|Counting and Identification of Beneficiary Populations in Emergency Operations (ODI, 1997, 110 p.)|
|3. Counting and identification: why, by and for whom?|
Registration is increasingly seen by donors and implementing partners alike as the most reliable means of arriving at planning figures for distribution. Persistent calls for registration exercises have been made in recent major humanitarian crises, often as a response to seemingly huge exaggeration in planning figures. This RRN Good Practice Review challenges the assumption, also questioned by Harrell-Bond et al (1991) that registration is a necessary prelude to an effective distribution: ...we have challenged the belief that counting the refugees is a necessary and often a sufficient condition for the cost-effective handling of refugee assistance [this quote can be applied to humanitarian assistance operations in general, not just refugee operations].
If appropriate and feasible, (a rare thing under emergency conditions), registration may be recommended. But first, fundamental questions must be answered. Tidy figures, definitions and categories may be attractive, and convincing for donors, authorities and the media, but are they real? And, importantly, if we can identify beneficiaries clearly, are we honestly capable of distributing to them as an isolated group? Are we, in fact, capable of distributing to them with any level of adequacy at all? Can we actually guarantee that through error, or a lack of resources or professionalism we will not exclude entitled individuals or groups from the process? Can we really maintain a continuously accurate quantification and/or registration process to allow for all births, deaths and movements of population? Given the importance of obtaining progressively more accurate estimates of numbers of potential beneficiaries in planning a distribution, it is questionable whether, in light of the effort and resources expended in registration during emergencies, a repeat of the exercise is possible. And if it is feasible, what is the opportunity cost: could the resources have been more usefully invested in finding other methods of overcoming inadequacies in the distribution system? If the process indicates dramatically rising numbers, can we rapidly adapt the pipeline and distribution to meet the need? Conversely, if the process indicates that numbers are lower than previously estimated, and distribution is reduced accordingly, do we have sufficient knowledge and understanding of the distribution system to guarantee that vulnerable groups will not suffer unduly? During emergencies, the answer to most, or all these questions is no.
Basic service provision to IDPs in Sri Lanka
In 1991 the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam expelled several tens of thousands of Muslims from the area in north Sri Lanka that had come under their control. A significant number of them settled in northern Puttalam district along the west coast, almost doubling the resident population there. Assistance was extended by local people, the government of Sri Lanka and some international agencies. Despite the fact that all internally displaced people were properly registered by the authorities, entitling them to food rations, for several years the government failed to adjust the staffing, stock and budgetary allocations for the health and educational services in Puttalam, (which in principle it could have done by scaling down those for the northern districts from which the Muslims had been expelled). Over time, this frustrated the local government officials and contributed to friction with the initially very generous host population. The Italian Cooperation and some international NGOs eventually provided additional resources, constructed additional schools and paid auxiliary staff, but not without misgivings about whether there was indeed a genuine resource gap for the government.
By setting registration as a precondition for access to life-saving distributions, we imply that all those registered will in fact receive their rightful entitlements, and on time. Not only is this quite untrue in most emergencies, but it is also a system that rewards exaggeration of numbers and dishonesty. The self-fulfilling prophecy that ever more strict registration systems are required to eliminate exaggerated figures, is thus perpetuated.
Linking distribution to registration: Hartisheik, eastern Ethiopia, 1990
In early 1990, a British television documentary entitled Killing by Kindness exposed serious deficiencies in UNHCRs assistance programme in Hartisheik, eastern Sudan. The refugee camp was home to a large population of Somalis, the majority of whom had fled from neighbouring Hargeisa. The writer Graham Hancock identified on camera significant problems related to the registration system in the camp. General food distribution had been linked to registration through the issuance of ration cards, giving rise to two major problems: assistance could only be accessed through registration, resulting, not surprisingly, in the flourishing of a black market in false ration cards; compounding this problem was the sporadic nature of efforts to update the registration. Potentially genuine cases of refugees therefore had to wait for a re-registration exercise before they could get access to their entitlements. A strong argument was made in the documentary that the delays in updating registration led to undue suffering for individuals arriving between the infrequent re-registration exercises.
On the evidence of the documentary (see box 7 above), it is debatable as to whether food distribution should have been linked to registration in the first place at all. The black market in forged documents was apparently so well organised that registration did nothing to avoid abuse. It may even have facilitated it by obliging all recipients to possess a ration card that was not easily accessible through legal means, even for some of those entitled to it (e.g. new arrivals). The lack of a permanent capacity to register all new arrivals, and births led to injustice and suffering. In short, irrespective of alternatives, registration was not an ideal option.
An alternative, according to Mitchell and Slim (1990), is to rely on beneficiary distribution through indirect distribution programme(s). The following section looks at some of the other elements, beyond obtaining numbers, which influence the success or otherwise of a planned distribution.
Tensions frequently arise in emergency operations over population planning figures - how they are arrived at, by whom, and for what purpose. These are political questions. Information is power. It is only by being aware of and understanding underlying political and economic interests that the practitioner can approach the often loaded question of whether or not to attempt to register, count, or estimate beneficiary populations. Conflict already plaguing an assistance programme may become exacerbated over the choice of which numbers are used to determine who needs, and who will receive what. In any society, the question of access to resources is a potential source of conflict. Anyone who has worked in modern humanitarian operations will be aware that relations among local populations, beneficiaries, and humanitarian aid workers can become strained. In rare cases they can lead to violence. In order to better understand the political implications that may accompany the counting of recipients of international aid, it is necessary first to recognise that emergency aid programmes themselves are increasingly an arena for conflict.
Quantification and description of any population is, therefore, a potentially value-laden, politically significant exercise. It can go the very heart of important individual and collective interests. The various needs for information may or may not coincide.
Donors need numbers for planning grants, but also increasingly for visibility, or publicity activities. The media needs numbers to inform the public, and sell their media product. The local authorities need numbers for assistance, security and control activities, and perhaps to attract or dispel public concern, or to inform their political constituencies. Beneficiary leaders and related groups may need numbers for their own political, and even para-military uses. These interests are not necessarily complementary; they may even become contradictory.
The physical counting of every individual in an affected population is often set by major donors as a pre-condition for their aid, particularly food, as one of the largest and most expensive components of an emergency assistance programme. Such counting may not be immediately feasible, or advisable. And even if it is possible, it may not be an immediate priority for the beneficiary population itself, or for the implementing authorities and agencies. Good management should seek to balance all competing interests, without prejudice to any. This may sound difficult, but by bringing representatives of all grps together, and by constructively exposing each to alternative perspectives and realities, very often a compromise solution can be arrived at. This Review recommends the co-opting of critics: involve them, and expose them constructively to the real constraints that you as a manager face. That said, in the face of irreconcilably competing interests, those of the beneficiary must take precedence (while showing due respect for the law of the land).