People in Peril: Human Rights, Humanitarian Action, and Preventing Deadly Conflict

John Stremlau

May 1998

“This report to the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict appears here with the permission of the Commission. The views expressed are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Commission as a whole or individual Commissioners. Copyright 1998 by Carnegie Corporation of New York.”

Carnegie Corporation of New York established the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict in May 1994 to address the looming threats to world peace of intergroup violence and to advance new ideas for the prevention and resolution of deadly conflict. The Commission is examining the principal causes of deadly ethnic, nationalist, and religious conflicts within and between states and the circumstances that foster or deter their outbreak. Taking a long-term, worldwide view of violent conflicts that are likely to emerge, the Commission seeks to determine the functional requirements of an effective system for preventing mass violence and to identify the ways in which such a system could be implemented. The Commission is also looking at the strengths and weaknesses of various international entities in conflict prevention and considering ways in which international organizations might contribute toward developing an effective international system of nonviolent problem solving. Continuar leyendo “People in Peril: Human Rights, Humanitarian Action, and Preventing Deadly Conflict”

The problem of corruption in Emergency Aid

On the Problem of Misuse in Emergency Aid [1]

Georg Cremer

Caritas Germany, International Department, and University of Freiburg i.Br.

[This document first posted on 15 June 1998]


This article focuses on corruption as an internal problem in emergency aid, i.e. misuse by the relief organisations themselves or by employees within the structures of the organisations. In many of the recipient countries of emergency aid corruption is an everyday phenomenon. The paper discusses structural components of the work of foreign emergency aid organisations which make it difficult for them to cope with the problem of misuse. Disbursement pressure and information barriers inside the emergency aid organisations are two of these components. Another factor is the inadequately maintained administrations of aid organisations which is due to a common condemnation of administration costs. If the assistance policy of foreign donors does not leave their local partners enough leeway to support the partners’ necessary structure and to pay qualified employees adequately, they encourage the development of corrupt structures within the partner organisations. Continuar leyendo “The problem of corruption in Emergency Aid”

Understanding the Priorities for Civil-Military Co-operation (CIMIC)

Stuart Gordon (Copyright 2001)

Royal Military Academy Sandhurst*‘Modern war consumes governments and administrations in its path, leaving anarchy and chaos behind. If authority and the necessary minimum of order and administration are not at once re-established, disorder and subversion can all too quickly erode the victory that has been won in the field. It is said that the British habitually lose all the battles except the last. It will profit them nothing to win even the last, if they then throw away the peace.’

Continuar leyendo “Understanding the Priorities for Civil-Military Co-operation (CIMIC)”

Planning considerations for international involvementin post-taliban Afghanistan

Jarat Chopra, Jim McCallum, and Alexander Thier

On November 14, 2001—the day after the fall of Kabul—the US Army Peacekeeping Institute at the US Army War College, Carlisle, PA, in collaboration with the Thomas J. Watson Jr. Institute for International Studies at Brown University, hosted an informal meeting on Afghanistan. The meeting brought together a mixture of experts on Afghanistan, humanitarian and military operations, and transitional political arrangements. Most of those present were current or former US and UN officials. This combination of experts allowed the synthesis of multi-dimensional operational planning experience and Afghan-specific knowledge to produce comprehensive mission planning considerations. The purpose of the meeting was to explore a range of options and issues affecting the design of international intervention in Afghanistan.  The following report is a reflection of the issues discussed, and incorporates many of the ideas contributed by meeting participants. The recommendations are the responsibility of the authors alone.

Continuar leyendo “Planning considerations for international involvementin post-taliban Afghanistan”

Military ethics in peacekeeping and in war: Maintaining moral integrity in a world of contrast and confusion

Dr. Ted A. van Baarda[1]


Both combat operations and peacekeeping operations can put the moral integrity of a soldier under pressure. This, in turn may lead to unethical behaviour, war crimes or a lack of understanding for humanitarian considerations. The key-issue is the need of members of the military to retain a measure of integrity and humanity which transcends a world of hatred and bloodshed. The author commences his paper with two examples from the Falkland Islands He subsequently lists the main causes for moral confusion and the difficulties in distinguishing morally right from wrong. Several of these causes are the same for humanitarian fieldworkers. He concludes by emphasising the need for the moral education of members of the military, including ethical decision-making skills.

In April 1982, Patricio Perez was nineteen years old. He had just finished high school when he was summoned for military service. That was a week after the Argentinean take-over of a group of small islands from the British. The islands were known as the Malvinas to the Argentineans and to the British as the Falklands. Patricio Perez became a Private serving with A Company, 3rd Infantry Regiment of the Argentinean Army. He was positioned on the main island, East Falkland, just north of the capital. He had rejoiced in the islands coming under Argentinean control. He was eager to defend them though neither he, nor his superiors expected the British to attempt to re-take the islands by force. Only a few months later however, a British amphibious force landed successfully at San Carlos Bay on East Falkland and was making deep inroads into the Argentinean defences.

Continuar leyendo “Military ethics in peacekeeping and in war: Maintaining moral integrity in a world of contrast and confusion”

UNHCR’s Relief, Rehabilitation and Repatriation of Rwandan Refugees in Zaire (1994-1997)

Sreeram S. Chaulia*

“The whole of eastern Zaire was an impossible mission. There were many mistakes, but I still don’t know what we should have done differently, as humanitarians or human beings”

Kilian Kleinschmidt, UNHCR Official [1]


The Great Lakes refugee crisis of the mid-nineties was one of the toughest and most discussed operations in the history of the world’s premier refugee agency, UNHCR. The complexity, controversy and sheer dimensions of the problem thrown up in this crisis challenged and brought into question many established forms of management and response mechanisms of UNHCR and left a permanent impression on all its subsequent projects, particularly in southern Africa. This essay intends to critically investigate UNHCR operations in Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo), starting with the influx of nearly one million refugees after the Rwandan genocide until their repatriation in 1997, from the points of view of performance-based management and programme evaluation. There will be an attempt to pinpoint the salient internal organisational drawbacks of UNHCR while keeping in mind the extreme difficulties presented by the explosive external environment that provided the backdrop to its functioning in Zaire. Finally, a set of management improvements drawn from the foregoing assessment and evaluation procedures will be suggested and recommendations made for improving the organisational efficiency and credibility of UNHCR.

Continuar leyendo “UNHCR’s Relief, Rehabilitation and Repatriation of Rwandan Refugees in Zaire (1994-1997)”

Military Humanitarianism and the new Peacekeeping: an agenda for peace?

[This document was first posted on 22 September 1995]


This paper examines the rise of the military humanitarian policy of the United Nations since 1992 and outlines the new military doctrine on peacekeeping. First it explores how a military based approach to the increasing number of complex political emergencies emerged as a deliberate policy within the United Nations in the new humanitarian era after the Cold War. Secondly, it looks at various NGO reactions to this new era. Thirdly, it compares the very different nature of today’s UN peacekeeping operations with its Cold War predecessors. Fourthly, it examines current British Army doctrine of “wider peacekeeping” and its emphasis on the principle of consent. Finally, it takes the view that the new peacekeeping is here to stay and that the main challenge facing all those involved in humanitarian assistance is to further refine its basic principles and techniques.


In 1993 Adam Roberts, the Professor of International Relations at Oxford University observed that:

“`Humanitarian war’ is an oxymoron which may yet become reality. The recent practice of states, and of the United Nations, has involved major uses of armed force in the name of humanitarianism: especially in norther Iraq, in Somalia and in Former Yugoslavia. These humanitarian activities in situations of conflict raise many awkward questions.” (Roberts, 1993)

The period 1991-1994 has indeed witnessed the use of UN military humanitarianism on an unprecedented scale. And since Roberts’ comments UNISOM military actions against General Aideed’s forces in Somalia and NATO airstrikes in Former Yugoslavia have indeed made an awkward reality of humanitarian war. In 1992 there were a mere 12,000 military and police personnel operating as UN peacekeepers around the world. By the end of 1994 there were some 79,948 military and police personnel operating under UN auspices (IISS, 1994), a figure which does not include the 10,000 US troops involved in “Operation Restore Democracy” in Haiti. Equally striking is the fact that in the 40 years of the Cold War between 1948 and 1988, only 13 UN peacekeeping operations were launched. But in the six years between 1988-1994 there have been a total of 21 UN peacekeeping operations (Fetherstone, 1994).

For people affected by war related crises which are now increasingly described as “complex emergencies”, and for the relief and development agencies who seek to help them, the presence of UN military forces “represents the arrival of a major new player in today’s humanitarian operations – a large new kid on the block” (Slim, 1995). And in the last three years in particular it is no exaggeration to talk of “the militarization of the international relief system” (Slim, 1995). This new interventionist period in humanitarian affairs has been an extremely steep learning curve for UN agencies and NGOs, as well as for UN military forces themselves and for the members of the UN Security Council who have despatched them to such situations. At the policy level, this has given rise to much earnest debate about the role of the military in humanitarian emergencies by soldiers, politicians, international lawyers and NGOs alike. The result has been a plethora of working papers, conferences and manuals on the subject (Keen et al, 1995).

This paper examines the rise of what can be described as the military humanitarian policy of the United Nations since 1992. It does not attempt to examine particular UN operations in detail but instead to trace the origins of current UN policy and the outlines of the new military doctrines on peacekeeping which have emerged during the last three years. As such it seeks to introduce relief and development workers to some of the emerging military thinking behind UN peacekeeping. The paper is organized into four parts. First it explores how a military based approach to the increasing number of complex political emergencies emerged as a deliberate policy from within the United Nations in the new era of consensus after the Cold War. Secondly, it looks at various NGO reactions to this new era. Thirdly, it compares the very different nature of today’s UN peacekeeping operations with its Cold War predecessors. Fourthly, it examines the principle of consent in UN military humanitarianism and looks at what the British Army in particular have come to define as good peacekeeping practice in the light of recent operations. Finally, it takes the view that the new peacekeeping is here to stay and that it has a lot to offer. The main challenge facing all those involved in humanitarian assistance is to further refine its techniques and not to reject all military intervention on principle.

A New Humanitarian Era

With the end of the Cold War, the United Nations entered into a new a veto-free era of international consensus. It looked set to be given a second chance to become an overarching force for peace and security throughout the world. To encourage it to get down to its new business, the heads of state of the Security Council, in their first ever meeting in January 1992, commissioned the new Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali to come up with: “an analysis and recommendations on ways of strengthening and making more efficient within the framework and provisions of the Charter the capacity of the United Nations for preventive diplomacy, for peacemaking and for peace-keeping” (Boutros Boutros-Ghali, 1992). Despite the typically tortuous prose of this UN mandate (a feature of the UN which has determinedly not changed since the end of the Cold War!), the Secretary-General was not deterred and later that year produced the landmark document entitled An Agenda for Peace(Boutros Boutros-Ghali, 1992).

Agenda for Peace set out the main principles by which the UN intended to take the lead on preventive diplomacy, peacemaking, peace-keeping and post-conflict peace-building. At the heart of Agenda for Peace is the policy that increased use of UN military force should play the major part in implementing these new strategies. The text of Agenda for Peace reverberates with a new optimism. Its timing and the strategies for peace which it expounds seek to herald a new era of conflict resolution and active humanitarianism. Not only does it sketch out the UN’s new strategy of military humanitarianism but it also declares the UN’s right to pursue such a strategy. In the now famous words, it declares that “the time of absolute and exclusive sovereignty has passed” (Boutros Boutros-Ghali, para 17). More than ever before, Agenda for Peace declared the right of the UN to intervene in a state under Chapter VII of its charter in the name of its citizens’ human rights. This is a position which has since been explored in more detail by UNDP’s 1994 Human Development Report which suggests four kinds of situation [2] which “would appear to warrant international intervention” (UNDP, 1994, p57).

In the two years which followed Agenda for Peace, the UN, and particularly the Security Council, sought to put the agenda into action through a series of Security Council resolutions in response to humanitarian emergencies round the world (Slim and Penrose, 1994). In what has frequently been described as a series of humanitarian experiments, UN military operations have been carried out in the name of peacekeeping, peace-enforcement, post conflict peace-building and humanitarian assistance in countries like Somalia, Former Yugoslavia, Cambodia, Mozambique, Rwanda and most recently in Angola. And since 1992, the Secretary General has been urging member states to set aside particular sections of their armed forces to be on permanent “stand-by” for immediate deployment by the UN. Convincing the more powerful member states to earmark troops has proved problematic, but by June 1994 the Secretary General was able to report that there were firm pledges of 30,000 stand-by troops from 21 countries with a further 40,000 troops likely to be pledged by 27 other member states (United Nations, 1994b).

To implement this increasingly militarized peace and humanitarian policy the UN has also, albeit after a long delay, increased its military capacity at the Secretariat level in New York. By the first half of 1994, the Secretariat had 148 military personnel coordinating its forces worldwide (United Nations 1994a). Although this military staff suffers from a high rate of staff turnover, it means that the UN now has a round the clock “Situation Centre” for its military operations. The annual report of the International Institute of Strategic Studies has also observed that “intelligence is no longer a UN taboo” (IISS, 1994, p268) and that the UN is expected to gather an increasing amount of its own intelligence or gain access to the intelligence of member states. However, such intelligence sharing remains a controversial issue and looks set to be worked out selectively on a case by case basis.

Although events in Somalia have discouraged the United States in particular from entering wholeheartedly into new largescale peacekeeping operations, the broad strategy of Agenda for Peace as a whole remains in place at the heart of the UN today. The concept of UN peacekeeping itself is not in question and is still being implemented in countries like Angola with the creation of UNAVEM III and its mission of up to 7000 UN troops (UN, 1995). However, the main powers of the Security Council now recognize that after the initial burst of enthusiasm for such military humanitarianism, there should be a period of more cautious and considered reflection on when and how best to mount such operations. Most significantly, in May 1994, the Clinton administration’s Presidential Decision Directive (PDD 25) on US peacekeeping policy made it clear that US involvement in such operations would require greater deliberation. In particular it stated that any US involvement in UN peacekeeping would depend on their being a definite advancement of US interests, a real threat to international peace and security, clear mission objectives and scope, an effective ceasefire and agreement to UN presence by all parties, and an identifiable “end point” to UN operations (the so-called “sunset clause”) in any peacekeeping mandate (Albright, M and A. Lake, 1994). One obvious and tragic result of this new caution has been the distinct lack of timely UN military intervention in the Rwanda genocide.

