Friday, September 26, 2008

The challenge of humanitarian aid

A Week in the Horn

26 September 2008

Addis Ababa

It is no secret that Ethiopia has once again been affected by drought and consequent food shortages, as have most of the countries in our region. In the last few months, Ethiopian Government institutions, donor governments and international institutions, government or non-government alike, have redoubled efforts to assist those in need. Efforts are continuing and a number of governments have donated extra assistance for those suffering from drought and rising food and energy prices. Reports indicate the situation is beginning to stabilize in some of the originally affected areas and the main maize harvest is due to start soon in the south, but with different agro-climatic zones and a variable time-frame for rains there are still areas of serious need. The Ethiopian government and people are eternally grateful to a multitude of institutions and selfless individuals for making it possible for Ethiopians in need to be cared for at this most difficult and trying time. These institutions and individuals know that the victims of natural vicissitudes are not to blame for the calamity they face. But the charitable convictions of such institutions and individuals are now being overshadowed by increasing attempts to politicize humanitarian aid. This is an emerging, indeed a disquieting, phenomenon and one worth scrutinizing.

Humanitarian assistance, for people affected by natural disasters and the sort of complex emergencies from which Ethiopia is currently suffering, has a long history. Originally, the organizations devoted to humanitarian assistance were limited in their numbers and capacities. They generally adhered to principles of independence, impartiality and neutrality, and scrupulously complied with these in human catastrophes of any magnitude. Any divergence was rapidly denounced by the organizations themselves. It was these principles that constituted the link between the organizations, the state authorities and those in need. Over the years, however, the numbers of organizations providing humanitarian assistance, and the amount of money they manage, have increased exponentially, largely due to the almost biblical proportions of new humanitarian challenges. Many of these new bodies were no longer prepared to provide food aid or medicine. Their members were also political activists, focused not just on the catastrophes that required aid and assistance but on other issues. They were no longer neutral, independent and impartial, operating out of moral conviction, but political actors in their own right, lobbyists for their cause and important constituents of a political elite. They can and do sway votes in national elections, and have political roles in their own countries while using their humanitarian organizations. Parallel to this, the attention and coverage of the international media has also been transformed, and these organizations and the media happily feed off each other. The media publicizes the work of the humanitarian agencies and the organizations benefit from the outpouring of public sympathy for their actions and assistance for the victims of disaster. This in turn propels politicians in the aid-sourcing countries to take their opportunity, and respond to the concerns of their constituencies. Recipient countries and direct beneficiaries all-too-often become no more than the objects of patronizing hand-outs and providers of graphic, often obscene, pictures for prime-time television and newspapers. This, in turn, encourages involvement of state actors and further politicizes humanitarian work. They feed upon each other rather than impact usefully on the supposed objects of their charity. Inevitably, growing numbers of non-governmental groups in any one geographical area have consequences for increased politicization, resource mobilization and expenditure.

Ethiopia has been one of the areas most affected by these developments in humanitarian aid. Before the fall of the military regime, most such organizations were kept out. Subsequently, Ethiopia has hosted a significant number of non-governmental organizations claiming to provide humanitarian assistance or undertake development projects. Many have complemented government developmental efforts and assisted in the provision of aid to people in need, making up one element of government strategy. In the long run, of course, it is economic development, investment and democratization which will ensure the well-being of those affected, for example, by drought. As part of its efforts to mitigate the effects of such problems, the Government put in place an early warning system for the prevention of natural disasters, working closely with international agencies. The agency involved has recently been restructured, enlarging its responsibilities to meet the challenges that such emergencies represent more effectively. The Government will continue to strengthen the institutional and legal structures responsible for identifying and providing lasting solutions to such humanitarian crises.

One critical aspect of these efforts is the empowerment of local communities to participate in finding lasting solutions in the design and implementation of development polices. In fact, the decentralization of decision making to local level will eventually make widespread inroads in tackling some of the existing structural problems. The current process of enacting legislation for charities and societies is part of the Government's effort to create an enabling environment for the operation of the still increasing number of non-government organizations and actors. This will ensure transparent and predictable processes for accreditation, and allow such bodies to carry out their mandates in full compliance with Ethiopian law. The draft legislation is a work in progress. It has involved extensive consultations with stakeholders and external partners, and the draft is now undergoing its third revision. The institution of a modern legal framework, drawing on the best practices from around the world, together with the efforts to restructure Government agencies providing for early warning, prevention and response to emergencies, is meant to guarantee that no fatalities will be caused by a lack of the necessary structures. The Government is determined to do its utmost to ensure all those in need receive care. It is a major priority. Certainly, in the long run, the socio-economic development of the country is the only way to provide a sustainable response. In the meantime, however, it is necessary to address these challenges, of provision of assistance at need and of providing an acceptable framework in which all non-governmental organizations can operate in accordance with acceptable norms of humanitarian assistance and respect for the minimum standards of objectivity, independence and impartiality. Indeed, it might be argued that it is now time for the United Nations and other forums to deliberate on suitable solutions to restore integrity and confidence in the real ideals of humanitarian aid.

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