Issue 21

Holding on without security

It is becoming increasingly difficult for international humanitarian organizations to operate in conflict areas where there is little or no security. While outside relief undoubtedly helps alleviate the short-term suffering of many victims, it may also contribute inadvertently to a worsening of the situation, as happened earlier this year in Liberia. More often than not, the focus on aid also provides decision makers with a convenient excuse not to adopt more pragmatic, and realistic steps, with regard to long-term political solutions.

By Edward Girardet

When fighting broke out again in the Liberian capital on 6 April earlier this year, thousands of civilians sought refuge in Mamba Point, a villa-studded peninsula considered the most, if not only, secure part of the city in times of turmoil. It is here where most of the international relief agencies and the few remaining diplomatic missions, notably the United States embassy and the European Union representation, are based. Even then, Mamba Point has remained a highly precarious safe haven, totally dependent on the will, and the ability, of the international community, West African peacekeeping forces (ECOMOG), and the US to assure its protection.

As expatriate relief workers prepared to evacuate their offices, abandoning vehicles, computers, satellite telephones, and radio transmitters to prospective looters, throngs of Liberians crowded into Graystone, a US residential complex a few hundred metres from the embassy. Others sought safety in and around the aid organization compounds. Following days of tension as armed factions of Liberia's rival warlords jostled for position, heavy fighting broke out again in Liberia. And as usual, it was Liberia's war-weary population who were the ones to suffer.

For the international community, and Africans in particular, Liberia's continued strife has emphasised the urgent need for more sober and realistic approaches to dealing with the ineptitude of corrupt power groups, the terror of uncontrolled armed thugs, the failure of regional peacekeeping forces, the role of the relief agencies, and the desire of local populations to simply get on with their lives with a say in their future. Mired in a state of lawlessness and insecurity, the civilian population of Liberia (as with their neighbours in Sierra Leone - see sidebars) have found themselves at varying points over the past few years at the mercy of marauding factional leaders, government officials, soldiers, armed fighters, rebels, profiteers and bandits. For any group or individual backed by a kalashnikov, or holding the upper hand in a particular region, sector or village, civilians represented little more than pawns, sources of commercial gain, food, labour, and sex.

As for the relief agencies, the international humanitarian effort has become very much part of this power equation. In many respects, Liberia is little different from other emergencies, past and present, ranging from Somalia to Sudan and Afghanistan, so the vulnerability of the relief agencies is nothing new. As one of the world's 30-plus conflicts in 1996, Liberia represents an increasingly current predicament whereby millions of civilians are caught up in a ruthless and enduring war with little hope of resolution. Over 150,000 Liberians have died in nearly seven years of strife. At least half a million have been displaced as internal refugees within their own country. Well over half of Liberia's pre-war population (the World Food Programme believes more than 80 percent) of 2.6 million has been forced to flee their homes.

In such situations, humanitarian agencies are often seen as the last barrier between basic survival and death for civilian populations. At the same time, scores of veteran aid agencies are finding themselves in the awkward position of inadvertently aiding the survival of militia and armed factions. In Liberia, the relief agencies have represented a specific and highly lucrative target both for looters and armed fighters.

Although Liberia's conflict has been nourished primarily by continuing local power struggles, commercial greed and tribal friction, one of the most nagging questions is whether, and to what extent, outside humanitarian assistance is actually alleviating, or contributing to, such crises. While some aid agencies may have played a relevant role in the support of Sierra Leone's electoral push in early 1996, their very presence in Liberia may have helped fuel if not prolong the conflict. Obviously, this represents a highly disturbing predicament for the international humanitarian community. It strikes at the very heart of what relief workers seek to achieve, yet it is a question that they can ill-afford to ignore.

While Liberia's conflict is not a tribal one per se, traditional ethnic hatred has certainly played a role. As witnessed by this and other journalists, many civilians killed during the early stages of the war were deliberately murdered based on their tribal origins, their remains still littering countless roadside killing fields. Today, tribal division remains partially responsible for the animosity that exists among the different faction leaders, notably between Charles Taylor, an Americo-Liberian (descendent of the freed slave colonists who settled in Liberia in the 19th century) and Roosevelt Johnson, a member of the Krahn tribe.

Perhaps more pertinently than other recent crisis, Liberia has raised the question of whether international relief agencies should continue with humanitarian operations without the benefit of appropriate security. Should relief workers seek to save lives in the short term but risk exacerbating the conflict by feeding the warring factions with vehicles, supplies and other sources of equipment and revenue, thus condemning more people to deprivation and death in the long term? Or should they stand by and do nothing because more lives may (but also may not) be saved eventually? Is this a decision for the humanitarian agencies? Or has the onus fallen once again by default on the aid organizations to "provide the solutions" (when obviously they cannot) because the international community has failed to provide the necessary political or military support for them to operate?

Increasingly debated by the serious relief agencies, such options place the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Save the Children, Médecins sans Frontières (MSF), Oxfam, UNICEF, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and others in a severe quandary. It is also one which, without the international community willing to seek or impose durable term settlements, can only offer temporary band-aid "solutions." These may appease the guilty consciences of governments but barely plug the dam.

During the April fighting, international relief teams in Monrovia (as well as those operating in other parts of the country) lost an estimated $20 million worth of equipment, including at least 200 vehicles. The breakdown of law and order prompted almost all the aid agencies to shut down their operations and evacuate their expatriate personnel. Despite efforts to remove or paint over logos before abandoning their compounds (vehicle keys were simply left on the bonnets in a bid to avoid unnecessary violence), four-wheel drives and trucks sporting the markings of MSF, UNICEF, UNHCR, Save the Children and others quickly became more closely identified with the armed factions than with medical relief and food distribution.

For the ICRC, this was the fourth such withdrawal. "This is the first time in our long involvement that the Red Cross has determined that circumstances on the ground has made it unrealistic to send back expatriate staff," commented Jean-Daniel Tauxe of the Geneva-based organization's African operation. Since 1990, the humanitarian groups have sought to work within the constraints imposed by various ceasefires, concessions obtained from the different factions for the right to work in certain areas, and the whims of local commanders. Relief workers have been taken hostage, vehicles hijacked or "borrowed," and aid supplies "liberated," taxed, or stolen by one faction or another.

Not only enormously frustrating but debilitatingly detrimental to the development of basic health assistance or other civilian aid programmes, most relief agencies have been forced by constantly changing circumstances to open, close, re-open, or evacuate their missions. By the end of May, Monrovia had been thoroughly pillaged by supporters of the rival warlords, freelance fighters, and ordinary civilians. A substantial portion of these stolen goods ended up in the ECOMOG compound, some supposedly confiscated, but much reportedly sold by the looters to the alleged peacekeepers.

International aid representatives are not necessarily suggesting that the humanitarian organizations are making matters worse. "But it is a question we constantly ask ourselves," observed one United Nations official in Monrovia. According to the ICRC, the Swiss-based organization was frequently accused of prolonging violence in Somalia because, based on its own estimates, up to five percent of its food aid was being misappropriated by the warlords. Nevertheless, it argues, 1.5 million Somalis survived the famine thanks to international assistance. In Liberia, however, no holds are barred, no rules are obeyed, and no deals hold. So what to do?

Faced with the prospect of trying to help beleaguered civilian populations at the risk of further aggravating the crisis, many relief workers have convinced themselves, or are at least trying to convince themselves, that continued humanitarian relief to Liberia remains imperative. Few are willing to declare openly that letting Liberians fight it out amongst themselves may be the only way to deal with the conflict.

While Liberians themselves admit that they are responsible for their own predicament and should not expect the outside world to bail them out, most humanitarians feel that the international community should assume a degree of responsibility to help resolve the crisis. "Morally, the aid agencies aren't going to sit back and watch people suffer," said John Langlois of the Atlanta-based Carter Center.

Today, Liberia remains the epitome of a nation abused by its leaders. This despite indications late last year that this West African country was groping its way back to normality. In August 1995, Liberia's seven principal warring factions had signed the so-called Abuja peace accords, the seventh such agreement in as many years of civil war, leading to the creation of a Council of State comprised of three warlords and three civilians.