As a result, the original policies of Agenda for Peace are still in place but their implementation is being viewed still more selectively by the main powers in the UN on a case-by-case and “can-do” basis, largely determined by individual national interest. Despite the initial optimism of 1992, the UN today neither has any agreed and universal criteria for military humanitarian intervention, nor any effective standing capacity to implement such intervention.

A Chorus of Disapproval

The human rights group, African Rights, has described UN and NGO operations in the new humanitarian era as the liberation of the humanitarian organizations from “the Cold War straight-jacket” – and characterized it as a reckless period of “humanitarianism unbound” in which assertive humanitarian policies have often done more harm than good (African Rights, 1994, p1). More generally, UN military operations have been the objects of a loud chorus of criticism or mixed messages from parts of the media and NGO community in particular -some calling for military intervention one day and then castigating it the next.

With the exception of some researched and considered assessments (African Rights, 1993a) and the reporting of particular and grave human rights abuses (eg. African Rights 1993b) much of the well publicised criticism of UN military humanitarianism has been generalized and reactive rather than thorough and considered. Among the NGO community in particular, it has certainly been almost de rigueur to concentrate on the failings of UN military humanitarianism rather than to identify what military forces can do well in such situations (Keen et al, 1995). But in their reflective rather than telegenic mode, most NGOs give a more balanced and pragmatic view. Two recent contributions on the subject from Save the Children and Oxfam frame the current NGO dilemma well. The first view from Save the Children might be said to encapsulate the general conclusion of most relief agencies that military humanitarianism is a high risk, usually short-term and imperfect strategy which can easily backfire:

“military intervention is no panacea…greater [military] intervention by the international community should not be automatically equated with rapid and durable solutions…once the United Nations intervenes militarily in a humanitarian emergency, as in Somalia, its actions can all too easily become part of the problem – another complicating ingredient” (Save the Children, 1994).

Yet at the same time, a recent statement by Oxfam recognizes the increasing need for some form of UN military protection in many of today’s humanitarian operations:

“Oxfam works in seventy countries around the world, including many in which we cooperate with UN humanitarian operations, and ten where we work alongside a UN peacekeeping mission. In many situations of conflict, the fulfilment of our mandate to alleviate poverty is increasingly dependent on UN protection. Equally, many UN programmes depend on Oxfam and other NGOs to implement major projects.” (Oxfam, 1995)

While Oxfam’s remark seems to refer mainly to its own protection, the need for protecting affected civilian populations is of course far greater. But these two statements do reveal the main challenge for most UN military humanitarian operations: the need to find a balance between protection and escalation. In other words, the need to protect various communities within a conflict while not escalating that conflict.

As will be seen, British military strategists see this balance as determined by the effective management of consent in any peacekeeping operation. But first it is important to identify how today’s military humanitarianism differs from traditional UN peacekeeping and why it is proving so much more complicated to strike this balance. The short answer is that today’s UN forces are trying to do much more than they have ever done before, usually in much more difficult circumstances.

Peacekeeping Old and New

The term “peacekeeping” is really a misnoma when applied to the majority of the military humanitarian operations of the new humanitarian era – not least because UN forces are frequently being asked to operate in situations where there is no peace to keep. In Agenda for Peace, Boutros-Ghali talked of “new departures in peacekeeping” (Boutros-Ghali, 1992, p.29) and since 1992 a number of new terms have been coined to describe what Mackinlay and Chopra refer to as “second generation” multinational UN military operations, recognizing the fact that today’s operations have gone “beyond peacekeeping” (Mackinlay and Chopra, 1993). Such new terms include phrases like peace support operations (PSO), multi-dimensional operations, wider peacekeeping or peace enforcement and involve a range of very different tasks to traditional peacekeeping as developed out of the original Canadian initiatives of the 1950s.

The traditional UN peacekeeping of the Cold War era was nowhere defined in the UN charter, but emerged as a pragmatic way in which the international community supported peaceful settlements to international conflicts. With a mandate falling between chapters six and seven of the UN charter, these peacekeeping operations were known as operations carried out under Chapter six and a half of the UN charter. Their main characteristics have been best described by Marrack Goulding, a previous head of UN peacekeeping, who identified traditional peacekeeping as:

“Field operations established by the United Nations, with the consent of the parties concerned, to help control and resolve conflicts between them, under UN command and control, at the expense collectively of the member states, and with military and other personnel and equipment provided voluntarily by them, acting impartially between the parties and using force to the minimum extent necessary.” (Goulding, 1993).

The principles and practice of today’s second generation peacekeeping operations are obviously radically different from this form of traditional peacekeeping. In operational terms, the main task of traditional peacekeeping was the inter-positioning of UN troops between warring parties already abiding by a ceasefire. Peacekeeping therefore largely involved ceasefire monitoring, surveillance and conflict prevention and could last for many years. UNTSO in the middle east has been running for 46 years while UNFICYP in Cyprus is now in its 31st year. The command and control of such operations was a genuinely UN command and expenses were born collectively by the UN member states. Such operations were also governed by three key principles of consent, impartiality and minimum force.

In contrast, the recent UN “peacekeeping” operations differ in matters of environment, principle and practice from their Cold War predecessors. The change in environment for UN peacekeeping is an obvious one. Second generation peacekeeping has seen UN forces intervene in the middle of civil wars when they are still “hot” rather than at the end of inter-state wars when they are “frozen” or in remission. As the Canadian General Lewis MacKenzie (a former UN commander of UNPROFOR in Former Yugoslavia) has observed, the traditional environment of UN peacekeeping operations were relatively tame:

“The UN would be presented with a nice little conflict where the belligerents had decided to end the conflict and had pledged to keep the peace…[but] the UN avoided civil wars because they were much too nasty to get involved in” (MacKenzie, 1993).

In practice, the operational range of the new peacekeeping is characterised by five main tasks as set out in the table below, adapted from Mackinlay and Chopra (1993, pp7-23) and the British Army (1994, pp2:1-2):

Objectives                            Tasks                                  

Conflict prevention                   Preventive deployment, interposition,  
                                      early warning, surveillance            

Guarantee and denial of movement      No-fly zones, safe-havens, blockades,  
                                      sanctions enforcement, guaranteeing    
                                      free passage                           

Protection and delivery of            Protection and escort of humanitarian  
humanitarian relief                   relief and agencies, or direct         
                                      delivery of logistics, health or       
                                      infrastructure support                 

Supervision of a comprehensive peace  Demobilization, disarmament,           
settlement                            demining, election monitoring,         
                                      reforming/training of security forces  

Military assistance to civil          Peace enforcement, political           
structures in a failed state          trusteeship                            

This range of activities differs enormously from the routine inter-positioning and observer operations of traditional peacekeeping. Today’s activities are much more assertive and interventionist in nature. They show the new peacekeeping to be much more militarily and politically active with operations ranging from war-fighting (Somalia) to being the political midwife to the birth of new democratic governments (Mozambique and Cambodia).

But the new peacekeeping does not differ from traditional peacekeeping in its activities alone. In matters of principle, it frequently struggles to maintain or deliberately oversteps the three key peacekeeping principles of consent, impartiality and minimum force. In the mainly intra-state civil wars of today’s humanitarian emergencies, the consent of all parties concerned to UN operations has been extremely difficult to achieve and maintain. Likewise, with judgements about UN impartiality being so much a matter of the perception and vested interest of the different parties concerned, most UN peacekeeping actions are perceived as at best ambiguous and at worst downright partisan in wars which are still “live”.

Most disturbing of all perhaps, has been the apparent erosion of the principle of minimum force and what Regehr has warned of as “the developing conventional wisdom that peacekeeping is evolving towards a much greater reliance on the use of force” (Regehr, 1993). The traditional peacekeeper’s function has been described as “that of the lightly armed gendarme” whose “absence of arms encouraged the perception of a non-threatening body acting under the authority of the UN” (Connaughton, 1992). While this may still be an accurate description of the UN guards in Iraq or the UN force monitoring elections in Mozambique, such a gentle peacekeeper stands in stark contrast to members of the US force in Somalia or to the NATO airstrikes in Former Yugoslavia. Although acting in self-defense in both cases, an increased use of force does surely raise the stakes and the risks in any peacekeeping operation. In terms of the balance between protection and escalation, this development combined with the vagaries of consent in the new peacekeeping environment are the most alarming. In the Somalia operation in particular, second generation UN operations consistently chose to use maximum force in response to UN casualties – an indication that the temper of the new UN peacekeeping has shifted away from exerting a more traditional moral authority to a more aggressive physical authority.

A third and final difference in the new peacekeeping has been the possibility of UN operations being launched under the command of a single nation and not some form of collective UN command. In Africa, such one nation operations have been carried out in Somalia by the USA (UNITAF) and in Rwanda by the French (Operation Tourqoise). Such undiluted command and control of UN operations in the hands of single nations is in contrast to the collective control of traditional peacekeeping.

Hearts and Minds: Consent Management as Good Peacekeeping Practice

The revolution in UN peacekeeping which has been demanded of UN forces in the last three years has seen a determined effort by military policy makers to keep up with the events into which their political masters in the Security Council have landed them. Military policy -or “doctrine” as soldiers call it – has been hard put to draw good practice conclusions from the many and diverse operations of the last three years. However, in many armed forces new peacekeeping doctrines have emerged and continue to evolve. One of the most clearly stated and thought through is the peacekeeping doctrine of the British Army which was finalized in manual form towards the end of 1994 (British Army, 1994). Those relief and development workers likely to work alongside UN peacekeeping operations would do well to study this manual. Its clear vision of good peacekeeping practice should help NGOs to understand what to expect from UN soldiers in such situations. The doctrine itself gives cause for optimism by showing that soldiers are thinking creatively, pragmatically and in earnest about their new roles. And the doctrine is free from any unhealthy zeal for intervention, nor is it prone to delusions of quick fix military solutions.

At the heart of the British peacekeeping doctrine sits the principle of consent. The British Army have introduced the term “wider peacekeeping” to capture the new environment and demands of second generation peacekeeping (British Army, 1994, chapter one, section 8). And they use the notion of consent to distinguish between wider peacekeeping and peace enforcement operations. Wider peacekeeping operations, like traditional peacekeeping operations are “carried out with the general consent of the belligerent parties” (ibid, ch.2 p.5). In contrast, peace enforcement activities are those carried out “to restore peace between belligerent parties who do not all consent to intervention” (ibid, ch.2, p.5). The principle of consent – the most fundamental principle of traditional peacekeeping – has therefore remained a corner stone of current military peacekeeping doctrine. But it does so not as a given but as a variable in today’s peacekeeping environment. Because in volatile and multi-factional civil wars consent is dispersed and uneven:

“Consent to wider peacekeeping activities is likely to be anything but absolute. In theatre, depending on the volatility of the general environment, it is unlikely ever to be more than partial and could amount to nothing more than tolerance of presence. Consent is something that the peacekeeper can expect to have bits of, from certain people, in certain places, for certain things, for certain periods of time.” (ibid, ch2, p7)

The art of wider peacekeeping is therefore, first and foremost, the management of consent – its generation, maintenance and retrieval. And the main concern of a peacekeeping force is to stay on the right side of the line of consent. For only by maintaining as much consent as possible can the force fulfil its humanitarian and mediation tasks and remain relatively secure. Operating without consent, a peacekeeping force becomes a peace enforcement force and is liable to enter a war-fighting situation and in which its own security will become its over-riding preoccupation. UNOSOM’s operations in Somalia after 5th June 1993 are regarded as the prime example of when a peacekeeping operation crossed the line of consent and slipped into a peace-enforcement and war-fighting situation (Slim and Visman, 1995). And many soldiers now refer to the line of consent as the “Mogadishu line”. Once this line has been crossed, peacekeeping doctrine dictates that there is no way back. If the use of force is perceived as being partial and without consent, it is unlikely that this particular UN force will ever be able to function as a peacekeeping force again in that situation. Figure Two, from the British Army Manual on Wider Peacekeeping (ch.2, p13) illustrates this point.

In military jargon, the management of consent is all about “hearts and minds”. People need to be persuaded of a peacekeeping force’s third party status. The principles which govern good practice are thus identified as “impartiality, legitimacy, mutual respect, minimum force, credibility and transparency” (ibid, ch.2, p8). Loss of any of these endangers consent. The techniques for managing consent are the everyday work of the effective peacekeeper and are identified as: “negotiation, mediation, liaison, civil affairs, community information, public information and community relations” (ibid, ch.5, p1). Only by communicating with the affected population in this way will the model peacekeeper be able to create the environment which allows him or her to carry out the broader objectives of humanitarian assistance, conflict resolution, ceasefire monitoring, electoral supervision, demobilization and so forth.

Another strong feature underlying the British Army doctrine is its acceptance of the protracted turbulence of most of the wars they are operating in today and the essential no-win position of peacekeeping forces. Success is understood as the capacity of the force, working in tandem with political and humanitarian efforts, to create the right environment for peace: the recognition that peacekeeping forces can create space but not solutions. Inherent to the doctrine of wider peacekeeping therefore is an element of pragmatism which recognizes its limits and the extreme difficulties and uncertainty inherent to today’s peacekeeping environment.

This particular acceptance of longterm turbulence and uncertainty integral to the British Army doctrine differs to the American approach represented in PDD 25 which is so insistent on having a clear view of “end-states” before beginning a peacekeeping operation and having them clearly in writing as “sunset clauses”. At the risk of stereotyping, Connaughton puts down such differences to national temper. Writing almost prophetically in September 1992 he notes that: “American force characteristics are arguably unsuitable for peacekeeping operations, which tend to be drawn out, require inordinate patience and the ability to turn the other cheek.” (Connaughton, 1992, p40). Instead, he recognizes the characteristics of American military might as having outright comparative advantage in peace-enforcement or preventive deployment. Such an appreciation of the distinctive competence of different national armies in the new range of peacekeeping activities will obviously need to be developed in any UN peacekeeping strategy in the years ahead. With some 40 different countries currently contributing to UN peacekeeping operations (IISS, 1994), it is to be expected that some forces will be better at some things than others, and vice versa. Connaughton describes this important point by his phrase “forces for courses”.

The fundamental emphasis placed on consent, complexity and longevity in the British Army’s new peacekeeping doctrine should perhaps gladden NGOs and UN relief agencies. Most agency criticisms of recent UN peacekeeping operations in Africa have focused on the inability of peacekeeping forces to relate to and engage with local populations, and their inability to take the long and complex view. The British doctrine at least sets out to take a longterm and sophisticated approach which puts the affected population at the heart of its analysis. But good practice manuals are seldom translated effortlessly into action and three challenges remain in particular.

