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View the documentFood aid for Liberian refugees - tailored to the environment
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Food aid for Liberian refugees - tailored to the environment

by Elisabeth TISON

When food aid for the Liberian refugees was assessed to see what was required and how it should be provided in 1991, the WFP (the World Food Programme) and the UNHCR (UN High Commissioner for Refugees) invited a representative of the Commission and a representative of MSF (Mcins sans Frontis) to join a mission to the three main host countries - Sierra Leone, Guinea and Cd’Ivoire-in November 1990. The 1 2-day visit involved driving more than 3000 km to visit ports and warehouses in the host villages and distribution sites along the Liberian frontier from Freetown to Zimmi in Sierra Leone, from Conakry to the forests of Guinea and from Danano San Pedro in Cd’lvoire.

There were 120 000 refugees in January of last year, but by November, 700 000 had fled the fighting-and famine, one of the prime consequences of war-and had gone to Liberia’s three immediate neighbours.

The locals welcomed the refugees warmly from the start, housing them in their homes and districts and villages and sharing everything. The first arrivals came after good harvests, when resources were available, but when people flooded in during the tiding-over period, things became difficult for both the refugees and the host population, which had already shared out all it had.

The international community - donors, UN agencies and NGOs - intervened in January. By May, the mass of new arrivals forced the host authorities to appeal for huge amounts of international aid and the European Community, which had been providing emergency and food aid sinœ the beginning of the year, also stepped up its contributions, with more food aid going through the WFP, the UNHCR, LICROSS (the Red Cross and Red Crescent League), new emergency medical aid. financing for transport infrastructure and product storage (see box).

Hosting the refugees-no camps

At first sight, there is nothing unusual about Zimmi in Sierra Leone or Yomou in Guinea or Tabou in Cd’Ivoire. There are lots of people about, certainly, and plenty going on, but you don’t know who are refugees-they look very like the locals-until you ask who comes from Liberia. This is quite unlike the sorry situations that are so frequent, alas, in other parts of the world, for in this case, the three host countries and their people go out of their way to avoid putting refugees in camps. Liberian refugees are housed in existing dwellings. They come from various regions along the Liberian frontier and they are housed in homes and settled in districts and villages according to their ethnic and family origin. In Cd’lvoire, in particular, refugees are registered with the heads of communities and villages and then with the sub-prefects and prefects before being taken under the wing of a tutor in the host village. Social origin is also an important consideration when they are placed.

In Sierra Leone and Guinea, peasants, the bulk of the refugee population, have the opportunity to rent land temporarily, while in Cd’Ivoire, some refugees from Tabou work on the oil palm plantations and others on the land, helping their hosts grow and harvest crops. Small businesses and taxi firms have sprung up all over the town of NzkorGuinea).

The new arrival will ultimately notice odd things nonetheless-a crowd of new refugees registering before they are settled in DananCd’lvoire), for example, an impressive number of Liberian-registered taxis in NzrorGuinea) and groups of people with transistors pressed to their ears, tuning in to news on the Liberian situation, in Pelah. And above all, not just houses going up in Gbaa and Thuo, but canvas shelters and tents as well in these frontier towns where the population has swollen to three or four times its former size. Even with the best of intentions, it is not possible to go on housing new arrivals in existing accommodation. There comes a time when new dwellings are needed to cope with the continual influx of people and, until proper houses can be built, tents are inevitable.

Delivery and distribution - involving the host populations

One feature of the food various partners are involved,with, above all, the host populations shouldering responsibility for looking after and distributing the relief.

The WFP and the UNHCR deal with the domestic transport of the food aid from the donors to the central and regional warehouses and LICROSS (in Sierra Leone and Cd’lvoire) and ADRA, (the Adventist Development Relief Agency in Guinea) then take over at these delivery points and ensure secondary transport to the refugee sites. Final distribution is in the hands of the national Red Cross organizations, with the help of the WFP and the UNHCR.

In Cd’Ivoire especially, the Red Cross has set up an exemplary delivery and distribution system which fully involves the host populations and puts responsibility on the heads of villages and communities. Ivorian Red Cross officials drop off sacks of food from trucks at the entrance to the villages and districts between Danannd the distribution sites and the villagers then take over storage of the products and organise distribution to the refugees-under the responsibility of the village chief and the refugees’ representative.