Backed by the US, the UN and the 16-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the agreement sought to force the country's rival factions to accept a sweeping peace plan aimed at demilitarizing Monrovia, disarming the country's estimated 60,000 fighters (many of them in their teens), returning all equipment stolen from relief agencies, and preparing for nation-wide elections a year later.

The new atmosphere of apparent reconciliation encouraged international relief agencies to slowly expand their activities, even laying the groundwork for more longer term development strategies. In early 1996, Liberia was no longer considered to be suffering from an acute food shortage. In addition, the capital was undergoing a reconstruction boom with newly refurbished shops, offices, and homes bolstered by the return of one of the most significant economic barometers in this part of the world, the Lebanese business community.

The trouble with the new council, however, was that the true reins of power remained in the hands of the three factional leaders represented -- Charles Taylor of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), George Boley of the so-called Liberian Peace Council, and Alhaji Kromah of the United Movement of Liberia for Democracy (ULIMO). All jealously guarded their positions to maintain their respective power interests, both political and commercial. According to Amos Sawyer, a former interim president, the transitional "government" was completely taken over by the three warlords, who consistently sought to "crush all forms of opposition." Another problem was that the council had failed to include the four other key leaders, notably Roosevelt Johnson, a breakaway ULIMO rival.

Initially, the Abuja peace initiative appeared to be a serious attempt to encourage if not enforce the sharing of power. In practice, however, the overall situation remained factionalized with little effective cooperation. The peace plan was proving a disaster. According to the accords, the country was supposed to have been disarmed by January 1996. Instead, Taylor (with the apparent connivance of ECOMOG) but also Alhaji Kromah and Roosevelt Johnson were infiltrating both men and weapons into the capital. For the Carter Center's Langlois, the factional leaders "were never interested in giving up their control, whether in the ministries or with business. There are too many commercial interests involved."

What the initiative had failed to recognise is that this war has been largely fuelled by the trade of Liberia's natural resources for arms and cash. The warring leaders are more intent on pursuing their own personal ambitions for power and wealth rather than the well-being of their nation's people. Far from being serious political partners, these men, or "vampires" (as one newspaper of Monrovia's relatively outspoken press referred to them) represent a greedy but also astute lot of "Mafiosi" with extremely organized criminal networks backed by local and outside business interests. British, French and other foreign mining firms, for example, have provided a very reliable source of support for Taylor. During the April fighting, Taylor and his supporters were reportedly taking substantial cuts from looted goods, much of it stolen from humanitarian supply depots.

Bolstered by crucial commercial links with business operators ranging from Lebanese businessmen to Nigerian soldiers, Ivorian government officials and even Russian profiteers, the factional leaders have destroyed Liberia's central government and infrastructure, thoroughly looting the economy in the process. Equally important, soldiers of ECOMOG, the regional military peacekeeping force first dispatched by ECOWAS to Liberia in 1990, were heavily involved in the corruption and trafficking either on their own or in collusion with the various factions.

To the frustration of the relief agencies, the Monrovia faction leaders often have little real control over their fighters, or "boys" as they are known locally. Or if they do, they claim not to be responsible for their abuses against civilians or incidents involving aid workers. Many of the warring militia consist of children, some no more than six or seven years old. What is so horrifying is the ease with which children have become drawn into the conflict.

All the warlords, without exception, condone the use of children in their ranks. According to the relief agencies, many are kidnapped or "borrowed" from villages to serve with the militia. Over the years, relief workers and journalists have witnessed, or have been told of incidents, whereby children kill ordinary civilians or inflict torture in a Clockwork Orange-like manner.

Such logic, or the lack of it, is just as rampant if not more among the adult fighters. Often on drugs, they demonstrate little sense of discipline. They terrorize local populations using their weapons to assert themselves at checkpoints or among the villages, where they steal food, force local inhabitants to work for them, and rape young girls and women. A number of human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have compiled ample evidence detailing such behaviour.

By early July 1996, Monrovia was once again officially declared a "safe haven" by ECOMOG with both the main airfield and the port restored to commercial use. Most United Nations and independent relief agencies have re-established their operations' bases in the capital, where the conflict has now subsided. Nevertheless, there has been increased factional fighting mainly between ULIMO-J and ULIMO-K in the Bomi Hills and Grand Cape Mount areas resulting in new floods of refugees.

If there is to be any hope of a lasting solution, it is clear that the entire peace process will need to be fully assessed. This includes a complete reappraisal of the roles and intentions of the different players -- the factional leaders and their commercial supporters, ECOMOG, the Americans, the UN and the European Union. For the international aid community, guarantees of security for civilians but also for aid workers, their equipment and supplies will determine the nature, extent and justification of humanitarian relief and development programmes.

For some observers, the only feasible way out of this impasse is the restoration of effective security conditions independent of humanitarian operations. Since the failed UN effort in Somalia, however, the United States and other nations have been reluctant to support the sort of military operations needed to re-establish order in politically volatile states such as Liberia. The means are there, the will is not. West African leaders have expressed disappointment in the United States for its unwillingness to become more directly involved. As Washington Post correspondent Blaine Harden noted in May 1996: "The US government played a pivotal role in making all this happen. And the Clinton administration, like the Bush administration before it, is doing very little about it...(the US government) has not deemed Liberia's chaos to be sufficiently important to warrant serious consideration of any kind of American intervention."

Other than providing relief shipments, some financial aid, and support for the evacuation of over 2,000 American and other foreign nationals, Washington has held back. This was made poignantly clear during the Gulf War, when Liberians failed to understand why American troops in 1990 were prepared to intervene for the sake of oil-rich Kuwait but not to help save lives in backwater Monrovia. At the time, observers felt that a relatively small US show of force in the Liberian capital could have helped prevent some of the horrendous killing that occurred.

Instead, humanitarian aid has been used as a means to skirt international responsibility rather than make the political commitments needed to provide conditions which could lead to a resolution of the conflict. "What has happened in the last few years is that humanitarian aid has become a tool that governments use to avoid real and concerted action," asserted MSF's Steve O'Malley in New York. Similarly, while the principal donors are fully aware that regional peacekeeping without proper accountability has not, and cannot work, as in the case of ECOMOG, the international community seems perfectly willing to persist with the facade.

While some observers feel that any form of American intervention in Liberia would be disastrous, others consider that there is a definite role for the US to help end the violence. Not only can the Americans bring pressure on the faction leaders, they believe, but a US security presence in Monrovia would assure appropriate security. "If you want to establish the sort of security that will save lives, let the relief agencies get on with their job, and allow people to go back to their homes, you've got to be prepared to adopt the appropriate action and not be afraid to follow through with it," said a UNOPS representative in Monrovia.

Another possibility is the deployment of mercenaries such as the South African-run Executive Outcomes, a controversial option increasingly debated among both donors and humanitarians. Consisting mainly of white and Coloured ex-personnel of the South African Armed Forces, Executive Outcomes has achieved relative security albeit with apparently ruthless efficiency in select diamond areas of Sierra Leone. Although the Freetown government, which has being paying the originally 300-strong force, is under pressure not to renew their contract, Executive Outcomes has proven popular among local civilians tired of banditry and war.

While vehemently opposed by some, such mercenary forces may prove a far more effective and less costly option if the international community is unable to come up with better peacekeeping solutions. One fear expressed by relief representatives is that mercenary forces will only serve specific interests and may not prove accountable to the community as a whole in the long run. For most civilians, it does not matter who is providing the security as long as they can once again enjoy the conditions that will allow them to get on with their lives. This includes the chance to vote in or otherwise support leaders genuinely interested in the well-being of their nation as opposed to their own individual greed.

For a growing number of aid professionals, there is simply no longer any point in providing aid, whether emergency or long-term, if both the relief agencies and the civilian populations continue to be held hostage by warlords, armed fighters, profiteers, and the lack of any effective international resolve. Western countries are providing the bulk of Liberia's humanitarian relief. As matters stand, they are throwing taxpayers' contributions and voluntary donations down the drain. Yet Liberia's problem is hardly one of funding. Nor should the international community consider emergency relief support as its sole response. The donor countries and others concerned by the conflict all need to find the political will to finally tackle the issue head on, difficult and controversial as this option may be. There is little question that unless appropriate action is taken, the Liberian civil war will fester, even if fighting subsides for long periods at a time. It may also spread to other parts of West Africa.