First, no matter how good the troops, any peacekeeping operation is still vulnerable to being set an impossible mission and unreasonable mandate by politicians. Secondly, the doctrine’s notion of consent is not necessarily as simple and participatory as it sounds. Any peacekeeping force must seek to establish a genuine depth of consent which takes into account the whole community’s view. At present, there is a hint that consent means the consent of faction leaders or local war lords and – as any development worker knows – such community leaders do not always have the best interests of their communities at heart and are not necessarily representative. Thirdly, it seems important that the seasoned British approach which recognizes turbulence, longevity and complexity in today’s emergencies does not slip into a certain fatalism. A major criticism of peacekeeping has always been that it freezes conflict but does not make peace. An overly phlegmatic approach to the turbulence and complexity of today’s conflicts may tend to make a virtue out of simply “being there”. Such a passive position would doubtlessly involve the maintenance of a status quo within the conflict which would often be unfair and unresolved. Instead, peacekeeping must remain active, determined and resolute over the longterm.


The period from 1991-1994 has witnessed a range of peacekeeping experiments which have involved the powerful members of the international community doing something (Somalia) and doing very little (Rwanda). But there are signs in some of the emerging military doctrine on peacekeeping that there is a middle ground in which the practice of second generation UN peacekeeping, if properly refined and well communicated, could have a consistently useful role to play alongside political, humanitarian and human rights responses to complex emergencies. In a recent article, the former UNPROFOR commander in Bosnia, General Sir Michael Rose, posed a challenge to the international community:

“Sadly, in the 50th year of UN peacekeeping operations, the perceived failures and costs of the UN mission in Former Yugoslavia, and recent experiences in Somalia, have led to widespread disillusionment. Yet if the world loses faith in peacekeeping, and responses to the new world disorder are thereby limited to the extremes of total war or total peace, the world will become a more dangerous place. Rather than lose faith in the whole peace process, we need to analyse the changed operational circumstances and try to determine new doctrines for the future.” (Rose, 1995)

This paper has sought to show how UN policy makers and the British military in particular have tried, and continue to try, to develop new peacekeeping doctrines to meet the changed environment of the post Cold War world. It has emphasised that the appropriate doctrine is the one which manages to tread the tightrope between protection and escalation in any ongoing conflict. Getting this balance right is essential and all NGOs and other agencies concerned with humanitarian assistance, development and human rights in today’s complex emergencies would be well advised to engage with the military on the subject. Only in this way can they bring their influence to bear upon the future development of peacekeeping and the emerging doctrines of military humanitarianism.


African Rights (1993a) Operation Restore Hope: A Preliminary Assessment, May, London.

African Rights (1993b) Somalia: Human Rights Abuses by United Nations Forces, July, London.

African Rights (1994) Humanitarianism Unbound: Current Dilemmas Facing Multi-Mandate Relief Operations in Political Emergencies, November, London.

Albright, M and A. Lake (1994) The Clinton Administration’s Policy on Reforming Multilateral Peace Operations, statement in US Department of State Dispatch, May 16, 1994, Vol.5 No.20.

Boutros Boutros-Ghali (1992) An Agenda for Peace, United Nations, New York.

British Army (1994) Wider Peacekeeping, Army Field Manual Volume 5, Operations Other Than War, Part 2, Army Code 71359(A).

Connaughton, R.M. (1992) Peacekeeping and Military Intervention, Occasional Paper No.3, Strategic and Combat Studies Institute, Camberley.

Fetherstone, (1994) Putting the Peace Back into Peacekeeping Theory: Theory Must Inform Practice, International Peacekeeping, Vol.1 No.1.

Goulding, M (1993) The Evolution of United Nations Peacekeeping, International Affairs, Vol.69 No. 3.

International Institute for Strategic Studies (1994) The Military Balance 1994-1995, Brasseys, London.

By What Authority? The Legitimacy and Accountability of Non-governmental Organisations

The International Council on Human Rights Policy International Meeting on Global Trends and Human Rights — Before and after September 11

Geneva, January 10-12, 2002

Hugo Slim
Senior Lecturer
Oxford Brookes University

© 2002, International Council on Human Rights Policy


In September 2000, the IMF and the World Bank were preparing for their annual meeting. The meeting was to be in Prague but the memory of the Battle of Seattle was fresh in everybody’s mind — not least that of the Czech police. The week before the meeting, The Economist ran a special issue on globalisation which included a long article on Anti-Capitalist Protest. The piece examined the nature and tactics of the groups that loosely form the vanguard of the ‘backlash against globalisation’, distinguishing between small ‘activist groups’ and ‘mainstream NGOs’. In a backlash against the backlashers, it went on to question their credentials:

The increasing clout of NGOs, respectable and not so respectable, raises an important question: who elected Oxfam, or, for that matter, the League for a Revolutionary Communist International? Bodies such as these are, to varying degrees, extorting admissions of fault from law-abiding companies and changes in policy from democratically elected governments.They mayclaim to be acting in the interests of the people — but then so do the objects of their criticism, governments and the despised international institutions. In the West, governments and their agencies are, in the end, accountable to voters. Who holds the activists accountable?[1]

One of the ways that The Economist makes a profit, pays its journalists and rewards its shareholders is by selling advertising space. As a result, on the facing page of this article, there was a full page celebratory statement by the large multinational company, Bayer, announcing a first half rise in sales of 22% to EUR14.8bn and a 31% increase in operating income to EUR 2bn. Much of this growth came from their pharmaceutical group, particularly its cholesterol-lowering and anti-hypertensive drugs — treatments that seem to be essential for combating the stresses of globalisation! Below the blurb, in the bottom right hand corner, the Bayer logo sat proudly on top of the company strap-line: ‘Expertise with Responsibility’. Here was corporate accountability at its most glowing, informing existing and prospective shareholders of large profits growth while also reassuring them of the company’s moral respectability. If ‘expertise’ is what gives Bayer their competitive edge, the company’s sense of ‘responsibility’ resonates with the newly espoused business values of ‘corporate social responsibility’. Such values have been encouraged by the likes of Oxfam whose own credibility was being so seriously questioned on the facing page. Here, within a staple’s breadth, were two competing claims about the legitimacy and accountability of two different types of international organisations — the transnational corporation and the transnational NGO. Both types of organisations are distinctive features of today’s mainly capitalist, neo-liberal and globalised world system. Both are under pressure to be increasingly accountable.

Human Rights organisations have also regularly come in for questioning on their legitimacy and have by no means been immune to the kind of criticisms levelled at Oxfam and others. Some of the most articulate questioning has come from within the human rights movement itself. Chidi Odinkalu has criticised the elite nature of much of the human rights movement and in doing so called into question their legitimacy. Talking about human rights groups in Africa, Odinkalu has observed how they are seldom part of inclusive and participatory struggles for justice but that they appear almost by design to exclude the participation of the people whose welfare they claim to advance.

Most human rights organisations are modelled after northern watchdog organisations, located in an urban area, run by a core management without a membership base (unlike Amnesty International), and dependent solely on overseas funding. The most successful of these organisations only manage to achieve the equivalent status of a public policy think-tank, a research institute, or a specialised publishing house…Instead of being the currency of a social justice or conscience-driven movement, ‘human rights’ has increasingly become the specialised language of a select professional cadre with its own rites of passage and methods of certification. Far from being a badge of honour, human rights activism is, in some of the places I have observed it, increasingly a certificate ofprivilege.[2]

The focus of this paper will be on international NGOs — mainly humanitarian, development and human rights organisations. But it is important to recognise that accountability is a central issue for all forms of human organisations and that it is not just a matter for voluntary organisations. However, as groups who make it their business to demand accountability in others, it could be said that NGOs and human rights organisations have a particular responsibility to lead by example in this area and shine as beacons of legitimacy and accountability.

This paper is in three main parts. First, it reviews the changing understanding of NGO accountability as it has developed in the last ten years. Secondly, it sets out a framework for identifying the main tangible and intangible sources of NGO legitimacy, specifically identifying the question of whether organisational democracy is necessary to NGO legitimacy. Finally, it examines the mechanics of accountability, emphasising stakeholder analysis and involvement as central to accountability methodology alongside an appreciation of context and a commitment to transparency and responsiveness.

Redefining Accountability in the 1990s

The two pages of The Economist cited above, saw both Bayer and Oxfam called to account on two fronts: who they represent and how they perform. For Bayer — an example of The Economist’s group of ‘law-abiding companies’ — there is a very traditional mercantile formula for accountability. The company represents the interests of the shareholder and its performance is measured in profit and growth. This mercantile tradition of accountability has long roots in western capitalism but has now been challenged by progressive business people, NGOs and others who demand that corporate accountability become deeper and broader. Moving beyond a single financial ‘bottom-line’, companies are now being urged to account for a ‘triple bottom-line’ that also encompasses social and environmental accounting. Ethical business is increasingly being understood in terms of ‘corporate citizenship’ that makes companies explicitly responsible for wider ‘public goods’[3]. Their legitimacy increasingly depends on doing this or, at least, being seen to try to do it.

Also in the western tradition, charities have a well-worn way of accounting that has long historical precedent. Many western charities have traditionally reported in a similarly minimalist vein to the business enterprises of the numerous merchant philanthropists who founded or supported many of them. In broad terms, charities have mainly been asked to report on the money raised and spent, the number of poor people reached, and the administrative cost of raising and spending the money. This last measure is the notorious fund-raising and administration ratio that has become the peculiar benchmark of organisational probity and efficiency in the voluntary sector. Strangely, this ratio has always attracted far greater scrutiny than the actual effect of the expenditure on poor people. Such is the pecuniary focus of the protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalist charity.

But like commercial companies, NGOs are also forcing themselves, and being required by others, to broaden and deepen their notion of accountability. Their legitimacy also depends on this. With the rise of NGO advocacy as a mainstream strategy in alleviating poverty and working for social justice, issues of accountability and legitimacy have become critical in recent years as NGOs speak out to challenge corporations, governments, armed factions and other non-state actors. Long before it reached the pages of The Economist, discussion of NGO accountability was already well advanced amongst NGOs themselves. Throughout the 1990s, on paper at least, international NGOs working in the humanitarian and development fields had staked out the key issues fairly well. Their policy makers and resident thinkers had long recognised that to be credible and legitimate they were required to meet two main requirements. First, they had to justify the voice with which they spoke in their campaign materials, press conferences and private lobbying. Secondly, they had to prove the effectiveness of the things they actually did in slums, villages and refugee camps around the world. And, of course, all of them realised that one of the best ways to justify the former was by relating it directly to the latter. The corridors of many a relief and development NGO embarking on major advocacy work echoed with the mantra that: ‘we must always be seen to be speaking from our own practical experience’. NGOs knew instinctively that their authority came essentially from their presence in that mysterious place they call ‘the field’.

Performance Accountability

In the 1990s, therefore, the challenge was set within the NGO community to be ‘more accountable’ for what NGOs actually did. In the community of humanitarian agencies, this call to account for agency performance achieved a new urgency in the wake of criticisms of some NGO response to the Rwandan genocide. To their credit, humanitarian NGOs came together to try and put their house in order. In so doing, they overtook their development colleagues and emerged at the end of the decade with several mechanisms to try and achieve this: a Code of Conduct; a Humanitarian Charter and a set of technical standards[4] a not-quite Ombudsman called the Humanitarian Accountability Project (HAP); a new emphasis on the quality and transparency of evaluations[5]; an active learning network gathering and sharing the lessons learnt from humanitarian operations (ALNAP), together with initiatives to explore quality models and professional accreditation.[6]

On the development side, moves were rather slower with less immediate results in the form of new overview institutions and standards. Nevertheless, things happened. Many NGOs realised that they too had a multiple bottom-line in their development work. It was no longer acceptable to simply report in terms of programme ‘outputs’ like a well dug or the distribution of a tonne of improved seed. The quest for ‘outcome’ monitoring and ‘impact’ assessment began.[7] The practice of social audit was also actively explored by several NGOs — not least because they were also urging social and environmental audit on commercial corporations. From the late 1980s onwards, most international NGOs also adopted strategic planning and logical framework analysis that enabled them to set specific objectives across their whole organisation (from Board level to project level) and account for them corporately.[8] But none of this has proved to be easy. New managerialist modes of working have been difficult to ‘roll out’. Most NGOs have found that profit or outputs are much easier to show than more nuanced questions of outcome, impact and attribution. Creative accountants have a long tradition of complicating financial reporting to make profit a matter of interpretation. But the current art and science of social and environmental accounting is truly complex on occasion. Accounting for the impact or outcome of NGO work can be uncertain, is usually contested and can border on pure speculation at times as NGOs try to track cause and effect between their actions and the personal, social, economic, environmental and political change around their projects.

In the UK, the five biggest international NGOs (British Overseas Aid Group — BOAG) took the lead from the SPHERE humanitarian standards and the new emphasis on quality frameworks in the UK voluntary sector to explore the idea of quality standards in development work.[9] The subsequent report cautioned against the tendency of standards to proliferate and further bureaucratise organisations with an overly procedural mind-set. However, it did recommend the idea of organisational definitions of quality, a commitment to continuous improvement and a core set of around 10 key organisational standards, making the point that several of these (like a participation standard) could be drawn directly from existing human rights standards. A number of humanitarian and development NGOs are continuing to pursue a quality and standards approach. World Vision International has ten ‘ministry standards’ for its 65 member agencies. Oxfam International has agreed common programme standards between its 11 organisations and, most recently, Caritas International has begun its own attempt to set quality standards across its many member organisations. Mike Edwards of the Ford Foundation has also put forward the development of ‘light but firm’ quality standards for NGOs, an independent development Ombudsman, certification and agreed complaints procedures but with no result as yet.[10]

But the risks involved in standardising development are not just bureaucratic but also relational. The BOAG report warned against an over-zealous adoption of a business quality model in particular:

The world of development is not the world of business and may not want to be subsumed into a quintessentially business-like contractual relationship of manufacturer and consumer or service provider and client. In its more charismatic form, western development discourse still talks of a relationship of solidarity, accompaniment and partnership between NGOs and poor people. An overly business-like application of quality and standards could distort such relationships forever.[11]

Mike Edwards has similarly pointed out that the problem with elaborate systems of accountability is that they ‘professionalise’ still further a relationship between NGOs and poor primary stakeholders that should be continuous, immediate and human.[12] More technical accountability mechanisms may mean less relationship

Voice Accountability

If in the last 10 years, NGOs realised they had to account differently for what they did, they also had to account for what they said. This sort of ‘voice accountability’ had to respond to two areas of interrogation: the veracityof what they said and the authority with which they spoke. Although obviously linked, questions of veracity were essentially empirical (can you prove it?) while questions of authority were essentially political (from where do you derive your power to speak?). International NGOs have tried to respond to both. In the 1990s, many of the big NGOs have significantly increased their own research capacity or made strategic alliances with academics and think-tanks to assure the quality of their research. But they have also kept firmly to their mantra of experience-based advocacy. Much of what they advocate, lobby and campaign on uses detail drawn from their own projects. This micro case-study approach is then added to the more macro analysis of academic and policy researchers to produce an advocacy discourse of personalised facts which claim to illustrate trends.

