations for military or security purposes.

Pacification programs are especially prevalent in Central America. Many relief organizations participate in these projects without understanding the broader issues and implications. Providing development assistance in a way that encourages new settlement patterns or resettlement has many political connotations and must be approached carefully.

Providing development assistance in a way that encourages new settlement patterns or resettlement has many political connotations and must be approached carefully.

The nature of assistance determines if the program is promoting pacification. Relief aid designed to create dependencies and hold people in camps may have different implications in different situations. Relief officials must be very careful in formulating projects and try to understand all me issues that are involved. This is not to say that long- term assistance of a developmental nature should not be provided. However, when governments begin planning alternative housing, new urban development, or so-called "peace villages," UN staff should be alert to the implications and recognize that they are getting into very sensitive areas.

Setting priorities

Priorities in programs for the displaced change over time. In or near conflict zones, the top priority is usually protection. A well-structured emergency assistance program may also be a top priority to save lives. Often protection depends on assistance. An international presence in the area must often be established to ensure respect for human rights.

Initial response: The primary factors that cause high death rates in an emergency are malnutrition, measles and diarrhea. Each is related to the other. A child that is severely malnourished will not be able to survive a case of measles. Severe diarrhea can quickly dehydrate and kill a malnourished person or someone with measles. In order to save lives, these three threats must be addressed. Therefore, the cornerstones of an effective emergency response are provision of food, immunization against communicable diseases, and diarrhea control carried out by providing dean water, oral rehydration and sanitation. Until these three sets of problems are addressed, it will be difficult to prevent increased mortality, especially among women and children.

Priorities in settlements: In the period immediately after arriving in settlements, special attention should be focused on women and children. It has been shown that abnormally high infant mortality rates occur during the first six months after the displaced arrive at their destinations.

Priorities during the settlement phase: At this stage, the top priority is providing employment opportunities so that families can earn enough money to survive until they can return to their homes.

Strengthening counterpart organizations

As a provider of technical assistance, the UN plays a key role in helping governments develop the capacity to deal with the problems of displacement. In the initial stages of a crisis, few governments are adequately prepared to handle the problems of displaced persons. The UN can support governments by providing experts, training and financial support.

A great deal of forethought should be given to proposals to create institutions or capacities in government to assist the displaced. The type of institution created often has implications for the way in which assistance will ultimately be provided. For example, if the UN encourages the government to assign responsibility for displaced persons to an agency that normally provides assistance to refugees, the displaced will likely be treated as a refugee-like problem and more attention will be given to relief than to the development needs of the people. If the mandate is assigned to regional governments or to a ministry of local government, it is likely that the programs will be much broader and more developmental in nature.

The UN can support governments by providing experts, training and financial support.

In some cases, the UN has encouraged the government to establish a separate commission for the displaced to serve as coordinator of assistance and protection and to formulate plans which are executed by the line ministries. This approach can work well as long as the technical assistance given does not encourage the agency to focus more on relief than on development assistance.

Local and regional branches of government are often the most important entities in providing assistance to the displaced. When considering technical assistance and institution building, they should receive high priority.

Local and regional branches of government are often the most important entities in providing assistance to the displaced.

In countries that have weak regional and local governments, there is a tendency to centralize authority and decision-making in the capital. The UN must devise strategies for moving decision-making into the theater of operations so that "hands on" management can take place.

In large countries where the displaced are located in remote areas, centralized government decision-making can delay operations and affect the quality of decisions. In these cases, it is important to devise strategies that will encourage government authorities to send senior officials with the authority to make on-site decisions to the field. One way to do this is to build a large operations base in a central location and endow it with resources. Governments are unlikely to entrust such an operation to a junior official and will send a person with sufficient authority to resolve key assistance issues locally.

Safety of relief teams in conflict zones

As coordinators of assistance for the displaced, the UN staff bears a special responsibility for ensuring that all personnel operating in or adjacent to conflict zones work in conditions of minimum risk and maximum security. Guidelines and procedures for personnel should be established in conjunction with the host government and, where possible, with insurgent groups. The UN is often charged with the responsibility of notifying relief workers and other organizations about the risks they may face from military operations in or near their relief activities. In this regard, the UN is often able to obtain clearances for special flights into contested areas on airplanes bearing United Nations markings, to arrange for safe transport through the front lines in specially-marked UN vehicles, and to establish special relief corridors whereby food and relief supplies can be delivered under flags of truce or through designated corridors without undue restraint. It is important for the to UN carefully assess the risks before encouraging relief organizations to commit personnel and resources to operations in non-secure areas. A UN assurance that an area or means of transport is safe carries much weight - and responsibility.

Two of the most important aspects of working in remote and insecure areas are communications and stand-by evacuation support. To the greatest extent possible, UN coordinators should ensure that relief personnel have immediate and 24-hour access to telecommunications facilities and that suitable means are immediately available to evacuate personnel in case of an emergency. This may entail the assignment of light aircraft to be available on short notice to evacuate staff.