Edward Girardet is Editor of CROSSLINES Global Report.

peacekeeping force or business?

For many observers and humanitarian representatives, the West African peacekeeping forces, particularly the Nigerians who represent 85 percent of the soldiers, there is little question that ECOMOG has become an extension of the conflict. It is also very much part of the Nigerian military regime's own foreign policy and commercial interests. Ever since its intervention in 1990, ECOMOG has been responsible for more looting than the factions themselves, some observers believe. Officially known as the ECOWAS Monitoring Group, ECOMOG has become known more appropriately as "Everything That Could Move Is Gone."

Over the years, its troops have made a concerted and unabashed effort to remove anything of value ranging from cars to house roofing, piping and mineral wealth, shipping most of it to Nigeria. "I have never come across such an inherently corrupt bunch of people," commented one Western aid representative.

Nigeria's profiteering has incurred the dismay not only of the international humanitarian community but also Liberians. Many initially saw the robbing of their country as the price for peace, but anger has grown as people have realised that ECOMOG was not only failing to provide security, but continuing to exploit Liberia's plight for its own benefit. As with the warlords, ECOMOG does not seem in particular hurry to end the conflict. Business is just too good.

As a regional peacekeeping force, ECOMOG has proven an utter failure. It failed even more dismally during the April violence. ECOMOG peacekeeping forces mysteriously disappeared from their checkpoints, making little or no effort to halt the spread of fighting or looting. Apart from a number of operations to rescue people such as aid expatriates, U.N. local staff and their families, and (at a price) Lebanese, they abandoned their positions almost as soon as the fighting began. Had they remained at their posts in a show of force, they might have been able to contain at least some of the fighting. ECOMOG's supposed impartiality came into question even more when, according to diplomatic and other sources, it had made a deal with Taylor allowing him to infiltrate fighters and weapons into Monrovia during the weeks leading up to the fighting. While the West African community claims, with some justification, that the force is too poorly equipped and badly trained to perform an effective role, it is more than that. The force has proved too corrupt to do any good.

New peace initiatives call for a strengthening of ECOMOG. The U.S. has offered 30 million dollars in support, which would include new equipment and training. Belgium and Denmark have offered to pay for additional peacekeeping battalions from Ghana and Burkina Faso. According to Ghanian deputy foreign minister Mohammed Ibn Chambas, a 12,000-man force would cost $90 million a year and should be provided by the international community. Instead, he complained, it prefers to spend unimaginable sums of money on humanitarian assistance while "the roots of the crisis go unaddressed."

While European and American donor representatives agree that such a force needs to be properly equipped in order to prove effective, some question whether ECOMOG, given the agenda of Nigeria's military dictatorship and its obvious expansion in the region, is indeed the right vehicle to help implement the peace process. Such assistance will prove a sheer waste of money if ECOMOG is allowed to operate as before without any form of outside accountability. Regional peacekeeping forces which have too many local interests simply cannot function in an impartial manner.

Initially, both Roosevelt Johnson and Alhaji Kromah enjoyed good relations with ECOMOG. Later, the Nigerians switched their support to Kromah, who took direct control of local mining operations in Bomi county in western Liberia. In return, the Nigerian commanders received a cut in his trade. In early 1996, fighting broke out between ULIMO-Johnson and ECOMOG in Tubmanburg when a new Nigerian commander would not go along with a collaborative diamond mining arrangement worked out by one of his predecessors.

The Nigerians have been similarly involved with faction leader George Boley in exploiting rubber resources. But ECOMOG soldiers have gone also into business themselves by running their own operations. According to sources, at least six former Nigerian commanders have developed substantial business operations in Liberia and are still using their ECOMOG contacts to continue dealing. The Bulk Challenger, for example, was reportedly carrying vehicles and other commodities looted during the April fighting, much of it sold directly to the Nigerians at the ECOMOG base.

As Colin Scott, a British relief consultant, observed in a 1994 report for the Thomas J. Watson for International Studies, the West African peacekeeping operation had stepped clearly into a political vacuum but had failed to maintain a neutral stance. It also raised the question as to whether a U.N. intervention force might not have produced "a better, long-term outcome."

For this reason, observers suggest that Liberia would be served better by involving troops with no particular affiliation or interests in the region, such as Eritreans or Pakistanis, or by placing the ECOMOG forces under UN, even American control.

None of the faction leaders, or most Liberians for that matter, will ever really trust ECOMOG to police a re-instituted peace settlement or nation-wide disarmanent of militia as long as its commanders and soldiers retain a personal stake in the country's commerce. EG

Nominations, please

The International Centre for Humanitarian Reporting (ICHR) is calling for nominations for the 1996 International Media Awards for War & Humanitarian Reporting. The awards seek to recognise outstanding and consistent reporting in radio, print, art, and television among the international press in the coverage of wars and humanitarian crises. The ICHR also represents one award to a group or individual for outstanding relief, development or advocacy work in humanitarian action.

Award Categories

  • · The Mirwais Jalil Radio Award for War & Humanitarian Reporting
  • · The Alexandra Tuttle Press Award for War & Humanitarian Reporting
  • · The Herbert Girardet Art Award for War & Humanitarian Reporting
  • · The Ilaria Alpi and Miran Hrovatin Television Award for War & Humanitarian Reporting
  • · The Fred Cuny Humanitarian Award

Please send your nominations by 5 September 1996 and reasons for proposing a particular group or individual to: The Director, ICHR, PO Box 530, 1110 MORGES (VD), Switzerland. Fax 41(22)-920-1679 (Geneva). E-mail: info.ichr

Sierra Leone: reason for optimism?

Sierra Leone's new civilian government is struggling to maintain a hold over the peace process. This includes control over its own undisciplined troops, a task which government officials themselves admit is not easy. As part of the country's peace talks earlier this year, both the Freeport government and the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF) have agreed to a simultaneous demobilization of forces in an effort to reduce the number of troops under arms. There is friction between the army and local populations, who distrust the soldiers. There is also increasing tension between government troops and civilian-supported "traditional hunters." Reducing insecurity, however, represents only one of Sierra Leone's challenges in the months ahead.

As opposed to Liberia's renewed plunge into chaos earlier this year, neighbouring Sierra Leone appeared to be moving gingerly toward peace following its elections last March. Five international observer teams pronounced the elections free and fair despite the security situation which prevented many from outside the towns from voting. Nevertheless, nearly 60 percent of the country's registered electorate cast their ballots.

During the weeks leading up to the first round of elections in late February 1996, rebels and other armed fighters (some believed to be soldiers) terrorized civilians, including children, by killing or beating them, or chopping off hands as a means of intimidation. When interviewed at a special internally displaced refugee camp in the eastern town of Bo, many of these victims said they were told by their attackers to "go and show the others" what had happened to them. Despite such intimidation, sporadic gunfire, a shortage of ballot papers and long queues, people demonstrated an extraordinary spirit of determination and public courage in their bid to exercise the right to vote.

The second round on 15 March proceeded more peacefully. By the time the final ballots were counted, it was clear that Sierra Leone's renewed experiment in democracy, its first multi-party elections in over 30 years, revealed an overwhelming desire among its war-weary population for political change and an end to war and insecurity. As one senior Western diplomat noted: "The amazing thing is that only months earlier these elections had seemed unimaginable. But the ordinary people obviously wanted to say: enough!"

By the time the military handed over power in a formal ceremony on 29 March, ending four years of army rule, over 10,000 civilians had been killed in a ruthless civil war that first erupted in 1991. Thousands more had been injured, many of them suffering from deliberate mutilations. Almost half the country's 4.5 million people had been driven from their homes. Many had sought refuge across the border in Liberia or Guinea, but the majority had flocked to the overcrowded environs of Freetown, Bo, Kenema, and other towns. According to humanitarian organizations, Sierra Leone's conflict has been characterized by a total lack of protection of the population and by severe human rights violations inflicted on civilians by all the warring sides.

