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close this bookWar and Famine in Africa (Oxfam, 1991, 36 p.)
close this folder7 The internationalisation of public welfare
View the document(introduction...)
View the document7.1 The conventions of war
View the document7.2 The internationalisation of public welfare
View the document7.3 The case for reform
View the document7.4 Oxfam's position
View the document7.5 Summary and conclusion

7.3 The case for reform

The main policy debate during the 1990s will centre on the issue of whether or not a two-tier welfare system of the type currently emerging is adequate or appropriate to deal with the specificity of African famine. A brief examination of the conventional rules of war, for example, has indicated a major area of concern in this respect.

Oxfam has rightly prided itself on developing a direct relationship with project partners and beneficiaries. During the 1990s, it is possible that due to the combined effects of enviro-economic and conflict factors, together with the decay and disintegration of governance, difficulties over access to the victims of war or famine, and limitations on the ability to help will increase. In such a situation increasing attention must be given to the institutional framework as a whole. The case for the reform of the donor/NGO system rests on two factors: (a) it is, and will remain for the foreseeable future, the only effective means of assisting people in dire distress (the case of Northern Sudan is instructive here); and (b) it is fraught with problems, limitations, and gross inadequacies.

The question of targeting

In a two-tier welfare system, safety nets are based upon targeting assistance. The conventional wisdom in Africa is that targeting is the only way to reduce the unsustainable cost of generalised nutritional subsidies. Moreover, that the savings achieved by limiting such subsidies more than compensate for the relatively high administrative costs that a targeting system represents (World Bank, 1986). The neoliberal logic within this position propels targeting systems towards minimalist levels of input. This can stand in contrast to agency concerns for the needs of community and gender. In Sudan and Uganda, Oxfam has attempted to develop relief-targeting systems that are reliant in some way upon communal forms of re-distribution, or to support the semi-subsistence economy involved. This is important work, but it does not appear to have been fully evaluated, or if it has, it has not been carried out in relation to the projects' primary objectives (Uganda, 5/89-6/90). It is ironic, for example, that when outside interest in targeting systems is growing, Oxfam's experience in Red Sea Province, Sudan, which is arguably one of the most systematic attempts at targeting yet attempted in Africa, appears to be practically unknown outside the organisation.

In the case of enviro-economic stress, where coping strategies and transformations in family and gender relations create a complex situation, sensitive targeting is difficult. In conflict situations these difficulties are magnified even further. It must be clearly stated that the logic of internal war means that no one can be neutral. This raises many issues, including that of compensatory aid in conflict situations. Actions are seen as helping either one side or the other. In West Sudan during 1988, in an emergency operation generally regarded as successful, it was possible to relocate and support displaced Dinka, in a potentially hostile Arab region, only by offering compensatory aid (water, health and educational inputs) for the indigenous population. This approach is also common, usually due to political pressure, when dealing with refugees.

The case of Oxfam's involvement in 1988 with the war-affected population of Kitgum, Northern Uganda is also instructive (Uganda, 7188 4/89). It is held that the comprehensive and generous distribution of food, seeds, and tools, in amounts which other agencies felt were not justified on a strict definition of need, was instrumental in securing relative peace in the District. The rationale was that a generous (as opposed to a strictly targeted) distribution would not further exacerbate differences in a ravaged community. Moreover it was based upon the recognition of the trauma of war. Waraffected populations are bereaved populations. Food aid in Kitgum allowed people to bury their dead and mourn their loss through the wakes demanded by custom. Situations of conflict demand more than minimalist conceptions of targeting. With regard to trauma, moreover, a new range of non-material inputs needs to be developed.

Even in relation to enviro-economic stress, targeting is regarded as still being in its infancy (Maxwell et al., 1990). In relation to conflict, which accounts for possibly half of the food insecurity in Africa, the surface has hardly been scratched. The political issue of equity quickly arises in cases of displacement or destruction of resources. It may not be possible or even desirable to ignore pressure for compensatory aid. For a variety of social as well as physical reasons, war-affected populations may require far greater inputs than conventional targeting would allow for. The psychological and traumatic effect of war is also important. If physical survival cannot be separated from the survival of the group, then many displaced people whose way of life has been destroyed have lost everything, including their psychological and cultural foundations. This is an element of targeting which is rarely even thought about, and so practical action is even more rarely undertaken. In all these cases, neo-liberal minimalist conceptions are open to challenge.

The political economy of violence which governs internal conflict (such as the tax systems of combatants, strategies of food denial, and so on) highlights even more issues. As we have seen, the appropriation of food aid by the SPLA in South Sudan may have eased the tax burden on non-combatants, thereby increasing their ability to cope. While no one could seriously argue (or could they?) that the best way to help non-combatants in an internal conflict is to feed combatants, it illustrates the complexity of these problems. It also indicates that, targeting aside, the main difficulty in a conflict situation is that of access to the victims.

