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close this bookThe Courier N° 152 - July - August 1995 - Dossier: NGO's - Country Reports: Belize, Malawi (EC Courier, 1995, 104 p.)
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View the documentNGOs
View the documentWhy does the European Community work with NGOs ?
View the documentOn the diversity and role of NGOs
View the documentThe experience and limitations of NGOs in West Africa
View the documentInstitutional support for NGOs in the South
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View the documentBetween autonomy and identity: the financing dilemma of NGOs
View the documentChanging perspectives in the Philippines
View the documentThe dreaming dromedaries of the desert meet the bothered bureaucrats of Brussels
View the documentThe ethics of collecting money
View the documentNGOs torn between subordination and independence
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View the documentEmergencies and development

Emergencies and development

by Pierre Laurentth

Among the litanies that regularly exercise the limited world of Third World assistance, one particular complaint crops up continuously, namely the impossibility of interchange between emergency and development aid. There have been many variations on this theme A few brave thinkers have propounded views which are less linear, talking about the transition from development to emergency aid. Others have been more bold, daring to introduce a transitional concept and an arena in which the two alms can be balanced, which they term rehabilitation. These are the three key terms which can be combined in a variety of permutations. Those on the grandest scale have even been applied in practice. And Boutros Boutros Ghali has recently tried to make the apt proaches more coherent by advancing the concept of a continuum.

There is some evidence of a reconciliation between the different approaches. Supporters of emergency assistance are now integrating long-term aims into their emergency action and are entering into local partnerships, while 'developers' are agreeing to work with or withdraw in favour of local agents. There are numerous examples of collaboration. The tools used to effect such a reconciliation are simple since after all, apart from the very different know-how possessed by both sides, all that is needed is intelligence, understanding and a willingness for dialogue. Of course, it is not always easy to put the new ideas into practice. There is a cultural divide which needs to be bridged and ideological preconceptions that need to be abandoned. However, the intention is there.

A brief glossary and critique of received ideas

'Providers of emergency aid leave everything as it was before !'

Responding to this assertion, it should be noted that, with only a few rare exceptions, no one now believes in the provision of emergency aid on its own. Most humanitarian organisations are engaged in consistent rehabilitation and development operations.

It also appears to be the case that NGOs, the usual 'providers of emergency aid', have now reviewed their approach in depth and are trying, as far as possible, to incorporate a long-term view right from the start of the emergency. Few organisations today withdraw as soon as the immediate criris has passed. They have all developed strategies, based on the continuum approach, enabling them to deal with rehabilitation and long-term problems from the viewpoint of both human and material resources. This is done either in an integrated manner, or by using local or international partners.

'Emergency humanitarian aid is using up all resources, both public and private'

Clearly, the fact that emergency humanitarian emergency aid is more visible influences both ordinary citizens and elected representatives in its favour. One can hardly criticise the type of public awareness which sees acute suffering give rise to immediate generosity. As regards public funds, it is clear that large amounts have been mobilised for humanitarian aid and this has certainly had a negative impact on development assistance. And we should not delude ourselves into thinking that the two areas are sufficiently connected that an increase in the former somehow mitigates a reduction in the latter. Emergency aid mobilised by public authorities is not for use in development. But despite the big increase in emergency humanitarian assistance, it is still insufficient. Only rarely, are there enough resources to respond properly to a particular crisis. Another element is the doubt that has arisen over the last 20 years about the capacity of development aid to promote actual development. Economic stagnation in many developing countries has coincided with the abandonment of certain ideological positions giving rise to considerable uncertainty among politicians. The result is that the latter find it easier to justify humanitarian assistance. It ought also to be pointed out that the greater visibility of humanitarian aid makes it easier for elected representatives to boost their political profile.

Nonetheless, supporters of emergency assistance still have long-term financing difficulties. The issue is not so much whether one can restore the lost 'equilibrium' between development and humanitarian aid-which must be an impossible aim-but how to reform the administrative structures for the management of the funds by intergovernmental bodies. Administrative structures are never neutral and the current division between emergency and development aid does not encourage flexibility.