The elections came in the wake of a provisional agreement between the former military regime and the RUF. Sierra Leone's new president, Alhaji Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, has now made it his "top priority" to continue the previous regime's negotiations with the RUF in an effort to halt the violence and allow Sierra Leone to recover from its spiralling nightmare of anarchy and economic degradation. By June, however, the 28-point peace plan was bogged down over two key points: the departure of the South African mercenary force, Executive Outcomes, and the creation of a joint government-RUF committee to oversee budgetary and debt questions.

Despite a wealth of natural resources, Sierra Leone has been subjected to extraordinary economic and social ruin ever since its early years of independence from Britain. From 1964 onwards, successive regimes have thoroughly ransacked the nation's economy through a combination of political corruption, greed and repression. During the 1970s and 1980s, President Siaka Stevens ensured that government officials systematically looted or siphoned off everything from office fixtures and cars to the proceeds of the diamond industry, donor funding, tourism, and the airlines. Substantial kickbacks went straight to the president and his cohorts. The population, too, was terrorized by the army and police, in particular the State Security Division (SSD), who were little more than thugs and known as "Siaka's dogs."

When a group of young soldiers grabbed power in a coup d'etat against the civilian regime in 1992, they were welcomed enthusiastically by a desperate population. Many people simply wanted to see an end to the kleptocracy which had left the country's commerce totally wrecked, civil servants impoverished, schools without teachers, and beggars to die from hunger on the steps of State House. People were worried also by the spreading violence induced by Sierra Leone's grim new civil war, which had begun in 1991 with the overrunning of towns close to the Liberian border by RUF leader Foday Sankoh and his men. But the years of corrupt civilian rule were only replaced by corrupt military rule and more civil war.

Inexperienced and uneducated, the new military rulers allowed the country to slip into a free-for-all with both RUF rebels and soldiers involved in the killing and looting. When Sankoh, who was initially backed by Liberia's Charles Taylor, first entered government-controlled towns he opened local jails swollen with inmates who had been imprisoned unjustly by the Freetown regime. Many joined the RUF while others escaped into the bush to become bandits. Huge swathes of Sierra Leone became security zones too dangerous to live in, prompting tens of thousands of civilians to abandon their homes and flee.

In 1994, a nationwide movement for change began to emerge. Tired of being abused, plundered and terrorized, ordinary people decided to defy those who had helped transform Sierra Leone into one of Africa's best known examples of misrule and corruption. Even though government structures had clearly collapsed, traditional, and in many ways, democratic grassroots institutions remained very much alive. Local communities formed their own "civil defence forces" under the leadership of secret societies, the paramount chiefs and hunter-warriors. An increasingly powerful women's movement, perhaps one of the most effective lobbies for forcing the discredited military regime to hold elections, also came to the fore. For the first time, people felt empowered. But they also appeared more sober in their expectations. "This war must stop and we must get on with the building of a new society. And that includes a real democracy which is what I think the people really want," noted a concerned Zainab Bangura, head of Sierra Leone's Women Organized for a Morally Enlightened Nation (WOMEN).

There is little doubt that Sierra Leone's problems will not be resolved by a mere change of government. The current challenge is to make its new democracy sustainable. It will also take more than foreign aid to put the country back on the road to recovery. Following the return to civilian rule, the United Nations immediately called upon the mainly western donors for $57 million in emergency assistance, mainly for humanitarian purposes. Donors have been trickling back to Freetown to explore new projects and possibilities for renewed funding.

One of the biggest difficulties is corruption. This is blatantly apparent the moment any visitor steps off the plane and is encountered by immigration and customs officers seeking "tips." It affects virtually every aspect of public and private life, whether in the form of police stopping cars at checkpoints or provincial secretaries taking rakeoffs from donated food supplies. Many of those elected to the new parliament are the same people who participated in (and profited from) Sierra Leone's downward spiral to economic and political oblivion over the past two decades.

Sierra Leone will need to completely reform its government structure including the army, police and judicial system. It will need to implement an efficient tax, customs and excise system to help bring in much needed revenue. Above all, it will need to instil a new sense of responsibility supported by appropriate salaries among civil servants to do their jobs with the country's interests at heart and not for personal gain.

Another key problem is what to do about the bands of fighters roaming the bush. As with numerous other conflicts, Sierra Leone suffers from a preponderance of child fighters who know nothing but war. According to CARE-UK, UNICEF and other aid agencies, the RUF has captured children in attacks against villages or recruited youngsters from the diamond areas. Many have been forced to carry out mutilations and killings as part of their initiation. "How is one going to persuade these young men and boys who find it easier to live by the gun that there is another life for them?" asked Freek Landmeter of Médicines Sans Frontières in Freetown.

For those with guns, looting is far more profitable than waiting for jobs to materialise. No one is certain how strong and how organized the rebels are. What is clear, however, is that the past few years of insecurity have led to the creation of undisciplined, warring groups in the bush who have set up their own fiefdoms to exact "rents" from traders and local farmers. Such realities will hamper the implementation of any effective peace process. There is also concern that many of the armed men involved in assaults against civilians are not rebels or freelance fighters but military personnel. Numerous civilians claim to have recognised soldiers among their attackers. While such activities may indicate soldiers masquerading as insurgents for their own benefit, it could also suggest collusion between elements of the army and the RUF. Some observers fear that this could eventually lead to a joint army-rebel move to oust civilian rule as a means of holding on to local interests. As with Liberia, much of the fighting has been over control of the lucrative diamond mines.

Proposals are now on the table for disarming the fighters but also re-training (and reducing) the Sierra Leone army into a new security force that will respect democratic institutions. The same goes for the police. The United States has already included some forms of training and other support for the military in return for their use of Freetown as a logistical base during the Liberia evacuations in April and May 1996. Donors and others concerned by Sierra Leone's rehabilitation have proposed a diverse group ranging from the Nigerians and various ECOMOG countries to the British, the Commonwealth (of which Sierra Leone is a member) and the United Nations to do the job. As it is, the Nigerians have been providing Sierra Leone with security support (an estimated 2,000 troops) to protect government facilities such as office buildings and the national radio transmitter on a hill overlooking Freetown.

Given the corruption and lack of respect for democratic institutions by Nigeria's own military regime, its expansionist interests in West Africa, and the disastrous role its forces have played in Liberia, many observers consider Nigeria a risky choice. "The Nigerians don't deserve it," said Julius Spencer, a dissident Sierra Leonean editor and theatre director. A better solution, he and others suggest, would be to bring in an outside force with no regional interests, such as the Commonwealth. "There is a definite role here for the Commonwealth and not only in the military domain. Right now, the whole country needs to be overhauled." EG

Innocent targets Of War:
Protection Or Abandonment?

Western policy, international relief and the media in conflicts and humanitiarian crises.

The International Centre for Humanitarian Reporting (ICHR) will be holding its second Weapons of War, Tools of Peace Symposium in Boston, MA, on 15-17 November 1996.

Co-hosted by Boston University School of Journalism, the Nieman Foundation of Harvard University, Northeastern School of Journalism and CROSSLINES Global Report, the conference will focus on practical working partnerships between the media and the international aid community in the protection of civilians in conflict.

Co-sponsors will include major international humanitarian organizations and media.

For further information, please contact:

Eve Porter, ICHR,
16a Grant Street,
Cambridge, MA 02138, USA.
Tel: 1(617)-491-4771
Fax: 1(617)-491-4689

Relief in Sierra Leone: a fragile situation

The humanitarian predicament in Sierra Leone remains precarious. While both sides to the conflict - the new civilian government and the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF) - announced a general "security guarantee" for humanitarian assistance even before the actual stepdown of the previous military regime in late March 1996, this has not necessarily happened. Aid agencies have managed to increase assistance to new areas previously denied access. Other attempted relief initiatives have been halted or otherwise thwarted.

At the time of this writing, there has been a worrisome rise in security incidents and violence in the field. At one point, the government sought to curb operations of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) prompting the Geneva-based aid agency to suspend all activities. This resulted in new rules for the agencies, notably ICRC and Médecins sans Frontières, seeking to work in RUF territory. Humanitarian aid is now forbidden to be brought over the border from neighbouring Guinea. According to aid agencies, the Freeport authorities now insist on strict government control of outside aid, making it far more difficult, insecure and costly to provide international relief by road and by air.