If this is a research technique that seeks to guarantee veracity, the question of authority is more complicated. It is on this point that The Economist and others have sought to pin down NGOs and it is here that many NGO people have felt vulnerable. This vulnerability is not just technical around issues of representation, it is also very personal because not many people in international NGOs are or have been poor themselves. Their experience of poverty and suffering in war or disaster is indirect and mediated through ‘their’ projects. The issue of class is therefore critical to discussion of NGO voice. Being mainly middle class, people in international NGOs can feel, or be made to feel, somehow fraudulent in speaking out about poverty. The British Secretary of State for International Development, Clare Short, does a particularly good line in tormenting the white man with his burden. She often lashes out at this Achilles heel when being cornered by British NGOs but has few reservations about her own right to boss governments around in Africa and Asia. At the time of the G8 summit in July 2001, she observed “Who is better placed to speak on behalf of the poor, middle-class white people in the north or the elected representatives of the poor of Africa themselves?”[13]

This question of voice is perhaps the most contested area of NGO accountability and legitimacy. It seems to have replaced the old fundraising and administration ratio as the critical criteria of NGO legitimacy in the new century. And curiously, like its predecessor, this new voice ratio also bears very little relation to the actual effectiveness of an NGO in the lives of poor people. Most NGO critics are still not primarily concerned with whether or not NGOs do any good in the struggle against poverty or human rights violations. What matters, it seems, is their class and their politics. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the fundraising ratio determined the key question of charitable probity. In the 21st century, the voice ratio looks set to determine the key matters of NGO legitimacy and credibility.

NGO discussions of voice accountability have been serious and thought through — not least because of the criticisms they receive from critics in rich and poor countries alike. The questions NGOs have asked themselves concentrate on how their voice relates to the people they are primarily concerned about — the poor, people whose rights are violated, and the victims of war. These debates about NGO voice might be summed up as follows:do NGOs speak as the poor, with the poor, for the poor or about the poor? As so often in life, it is the little words in the debate that are complicated rather than the big ones. Arguments of NGO voice accountability are essentially prepositional and hinge on the nature of their relationship with the poor or the victims of human rights violation.

How NGOs answer this question determines the precise nature of their legitimacy. If they are an NGO or CBO (community based organisation) that is made up of poor people or the victims of human rights violations then they can be regarded as speaking as. If an NGO is working very closely with such people and speaks with their consent, then they can be said to be speaking with. If — as much NGO rhetoric declares — the poor and the oppressed are effectively unable to speak out and so are somehow ‘voiceless’ then NGOs could claim to be speaking for or on behalf of them. However, this last form of voice must be treated with great caution as it can be argued that it is in the organisational interests of middle class NGO people to keep lower class people voiceless. In other words, some voiceless-ness may be the result of NGO oppression as well as government or other violent oppression. The problem of northern NGOs ‘capturing’ the agenda and taking over the voice of southern NGOs is well known.[14] Finally, if NGOs are not strictly speaking as, with or for a particular group of poor or victimised people, or are speaking so generally as to make specific relationships meaningless, then they may claim to be speaking about poverty or oppression.

Many NGOs will not have one uniform form of voice. Depending on the situation, an NGO will be speaking with in one place and speaking about in another. But some NGOs and CBOs will always be speaking as while others at the more policy end of the spectrum will always be speaking about. But even in the most rooted and apparently representative of membership organisations, certain power dynamics may mean that the voice of the group may also be ‘captured’ by a section within the group and skewed accordingly. It is obviously important for NGOs and human rights groups to be clear about where their voice comes from in a given situation and to be transparent about it. The precise nature of their legitimacy will change depending on which mode of voice they are using. But they will lose all legitimacy if they are found to be masquerading — a sort of ventriloquist to the poor and oppressed.

Sources of Legitimacy

As seen from the above review of the new accountability challenges to NGOs, legitimacy and accountability are not the same thing, but they are closely related. Without indulging the academic’s tendency towards protracted definition, the rest of the paper will use a single sentence summary definition of legitimacy and accountability. It will then try to unpack each term a little further and identify some principles which NGOs and human rights organisations might use to develop and argue their accountability and legitimacy.

For our purposes, legitimacy might be defined as ‘the particular status with which an organisation is imbued and perceived at any given time that enables it to operate with the general consent of peoples, governments, companies and non-state groups around the world’. From this working definition, it can be further observed that an NGO or human rights group’s legitimacy is both derived and generated. It is derived from morality and law. It is generated by veracity, tangible support and more intangible goodwill.

Moral and Legal Sources

At a fundamental ethical level, an organisation derives its legitimacy legally and morally. NGOs are essentially self-mandating. In the international arena, by definition, they do not operate in accordance with specific mandates given to them by states under international law. This is in contrast to specifically mandated organisations like the ICRC and United Nations agencies. Their legality and their moral recognition must therefore be argued more from first principles than from specific international statutes.

NGOs gain legitimacy simply from claiming their legality within international law and by their being law-abiding. The fact that they operate legally, nationally and internationally in accordance with government legislation thus contributes to their legitimacy. Internationally, NGOs can also claim to operate legally as NGOs recognised in Art.71 of the UN Charter. As importantly, NGOs and human rights groups can claim to work in support of international law because in their human rights, humanitarian or development work, they operate with reference to human rights law, international humanitarian law and refugee law. Under international humanitarian law, the staff of NGOs operating as impartial humanitarian organisations are recognised as protected persons in an armed conflict.[15] Protection by these laws increases their legitimacy.

But the legitimacy of human rights groups and development NGOs does not come as a result of simply recognising human rights law. As organisations of concerned people, such organisations can actually claim legality, legitimacy and protection from these laws because of the importance these laws place on human duties alongside human rights.[16] Key articles of human rights law emphasise the individual’s responsibility to promote respect for the human rights of others and to limit their actions when they may violate the rights of others.[17] These are duties that people must actively take on. Such duties and responsibilities have been spelt out in further declarations relevant to NGOs and human rights groups. In 1986, the General Assembly adopted a Declaration on the Right to Development. This makes clear that ‘all human beings have a responsibility for development, individually and collectively’.[18] Building on this principle of responsibility, the UN General Assembly also adopted a specific Declaration on Human Rights Defenders in 1998 that affirms the right of individuals and groups to promote and protect human rights.[19]

So, in an important way, an organisation’s duty or responsibility to promote development and human rights can be argued from international human rights law. In much of their advocacy work with governments, armed factions, corporations and the public, NGOs and human rights groups can be seen as reminding people of these duties and, in so doing, meeting their own responsibilities and duties under human rights law.

But legality is only a small part of an organisation’s fundamental legitimacy. An NGO or human rights group’s wider legitimacy is morally derived. An organisational mission to challenge and end human rights violations is derived explicitly from a moral case based on the values of human equality, dignity, impartiality, justice, freedom and personal and collective responsibility. This moral case gives human rights organisations and NGOs an ethical legitimacy that resonates with the moral reasonableness of people across the world. Expression and recognition of this fundamental morality is essential to an organisation’s legitimacy. This is particularly important because simply being part of the new sacred space of ‘civil society’ is not enough to guarantee an NGO’s legitimacy. As Alan Fowler has pointed out, there are many groups who exist in the space made by civil society who cannot claim moral legitimacy. He gives the example of the Klu Klux Klan in the USA but there are many other civil society organisations around the world who are distinctly ‘uncivil’ in their mission and values and cannot claim moral legitimacy.[20]

Tangible and Intangible Sources of Legitimacy

If legitimacy is thus derived legally and morally from first principles, it is also actively generated tangibly and intangibly in practice.

Tangible Support

An organisation’s most tangible form of legitimacy probably comes in the form of direct support from the people it seeks to help, its members, its supporters and its admirers. Perhaps the most powerful form of tangible support for a human rights organisation comes if it has the strong support of the people whose rights it is trying to protect and to realise. The fact that an organisation has their consent and they feel that it is working with them in pursuit of their interests is a strong source of legitimacy. Similarly, if an NGO has an extensive and representative membership, their legitimacy is enhanced considerably because they can show the precise extent of their support and identify it as essentially democratic.

But most NGOs are non-membership organisations. Yet they can still make a strong case around the tangible support they receive — albeit in a way that it is not explicitly democratic and vote-based. For example, the financial support that Oxfam receives from the public from 600,000 committed monthly givers, thousands of other additional occasional givers and from governments gives it a large claim to both popular and official legitimacy. In the UK, Oxfam gets massive voluntary support from around 20,000 volunteers. Such contributions in time and in kind are another hugely important element of support. So too is the kind of support that can come from the media, from opinion-formers and academics who support Oxfam’s arguments or disagree with them from a position of recognition and respect. This kind of tangible support that is made manifest in money, time, intellectual agreement and shared conviction has to be actively generated by NGOs and human rights groups. It can reveal that a broad base of people and governments back an organisation as a morally important and practically effective operation, and one with which they actively seek to ally themselves. In Oxfam’s case, such support generates a very tangible asset in Oxfam’s legitimacy.

But such support must be linked to real and transparent accountability mechanisms. If Oxfam’s publicity material and supporters’ briefings give a completely different view of Oxfam’s programmes to that which actually exists on the ground, then their legitimacy on this score would be fraudulent. Direct support does not of itself create legitimacy but only when the supporters are properly informed about what they are actually supporting. Popular consent for Oxfam’s activities, therefore, must be ‘informed consent’ if Oxfam is to be truly legitimate on this count.

Tangible Relationships, Knowledge and Expertise

An organisation’s legitimacy is also generated from its knowledge and its relationships. What an organisation knows and whom it knows is a major source of its legitimacy. That a human rights group knows certain facts about human rights law and patterns of human rights violation is extremely important, giving it a legitimate expertise. Because NGOs know people who experience human rights violation, poverty and extreme suffering (like IDPs in protracted war), or people who are in a position to do something about it (like politicians, military leaders and TNCs) also gives these organisations legitimate contacts. The fact that an NGO has relationships with people at some or all levels of a problem of human rights violation means that it generates legitimacy from knowing such people directly. In this way, precise knowledge and the right relationships are an important and quite tangible source of legitimacy. These legitimacy assets might be summed up as valuable expertise and connections.

Tangible Performance

As discussed above, legitimacy is also generated by good performance. An NGO is more legitimate the more it can show that its actual performance positively effects human rights, poverty and suffering. Effective performance gives added value to a group’s legitimacy because it means that it not only knows about human rights violations and oppression but can really do something about them. Tangible action by an NGO which delivers a good performance and enables real benefits to people is thus a major source of legitimacy. It means that an NGO does not just care about human rights violations, know about human rights, know both victims and powerful people, raise money for the cause but also actually achieves things. Proven good performance can transform an NGO from being a morally good idea to being a very practical moral pursuit. The fact that it works in practice makes it a more legitimate enterprise.

As a tangible asset of organisational legitimacy, performance and impact are extremely significant. Come the crunch, they may act as something like the asset of last resort in any contest over an organisation’s legitimacy. However, results are not everything. In any performance, the means to the end are vitally important when it comes to generating legitimacy. Notions of NGO performance and impact must be properly nuanced and take full account of human rights in their means as well as their ends. A good performance is not simply one that gets the obvious result. For example, an all-male team of surgeons and nurses may well conduct a successful operation on a woman that saves her life. But they may do so in such a way that they fail to discuss her illness with her, make sexist remarks about her body, give precedence to male patients who turn up after her, operate without administering an anaesthetic and send her home immediately. This is a result but it is not a good performance. So it is with human rights work, NGOs must be able to show evidence of a well-rounded performance that resonates with the values of human rights, not simply a result.

Intangible Sources of Trust, Integrity and Reputation

But there are also more intangible aspects of an NGO’s legitimacy. Qualities such as credibility, reputation, trust and integrity are critical to an organisation’s legitimacy. Although they are closely dependent on the tangible sources of legitimacy — support, knowledge and performance — they are unusual because they can take on a life of their own. They thrive on perception to function more like belief than fact. They can rely on image rather than reality and may not require any empirical experience to influence people one way or the other. For example, I might easily have a strong sense that Organisation X is a really good thing even though I have never given it my money, seen its work, read its books or met anyone that works for it. But I feel that it is good and legitimate because I have a sense of its credibility, its integrity and its reputation. And so, I feel able to trust it and regard it as highly legitimate.

These intangible qualities generate what an accountant might call ‘goodwill’ on her balance sheet. Classicists might describe them as determining an organisation’s ‘aura’ (literally its breeze or breath) or establishing the particular ‘kudos’ of an agency (its glory or renown). Whatever we call it, these more intangible assets of legitimacy are hugely important because they are the basis on which most people perceive and value an organisation of which they have little or no direct experience.

Legitimacy without Democracy?

The question asked of Oxfam by The Economist — ‘Who elected Oxfam?’ — implies an assumption that only democratically elected organisations are truly accountable and legitimate. The easy retort to such a question is obviously ‘Who elected The Economist?’ But the democracy issue requires more thought than this because it will be a determining point for NGO legitimacy and requires NGOs to have a solid answer to it. The are perhaps two possible answers. Either NGOs could agree that only democratic structures are truly accountable and legitimate. This would require them all to transform themselves into democratic organisations. Or, NGOs could make a strong case for non-democratic accountability. This will require them to shape the case and prove it.