'Supporters of humanitarian assistance handle information in a sensational manner instead of using it to educate and develop the views of the general public'

Looking at this proposition, we should start off by saying that no one can control the actions of the media, and that this very fact represents progress in our democracies. In any case, sensationalism is not what the supporters of emergency aid set out to achieve, although communication is incontestably one aspect of their action. In fact, many human dramas remain outside the limelight, despite the efforts and strategies adopted ? The long list includes Sudan, Angola and Nigeria for example. The principle whereby a single train derailment gets publicity but regular derailments are uninteresting, unfortunately, continues to apply.

Achieving an adequate response

None of these comments or refutations, however, constitute a response to the complaint made at the beginning of this article and the main problems are not in this area. Let us accept that neither emergency assistance, nor rehabilitation, nor development, even in their most open forms, are able to respond to all the suffering and vulnerability that exists. Let us also accept that, however complex the approach described by these three words, they do not constitute a way of approaching the real world which involves learning from experience and that a large number of victims and crises are still slipping through the net provided by this perspective. Rwanda has without doubt been the most striking example of this.

In other words, it is not a question of defining situations in terms of 'emergency', 'rehabilitation' or 'development'. The reality is that there are only different forms of vulnerability of peoples and individuals, and very different ways of responding. They may be immediate emergencies, long term crises or both at the same time. They may necessitate conflict prevention or the rebuilding of a legal system. They may entail political, diplomatic or humanitarian solutions, used exclusively or to complement one another. Such an approach entails a reassessment of the wide variety of institutions involved and the form they take (NGOs and international agencies) in a spirit of complementarity.

Are we to conclude from this that NGOs, using the sociological strategy adopted by organisations, have hitherto been seeking to justify their existence by reducing the real world to what they are able to perceive ? This is certainly the case, though it does not explain the situation fully. The approach proposed here does not simply entail abandoning our existing conceptual frameworks, but also attempting to deal with the real world, which is now more fluid than ever, on a national and international scale, and to distinguish common lines of cleavage and peculiarities.

It is not so much a question of NGOs reviewing their theoretical and conceptual framework in a spirit of pure abstraction, but rather of changing our viewpoint. We must also make it possible for all public and private agents to find the space in which they can exercise their responsibilities, which is one of the features of our society.

Definition of the people most at risk-those who have been the worst hit, or who seem likely to become victims- allows us to cast light on a whole range of smaller risks. NGOs are symbolic agents and, as such, they must use their power to cast light into dark places in a way which will lead to speedy action. Definition of other risks will only be useful if we are able to respond to them in concrete terms, as effectively as possible and in a sustained manner. The role of organisations of international solidarity is not solely to bear witness or to denounce abuses, but rather to affirm that they have been assigned an area of responsibility by society which will never be dealt with by other structures, (notably the state). These are 'the margins of the margins of the margins'. NGOs live where the illusion that the state provides ends-where new forms of citizenship are being developed at the same time as other people at risk are being revealed. The state must take care of the remaining area. To say that orphans are among the most vulnerable groups in Rwanda today, and to work in this area creating durable structures based on solidarity, is to cast light on other groups at risk, such as women, soldiers and so on and to accept that another agency, namely the state, will take charge of this. In this process, the areas in which the state intervenes, and its legitimacy, are redefined.

We must remember that those of us in NGOs of the North and South are not a substitute but a structural solution to certain types of risk, responding in the short, medium and long terms by making proposals - but especially by taking action.

But this entails a major change in the philosophical approach adopted. There must also be an end to the dichotomy between the supporters of emergency assistance, who can be caricatured as people who think that saving an individual means saving humanity, and the developers who think that individual interests can only be met by adopting a collective approach. Accepting the ideological and conceptual barrenness of this distinction will allow us to respond better to people who have been psychologically hurt and who are physically at risk. Whether, in the final analysis, the response is geared towards one person or many, we must be ready to tackle complex situations outside a conceptual framework, giving ourselves the means to adopt a suitable response which does not necessarily fit into comfortable pre-existing categories.