Initially, government efforts toward reform and rehabilitation of the country's devastated infrastructure appeared positive. According to MSF, ICRC, the United Nations, and other aid agencies, there seemed to be a "clear sense of realism and political direction" among new officials in the Ministry of Health and other departments. Despite the cease-fire, however, there were still reports of violent attacks along roads or in villages. In May, Bo hospital received 69 war-related injuries, twice as many as in April. During the same period, 3,500-4,000 people sought refuge in the town. Government officials acknowledged that these attacks were not necessarily only carried out by rebels, but by "bandits" including possible former or current military personnel.

"Often there seems to be no strategy in these attacks and come close to ordinary banditry. They are random, aimed at simply terrorizing the population or robbing commercial goods," said one MSF representative.

Given such incidents, aid agencies suggested that insecurity affecting both civilian populations and relief operations would continue for some time. There are clear indications that both sides have been receiving new arms and ammunition since the cease-fire. Diplomats and relief representatives fear that further deadlocks in the peace negotiations might induce the RUF to return to the bush.

Apart from possible restrictions on relief operations by the government or rebels, the humanitarian situation will primarily hinge on conflicts in neighbouring countries such as Liberia. Even though Sierra Leone has forbidden entry to further refugees, it is clear that Liberians will still seek to flee. Such exoduses could further destabilize Sierra Leone. In addition, there have been disturbing reports of tension in Guinea which could erupt at any time and produce more refugees. Another potentially disruptive threat is the return of Sierra Leonean refugees attracted by improving conditions in their native country. And as if that were not enough, relief agencies fear that considerable quantities of humanitarian aid supplies could provoke looting, particularly among armed groups in the frontier areas.

Since the early 1990s, international relief agencies have sought to provide humanitarian assistance to civilians caught up in the conflict. However, major donors and aid organizations, particularly those involved in non-emergency projects, such as the US Peace Corps or Britain's Voluntary Service Overseas, pulled out because of growing insecurity and government corruption.

Even the aid agencies focusing on emergency relief found themselves severely restricted by the fighting. In certain areas, aid supplies could only be brought in by air. On the ground, trucks could only travel in convoys and then at constant risk of being stopped by rebels or armed fighters.

Deteriorating conditions provoking influxes of refugees from the countryside in Kenema sparked off a major food emergency in mid-1995 prompting aid agencies to establish therapeutic feeding centres for children. At times, between 8,000 and 10,000 new refugees were arriving from the countryside every month in towns such as Bo. MSF, Action Contre La Faim, UNICEF, Catholic Relief Services, Concern Universal and others have continued to assist locally displaced civilians as well as wounded and mutilated victims of the fighting. Following the outbreak of yellow fever, MSF conducted an immunization programme involving nearly 150,000 people.

There has been some encouraging collaboration in ensuring more long-term relief activities. By early 1996, MSF was able to hand over its Kenema operations to the more development-oriented British medical agency, MERLIN. Overall, however, much will depend on the success of the peace negotiations. EG

Reflections on "The Coming Anarchy"

In February, 1994, the Boston-based Atlantic Monthly published "The Coming Anarchy", a highly controversial article by American journalist Robert D. Kaplan that has coloured the way certain observers now view the future of West Africa and other parts of the developing world. The article, which maintains that ecological crisis, tribal warfare, disease, and marauding urban gangs will cause the collapse of many Third World nations, has become recommended reading among policy circles, aid agencies and universities both in the United States and Europe. Kaplan further develops this theme in his recently published book: The Ends of the Earth**. For certain critics, however, Kaplan's gloomy predictions are uninformed, superficial and completely off the mark.

By Joseph Opala

Robert D. Kaplan is a widely travelled journalist. He tells us that he has reported from 60 countries, that he has ridden in "bush taxis," and that, unlike foreign policy mandarins with their stifling suburban background and their mental "protective bubble," he has the "stomach" to see the world as it really is. Having reported from Sudan to Afghanistan, the Balkans to West of Africa, he makes it clear that he is no ordinary reporter, but an analyst, a thinker, and thus uniquely qualified to assess the world's fate in the coming century.

Kaplan maintains that endemic tribal warfare will rage in the interior of many Third World nations and will spark mass migrations, giving rise to teeming coastal cities filled with crime and disease. Youth gangs with no culture beyond the worst of western pop music will wage endless cycles of urban violence. The distinction between crime and warfare will disappear. The 21st century, he says, will witness the collapse of many nation states, threatening the "social fabric of our planet."

Kaplan's essay, which appears as a chapter in his new book, begins with an account of Sierra Leone, a small West African nation he regards as a "microcosm of what is occurring in...much of the underdeveloped world." He sees that country's indigenous culture as incapable of meeting the challenges of the 21st century. Its traditional animism corrupts Christianity and Islam and fosters "polygamy" and "communalism." Above all, it is a place where "Western enlightenment has not penetrated."

Kaplan predicts that the next century will witness a "cruel process of natural selection among existing states," though some will survive. Sierra Leone, he maintains, is "beyond salvage," but Turkey has a culture with "natural muscle tone" and a manly form of Islam not "hobbled" by African animism. One wonders, however, how Kaplan can explain Sierra Leone's successful recent elections, and the fact that its traditional African institutions helped force its military regime to step down. Sierra Leone's elections reflect the resilience of a population fed up with corruption and civil disorder, and determined to do something about it.

Nevertheless, judging by continuing references in the media, and some glowing reviews of Kaplan's new book, the "Coming Anarchy" has achieved wide acceptance. Newsweek said it was "required reading in Washington." Policy wonks viewed it on a par with (US political analyst) Francis Fukuyama's End of History and the Clash of Civilizations by Samuel P. Huntington (of Harvard's Olin Institute for Strategic Studies), two other predictive schemes claiming to account for global trends following the Cold War. Kaplan's previous book Balkan Ghosts, about the former Yugoslavia, exerted a similar influence in policy circles. But if Kaplan's predictions are to be taken seriously, we must examine Sierra Leone, the country he views as a crystal ball for the world's future. As an anthropologist who has lived there for 20 years, I was struck by his description of that nation, struck that is, at finding almost nothing accurate in it. Kaplan has sounded an alarm based on his superficial reaction to a country he knows nothing about, and based on a relatively short visit.

Had Kaplan decided to evaluate current events in an obscure European nation, say, Albania, he would, no doubt, have sought a political explanation. Nevertheless, he tells us that African nations such as Sierra Leone have no politics. Thus, he relies on what he takes to be a cultural theory. He views Sierra Leone's woes as stemming from a weak culture, one lacking "natural muscle tone." Kaplan is right to say that Sierra Leone had collapsed into anarchy at the time of his visit in 1993, but his explanation for why that occurred is completely wrong. To understand Sierra Leone, one must deal with it like any other country. One needs to ask what events in its modern political history have to led to its present situation.

The story begins with independence in 1961. The British had governed with the divide-and-rule tactics typical of colonial powers. They did not build institutions of self-government until shortly before pulling out. By imposing a new constitution, and then leaving soon afterwards, they virtually invited corrupt politicians to change the system to suit their own purposes. Corrupt leaders found it easy to alter a constitution that never had the time to acquire the aura of legitimacy political systems need to endure.

Official corruption reached outrageous proportions during the years of Siaka Stevens' rule, from 1968 to 1985. Stevens made himself president of a one-party state, and established a "kleptocracy" in which cabinet ministers were expected to loot their respective departments. In the late 1970s, he spent the country's entire foreign exchange reserves on big ticket construction projects, then took massive kickbacks from contractors. Had Stevens been a bloodthirsty dictator, he could never have ruled for so many years, but he was an avuncular character with the honey-coated charm of an African Huey Long. Whenever possible, he preferred drawing his opponents into his corruption, rather than imprisoning them, and, in the end, his worst crime was corrupting his country's entire political class.