Either answer requires some pretty massive change in the NGO sector. Opting for democracy would require major reorganisation. Opting for the second position would require the elaboration of some very considered argument alongside some accountability mechanisms to prove it. Alan Fowler has observed that:

Most NGOs do not have a civic constituency of governing members. The Greenbelt Movement in Kenya and the Landless Rural Workers Movement in Brazil — NGOs with mass membership — are not typical. More usual is a self-perpetuating, self-selected set of directors or trustees.[21]

This is obviously the case in the great majority of human rights organisations and NGOs and the onus on such organisations is to show that they can still be legitimate without being democratic. A key part of this argument will be determined by the claims they make for themselves as to whether they speak as, with, for or about oppressed people. Different claims will require different accountability hurdles to be jumped to claim their legitimacy. Alan Whaites of World Vision feels strongly that most NGOs of the kind described by Fowler can be most legitimate if they specifically position themselves as critics and experts:

The special contribution of civil society has often been the art of critique or the negative campaign rather than the promotion of a real vision for change. Landmines, debt, slavery…civil society, particularly in the rich world, usually knows more clearly what it wishes to abolish than to build.[22]

He concludes that real change will and must really be brought about by political society, its parties and its politicians but that as a key part of this process “civil society has a real and legitimate role in the education of political society on issues in which it has expertise”. This expert and educational role may be enough for some NGOs. But it may not be enough for some human rights groups and NGOs who want to be a specific part of political society and to be as one with some of the parties and politicians within it. As part of their efforts to argue their legitimacy, all NGOs will have to be transparent about the precise nature of their activism. Yet, the idea of activism still remains strangely unexplored in development circles.

Methods of Accountability

If these are some of the main sources of an NGO’s legitimacy, they are intricately connected to specific mechanisms of accountability. If performance is critical to an NGO’s legitimacy, it must then find convincing and transparent ways of proving the quality of its performance. If goodwill and trust are critical, the same NGO must find ways to gauge such intangibles. If an NGO claims that it gains part of its mandate from the people that support it and work with it, then it must be able to show that it is engaged in a meaningful relationship with these people which ensures they are informed about the organisation and influential in its operations. And beyond just proving and gauging these things, an NGO must also be able to show that it is acting on them. In other words, that it is acting positively on what it learns about its performance and the levels of trust in which it is held — then reporting its new actions back to its supporters.[23]

A working definition of NGO accountability has, therefore, to involve the three aspects of reporting, involving and responding. In this way, we might define NGO accountability as: ‘the process by which an NGO holds itself openly responsible for what it believes, what it does and what it does not do in a way which shows it involving all concerned parties and actively responding to what it learns’. The fact that accountability is primarily a process means that applying it is all about designing and operating practical mechanisms to make it a reality. NGO thinking and experience on accountability to date suggests a number of key factors that are critical to designing the right kind of mechanisms.

The great thrust of evolving thinking on accountability has centred on the need to recognise a much broader range of people (living and not yet born) to whom any human organisation must be accountable. In order to identify these people, the methodology of stakeholder analysis has become one of the key tools of NGO and other organisations’ accountability. The first step in any accountability process is to map and analyse an NGO’s various stakeholders in a given situation. Even an initial mapping usually reveals certain conflicting interests between stakeholders. An NGO must then find ways to prioritise these stakeholders in some way as primary, secondary etc. This stakeholder analysis then becomes the key document with which to design the right accountability mechanisms — whether they be social audits, evaluations, external regulation, complaints procedures, membership systems, environmental impact assessments, specific stakeholder surveys etc.

Contextualising Accountability

A key part of the process of tailoring the right accountability mechanism to the right stakeholders is a recognition of context. The context in which human rights organisations and NGOs operate is by no means uniform. For example, the right accountability mechanism for a human rights organisation working on labour rights in a European country with high levels of literacy and well developed unions is not likely to be appropriate for one working on labour rights with working children in South Asia where literacy rates are low, child labour remains non-unionised and where obvious activism may carry extreme personal risks. In other words, accountability procedures cannot be realistically expected to be uniform across a wide range of NGO activity. Accountability methodology will have to be developed imaginatively in any many contexts where ‘off the shelf’ mechanisms may be unworkable.

Accountability mechanisms must be open for all to see. While this is a given in current accountability doctrine, it may pose certain problems for human rights organisations who may not always be in a position to reveal their sources and contacts – some of the ‘how’ of their operations. Nevertheless, any accountability system must recognise transparency as primary and identify specific (and transparent!) criteria for reserving certain information on occasion.

A Basic Framework

Several people in the NGO world have produced simple accountability frameworks.[24]For most NGOs, only a small part of this accountability is legally required but increasingly the bulk of it is more professionally, commercially, politically and morally demanded. Although the predominant metaphor of accountability is financial, the actual demands of NGO accountability today are much wider than a financial procedure that ensures that figures tally. Accountability is much more about reporting on relationships, intent, objectives, method and impact. As such, it deals in information which is quantitative and qualitative, hard and soft, empirical and speculative. It records facts and makes judgements. Also, current orthodoxy in accountability is as keen to ‘embrace failure’ and so learn from it, as it would be to celebrate success and repeat it. The simple frameworks to date might be summarised as having four main dimensions to them.

Accountability for What?

An accountability process should start by identifying the rights involved in any NGO programme, the relevant rights-holders and duty-bearers related to that right and the content of the duty in the situation. From this rights-duties analysis, an NGO can then identify its own specific duty and set out to account for it, while making clear the responsibilities of others. It can then account for what it does by being able to tell as true a story as possible about the piece of work that it did in a given situation. This story will involve an angle on all the different people involved, their experience of the work, the relationships that emerged, the quality and standards expected, the money that was spent, the things that it was spent on. From these perspectives, it should then be able to report on the overall impact that this combination of people, relationships, money, things and time had on the rights concerned.

Accountability to Whom?

In any piece of work, an NGO will need to account to different groups of people as stakeholders. These will be the targeted rights-holders, the various duty-bearers and those secondary and tertiary stakeholders beyond the primary stakeholders who operate as interested or critical observers.

Accountability How?

Different stakeholders will require accounting to in different ways. Some people will require figures alone. Others will require figures and impact. Some will be literate, others will not. Some will want to know a lot of detail. Others will want to know the main points. So accountability will require diverse media. Accountability processes must also involve key stakeholders through representative meetings, research, representative assemblies or voting systems. But virtues common to all NGO accountability mechanisms must be veracity and transparency. What an NGO is saying about itself, or what it reports others as saying about it, must be reasonably true, easily available and accessible to all.

Accountability to Improve

NGO accountability mechanisms must show clearly how the agency is responding to what it has learnt and what its stakeholders are telling it. The mechanisms chosen must demand and show responsiveness by informing people about, and involving people in, new action taken.


This paper has tried to give an overview of some of the key themes in the current discussion of NGO legitimacy and accountability. At the end of the day, questions of NGO legitimacy and accountability can only really be answered by an organisation once it has decided what kind of organisation it wants to be. In other words, once it has defined the exact nature of its activism. Some will opt to become democratic social movements. Others will remain as accountable expert organisations. Ironically, those NGOs who choose the latter course might then do well to adopt the Bayer Group’s strap line ‘Expertise with Responsibility’! Or, more ironic still, both expert groups and social movements could agree to come under the joint banner of Price Waterhouse Cooper’s global strapline ‘Together We Can Change the World’! Such is the mad rush for respectable global citizenship.


[1] The Economist, 23rd September 2000, p. 129.

[2] Chidi Anselm Odinakalu, “Why More Africans Don’t Use Human Rights Language”, Human Rights Dialogue, Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs 2, 1, 2000.

[3] Simon Zadek, The Civil Corporation, London: Earthscan, 2001 and Building Corporate Accountability, London: Earthscan, 1997.

[4] SPHERE, Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Disaster Response, Oxfam, 2000.

[5] Wood et al, Evaluating International Humanitarian Action, London: Zed, 2001; ALNAP, Humanitarian Action: Learning from Evaluation, London, 2001.

[6] See Dorothea Hilhorst, Being Good at Doing Good? Review of Debates and Initiatives Concerning the Quality of Humanitarian Assistance, Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, October 2001. Also, HAP Project, Humanitarian Accountability: Key Elements and Operational Framework, Geneva, 2001.

[7] Chris Roche, Impact Assessment for Development Agencies: Learning to Value Change, Oxfam, 1999; Mike Edwards and David Hulme, Non-Governmental Organisations: Performance an Accountability, London: Earthscan, 1995.

[8] Tina Wallace, Standardising Development, Oxford: Worldview 1997.

[9] Hugo Slim, Future Imperatives: Quality, Standards and Human Rights, Report of a Study to Explore Quality Standards for the British Overseas Aid Group, Oxford: Oxford Brookes University, October 1999.

[10] Michael Ewards, NGO Rights and Responsibilities: A New Deal for Global Governance, London: Foreign Policy Centre, 2000, p. 30.

[11] Hugo Slim, “Not Philanthropy But Rights”, International Journal of Human Rights, 2002, p. 8.

[12] Michael Edwards, Future Positive: International Co-operation in the 21st Century, London: Earthscan, 1999, chapter 11.

[13] Clare Short, quoted in Jeremy Seabrook, “Why Clare Short is Wrong”, Guardian, July 24, 2001.

[14] Alan Fowler, Civil Society, NGDOs and Social Development, Geneva: UNRISD, 2000, pp. 25-27; Wachira Maina, Kenya: The State, Donors and the Politics of Democratisation, in Alison Van Rooy, Civil Society and the Aid Industry, London: Earthscan, 1998.

[15] Protection and legitimacy provided by the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols have also been enhanced in UN law by the 1994 UN Convention on the Safety of United Nations and Associated Personnel.

[16] For a full exploration of this issue, see International Council on Human Rights Policy, Taking Duties Seriously: Individual Duties in Human Rights Law, Geneva: ICHRP, 1999.

[17] See for example: Article 29 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; Preamble to the two International Covenants, and the Preamble to the African Charter of Human and Peoples’ Rights.

[18] Declaration on the Right to Development, Article 2(2).

[19] This is officially called The Declaration on the Rights and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Protect Universally Recognised Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

[20] Alan Fowler, Civil Society, NGOs and Social Development, Geneva: UNRISD, 2000.

[21] Alan Fowler, Civil Society, NGDOs and Social Development, Geneva, UNRISD, 2000, p36.

[22] Alan Whaites, NGOs: Facing Dilemmas and Answering Critics, in Development Dilemmas, World Vision, forthcoming 2002.

[23] Peter Raynard, ALNAP Paper on Mapping Accountability in Humanitarian Assistance, 2000, p. 7, describes the ‘accountability cycle’ as progressing from responsibility, to action, to reporting, to responsiveness and back to responsibility.

[24] This summary draws particularly on Raynard op cit and The Humanitarian Accountability Project, Briefing 3, Humanitarian Action and Accountability: Why is it an Issue?, Geneva, 2001. It also draws on Hugo Slim, “Not Philanthropy But Rights”, International Journal of Human Rights, 2002.

Reassessing the Need for Emergency Seed Relief Post-Disaster

The Case of Honduras after Hurricane Mitch [1]

by Jon Magnar Haugen [2] and Cary Fowler [3]


This paper is based on interviews with farmers that received emergency bean-seed provisions in Yorito, Honduras following Hurricane Mitch. It analyses the need for and appropriateness of these provisions. Although crop losses were extensive in Yorito, most farmers were able to secure a harvest of at least one major crop, and many of those who lost all their beans had access to local seed sources. No bean varieties were lostin Yorito as a result of Mitch. Conversely, as provisions introduced improved varieties that were previously unavailable, they augmented thelocal gene pool. However, the seeds provisioned were of a narrow genetic base (due to the low variation in the varieties distributed). Taking account of the differences in agroecological and socioeconomic variables between communities and households, the seeds provisioned were not appropriate to all farmers.


Hurricane Mitch struck Central America in October 1998, leaving Honduras with thousands of dead and an economy in ruins. Landslides, floods and winds devastated houses, infrastructure and cropland. Rural communities of subsistence producers experienced severe harvest failures (UN 1998).

As most subsistence farmers depend on their own agricultural production, or other local sources, for their planting material for the next cropping season, it was expected that the harvest failure would severely restrain people’s ability to save or secure such planting material (CIAT et al 1998). In response, various institutions distributed seeds with the intention of restoring agricultural production and reducing the dependency on external food provision (de Barbentane and Fowler, 2003).

However strong, the linkage between agricultural production and food/seed security of subsistence households is only indirect. Coping strategies often make it possible to secure food and seeds despite harvest failures. These capacities may make programs for emergency seed provision not only unnecessary, but even counterproductive (Pottier 1997, Sperling 1997, Longley and Richards 1999).

The present study, based on research in villages that received emergency seed provisions in Honduras following Hurricane Mitch, assesses the need for such provisions. In addition, it discusses the appropriateness of the approaches that were employed in these programs.

The fieldwork this text is based upon, was undertaken in the municipality of Yorito in central Honduras in February, March and April of 2000 (see Haugen 2001). A survey was undertaken with 85 respondents in six different communities, using a questionnaire with open-ended questions. The resulting quantitative data were supplemented by information obtained in interviews with individuals and groups. These small-holder communities cultivate beans in two seasons a year, and maize once a year as their staple crops.

In the following text, the communities are placed in three groups, depending on their altitude. In the ‘low’ communities of Luquigue and Jalapa, households cultivate lands at 600-900 meters above the sea level. In the ‘intermediate’ communities of La Ladera and Vallecillos, and in the ‘high’ communities of Santa Cruz and Mina Honda, households cultivate at 900-1200 meters and 1200-1600 meters, respectively. Access to markets was generally poorer at higher altitudes.

The households that were interviewed were classified with respect to their well-being, using 12 different indicators [4] . Households in Luquigue were found to be relatively well-off, while poor households were most frequent in Vallecillos and Mina Honda. In Jalapa, La Ladera and Santa Cruz, households were generally intermediately well off.

Cropping system Food security and crop traits

Farmers have various “interests” that their cropping system is meant to fulfil. While the ultimate goal is to achieve a high level of well-being, the more immediate interests may be to achieve a good harvest in terms of quantity and quality. Farmers undertake a continuous evaluation of their seed lots [5] to secure that the seeds/crops serve these interests satisfatorily (see Bellon 1996). A number of different criteria can be considered in this evaluation, reflecting the different interests involved.

Table 1 shows the criteria that were most frequently reported among respondents to the survey in Yorito, and how farmers evaluate the most common bean-varieties in the area relative to these criteria. The table shows that varieties are most frequently evaluated with respect to criteria like ‘production’, ‘market acceptance’ and ‘taste’, indicating that, overall, these criteria are most important to farmers.

Table 1 : The number of respondents at low and high altitudes who have a positive or a negative perception of different traits of the bean-varieties that are most common in their area*.

