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

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.

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7 Responses to “What should we do differently when an ‘emergency’ lasts for 20 years?”
  1. Maya Mailer

    Hi Duncan,
    Thanks for these great blogs. I’ve really enjoyed reading them – the first one in particular made me smile in a nostalgic humanitarian cum HQ-ocrat kinda way. It’s brilliant to hear that the protection committees are still going strong.

    Anyhow some quick thoughts (pulled from the recesses of my mat leave brain):
    1. It’s well understood that in chronic crises like eastern DRC or South Sudan where ‘emergency’ work has been going on for decades, the system needs to reform. But I’d say that the development as well as the humanitarian system needs to change. Chronic crises need ‘risk-tolerant’ long-term funding as well as the expertise of developmentistas (who understand the context and the inherent risks) – i.e. along the lines of what Oxfam argued in its ‘No Accident’ resilience paper (http://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk/publications/no-accident-resilience-and-the-inequality-of-risk-292353)
    2. Of course, conventional development isn’t desirable or possible in places like DRC, not least because the state is often predatory, weak or absent all together. But as you say, there are opportunities for longer-term interventions e.g. working with local technical authorities, civil society, faith groups etc.
    3. Also worth remembering that in a huge zone like eastern DRC, there are simultaneous pockets of relative stability and displacement/crisis (of course, a big challenge is that these change and overlap). But the point is that there are calmer neighbourhoods that could benefit from longer-term interventions – Eg, when I was in DRC a few years back, Novib was working with farmer cooperatives around Bukavu to get their produce to markets (don’t know the status of those projects today), while OGB was focusing on humanitarian work. Crucial though that any medium/long-term work is carried out on the basis of the needs and reality in specific neighbourhoods rather than advance a govt or donor-driven stabilisation agenda. Also important that the humanitarian pot isn’t raided to make this happen – this is where the risk-tolerant resilience/development funding comes into play.
    4. And yes chasing money is a perennial problem and major time suck. There are examples of best practice out there (cant think of specifics now) – e.g. pre-financing, NGO consortia, direct funding of NGOs rather than going through the UN behemoth, donor willingness to support multi-sector interventions, less onerous reporting requirements. Good also to underline that if the big INGOs are having a tough time piecing together grants, the local NGOs and CBOs are having a much tougher time. (By the way, I wrote about the extreme dysfunction of the funding architecture in South Sudan back in 2010. Dated and different context but some of the same principles apply – See final section of Rescuing the Peace: http://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk/publications/rescuing-the-peace-in-southern-sudan-115000.

    • Duncan Green

      Thanks Maya, useful leads. To be honest, having read lots of the policy debates on this, I was expecting much more to have changed on the ground, but the reality still seems heavily weighted towards old siloes and thinking. Trickle down of policy wonkery seems about as ineffectie as the economic variety!

      • Maya Mailer

        Not surprising. It’s such a tough environment to work – endless firefighting, high (international) staff turnover, constant need to chase money – that there’s little time or energy for strategic thinking. For sure, we can do more to break down silos etc but I do think the onus lies with donors to provide the longer-term, risk-tolerant grants that would give frontline aid providers the space to try new things, experiment and fail. And a (high) degree of failure is inevitable in a fragile state context, which doesn’t fit nicely with the value for money agenda.

        But there’s also scepticism among many humanitarians about the whole resilience thing. Some of this stems from a knee-jerk resistance to change but also a real worry that in these types of politically-charged, contested setting it will make it even more difficult to reach people in need – i.e. reduce humanitarian space, to use the jargon. A tricky business!

  2. Tim Holmes

    Hi Duncan,

    Nice post, all good points.

    Of course, given your title, there could also be so much more to include on this!

    For example:
    – you focus, rightly, on the case study of DRC where you have just been. But the same situation (multiple displacement and/or living in IDP/refugee camps over decades) applies to many fragile and conflict affected contexts where Oxfam works (Sudan, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Palestinians (in OPTI and elsewhere), Horn of Africa etc. In fact, I would guess (could be some interesting analysis) that a very high proportion of the people that Oxfam supports through humanitarian assistance on an annual basis are living such an experience.
    – Apart from the initial line about often white angels of mercy, you avoid the question of who (can/is/should) deliver humanitarian assistance in such contexts. The building capacity of / adequately resourcing government and local partners is obviously key in such cyclical contexts.
    – This then brings us onto to the Key Countries approach that Oxfam is now trying to use to address such cyclical humanitarian challenges – I am sure you are aware of this already but some really interesting thinking there, including how to factor in resilience and invest/build capacity appropriately.
    – Similarly, some of the learning from With and Without the State (how to do governance work in fragile contexts) is very relevant here, including how to work effectively with traditional leaders/institutions that you already touch on.

    On your funding point, you may be interested in the following:

    Value for Money of multi year humanitarian funding:https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/226161/VfM_of_Multi-year_Humanitarian_Funding_Report.pdf

    Some interesting recommendations, not sure if they have been followed up on by DFID.

  3. Amy Parker

    Hi Duncan,

    Interesting post. I manage Children in Crisis’ programme in eastern DR Congo. We work in partnership with a local organisation delivering a teacher training, community development and school construction programme on the Mid and High Plateau region of South Kivu. This area is deemed by many as being impossible to work in in a development capacity (although I do know of Oxfam’s CPCs); however we have managed to deliver well a development programme in what could be described as a humanitarian setting. One comment we hear again and again from project beneficiaries is that the investment and presence of our programme over the last 7 years (we started in 2007 and continued through Armani Leo and Kimia II) has resulted in more and more people fighting to stay and invest in the education of their children. They have a reason now. We are just in the process of finalising our independent evaluation and I’d be more than happy to share it with you.

  4. Mischa Foxell

    Hello Duncan-

    I agree completely with all your points above about the things we need to get better at. A few things learnt from managing DFID DRC’s humanitarian programme-

    -Many of the UN humanitarian agencies (who can play a good coordinating role of initiatives like the RRMP mechanism in the eastern DRC) only take money on one year cycles, making it difficult for donors to give predictable long term financing.
    – Important (unfortunately) not to be over-optimistic in a chronic crisis- when the eastern DRC calms down a bit (or at least goes off the news- not necessarily the same thing) it becomes harder to attract humanitarian funding, and therefore harder to make upfront investments and plan for the long term- for instance investing in water systems in camps, rather than trucking in water at great expense for decades.
    -Implementing partners, particularly INGOs like Oxfam working on both humanitarian and development, should be ready to be more flexible and move into more humanitarian programming when needed- eg. IRC last year used DFID development financing for their community development Tuungane programme to provide more humanitarian voucher support when the area they were working with descended into insecurity.
    -Learning from 20 years of experience to make humanitarian aid work better (eg. much more use of voucher fairs where possible rather than handouts, experimenting with cash transfers and being ready to use new technologies)

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