The question of access

Apart from logistical and technical considerations, problems of access are compounded by two problems: (a) the political economy of internal conflict; and (b) the unilateral nature of the donor/NGO system. With regard to the latter, while there can be a constructive dynamic between neo-liberalism and neo-populism, certain aspects of the relation must be made clear. The transfer of funds away from governments and towards NGOs, which is a defining feature of the donor/NGO system, has probably never been discussed by donors with any African government. Nor, for that matter, does it appear ever to have been discussed seriously with NGOs. It has emerged as a condition imposed by donors, all too often founded on ill-defined and assumed roles.

The unilateral (yet ill-defined) donor/NGO system exists in a relation of contradiction and even antagonism to African governments. Many are uneasy with the new-found wealth of NGOs and their populist leanings. This is a serious weakness in the international system of public welfare, and it undermines attempts to construct a welfare safety net in numerous ways, ranging from indifference to outright hostility and obstruction. In the case of Sudan, beginning with government attempts in 1986 to deny food to the South, there has been a steadily worsening relationship between government and donor/NGOs. Until recently, a similar situation existed in Ethiopia. While in Uganda and Mozambique relations can be said to have begun cordially, problems are now beginning to arise. If the trend continues, in two or three years' time, the situation in these countries could well resemble the virtual paralysis that now exists in Sudan. These problems are a structural feature of the donor/NGO system, especially in conflict or conflict-related situations.

In trying to play a humanitarian role, the donor/NGO system has to confront the logic of internal conflict. The difficulties and weakness inherent in this system are magnified in such circumstances. It is a logic, moreover, which means that either national NGOs are aligned, or they cannot operate. With a system which is ill-defined and non-negotiated, positions can harden and polarisation easily occurs. In these situations, all too often relief policy is made on the hoof, and interventions occur when and where possible, rather than according to need. In many instances of dire distress, no access at all is possible.

These difficulties can be resolved only through protracted negotiation between all parties at national and international levels. Such negotiations would have to consider at least two key areas of concern: (a) working towards defining more precisely the contractual relations between government, donors and NGOs, including questions of targeting; and (b) pursuing the reform of the rules of non-international war to ensure that they take into account the nature of internal conflict. While initially these negotiations would have to take place in stages and at different levels, the final aim would be to work towards the amalgamation of the two. In other words, the intention would be to reform the contractual relations that define the donor/NGO safety net in such a way that they are comprehensive, binding on parties, including government, and based upon a modernisation of the rules of war.

The question of sovereignty

This report has sought to show the importance of issues of food and sustenance in internal conflict. These are both a weapon and a goal. In this situation the donor/NGO system exercises a good deal of influence, some of which may be unintentional but, nevertheless, is unavoidable. The UN/NGO cross-border relief operation into South Sudan, for example, constitutes an indirect recognition of the SPLA. Moreover, since it represents a way of preventing further population displacement, it means that the North can never (if it ever could) force a military conclusion. In other words, the donor/NGO safety net has been drawn into the effective partitioning of Sudan. In the case of Eritrea and Tigray, although donors and NGOs have always kept a low profile to avoid recognition issues, it must, nevertheless, be the case that the huge amounts of relief food that have crossed the border from Sudan since the mid-1980s have helped retain population and thus sustain the movements in these areas. While there have been no designs other than of a humanitarian nature, these examples indicate that the donor/NGO system has little choice but to operate along the fault lines of African sovereignty. This is a further complication in the government and donor/NGO relationship. Events within the USSR and, in particular, the real possibility of Eritrea's negotiated independence through the Organisation of African Unity, could well increase pressure for new forms of sovereignty in Africa. These considerations increase the need for the reform of the donor/NGO system.

It may well be that it is not possible to disengage the donor/NGO safety net from the nexus of national and international political relations in which it is currently embedded. At best, attempts at reform may achieve only a partial freeing up of elements, and secure only a limited space for operation. Such an attempt is necessary, however, because not only do the people of Africa need assistance, but without reform it will be difficult to improve other areas of weakness. Specifically, it is necessary to restore and maintain public confidence in the ability to intervene and ameliorate suffering and, at the same time, the political support must be secured to address the issue of the chronic underfunding and gross inadequacies of the present arrangements. Rather than the 'cando' message of the 1980s, agencies will need to take a longer-term view in the 1990s, and adopt a position which, apart from reflecting what they are doing on the ground, indicates their role in the process of reform.