Variety TioCanela Retinto Chingo Concha Rosada Pedreño
Zone Low High Low Low High High
Perception Pos Neg Pos Neg Pos Neg Pos Neg Pos Neg Pos Neg
Production 27 16 4 7 11 1 11 24 3 13 1
Market acceptance 21 20 1 18 9 23 1 13
Colour 6 1 3 3 4 2 1
Taste 8 8 2 14 14 1 7 1 10 8 13
Adaptation to zone 3 2 10 2 14 7
Adaptation to production system 8 5 4 2 3 1 1 6 2 5
Resistance to drought 3 3 1 3 4 1 1
Resistance to diseases 14 2 1 9 6 5 9 7 4 7
Resistance to pests 6 2 2 4 5 2 1 3
Storability 1 6 4 1 5
Time for maturity 5 6 1 2 6 9 1
Simultaneous maturation 5 1 4 2 1
Nutrition 2 1 2 4
Maintenance of tradition 2

*The figures in this table cannot be directly compared across zones or across varieties as the sample size may differ from case to case. For instance, almost all the farmers in the low zone have tried Tio Canela and could evaluate this variety, while the number of farmers who could evaluate Chingo and Retinto was much lower. As fieldwork did not register sample sizes, it is impossible to give the data in proportions and compare columns directly. However, the reader will be able to use the table to infer various information, as presented in the text.

Table 1 reveals that farmers’ experiences with different varieties of beans differ strongly. Furthermore, experiences with Tio Canela, the variety most commonly supplied after Mitch, differ markedly between zones. The criteria farmers use to judge their seed lots vary as well, both between communities and between households, and may even differ within households (Synnevåg et al 1999). While a significant number of respondents at higher altitudes in Yorito were interested in varieties with ‘adaptation to zone’, ‘storability’, ‘simultaneous maturation’ and ‘nutrition’, respondents at lower altitudes put much less emphasis on such criteria.

The differences in the criteria farmers use to judge their seed lots reflects differences in interests between farmers. Lack of homogeneity in such ’sets of interests’ may be analysed in the light of differences in socioeconomic conditions between zones. While households in zone 1 are relatively well-off and have easy access to markets for inputs and produce, households in zone 3 are poorer and have less access to markets. Easier access by farmers in zone 1 to fertilisers and pesticides may reduce the demand for varietal adaptation. The widespread use of silos for storage similarly reduces the relevance of storability. An interest for nutrition may be reduced when more foodstuffs can be purchased in the market.

Strategies for securing seeds

Most subsistence farmers depend on their own production, or other local sources, for their planting material for the next cropping season (Wright et al 1994). Among respondents in Yorito, only 11 % (9 out of 82) said they have ever purchased bean seeds in the market. On the other hand, only 21 % said they exclusively use seeds saved domestically, so the majority of the respondents (68 %) base their seed security on a combination of domestic saving and local, informal procurement.

Seeds can be procured locally in a number of different ways, through seed exchange, or exchange for money or labour, but also as loans. Small amounts may be procured in the form of gifts, but this form of social support has not been widespread in recent years.

Seed procurement strategies vary strongly between zones in Yorito. While saving seeds domestically is most frequent in Santa Cruz and Mina Honda, purchases in the market are employed most frequently in Luquigue and Jalapa. This observation is relevant for research on the intensity of seed shortages: While households in Santa Cruz and Mina Honda were underrepresented among the households that acquired seeds externally after Mitch, this alone does not indicate that the seed shortage was less intense in these communities, as these households have a tendency towards saving seeds domestically.

Dynamics in PGR use

Table 2 shows the number of farmers growing different bean varieties across different cropping seasons. While some varieties have fallen out of use during the last ten years, others have been introduced and are now widely used.

Table 2: The number of respondents in Yorito cultivating different bean varieties in six different cropping seasons.

Variety Season 1990, prim 1990, post 1998, prim 1998, post 1999, prim 1999, post
Concha Rosada1 31 26 42 40 40 32
Retinto2 18 19 15 14 10 9
Chingo2 13 11 3 7 5 5
Del Estica1 13 8
Concha Blanca4 9 7 2 3 4 6
Pedreño1 7 5 4 4 4 1
Careto1 3 1
Chile4 2 2 2 1 2
Catracho1 2 1 1
San Martin2 1 3 3 6 3
Puerto Rico2 1 1 2 1 2
Tio Canela3 8 14 45 59
Dorado3 3 7 14 4
Don Silvio3 3 2
DICTA 1233 2
Banqueño 1 1
Concha Blanca rojo 1
Gualiqueme 2
Liberal 1
Negro Concha M. 1 1 1
Pansa de Mono 1
Quarenteño 1
Unknown 1 1
Number of varieties 14 10 11 13 14 13
Total number of seed lots5 104 81 83 99 137 127

1 Land-races

2 Improved varieties introduced 10-20 years ago

3 Improved varieties introduced 1-3 years ago. Tio Canela and Dorado were widely distributed in post-Mitch emergency seed provisions

4 Unclear origin

5 As some farmers manage more than one seed lot, the total number of seed lots exceeds the number of farmers.

The effects of Mitch

Effects on varietal diversity

Mitch struck in October 1998, affecting the postrera of beans. FAO (1996) calls attention to the danger that disasters, such as Mitch, may cause the loss of crop genetic diversity. As shown in Table 2, two varieties that were cultivated in the postrera of 1998 were not cultivated in 1999, and may therefore be candidates for such loss. However, these two varieties have always been cultivated very sparingly, and it is impossible to conclude from the survey that these have become extinct. Conversely, in-depth interviews brought information that these varieties were still in use on the time of the fieldwork.

Effects on food security

The proportion of respondents in Yorito that reported crop losses of maize and beans as a result of Mitch is provided in Tables 3 and 4, respectively. The tables report the proportion of respondents that claimed any loss whatsoever. In the case of beans, the proportion of farmers that reported a total loss is also given.

Losses varied across zones and between crops. Farmers contended that the differences observed are related to differences in the agroecological conditions between zones. As the second crop of beans at lower altitudes was sown well before Mitch, bean plants were at intermediate stages of development when Mitch struck. Most farmers in this zone cultivate level terrain, which became waterlogged as a result of Mitch. This caused heavy bean losses. Maize, on the other hand, was already mature and the maize that was not already harvested tolerated waterlogging. At higher altitudes, the maize was not yet mature, and the stronger winds at these altitudes caused lodging. The second crop of beans, however, was in many cases not yet sown, while in other cases the germinating plants could survive, as steep fields, common in these zones, did not become waterlogged.

Table 3: Proportion of respondents in different zones in Yorito that reported crop losses of maize.

Zone Proportion of farmers experiencing any loss whatsoever
Zone 1 (Luquigue/Jalapa) 31,0% (n=29)
Zone 2 (La Ladera/Vallecillos) 66,7% (n=24)
Zone 3 (Santa Cruz/Mina Honda) 79,3% (n=29)

Table 4: Proportion of respondents in different zones in Yorito that reported crop losses of beans.

Zone Proportion of farmers experiencing any loss whatsoever Proportion of farmers experiencing total loss
Luquigue 92,3% (n=13) 61,5% (n=13)
Jalapa 69,2% (n=13) 30,8% (n=13)
Zone 2 59,1% (n=22) 36,4% (n=22)
Zone 3 55,6% (n=27) 18,5% (n=27)

Evidence suggests that most farmers in Yorito were able to secure a harvest of at least one major crop, reducing problems with food shortages. This was the case even in the southern region of Choluteca, which was severely affected by Mitch (Haugen 2001). This indicates that cultivating different crops, thus diversifying cropping systems, was important in preventing food shortages after Mitch. However, preventive strategies are not the only way to reduce vulnerability towards harvest failures. Most households have livestock, an important reserve when the crops fail. Off-farm employment exists. In Yorito, day-labouring is widespread in the coffee-sector, for example. Informal mechanisms for the provision of seeds to seed-short households also exist, and seed loans are widespread.

In some cases, however, the use of certain coping mechanisms started to erode the very basis of long-term household food security: some sold land in exchange for food. Thus, there is no doubt that food provisions that were given in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch were crucial for some households.

Seed security after Mitch

Despite the crop losses caused by Mitch, only 9,3 % (7 out of 75) of the respondents who wanted to cultivate beans in the Primera 1999 reported that they had insufficient amounts of seeds for this season. Of these seed-deficient households, three reported that they are chronically deficient, meaning that they probably would be deficient even in the absence of Mitch. The absence of significant seed-shortage after Mitch is confirmed by studies of price-changes for seeds after Mitch. There was no major price-increase for seeds in Yorito after Mitch, indicating that seeds were accessible to farmers. However, seeds were extensively distributed in Yorito. How would the picture have looked if no such distributions had taken place?

Need for seed provisions

About one-third of the respondents to the survey reported that they had lost their entire harvest of beans (Table 4). However, the experience of harvest failures is not uncommon in this area. The overall proportion of farmers who occasionally experience harvest failures of such intensity that they need to look for seeds elsewhere, is slightly above half. People are accustomed to securing seeds elsewhere when the household supply fails. As two-thirds of the households in the region were able to secure some harvest and the bean harvest of more than one-third was unaffected, seed shortages would not have been acute even in the absence of relief supplies.

Choice of beneficiaries

Emergency seed provisions were undertaken at a high scale in Yorito after Mitch. Of 75 households that planned to cultivate beans in the first cropping season after Mitch, 49 received provisions. How efficient were agencies in targeting those households in need?

Households whose domestic supply was deficient were over-represented among households that received emergency seed provisions (75 % of non self-sufficient households received seeds, compared to 56,4 % of self-sufficient households). However, this tendency is not statistically relevant (p-value for Chi-square-test = 0,091 (n=75)), so the relief efforts lacked a strong bias towards seed-deficient households.

More prosperous households were more likely to receive provisions than poor households (p-value = 0,77 (n=75)). This might be accounted for by the fact that Luquigue, which is comprised of relatively well-off households, was most severely affected by Mitch. However, it has already been shown that farmers in this community supply themselves with seeds from formal markets even in regular years, so these farmers may not have needed seed relief. As noteworthy is the fact that households that were already actively taking part in farmer networks organised by the organisations that undertook seed provisions were far more likely to receive such provisions. This latter tendency is statistically relevant (p-value <0,01 (n=75)).

Choice of varieties

As shown, even self-sufficient households took advantage of the opportunity of receiving seeds from the relief supplies. This enthusiasm for trying out new material may simply be based in curiosity, but may also suggest that there was dissatisfaction with traditional varieties. Tio Canela, the most commonly supplied variety, increased in use from the first to the second season in 1999. Farmers generally liked it. Clearly, making this new variety accessible to farmers was an important outcome of assistance efforts.

At higher altitudes, however, Tio Canela enjoys few advantages compared to traditional varieties. Tio Canela is less productive, and has a higher degree of variation in yield than traditional varieties (Haugen 2001). As farmers generally appreciate productive and stable varieties, it may be argued that focusing solely on Tio Canela and similar improved varieties, could not be optimal for restoring the short-term food security of seed-short households after Mitch.

Though traditional varieties were not lost as a direct result of Mitch, the introduced varieties may gradually replace traditional ones. Table 2 shows that Retinto, Chingo and Pedreño are all in danger of being replaced.Chingo may be most vulnerable. According to Table 1, Chingo has no advantages relative to Tio Canela, suggesting that farmers have good arguments for discarding the variety. Thus, unless new advantages emerge, farmers cannot be expected to maintain this variety.

The threat of genetic erosion, resulting from the abandonment of traditional varieties when new varieties are introduced, should not be an argument against the introduction of new varieties. Rather, the introduction of new varieties may, through making more material accessible to farmers, strengthen farmers’ traditions for experimenting with material and thus adapting to changing conditions. However, there is a different question of whether post-disaster turmoils are an appropriate occasion for such introductions.

Mitch did not restrict farmers access to material in the way some severe or repeated disasters may. However, it is important to recognise that disasters, and post-disaster relief, may undermine farmers’ capacities to experiment and adapt even in other manners. The ever-increasing presence of external organisations, inter alia, in supplying seeds post-disaster, may undermine farmers’ confidence in their traditional systems for securing seeds. This might also cause erosion of traditions for experimenting with and selecting germplasm. Thus, there is a danger that the traditional system of varieties being adopted and abandoned on the basis of farmers’ own experiences is becoming substituted by a system where institutions external to the agricultural system is making the decisions. Thus, relief agencies and other external actors may trigger genetic erosion even when disasters themselves do not have an impact.


The overall picture of communities that remained largely seed-secure even after Hurricane Mitch leaves no evidence of hurricane-caused genetic erosion in bean and maize systems in Yorito. Moreover, the simultaneous cultivation of maize and beans made farmers less vulnerable to the disaster, and generally, food security was protected in the short run. This suggests that the massive seed relief efforts in Yorito may not have been entirely necessary.

Taking account of the complexity of and differences in ‘concern profiles’ between households and communities, the strategy of the post-Mitch seed relief, built on a narrow genetic base, may have been simplistic. Lack of targeting towards seed-deficient and poor households suggests either that relief agencies could have discovered there was no major seed emergency, or that they were simply unable to distinguish those in need from others.

In the long run, the distribution of new varieties augmented the existing gene pool and may ultimately promote more effective farmer plant breeding and selection. However, programs of emergency seed provision may also undermine informal institutions that people employ to cope with food and seed shortages, and others that people employ to adapt to changing environmental conditions. Time will tell.


Barbentane, S. De and C. Fowler (2003) Seed Relief after Hurricane Mitch in Honduras: A Critical Analysis of Institutional Responses. (Manuscript)

Bellon, M.R. (1996) The Dynamics of Crop Infraspecific Diversity: A Conceptual Framework at the Farmer Level. Economic Botany 50 (1) 26-39

CIAT, CIMMYT, CIP and IPGRI (1998) Semillas de Esperanza para Honduras y Nicaragua. CIAT, Tegucigalpa, Honduras

FAO (1996) Global Plan of Action on the Conservation and Sustainable Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. FAO, Rome

Haugen, J.M. (2001) Whatever the Will of the Weather: A Study of Seed Systems in Honduras, and their Importance for Food Security and Agrobiodiversity in the Aftermaths of Hurricane Mitch. Thesis submitted for the Cand. Agric. Degree, Agricultural University of Norway

Longley, K. and Paul Richards (1999) Farmer Seed Systems and Disaster, in Restoring Farmers’ Seed Systems in Disaster Situations: Proceedings of the International Workshop on Developing Institutional Agreements and Capacity to Assist Farmers in Disaster Situations to Restore Agricultural Systems and Seed Security Activities. : FAO, Rome. 123-137.

