What should we do differently when an ‘emergency’ lasts for 20 years?

June 12, 2014 7 By Duncan Green

Second installment in my reflections on last week’s trip to the Eastern Congo

The classic cliché of humanitarianism is the angel of mercy (usually white) jetting in to help the victims of a sudden catastrophe (earthquake,

Here to stay? IDP Camp, North Kivu. credit: Maxime Michel

Here to stay? IDP Camp, North Kivu. Credit: Maxime Michel

war, hurricane), helping them get back on their feet in a few months and then moving on to the next emergency. A whole structure of funding, organizations, policies and approaches has grown up around that model.

But the Eastern Congo, where I spent last week, doesn’t fit the picture, in that the ‘emergency’ has been going on for 20 years (and counting). People we spoke to had been forced to flee 5 times or more. Once ‘displaced’ in the anodyne language of the humanitarians, they had in turn played host to others fleeing the sporadic violence.

A couple of ideas came up in conversation about how to adjust humanitarian practices for chronic crises of this kind.

If you think of the decision to flee, return and flee again as a cycle (see graphic), it is worth asking whether the attention and resources are properly distributed around it. Traditional humanitarianism concentrates on the right hand side of the cycle – with peacekeeping trying to prevent conflict and flight, and then aid kicking in to receive and care for refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs). [note for nit-pickers perfectionists, this cycle is a very simplified version of a messy reality in which, for example, attacks can occur more or less anywhere on the cycle].

The left hand side – how and when IDPs go home, and what happens when they get there, is historically much less of a focus. UNHCR has a few systems in place to help people get back, but once there, they are largely on their own.

Flight cycleBut that is changing in some interesting ways. Firstly (the power of fuzzwords!) numerous people said things along the line of ‘we all have to talk about ‘resilience’ these days, whatever that means!’ One of the impacts of resilience-talk seems to in channelling thinking and cash into prevention rather than cure: strengthening systems of protection and livelihoods for people in order to make it less necessary for them to flee in the first place. Our work with Community Protection Committees falls into this category – I’ve blogged about them before, and found them every bit as inspiring as I’d been told (big sigh of relief).

Second, working more with various bits of the state and other local institutions, such as traditional authorities (more on that in a future post) makes it easier to help people with the return and difficult first few months of getting re-established (for example if your home was burned down when you fled, or you land subsequently occupied by others). I think the humanitarian system needs to do a lot more on this, but at least it’s a start.

The horrible thing about the cycle is that people’s investments in improving their lives are regularly wiped out by gunfire and flames. Houses are burned down, crops and livestock stolen. Suppose those trying to work with people to help them rebuild assumed this was going to happen again, what might they do differently? For example, maybe the focus should be on building up those assets that are either portable, or unlikely to be touched by armed groups (because they are hard to destroy, like roads, or because the groups themselves have need of them, like water systems).

Things that are already portable include knowledge, skills, self confidence and organizing experience – lots of rights-based work survives displacement, as for example, members of the CPCs emerge as leaders in the camps.

So we could do more of that. But it might also be worth trying to make other assets more portable. For example, cash can be stolen at checkpoints, but

What can people take with them when this happens?

What can people take with them when this happens?

virtual cash, eg via mobile banking, can be hidden. ID cards and other documents can be burned or lost in the chaos of flight. Currently it takes months of bureaucracy and bribes to replace them, during which undocumented IDPs are vulnerable to all manner of extortion and abuse. Are there any ways to ‘back up’ official documents on a mass scale so they can be easily replaced?

Is it a problem if the camps become semi-permanent? Some people flee to the camps, but return after a few months. Others are left stranded, because they do not feel able to return. This leads to fears that the camps themselves are becoming part of the problem – a kind of welfare dependence argument. But the IDPs I spoke to were clear that anyone who is able to go home, will do so: ‘if there is peace, no one wants to live in the camps. Here, we have nothing. At home you are free, you can grow food, there is no hunger, you can pay your kids’ school fees….’ We met people who had lived in the camps for over a decade, which seems neither humane, nor a sensible use of humanitarian aid: another option might be to help IDPs voluntarily ‘graduate’ into host communities after a time-limited stay in camps.

As for the camps themselves, they are more or less permanent, even if the people come and go, and that seems a good thing – they have become part of survival strategies. Congolese know where they can go when disaster strikes; aid agencies can rapidly scale up provision (e.g. Oxfam deliberately builds spare capacity in water systems in areas where we know the next wave of IDPs are likely to go).

Finally, funding based on short-term emergencies rarely exceeds a one year grant, which makes a really lousy fit with long term problems. Staff become expert at trying to put successive short term grants back to back, so they resemble a medium term programme, but it is time consuming and unreliable. All too often, painstakingly assembled teams have to be ‘let go’ if the funding is delayed (as is often the case). We are now starting to see some longer term funding from ECHO and DFID, and elsewhere some multi-year programmes in the response to last year’s typhoon in the Philippines, for example. But the system needs lots more of that if we are to work on chronic crises in anything like an effective manner. I am collecting examples of particularly innovative ‘good donorship’ in expanding time horizons for chronic emergencies like the DRC – do please add any good examples in the comments.