Villagers and refugees know exactly what rations are to be distributed and what products are available-to the point where villagers are sometimes heard to complain, not about the aid handed out to refugees in their villages, but about not yet having received products already supplied somewhere else.

The host communities’ involvement and responsibilities have precluded the need for ration cards-and prevented the abuse that goes with them, as, when food is distributed, the villagers and the refugees are able to see for themselves exactly who needs how much of what.

Targeted distribution in a favourable environment

Another aspect of this particular refugee situation is that the natural environment in the border regions near Liberia, where most of the recipients are massed, is a particularly good one and everything grows there. There are manioc, bananas, paw-paws and mangoes in profusion. Although there is every justification for providing relief and assistance for refugees, the level and means of food aid have to be properly defined and the donors, the UN and the partners in the field (the NGOs) need to take the environment into account and avoid the dependency syndrome of assistance for assistance’s sake. The known number of refugees is not necessarily the number who need assistance and those who do need assistance do not all need to be assisted to the same degree. Refugees who have integrated in a favourable rural environment and are already working the land are less vulnerable than new arrivals who have had nothing to eat for a long time. Tradesmen and taxi-drivers in NzkorGuinea) are more self-sufficient than new arrivals in Thuo, some of whom, it was found in November, have beri-beri.

The overall food situation of the refugees was satisfactory in November, being comparable to that of the host populations, and targeted distribution and a change in the food ration were recommended, with vulnerable groups (in the host population too, if necessary) receiving more. In the hospitals where MSF provides intensive care and highly nutritious food rations, it treats all undernourished children equally’ whether they come from refugee or local families.

However. people (refugees or not) with incomes do not need relief rations, particularly since the local markets are full of food crying out to be bought.

In a favourable environment, it is important wherever possible to avoid scattering aid, giving a little bit to everyone and finding that those who do not need so much, barter or sell it while the health of those who are hungry suffers. Distribution has to be targeted to reflect needs and reach and assist the most vulnerable sections of the population.

Emergency aid

Rich farming areas suitable for local purchasing

The host regions are rich in natural resources and agricultural potential and all three countries have made an effort to encourage the production of particular products, especially rice and palm oil, with encouraging results.

Assistance has to take these long-term efforts into account and should in no way counter them (by mistake or on grounds of facility), for ultimately both locals and refugees will suffer from schemes which take no notice of the economic environment in which they are run.

Between harvests, after all the local resources have been distributed, food imports are justified, but, later on, it would be extremely dangerous to import massive amounts of rice and palm oil to areas which produce them, particularly at harvest time when there are supplies on the local market.

Local supplies must be found wherever possible. The WFP, for example, bought palm oil with Community funds in Cd’lvoire and the Community recommended local rice purchasing in the forests of Guinea so as to sustain prices when a record paddy harvest was announced.

Local purchasing schemes should be encouraged, but geared to the particular country or region and to the particular product. There is no point in sending prices sky-high or creating distortions on the market and the idea should be to keep them at a level which will encourage the producers to go on producing. In the long run, with local purchasing making for greater regularity of distribution, the host population will benefit as much as the refugees.

The three host countries also grow other things which are popular with the Liberians, but in some cases, the quantities produced are too small to go round and, in others, the quality and the transport facilities are such that prudence is called for.

There is fish off the coast, but keeping it fresh during transport to the distribution point is a problem. The UNHCR was to look into the availability of beans and groundnuts (a high-calorie food normally part of the refugees’ diet) in the three host countries and in the region.

Food aid is development aid

More than ever before, the food aid provided for the Liberian refugees should be integrated into the environment. The principle of food aid, to encourage the drive for self sufficiency in food, comes into its own here.

Relief should be designed in the short and the medium term with a view to food security in the long term. It should make the refugees not dependent, but self sufficient in food, in the same way as the host population and the neighbours- which is why local production and local and regional trade have to be taken into account.

Some of the Liberian refugees will stay in the host countries, and production in the rural areas where they have settled must be encouraged if they are to integrate properly. Assistance for the host populations, who have been so generous, does not necessarily have to be in the form of food aid and could well involve encouraging them to find outlets for their own production. Farm tools and seed could be distributed to locals and refugees alike and roads maintained... a series of schemes outside the framework of food aid but allied to it in being development-related.