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(published in ‘The Review’ 1995)

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A tale of two pilgrims


Donors want to know that the help they offer to disaster victims reaches those in need. But charities face a moral dilemma, as political hurdles increasingly stand in the way of the aid supply.

Getting supplies to the people who need it is not an easy task, as the recent events in the Rwandan refugee camps have demonstrated. Charities are being forced to accept that local political conditions can hinder their crucial task and are constantly facing the challenge on overcoming such obstacles.

Charity Projects, the umbrella organisation for Comic Relief, operates differently to donors such as the British Government’s Overseas Development Authority or the European Union, because it is not constrained by political needs and governmental priorities.

It sometimes donates funds to the Disasters Emergency Committee, seven of the top aid agencies which have formed a co-coordinating group to raise money for specific disasters and emergencies. The agencies are Save the Children, Oxfam, Christian Aid, Catholic Aid for Overseas Development, British Red Cross, Action Aid, and Help Age International.

‘We are more independent in how we allocate funds,’ says Stephen Thomas, Africa Grants Officer for Charity Projects.

‘In terms of spending the money that is allocated to Africa, we feel that our systems of monitoring through the agencies have been adequate to show up the problems. On the whole, these problems are brought to our attention in good time and we are able to allow an amount of flexibility to get around any difficulty, political or otherwise.’

If a project is agreed, a grant is made, and if for some reason the project is not continued, that is discussed with the partner agency. Charity Projects tries to help local development, but is also conscious of the challenges and constraints of work in Africa.

Thomas says: ‘Developing our relationships with our legitimate partners is the key to the successful use of these public funds. We don’t take a big stick approach, and that’s where regular reports should enable problems to emerge and be articulated.’

One of the goals is to assist Africans to handle their own development and Charity Projects is committed to strengthening local organisations with management and Bookkeeping skills — creating fertile ground for a greater diversion of funds directly  into Africa. When it considers proposals with its UK partners, it is also concerned  about the relationships with partners in Africa.

In specific cases, the charity acts as an advocate for change, as with its recent campaign on the effect of land mines in war-torn countries. It is one of a group of development and other organisations which have been publicising the mines, which Thomas describes as ‘a major scourge in large numbers of countries.’ He adds:

‘It is an issue which needs to be brought to the attention of the British Government.  We see our role as educating and informing rather than trying to change the political agenda.’

A recent political crisis occurred in the Rwandan refugee camps in Goma, Zaire, which are effectively controlled by the former Rwandan government officials, with whom the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the charities have had to negotiate.

A consortium of agencies, including Oxfam, has warned that unless there is security for the refugees and for the aid effort, they may withdraw from the camps. Oxfam supplies clean water for about 800,000 people in the Goma camps. The former Rwandan authorities claim there are between 800,000 and one million refugees in the camps and food is supplied for that number. However, they have refused to allow the UNHCR to carry out a registration. Some estimates place the number of refugees at 600,000.

‘Oxfam provides clean water and we are contracted to the UNHCR to provide between seven and ten litres per person. Water is relatively apolitical or un-political; the reason being it is difficult for any authority to control the supply of water for its own ends,’ comments Oxfam spokesman John Magrath.

‘In Goma, it is a problem for anybody in the camps to control the water and say who gets water because the taps are on all the time and the water is freely available. It’s also difficult for people to stockpile water, or to siphon water off for other purposes. That’s why Oxfam has not suffered like other charities.’

According to Oxfam, as the cholera and dysentery epidemics subsided in response to the supply of clean water, the camp structures began to reflect the authoritarian rule of the former authorities. Now the agencies have to negotiate the process of distribution with these new camp authorities. The charities believe the camp leaders’ authority is based on the rule of fear. They have no way of checking what happens to the food supplies.

Recent reports of malnutrition and illness in the camps have aroused fears that food is not being fairly distributed. Some agencies suspect that the camp rulers are using it to nourish the military, or stockpiling it to sell for weapons.

There have also been reports of intimidation of aid workers in the camps. All the agencies in the field, such as Care UK, Medecins sans Frontières and Oxfam, have taken a united stand, not only for reasons of personal safety but because their work supplements each other. For example, Oxfam may help improve the health of refugees by supplying water, but that will soon deteriorate if insufficient food gets through.