After Stevens handed power to Joseph Momoh, his military commander, the bottom fell out. Between the years of official corruption and an economic downturn, Momoh was forced to submit to a stringent structural adjustment programme demanded by the country's foreign donors. In the late 1980s, the government stopped paying civil servants, teachers, customs officials, and even police, and there were repeated power, petrol, and currency shortages.

Then, in 1990, neighbouring Liberia erupted into civil war, and Momoh joined other West African nations to try and stop the fighters of Liberian rebel leader Charles Taylor from seizing power. When Taylor sent guerrillas across the border, Momoh was forced to recruit a new army from youths embittered by the long years of corruption. When he failed to provide them with adequate logistical support, they overthrew his government.

In April, 1992, young captains and lieutenants formed the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC), and Sierra Leoneans were jubilant. Since every middle-aged politician had deceived them, they were anxious to give the youth a chance. But the NPRC ushered in a period of civil anarchy. When the young leaders failed to set a standard of honesty, there was no controlling their soldiers, who turned to looting provincial towns. And instead of cracking down on indiscipline, the NPRC blamed the atrocities on the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), the ragtag Sierra Leone guerrilla band initially backed by Taylor. While RUF was guilty of its own share of atrocities, government troops were no less involved.

Sierra Leoneans were loath to accept that their new government had collapsed into anarchy. The situation remained unclear for many until 1993, when traditional institutions rose up to protect civilians against government troops. When the paramount chiefs, the men's secret societies, and the traditional hunter-warriors faced off with government soldiers, Sierra Leoneans finally grasped that the problem went beyond the RUF. Some provincial towns virtually seceded from the government, setting up their own local militia.

The international community pressured the NPRC to step down, but it was people power that brought elections in early 1996. Civilians from all walks of life, but particularly women's groups, braved considerable risks to demand elections. In the first round, civilians battled soldiers in the streets to protect their ballot boxes. After that, the military backed off and the second round of the vote went smoothly. When a civilian president was finally elected under a new democratic constitution, Sierra Leoneans congratulated themselves on their own collective courage and determination.

The explanation of Sierra Leone's collapse into anarchy turns out to be quite simple. Corrupt politicians and a shattered economy destroyed respect for government. There is nothing new in that; it is as old as politics itself. There is no need for a new theory to mesmerise Washington think tanks, no need to categorise Sierra Leoneans as holders of an inferior culture. In fact, they turn out to be like people everywhere. When their government disintegrates, some go berserk. Yet when a mass movement arises to put things right, many more are capable of extraordinary acts of personal courage.

Some of Kaplan's mistaken notions are amusing. His theory of ecological crisis, that 60 percent of the country was covered by primary rain forest in 1961, and that it has all been chopped down, is pure fantasy. The government's official figure at that time was less than one percent, and it is about the same today.

But his essay does terrible injustice to some very brave people. By stereotyping the hunter-warriors and secret societies as "juju warriors" and regarding them, and the traditional chiefs, as agents of anarchy, he turns things up-side-down. When their government began preying on its own people, Sierra Leoneans fell back on their traditional institutions to protect them. Kaplan says their culture lacks "muscle tone," but warriors armed only with muskets and machetes confronted soldiers brandishing AK-47s, earning the gratitude of otherwise defenceless villagers.

His essay also defames Sierra Leone's urban youth. The youngsters he calls "skinhead Cossacks" are the most patriotic element in the population. Raised in the city, they have given up old-fashioned ethnic loyalties, regarding themselves, first and foremost, as Sierra Leoneans. In 1993, thousands of these youths took to the streets to demand a moral revival in their national life, painting countless inspirational murals with religious and patriotic themes. One example, by an 18-year-old street boy, showed moral instruction passing from an elderly grandmother to a young mother, to a small child, and was crowned by a single word: MORALITY. Yet these are the people Kaplan dismisses as having no heritage beyond "the worst refuse of American pop culture."

Kaplan presents himself as the best proof of his theory based on his many travels and observations. Moreover, we learn that he is a broadly educated man of the West, capable of spouting esoteric facts about European history. Herodotus, often called the "Father of History," helped inaugurate the Western tradition when he showed how a person of liberal mind can be broadened by foreign travel. The customs of Egyptians and Persians were strange to Greeks, but Herodotus found them sensible enough when understood from the other man's point of view. It turns out that Kaplan is the one "Western enlightenment has not penetrated," and it says something about human nature that 25 centuries after Herodotus, it is still possible for a professional commentator to be so intolerant and narrow minded.

That so many have apparently taken him seriously says even more.

Joseph Opala is currently based in Freetown, Sierra Leone. He is an Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Anthropology, University College, London.

**Robert D. Kaplan's book -- The Ends of the Earth: A Journey at the Dawn of the 21st Century -- is published by Random House, New York, 1996. ISBN: 0-679-43148-9. Cost: $27.50.

The future of food aid

The days of traditional food aid are over. International organizations are looking closely at their operations on the ground to see that they get value for money.

By Peter Walker

"Latest information confirms expectation of a recovery in cereal output in 1996, but the global supply/demand situation will remain tight. If current forecasts materialize, cereal output would be sufficient to meet the expected consumption requirements in 1996/97. However, the outlook for global food security would remain precarious for at least another year as the expected increase would allow only a very modest replenishment of the reduced global stocks."1

This is how the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) opens its latest report on global food prospects. Not an encouraging scenario and this is at a time of radical change in the global food industry. Change which has seen massive hikes in the price of food already and which is predicted to cause the end of massive western food surpluses. Against these global trends, food aid is still perceived as a central resource for disaster response, but for how much longer?

For many people, food aid is synonymous with famine relief. During the 1980's and early 90s disaster response agencies have become used to trucking and distributing huge amounts of food, up to 15 million tonnes some years, and have come to regard it as a given. As long as you shout loud enough, the food aid will flow. But all this is changing and changing fast.

Food aid was always a surplus product. Nobody grows food aid, they grow grain to sell and under the old interventionist policies of particularly the United States and the European Union, surpluses needed to be stored or disposed of to keep farm prices up. Hence the domestic attraction of food aid.

But all that is changing. Agriculture, like the rest of world trade, is now subject to free market forces. Food for food aid has to be bought, just like food for commercial purposes.

The creation of a global market in food, under the new free trade agreement has a number of profound consequences for food aid. Never again will we see a return to the massive supplies of food aid available in the mid 1980s. From now on food aid will have to compete along side other forms of aid to show its worth. It will no longer be viewed as an additional resource, but will be seen as part of Official Development Assistance, another use for ODA dollars.2

The end of government subsidies for agriculture means no more large surpluses. Food prices, particularly grain prices will and are going up dramatically, making food aid a relatively expensive way to use ODA dollars. This means that developing countries will have to pay more for their food imports. Already the cost of their imports rose 40 percent in 1996 over 1995.

As food prices become more susceptible to market fluctuations, they will become more volatile. Food shortages in developing countries, induced by high world market prices may become more common. And the food stocks needed to fuel food aid will no longer be held by Western governments, they will be held by the large grain trading companies. These companies may not always choose to release grain for food aid if, for instance, they feel that grain prices are set to rise thus forcing purchase at a later date and higher price.

As a consequence of this, developing countries may need to rethink their present strategy of running down strategic food stocks.

Food-aid trends are difficult to forecast. One recent study predicts that food-aid donations in 1996 will be around 9.2 million tonnes, reflecting the reduced convention pledges, and that donations will only rise marginally in ten years to reach 10.6 million tonnes by 2005.3

The study's best-case scenario predicts that total world food aid needs will increase to 39.79 million tonnes, an increase of 5.29 million tonnes on the most optimistic predictions for 1996's needs. Worst-case scenarios put the global needs at 48.32 million tonnes and all this is set against a predicted rise in food- aid availability of less than 2 million tonnes.

Like all such predictions, it provides useful guidance as to where we need to watch for changes, but it is also important to understand the assumptions behind such predictions if one is to use them correctly.