Louette, D. and M. Smale (1996) Genetic Diversity and Maize Seed Management in a Traditional Mexican Community: Implications for In Situ Conservation of Maize. NRG Paper 96-03. CIMMYT, Mexico D.F.

Pottier, J (1997) Agricultural Rehabilitation and Food Insecurity in Post-War Rwanda. IDS Bulletin 27 (3) 56-75

Sperling, L. (1997) The effects of the Rwandan war on crop production and varietal diversity: A comparison of two crops. AgREN Network Paper No. 75 19-30. Agricultural Research & Extension Network, ODI, London

Synnevåg, G., T. Huvio, Y. Sidibé and A. Kanouté (1999) Farmers’ Indicators for Decline and Loss of Local Varieties from Traditional Farming Systems: A Case Study from Northern Mali. in Serwinski, J., I. Faberová (eds.): Proceedings of the Technical Meeting on the Methodology of the FAO World Information and Early Warning System on Plant Genetic Resources. FAO, Rome

UN (1998) UN Inter-agency Transitional Appeal for Hurricane Mitch. United Nations, Tegucigalpa, Honduras

Wright, M., T. Donaldson, E. Cromwell and J. New (1994) The Retention and Care of Seeds by Small-Scale Farmers. Natural Resources Institute, Chatham UK


[1] This article is based on a thesis submitted for the cand. agric. degree in Nature Conservation – Tropical Ecology and Management at the Agricultural University of Norway.

[2] Campaign Coordinator, Friends of the Earth Norway. Contact information:

[3] Professor, Center for International Environment and Development Studies, Agricultural University of Norway, Aas, Norway, and, Senior Advisor to the Director General, International Plant Genetic Resources Institute, Rome, Italy.

[4] The following indicators were employed: ‘Ownership and standard of housing’, ‘Ownership of land’, ‘Amount of land cultivated’, ‘Engagement in day-labouring’, ‘Destination for the on-farm agricultural production (domestic vs. market) and need to purchase food’, ‘Health conditions and access to health services’, ‘Access to non-agricultural sources of income’, ‘Ownership of livestock’, ‘Ownership of cattle’, ‘Experience of food shortages’, ‘Use of day-labourers on own farm’ and ‘Capacity to lend money to others’

[5] A seed lot is a particular population of seeds (or crops) that is managed separately because it is seen as having qualities that are distinct from those of other populations of seeds/crops (Louette and Smale 1996). In general, this separate management is based on the seed lots being recognised as belonging to different varieties. A variety is composed of all the seed lots used and recognised as distinct units by farmers, and sharing the same name.

Normalising the Crisis in Africa

Mark Bradbury

4 February, 1998

8 Woodlea Road
Stoke Newington
London N16 OTP


The critique of conventional relief strategies in complex political emergencies well developed (Duffield, 1994; Macrae & Zwi, 1994). This critique, however, has not been accompanied by an analysis of the effectiveness of development aid on conflict management and reduction. Having participated over the past 18 months in a number of reviews, evaluations and studies for UN agencies and NGOs in Sudan, Somalia, Rwanda and Uganda, for me, the need for this is clear. What I want to do in this paper is to dissect what Joanna Macrae (1988) has called the ‘developmentalist attack’ on humanitarian principles by looking at developmental approaches to humanitarian relief which have gained currency in aid policy and in aid practice. The paper seeks to highlight two things:

  • the shortcomings in applying developmental relief models and strategies in complex political emergencies;
  • and the negative impact that such developmental approaches to relief can have on the rights, welfare and livelihoods of populations in distress.


In Sudan, the 1996 Review of Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS) concluded that a key weakness with the UN operation in northern Sudan was the absence of any analysis of the “mainstream development process” (Karim et al., 1996). At the outset of OLS, in 1989, a key UN document for emergency assistance to the displaced proposed to:

help the government of the Sudan to put sizeable amounts of its displaced citizens back into the mainstream development process of the country (cited in Karim et al. 1996, July)In northern Sudan the international community continues to pursue this objective through programmes such as the UNDP area rehabilitation schemes in war-affected areas of the country. On the premise that peace can only be achieved through development, these rehabilitation schemes are directly linked to the UNDP/UNESCO culture for peace programme. These schemes are being developed in “peace villages”. These are villages created by the government for war-displaced populations, as part of the government policy of “peace from within”; a policy that promotes self-reliance. The creation of “peace villages” is also directly linked to government military strategy.[2] In such places these UN supported rehabilitation schemes, neatly packaged in project proposals complete with the language of participatory development, village committees, empowerment etc.., are intended to boost agricultural production and “reduce dependence on emergency assistance in areas affected by civil strife” (ibid).

In government held areas of the Nuba Mountains one such project proposed to:

resettle [‘returnees’] in peace villages and then promote agricultural development to strengthen their attachment to land. (cited in ibid, emphasis added)Given that the ‘returnees’ are Nuba who have been cleansed from their lands by the military, or dispossessed by private or internationally financed parastatal mechanised farming schemes, this objective at best suggests an ignorance of the context, at worst an accommodation with, if not support, for government disaster producing policies.

In Sudan displacement is not an unintended consequence of war. A history of the war and an examination of labour flight from the south, suggests that displacement is an objective of the warring parties, and part of the “mainstream development process” in the Sudan.

From such cases one begins to question developmental approaches to relief.


The first thing to note is that the developmentalist model of relief is pervasive. Whether it is in Sudan, Somalia, Rwanda or northern Uganda – crises which have different histories, local characters and dynamics – there are striking similarities in international aid policy and practice. Whether formulated as the relief-to-development continuum, or linking relief to development, preventative development, or capacity-building etc., developmental approaches are now a central tenet of ‘good practice’ in relief operations.

If discussions about the relief-to-development continuum are considered by many to be an old debate, I would suggest this is because it is already part of mainstream aid policy. Whether we talk of UN, or NGOs, the language and strategy is largely the same.

In Sudan, for example, the UN Resident Coordinator asserts that “relief should always be administered with the continuum in mind” (UNCERO, 1996 September 10). In Somalia, the relief-development continuum is a living concept. The bi-monthly situation report of the office of the UN humanitarian and resident coordinator for Somalia goes under the title “From Relief to Development in Somalia”. And in what was a serious move to develop a strategic plan for Somalia, the 1997 UN Consolidated Appeal demarcated the whole of Somalia along a continuum from relief to development; dividing the country into crisis zones, transitional zones and recovery zones. Similarly in Rwanda, linking relief and development was an explicit strategy of agencies in the immediate post-genocide period (Macrae & Bradbury, 1998).

Significantly, the developmental orthodoxy is not confined to international relief and development agencies. The Sudanese government, and southern movements are both articulate in the developmental continuum. Not because they share the same development objectives, but because as volumes of oda in Sudan have declined the incentive for authorities to capture development aid resource has increased. Furthermore, as a direct transfer, bilateral development aid helps to legitimise their political claims.

Similarly in Rwanda, long term developmental goals of aid agencies resonate with those of the government, who in 1996, after the refugees returned from Zaire, served notice to the international community that the “emergency is over”, and that development assistance was what was needed. Following this line, UNDP recently tendered a consultancy for a study on “The impact of Humanitarian Assistance on Rwanda and how to ensure a sustainable transition to development”. At a time in December 1997 when the UN itself had access to only 50% of the country.


The second point to note is the way in which situations of chronic instability and accompanying humanitarian crises are redefined as opportunities for development. A central assumption of developmental models of relief is that these crises are temporary phenomena. As developmental relief not only postulates a return to normality, but seeks to engineer it, emergencies become a process of transition to development.

Clearly the crises in Sudan, Somalia, Rwanda and northern Uganda are not temporary ones. In redefining them as opportunities for development, what we are seeing is a process of ‘normalisation’. This normalisation is characterised by a creeping acceptance of higher levels of vulnerability, malnutrition and morbidity.

In Sudan this is evident in continuing high rates of malnutrition among war-affected communities (Karim et al., 1996, July). In 1989, malnutrition rates of between 10% and 20% (less than 80% WFH) were sufficient to triggered the major relief intervention that became OLS. Now rates above 30% among displaced populations in northern Sudan are considered normal.[3]

A recent monitoring mission by DFID to Sudan to review emergency food distributions in the Red Sea State proposed in 1996 initially concluded that, despite malnutrition rates of between 30% and 60% (less than 80% WFH) and above-normal mortality rates in some rural areas, there was no evidence of a widespread and severe humanitarian crisis to justify large-scale food distributions.[4] If this was not a crisis what is? Are the implications of this that we should no longer talk of famine, just ‘food gaps’?

Similarly in Somalia, perceptions of the emergency have changed (Bradbury, 1997a). In 1992, with some 3,000 people a day dying from starvation, the situation in Somalia was described by one US diplomat as “the worst humanitarian crisis faced by any people in the world”. By the end of 1993, as US troops prepared to pull out, the acute emergency was considered to have ended, and donors began to focus on rehabilitation rather than emergency needs.[5]

Yet Somalia by most standards remains in a state of chronic disaster. Early last year before the floods, infant and maternal mortality rates were amongst the highest in the world (UNDHA, December 1996a:13). Some 12, 000 children and others were still receiving supplementary feeding in Mogadishu (UNSC 1997, February). Cholera was believed to be endemic.[6] Crop production, though improved remained at half pre-war levels (UNCU 1996 16 July-2 August). Other social sectors remained in a desperate state.

And yet, in early 1997, according to the UN, there were no longer any major humanitarian crises in Somalia. In their words daily life for most Somalis just remained “very difficult” (UNSC, 1997, February: 7).

In Rwanda, following the return of old and new ‘caseload’ refugees in 1996, agency programmes have by and large fallen in with the government’s view that “the emergency is over”. Programmes are planned with a view that the country is progressively moving towards rehabilitation and development, despite the absence of indicators to prove this (Macrae & Bradbury, 1998).[7] As one senior UN senior official noted:

The phrase the ‘emergency is over’ is just a sound bite. The ‘loud’ emergency is over. The question is whether it is a priority to deal with the emergency or structural problems? There are still critical problems that need to be dealt with. There are 130,000 in prison. There are 1.6 million repatriated that need to be dealt with. 60,000 child-headed households. These are not “normal” structural problems. (cited in Macrae & Bradbury, 1998)

In Uganda, a country perceived as an exemplar of successful development in sub-Saharan Africa, progress is threatened by renewed insecurity. According to one UN report:

Almost one third of the country is engulfed in a brutal conflict which has resulted in massive death, destruction and displacement. (cited in ibid)By late 1997 in Uganda’s northern districts, the numbers people displaced by the war between the Lord’s Resistance Army and the government were estimated to be as high as 479,000, with another 125,000 displaced by fighting in the west. Therapeutic feeding centres in Gulu town were reported to be receiving upto 30 children per week, with increasingly high levels of malnutrition evident among adolescents and adults. Despite this, there has been a reluctance by UN agencies to respond, and to use the term “emergency”, for fear of jeopardising long term country-wide development programmes (ibid).

Two conclusions suggest themselves. First, an analysis or model that posits an early return to stability, fails to understand, or ignores the nature of these emergencies. As David Keen (1994) and others have pointed out, large-scale population displacements, as seen in Sudan, northern Uganda, southern Somalia and Rwanda, serve military, political and economic functions. To argue that these are environments for development – as in the Nuba Mountains – is to ignore the political, military and economic strategies that aim to ensure certain populations do not develop.

Second, responses to these crises are selective. The political acceptance that the emergency is over in Rwanda, the ease with which the international community has marginalised the problems in northern Uganda, the apparently “acceptable” rates of malnutrition in Sudan, and the acceptance that Somalis will periodically suffer hardships, suggests there has been an accommodation with these crises. Explicit criteria or standards for defining when an emergency is an emergency are missing. Mandates are slipping or not being adhered to. With this comes an acceptance of different life-chances for different populations.

This is clear in Somalia. In 1993, with the creation of UNOSOM II, it was immodestly claimed by Madeline Albright that the international community in Somalia was embarking on:

an unprecedented enterprise aimed at nothing less that the restoration of an entire country as a proud, functioning and viable member of the community of nations. (cited in Jan, 1996: 3).Since the demise of UNOSOM, the international community’s goals, as represented by the UN, have become more modest. In the 1997 Inter-Agency Appeal, the UN strategic framework defined its actions, among others, as being to strengthen those rehabilitation efforts:

which represent the most minimal, essential needs required for Somalia to exist in its current state of crisis (UNDHA 1996, cited in Bradbury, 1997a, emphasis added).In other words, we see a shift from nation-building to the maintenance of a population in a state of crisis.

This is reflected in Somaliland, where a UN programme to reformulate health policy has involved persuading the authorities there that universal free health is impractical, and to focus on developing a “minimum package” of health services. The rational for this is:

the need to achieve sustainable development of health services in Somaliland through efficient and strategic utilisation of the available limited resources. (Somaliland Ministry of Health, 1997:1)THE DEVELOPMENTALIST CREED

This latter quote highlights two key aspects of developmental relief: the end goal of sustainable development, and the local financing of this. Not only are entitlements to acceptable health services being compromised, but these minimal services must be paid for by resource poor communities. This relates to two aspects of the normalisation of crisis: the ‘myth of dependency’, and what one might call the ‘internalisation of war’.

If developmental relief has become the creed. Then the pillars of this are to be found in the common ‘good practice’ wisdoms of self-reliance, sustainability, capacity building, and more recently peace-building. The developmental critique of relief is couched in terms that relief is unsustainable, dependency-creating and disempowering, that relief aid should not only seek to save lives, but save livelihoods, promote self-reliance and sustainability. We need to reexamine these wisdoms in the context of political emergencies.

The Myth of Dependency

A commonly articulated rationale for making relief more developmental is a view that relief assistance creates dependency. The sentiment of an NGO worker in Sudan that “relief is not good for anyone” is not uncommon.[8] The following statement from the Humanitarian Coordinator in Sudan at the time of the OLS Review is more extreme:

We often define humanitarianism as putting bread in the mouth of a starving person, but it is not humanitarian to let him get into that situation. We should replace free food deliveries and make people repay what they have received. This is what we are doing in Wau…People should repay this humanitarian loan not to us but to the community. We are taking them out of the beggar mentality. People are proud to pay for themselves…this is part of society building, enabling people to feel more consciously self-reliant. It is linked to democracy building because people have to elect a management committee. (cited in Karim et al., 1996, July).