‘One of the dilemmas is whether to have a dialogue with these people,’ says Magrath. ‘When you start talking with some people, you don’t realise how unpleasant they are. Because they have some claim to legitimacy – they may be the former mayors or commune leaders – it is difficult to withdraw. And of course, you have the ultimate dilemma, which is, although the present situation may be bad, what happens if you do withdraw? The situation will only change if the UN listens to the problems and sends in a neutral force which would effectively act as police in the camps and would protect the refugees.’

There are many examples of threats and killings of refugees, but the intimidation appears to have lessened since the agencies issued their ultimatum. However, as it is not safe for aid workers to stay overnight in the camps, the picture is blurred. During the day, there has been a reported lessening of tension.

The agencies argued the need for a type of Rapid Deployment Force, comprising highly trained units of UN soldiers with an effective policing authority. UN Secretary General Boutros Ghali pushed their concern at a meeting of the Security Council, which approved the deployment of 5,000 troops for this purpose. However, the Security Council ruled that the Secretary General had first to identify where these troops would be found. As no country is willing to commit its troops unconditionally, the situation remains at a stalemate.

In other parts of Africa, the obstacle to the delivery of aid is not so much political as the sheer scale of the task for co-operative local officials. Many of them are overworked. It is essential for the agencies to work with some form of local democratic authority or local representatives. The aid organiser works out a fair system of relief tailored to the local requirements. For instance, women project officers might be sent in to talk exclusively to the women and find out what they want.

Care UK, a major provider of food aid, carries out checks to try to ensure that the correct amount of help is reaching each refugee. Heads of households are issued with registration cards and are allocated food for the number in the household. The charity also tries to target vulnerable groups, such as widows, single parents, children and old people who might lose out in general distributions or even distributions through heads of households.

Nicholas Hinton, Director General of Save the Children, says: ‘In the main, the reason why an appeal is successful is to do with the timing, quality and frequency of media coverage, particularly television coverage, that people see night after night. Then they will respond. There are situations – Somalia is a case in point – where a combination of circumstances leads to such turmoil that not so much the giving, but actually getting on with the job, becomes a problem.

‘The UN intervention has left behind in Somalia a situation which in many ways is far worse than before they intervened two years ago. I think one is wrong just to point the finger at the political cauldron in these parts of the world. It is usually a case of lack of strategy, the lack of a clear agenda by the international communities about what they are trying to achieve.

‘We certainly get the political feedback we need in any country where we are working. It is part of the Save the Children senior staffs’ responsibility to be cognisant of what is going on. Having said that, we are a non-government, non-political organisation, and would never take sides, however right or wrong a local government is. The British government takes good governance as criteria when forming a view of long-term aid strategy. We do not, and the reason we do not is because, firstly, we don’t think we are in a position to arbitrate about good and bad governance. And secondly, there is a high coincidence of poverty and poor government. So if we used good governance as a criteria, we would fail to reach some of the poorest people, particularly children, around the globe.’

He adds: ‘The field workers’ rules are to respect the judgment of their senior staff in a country at any particular time. You have to be vigilant about the extent to which you keep staff in a country. The decision about moving out, although made with the field workers support, is done at headquarters in London.

Charles Tapp, Director of Care UK, provides yet a further example of the difficult decisions and situations the agencies are confronted with. ‘We had 30 of our Rwandan staff working in Katali camp killed. We had to pull out, because of very serious death threats to our staff. We had Rwandan boy scouts, teenagers, working for us in food distribution. There was basically a power struggle within the camp. We were unable to get in for security reasons and there were others who disappeared. That has happened in other camps as well, and the level of intimidation has been considerable. When you are dealing with the political climate as it is in Zaire or Tanzania, anybody involved in camp management or registration will become a target. You have to choose the least bloody of a series of very bloody options. It has reached this point because no due attention was paid to security issues at the start.’ 

The goal of the aid agencies is to provide relief for the suffering. But to achieve that goal they must negotiate their own minefields to ensure that the aid line is not broken.  

Timothy Foster first published in ‘The Review October 1995