If that is how the supply of food aid is going to change, what does it mean for the agencies that use food aid? Here are a few predictions:

  • Prediction one: From now on the amount of food aid available will be determined by a combination of three factors: need, available ODA budget, and perceived usefulness of food aid. Result: food aid will be a scarce
  • Prediction two: Operational agencies will be expected to monitor the use of food aid as carefully as they are expected to monitor and report on the use of cash. They will need to be more explicit in explaining the additionally that food aid brings and to be more clear about where it is a useful resource. And of course they will need to target food aid better.
  • Prediction three: Clearly some groups; refugees, groups with specific nutritional needs at important times in their lives and the chronically hungry will continue to be targeted, but in the post-GATT era we may well see price-hype induced emergencies amongst the poorest and landless with acute food scarcity, if not famine, being triggered by the workings of the global market, rather than war or drought.

Under all these pressures it is almost certain that a greater proportion of world food aid will be used in emergency programmes, but longer term developmental food aid will change as well. Food aid may be used in the future more as a catalyst for other development processes. For instance as an incentive to get children to attend school or to alleviate the burden on women. This usage of food aid makes sense but its benefits are difficult to quantify as they are not immediate and derive not from the food per see but from the development processes it gives people access to.

Whatever the exact figures, the picture is clear: less food aid, more concern over targeting and performance, more searching for alternative solutions. If Live-Aid and food convoys caricatured the relief business of the mid 1980s then may be the relief business of tomorrow will be caricatured by Smart Aid and the innovative agency.

Peter Walker is head of Disaster and Refugee Policy at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Geneva.

1Source: FAO/GIEWS. Food Outlook. 06/96

2Source: IFRC Seminar, Geneva June 1996, addressed by Dianne Spearman, WFP.
3Source: ERS, US Dept of Agriculture

Diversifying and targeting can save lives

Devastating floods in North Korea, coupled with a crumbling agricultural sector, have sparked widespread food shortages. And in an unprecedented development North Korea has asked for international relief aid. Progressive food shortages could turn into a famine if sufficient international aid is not forthcoming. Affected populations are already resorting to eating wild foods that have not been consumed since 1951. What can be done to avert such disasters?

By Patrick Webb

Famines relating to natural disasters do not happen suddenly. They are the culmination of a progressive erosion of assets -- human assets like health and strength, as well as capital assets in the form of cattle or cash savings. Households cope for as long as possible, and then they crack. That is when famine leaps to television screens in developed countries.

Famines also do not affect everyone equally. Some people survive long periods of deprivation; others, even in the same village, do not. The difference lies in the "coping mechanisms" available to a household: income that does not depend on rain-fed farming, access to credit from merchants or ownership of livestock that can be sold when times get hard.

Thus the greatest tragedy in recent crises affecting countries like Bangladesh and Kenya is that they should have not be occurred at all. Natural disasters should no longer turn into famines (see CROSSLINES 2(3), May-June 1994: Information and vulnerability: how secrecy kills by Francis D'Souza). Strategic investments can be made today at the village, national and international levels to prevent tomorrow's famines.

Strengthening and diversifying coping mechanisms available to poor communities is one of the keys to famine prevention. That means famine must be tackled with more than food.

The death toll, a tragic erosion of human resources, is only one aspect of the problem. Famines in Rwanda, Ethiopia and Angola have also been characterized by a long-term depletion of environmental and capital resources, and by massive social disruption, such a community dislocation (people forced to migrate long distances to find help), reliance on foraged foods (roots, rodents, leaves), conflict among neighbours and the breakdown of government services. Each is the outcome of a lack of appropriate action, not only at the household level but among governments and the donor community.

Lessons from past crises underscore the priority actions needed to prevent famine. At the community level, establishing guidelines or structures for identifying the most needy leads to more efficient and equitable targeting of development and relief resources. Local and international non-governmental organizations can play a constructive role in such initiatives.

The absence of good targeting policies and mechanisms in Ethiopia and Burkina Faso during the 1980s led to the exclusion of many vulnerable households from food-for-work projects or free food distribution, says Professor Thomas Reardon of Michigan State University. By contrast, according to Sam Moyo of Zimbabwe's Institute of Development Studies, relatively efficient community-level screening of recipients ensured that few people succumbed to starvation in Zimbabwe during the 1992 drought.

A second factor that made a difference between famine and survival in southern Africa during 1992 was a dynamic labour market. Remittances sent home to Zambia, Mozambique, Botswana and Malawi by migrant workers in South Africa enabled a build-up of household assets prior to the drought and served as an important source of non-farm income during the crisis. Acute vulnerability to starvation in Angola and Ethiopia is marked by constrained labour mobility. Professor Joachim von Braun of Kiel University in Germany says that to achieve food security in vulnerable economies, understanding labour markets is as important as monitoring food markets.

At the national level, several crucial steps can be taken to mitigate famine. First is frank political recognition of a problem. Governments in Ethiopia, Niger and Sudan were overthrown because they turned a blind eye to mass suffering from drought and famine. But early recognition of a crisis, often prompted by a dynamic and uncensored press, can translate into a more timely public response.

It is also essential to establish cooperation between government ministries, with clearly defined lines of responsibility and funding, before a crisis point has been reached. Ethiopia, for example, set up a National Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Strategy that establishes guidelines for institutional collaboration aimed at more effective famine mitigation. Zimbabwe established an inter-ministerial Drought Task Force during the 1980s, which was already in place when drought struck in the early 1990s. In Botswana, good bottom-up communications between local Rural Development Councils and relevant cabinet ministries, notes Boitshepo Giyose, a Ministry of Health nutritionist, enables the government to respond quickly to droughts.

However weak initially, such institutions are vital focal points for early warning and rapid government response. Countries without such institutional coordination fall prey to ad hoc responses that cannot hope to fully utilize scarce resources for emergency intervention.

On a more practical level, basic infrastructure -- roads, railways, communication lines, mills, market-places -- is required for the timely and cost-effective use of resources. Some of this infrastructure can be developed using labour-intensive technologies (thereby generating jobs), as is currently done in Zimbabwe and Botswana. Getting food to displaced Rwandan refugees in northeastern Zaire in 1994 and to famine victims in northern Ethiopia during the 1980s was not easy, at least partly because those regions lack usable roads. Airdrops become the costly and less-than-satisfactory alternative.

The 1991-92 intervention in Southern Africa, which was generally deemed a success, cost the US Government more than $800 million. In the context of strong government support in most affected countries, this represented good donor coordination and the existence, by African standards, of a highly developed road, port and rail infrastructure. Without those facilities, the cost of the intervention would have been much higher and its impact would probably have been considerably less. This argues for sound investment in basic infrastructure, particularly in regions where future interventions are likely. Local economic diversification may also thereby be enhanced.

Strong coordination across regional groupings is likewise crucial. West Africa's Sahel region has developed important domestic famine early warning systems, codes of conduct for food aid use and contingency plans for coordinated intervention against massive drought. In Southern Africa, strong regional organization played a part in dealing with the 1991-92 drought. By contrast, the Horn of Africa and East and Central Africa have yet to organize successful, well-funded and active regional bodies that can contribute to famine prevention.

Coordinated agricultural research that boosts productivity is also a factor in famine prevention. With Africa's huge dependence on agriculture, improved food security requires a strategy for agricultural growth that promotes technological change and commercialization for small-scale farmers.

Per Pinstrup-Andersen, director general of the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute, stresses the adoption of improved agricultural technology. Technological advances have the potential to both increase the food supply and raise rural incomes through employment. Small-scale irrigation (appropriate to local priorities and technical feasibility), improved seeds and fertilizer, and mechanical threshing and milling could make significant contributions to raising land and labour productivity.

Improved seeds have made, and continue to make, an important contribution to hunger alleviation, and not only by increasing staple food crops. Growth in the staple food and cash crop sectors are not mutually exclusive. Both depend on investments benefiting smallholders, appropriate market and price-liberalization policies, infrastructural development, access to inputs and credit for the poor, and improved tenure rights (for pastoralists as well as farmers). Thus, concern with national food security based on domestic self-sufficiency could be enhanced by greater attention to the goal of improved food security and the household level, based on higher incomes from multiple sources.