Fear of creating relief dependency, and “institutionalising relief” drives agency strategies in northern Sudan, and is used to rationalise a cut in food rations. However, the OLS Review Team concluded that the reduction of food rations to war-displaced, rather than promoting self-reliance, is forcing displaced to become dependent on unsustainable ‘coping strategies’, and exploitative economic relations.[9] In Khartoum, the reduction of food rations was forcing the war-displaced to intensify ‘survival strategies’. One such strategy allegedly involved mothers maintaining their children in a poor state of nutrition in order to qualify for food rations. If true, such dysfunctional coping strategies indicate the depth of a mother’s crisis, rather than wanton dependency. The punitive response of aid agencies to withhold food rations to mothers who’s children’s nutrition deteriorates only exacerbates their crisis. Importantly, the cut in rations is not accompanied by any monitoring of a mother’s access to services or income.

The view that people in distress willingly abandon their coping strategies and independence in the face of crisis has long been dismissed in studies of famines (de Waal, 1988). Famine victims we are told are not passive. Yet the view persists that relief creates dependency. The case of an NGO programme in Southern Somalia serves to illustrate this.

The NGO, which has worked in Somalia for many years, is working with some of the poorest and most vulnerable communities in southern Somalia. These are minor Somali agro-pastoral clan groups, and non-Somali ‘Bantu’ agriculturalists. A key premise of the programme in 1994, in the wake of UNOSOM, was that international emergency relief had created a ‘relief mentality’ and a ‘dependency syndrome’, and that this was an obstacle to sustainable development. The programme therefore aimed to:

to strengthen the capacities of communities in [the area] to be self-sufficient under conditions of conflict and reduce their reliance on food relief (cited in Bradbury, 1997b).Our evaluation in fact found no evidence of a relief mentality in the villages the agency was working in, nor proof that people had willingly abandoned their farms or independence during the famine. Historical time lines and trend lines collected in villages during the evaluation in fact suggested the opposite.

First, not everyone suffers equally in war and famine. During the Somali famine of 1991-1993, those who died in their greatest numbers in southern Somalia were the minority Somali and non-Somali ethnic groups such as the Bantu, who had no recourse or defence against the warring factions. For the Bantu, their vulnerability arises from their political marginalisation within Somali society, and from the alienation of their lands under the former Barre government for private and internationally financed parastatal agricultural schemes.

During the war a combination of factors lead to a breakdown in normal coping strategies.[10] Bantu villages were deliberately targeted by militia and, like people of weaker Somali clans, they were stripped of their assets. An interesting insight from trend lines constructed with villagers during the evaluation, was that while villagers reported declines in cattle holdings during the famine period, cattle holdings among town dwellers increased.[11]

It is known that much food aid was diverted during the famine in Somalia. And it was estimated that in this particular area perhaps only 10% of rations reached the poor outlying villages. If true it is unclear how these communities were ever dependent on food aid. Self-dependency rather than relief-dependency more readily epitomises the condition of disaster affected populations. People survived through their own initiative, sought out relief kitchens or died. According to one village visited during the evaluation, up to a third of the village died during the famine.

The myth of dependency is used to rationalise the shift from relief to development. The flaw with this is that it really fails to tackle the issue of political control over aid. This was very evident in the camps in Zaire. It is political control that actually lies at the heart of the dependency myth. It is no coincidence that those who define populations as dependent are the very people who control the aid, including local officials, NGOs, the UN and donors.


Sustainability is another pillar of developmentalist creed.

The notion that it is feasible for war-displaced to achieve sustainability in food production or welfare service provision in the context of an on-going war is highly questionable. The claim that developmental interventions are more cost-effective than relief also merits examination. If rehabilitative programming implies the restoration of infrastructure, investment in human resource development, and so on, then rehabilitation is likely to be more expensive that relief. Sustainable improvements in welfare service provision will be dependent on adequate public financing.

Behind the rhetoric of sustainability lies the problem of sustaining the financing of large-scale humanitarian relief operations. The global decline in aid transfers and the persistent under-funding of OLS and the UN operation in Somalia attests to this. In Rwanda UNICEF’s expenditure has declined from $100 million between 1994-1997, to $36 million for the three years 1988-2000 (Macrae & Bradbury, 1998)

As few donors have dedicated budget lines for rehabilitation, reductions in the budgets of agencies such as UNICEF are not being parallelled by an increase in development assistance through other channels. Interviews with agency personnel in the field consistently confirm that an important factor determining the form that the transition from relief to development takes is the availability of funds to sustain basic services.

The more modest goals of the international community in Somalia noted earlier, reflect a severe decline in assistance for the country. From an operation of $1.5 billion for UNOSOM II in 1993, the annual inter-agency appeal now stands at roughly $100 million. In 1997, only 30% of this was funded (Bradbury, 1997a).

Several factors account for such a decline.[12] Critical has been the view that the emergency in Somalia ended in 1993, after which needs were redefined in rehabilitation rather than emergency terms. In the absence of a political settlement in Somalia, however, donors have been reluctant to commit longer term development funds. The now popularised view that the only solutions to Somalia’s problems are internal, provides a rationale for reduced assistance.

UNDP’s relief-to-development strategy, for example, is based on:

the principle that the main resources required to improve the conditions of these communities will come from the Somalis themselves (UNDHA 1996b December: 5).The aim is to assist populations to attain sustainable livelihoods. The strategy is community participation and local capacity building to ensure sustainability. The assumption is that Somalis will take responsibility for their own development. By redefining the crisis in Somalia as an ‘internal’ development problem, responsibility and costs are passed on to Somalis.

It is clear, however, in Somalia, Rwanda, Sudan or Uganda that the capacity of local populations to sustain services is highly limited. In Rwanda, for example, teachers salaries have deteriorated from pre-war levels. Ranging from RF 7,000-25,000 per month, teacher salaries are insufficient for an estimated minimum of RF 60-80,000 required to keep a family in food alone for one month.

In Somalia people have less capacity to sustain development today than they had before the war. A survey of pastoral and agro-pastoral areas in Somaliland in 1996, for example, revealed deepening poverty in rural communities (Ahmed M. Hashi, 1996).

In Sudan, the wider economic crisis in the country and weak public financing means that ‘host’ populations are encroaching on humanitarian resources intended for the displaced.[13] In the absence of international development investment or government finance for basic welfare services, developmental relief interventions cannot be sustained.

Aid agencies face real dilemmas here. Declining resources mean they are failing to sustain service provision. And to continue sustaining service provision would weaken the obligations of local authorities to provide for their own populations. The problem is that agencies are not being transparent about these dilemmas. Clearly response on the ground is being shaped by international aid policy. Yet agencies are not challenging this. Instead basic cuts in entitlements are being justified on the grounds of sustainability.

It is in this context that one can begin to understand the negative impact, and what Joanna Macrae has called, the ‘anti-humanitarian’ consequences, of developmental relief strategies. With donors, national governments and aid agencies unwilling or unable to pay for public investment the burden shifts to the local ‘community’ level. It is in this context that one can understand minimum health packages in Somaliland, reductions in food rations in Sudan, selective responses to emergencies such as in northern Uganda, and declining standards in international responses to humanitarian crises. The real danger is that as programmes change from relief to development, far from there being a progressive shift towards provision of sustainable services, entitlements and access are actually being cut.


This internalisation of the costs of war reflects a broader view of contemporary wars in Africa – that they are internal wars, and that their causes and solutions lie within. In programmatic terms capacity building, institutional strengthening, together with trauma, psycho-social programming, as well as conflict resolution, reflect a tendency to analyse these wars in terms of internal causes.

What does this mean in terms of humanitarian principles?

First, acceptance by the international community that there can only be ‘Somali solutions to Somali problems’, and by extension Rwandese solutions to Rwanda’s problems is to renounce responsibility for its role in the genesis of these crises. And also to neglect the on-going political and commercial involvement by the international community in these crises – whether it is form of arms supplies to the Horn of Africa ‘frontline states’, diamond exports from Sierra Leone or the Democratic Republic of Congo, timber export from Liberia, or banana export from Somalia.

Second, by locating the problem to be within, blame for the causes of conflict, of poverty, or marginalisation are effectively laid at the feet of the poor and marginalised. In a climate of declining oda, assigning also the solutions to the poor, the marginalised and victimised, through enhanced community participation and financing of social services, not only sustains a myth that development in such situations can achieve something, but risks compromising people’s right to basic standards of care.

Finally, as some of the cases reviewed here suggest, the very ‘victims’ of development- be they the Nuba or Bantu – those alienated from the ‘top-down’ internationally sponsored state development, and the ‘victims’ of war are, in the main, one and the same. Now as the victims also, of cuts in entitlements that the come with the erosion of humanitarian standards in pursuit of development, the very humanitarian objectives of development – equity and justice – are corrupted.


Ahmed Mohamed Hashi (1996) Pastoral Livelihood Systems, Resource trends and Institutional Constraints in Sool and Sanaag Regions. VETAID Somaliland.

Bradbury, M. (1997a) A Review of Oxfam Somalia Programme (1995-1997). Oxford: Oxfam UK/I.

Bradbury, M. (1997b) ACORD Somalia Evaluation. London: ACORD.

de Waal, A. (1988) ‘Is Famine Relief Irrelevant to Rural People?’ IDS Bulletin 20 (2): 63-69. Sussex: IDS.

Duffield, (1994) Complex Political Emergencies with reference to Angola and Bosnia. An Exploratory Report for UNICEF. Birmingham: University of Birmingham.

Jan, Ameen. (1996 July) Peacebuilding in Somalia. IPA Policy Briefing Series. New York: IPA.

Karim, A., Duffield, M., Jaspars, S., Benini, A., Macrae, J., Bradbury, M., Johnson, D., Larbi, G., Hendrie, B., (1996 July) Operation Lifeline Sudan: A Review, University of Birmingham/ Department of Humanitarian Affairs, Birmingham and Geneva.

Keen, D and Wilson, K. (1994) ‘Engaging with Violence: A Reassessment of Relief in Wartime’. in J. Macrae and A. Zwi. War and Hunger: Rethinking International Responses to Complex Emergencies. pp 209-221. London: Zed Books with Save the Children (UK).

Macrae, J. & Zwi, A. (eds) (1994) War and Hunger: Rethinking International Responses to Complex Emergencies. London: Zed Books with Save the Children (UK).

Macrae J. (1988) The Death of Humanitarianism?: An Anatomy of the Attack. Paper presented at the seminar: ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes? Uncovering the collapse of humanitarian principles’ Disasters Emergency Committee, London 4 February.

Macrae J., & Bradbury, M. (1998 February) Aid in the Twilight Zone: A Critical Analysis of Humanitarian-Development Aid Linkages in Situations of Chronic Instability. A report for UNICEF. ODI & Humanitarianism and War Project.

Somaliland Ministry of Health and Labour (1997 November) Strategic Framework Plan: A Guide to Improving health Care Service Delivery in Somaliland. Republic of Somaliland, with UNICEF.

UNCERO (United Nations Coordinator for Emergency and Relief Operations) (1996, September 10) Comments by the UNCERO on the Report Submitted by the OLS Review Team. UNDP Sudan.

UNCU (United Nations Coordination Unit) (1996 16 July-2 August) From Relief to Development: Situation Report. Office of the United Nations Humanitarian and Resident Coordinator for Somalia.

UNDHA (1996a December) United Nations Consolidated Appeal for Somalia October 1996-December 1996. Volume One: Joint Programmes and Projects. New York/Geneva: UNDHA.

UNDHA (1996b December) United Nations Consolidated Appeal for Somalia October 1996-December 1996. Volume Two: UN Agency Requirements. New York/Geneva: UNDHA.

UNSC (United Nations Security Council) (1997 February 17) Report of the Secretary General on the Situation in Somalia. S/1997/135. New York.


1. This paper was prepared for the seminar: ‘The Emperor’s newClothes? Uncovering the collapse of humanitarian principles’, Disasters Emergency Committee. London 4 February, 1998. I am grateful to Joanna Macrae and Mark Duffield for their comments on an early draft of this paper. Some of the material presented draws on the paper ‘Behind the Rhetoric of the Relief-to-Development Continuum’, prepared for the NGOs and Complex Emergencies Project, CARE Canada. M. Bradbury, 1997, September.

2. In 1992 in the southern town of Wau, the creation of “peace villages” on the outskirts of the town enabled the government to secure its military defence of the town.

3. The 1996 Inter-Agency Appeal for Sudan recorded global malnutrition rates in 1995 ranging from an “acceptable” 13.7% to 36% in displaced camps around Khartoum, and from 16.1% to 30% in the transitional zone and Government-held areas of southern Sudan (Karim et al., 1996, July).

4. Susanne Jaspars, personal communication.

5. The Fourth Coordination Meeting on Humanitarian Assistance for Somalia in November 1993, chaired by the World Bank, and at which the Somali Aid Coordination Body was established, was a key moment in setting the parameters for international aid in Somalia.

6. Prior to the war the last year cholera was reported in Mogadishu was 1972.

7. Evidence of the return to ‘normality’ is the return of refugees, the restoration of some social services, the rehabilitation of government institutions, and the fact that per capita GNP has recovered from an all time low of $80 in 1994 to $180 in 1996. The later indicator of success is relative to a 1985 GNP of $280. Other political, social and physiological indicators of progress are uncertain. By December 1997, 50% of the country had again become insecure and numbers of displaced were again increasing. The High Commission Field Operation in Rwanda continues to report on a permanent human rights crisis.

8. The aid worker went on to say “We like to work in communities who can provide inputs…we demand some participation, to create an environment where people take control of their own development.” (cited in Karim et al, 1996, July).

9. In Ed Dien where war displaced reported make up 85% of the agricultural labour force, a reduction in food rations is tying them into exploitative labour relations (Karim et al., 1996, July).

10. The collapse of government projects removed alternative sources of income. Insecurity meant people could not farm. The river dried up so irrigation was not possible. Bantu villagers had their grain stores dug up. Pastoralists had their livestock looted. Movement was restricted by the laying of mines. People had no choice but to seek outside assistance.

11. This is a small rural town, but settled by Somalis from the major clan families. There was some evidence that the cattle were sold in Kenya.

12. This includes the fact that less than 5% of the UNOSOM budget actually went to Somalia, but was spent on logistics and security systems. Other factors include the crisis in the Great Lakes, and the withdrawal of NGOs from Somalia in the wake of UNOSOM’s departure.

13. In a health centre in one displaced camp in Khartoum the OLS Review Team noted that 33% of those attending the centre came from outside the camp (Karim et al, 1996: 214).