Improvements in both food and cash crop productivity depend on strong investments in agricultural programmes, including training and extension services, and in agricultural research. And such investments can have a high economic pay-off, according to a recent evaluation by the US Agency for International Development of 14 agricultural research programmes operating in Africa since the 1980s. But investment requires a reversal of declining trends in donor commitments to African agriculture.

The International Crops Research Centre for the Semi-Arid Tropics, based in Zimbabwe, has worked for many years with national agricultural research institutions in developing higher-yielding and more drought-resistant varieties of sorghum and maize. When the drought wiped out the seed stocks of tens of thousands of smallholders in Zimbabwe and Zambia, the centre was able to supply large volumes of hybrid seeds to farmers in both countries so they could reap a harvest the following year. Countries and regions with limited investment in agricultural research (such as large parts of the Horn) are prey to serious shortages of basic seed stock after a drought, and that limits the potential for future growth.

In the long run, it will be successful development activities -- as opposed to emergency relief interventions -- that eradicate famine. Success will depend on removing food insecurity from millions of vulnerable households across Africa. But administrative and financial capacities in the public sector for coping with and investing against famine remain weak in most of Africa, especially at regional and district levels. The same is true of capacities in the private sector. Thus, the transition from famine to prosperity will be fragile for years to come.

Success also requires strengthened cooperation between the public and private sectors, and between national and international agencies. As recognized in the upcoming World Food Summit (to be held in Rome in November 1996), action is required to meet both today's food crises and the burgeoning gap between food supplies and the number of people without access to food. Such action will depend on policies and programmes grounded in a better understanding not only of the dynamics of the rural economy (the capacities and constraints of rural smallholders), but also of the lessons of past experience. And the most important lesson of all is that investment today is the key to freeing Africa from the spectre of famine.

Patrick Webb is with the World Food Programme in Rome.

walking the famine tightrope

Ever since the height of Somalia's human-instigated famine in 1992 the result largely of war, looting, banditry, and other forms of greed and abuse by the warring factions the civilian populations of this Horn of Africa nation continue to face an uncertain struggle for survival. With a long-term political solution as elusive as ever, Somalis are still very much at the mercy of warlords intent on power and wealth.

By Patricia Reber

While numerous representatives of the international humanitarian community have pulled out of Somalia, some in utter disgust at the pointlessness of continued relief, others, including the United Nations, European Union and United States, have persisted in their efforts to prop up the country by providing varying forms of assistance. Yet is much of this aid simply causing an unhealthy dependence on outside support thus ruining the country's chances for self-sufficiency making it even more difficult to stave off the ever-present threat of famine?

Does food aid discourage local agriculture in Somalia by depressing prices? My question stemmed from a United Nations report on Somalia's recovery from drought and famine in 1992 and 1993. But as is often the case with journalistic work, I never got a good answer. Instead, I learned a lot about how things work in Nairobi's "food-ocracy", the collection of aid organizations devoted to the long-distance care and feeding of Somalia.

I learned that famine in the Horn of Africa is as much a spectre today as it was four years ago, or even ten years ago, when Somalia had deficits of about 150,000 metric tons of cereals a year. I learned that the two super aid powers, the European Union and the United States, cooperate on one level but disagree -- or is it compete? -- on another; and that both depend on food statistics which are practically meaningless, since there is still no national government. Basic numbers such as Somalia's current estimated population range from four million to eight million people.

Most intriguing of all, I learned that the European Union stands ready to sell -- "monetize" is the word used in aid circles -- 37,000 tonnes of commodities to Somalia in the coming year, six times the annual size of a similar programme being closed down by the US Agency for International Development (USAID). "After March '95 (when the UN pulled out its last troops) everyone in the international community got sick and tired of helping Somalia," said Laura Garagnani, rural development adviser in the Somalia Unit of the European Commission. "But this is not the case for the European Community. We're not here just for the emergency."

With an initial (but since scaled down) goal of selling 80,000 tonnes a year of oil, sugar and wheat flour to Somali traders and ploughing the income into rehabilitation projects, the European Union appears to be settling down for the long haul. They have opened new offices around Somalia, including on the north coast. They recently took reporters on a trip to Kismayo, supplying them with press kits and key chains (and getting shot at because of a protocol gaffe with Somali clan chiefs, according to press reports.) They produce a slick magazine in English and Somali to report on their efforts to help Somalia, and on topics internal to the European Community. "It's very important that the Somalis know what we are doing," said Sigurd Illing, the European Commission's special envoy to Somalia.

Although food monetization and food aid are only part of the overall international effort to rehabilitate Somalia, they are the lynchpin to Somalia's economic recovery a fragile system undermined by the lack of banks, local and national governments, roads, wells, extensive agricultural cultivation and insecurity. After triggering the UN's involvement in 1992, the Somali famine was defeated by emergency feeding programmes and decent local harvests in 1994. Wrongfooted by violent looting in the beginning, food aid officials switched their strategy. Free food is now offered only to targeted groups, such as mothers and infants, or to local areas where famine persists.

But Somalia still walks a famine tightrope, experts say. That is why economists and food experts in Nairobi continue to monitor food production and food prices. Like doctors treating an infectious patient through robotic arms, they collect information upon which donors make decisions. The monitoring task is carried out by the Food Security Assessment Unit, funded largely by the European Commission, which provides $1 million a year, with support from USAID and the UN's World Food Programme (WFP). It employs about 20 persons.

In September 1995, the unit predicted a 170,000 tonne shortage -- a figure which EU officials said prompted their stepped up food engagement. WFP and USAID said the figures were inflated, since they were based on disputed population and food consumption figures. WFP estimates total annual cereal consumption at 500,000 tonnes. "Our current view now is that there's probably enough food available to muddle through this year without starvation," said Ronald Ullrich, director of USAID's Somalia Unit.

Not surprisingly, the donors also differ on how to cure the economy. If there's a bumper maize crop in Somalia's breadbasket area around Baidoa, WFP uses Somali traders to buy and support prices. But CARE, which worked closely with WFP in the USAID-funded programme, consider it a bad idea, says Nigel Nesbitt, CARE's monetization project manager.

Food has been used to pay medical workers, ditch diggers and school teachers. Last year, the EU wanted to pay local police with food, too. US officials objected, however, maintaining that it was wrong for a foreign government to pay the salaries of local officials because it robbed the fledgling local governments of their incentive to organize taxation schemes. The US put pressure on WFP not to carry out the EU scheme, a move which resulted in WFP's being cut out of the EU's proposed new monetization scheme, officials said. CARE got the contract instead.

"I've never understood the American position," Illing said. "The Americans supported the idea of local police but didn't want to pay them! They said local governments must raise their own money. I said, `No, we must help them'." While admitting that budget cutbacks in Washington had curtailed spending, US officials argued that it is time for Somalia to stand on its own; that Somalia needs more technical assistance for farmers; and that food-for-work programs fail to stimulate commerce. They also said paying local officials would simply repeat the dependency created by the UN in 1992, when it began paying high salaries to Somalis.

The most recent food-related proposal in Nairobi would see the EU launching its new monetization programme after USAID ended its programme in June (1996.) Aid workers caution that monetization -- the selling of "upmarket" food commodities to Somali traders -- has little to do with feeding hungry people. Rather, it helps stabilize market prices, deters hoarding, and generates income to support development schemes.

At first glance, the concept seems absurdly redundant. Why not just put money directly into programmes, instead of transporting products from the donor countries? The most obvious answer is that it allows donors to support their local farmers. But it also stimulates commerce, economists stressed. Hardly a new concept in international food programmes, what makes monetization unique for Somalia is that there is no central government to coordinate market studies and economic statistics. Food economists in Nairobi said the timing and pricing of products are sensitive issues which can have dire effects on the economy if done incorrectly. Also, in the wake of the violence after the UN's withdrawal in March 1996, WFP has been forced to resort to offshore trading with Somali merchants who must hire ships willing to transport the goods to temporary ports in Somalia. These ports may have to close when the trade winds shift, normally in mid-year, aid officials said.

The EU plans to test its new programme in the Gedo district, using overland routes through Kenya to bring food to the Somali border, before proceeding with the 37,000-tonne plan. During USAID's three years of monetization, only 18,000 tonnes were made available. Critics say the EU's programme could destroy the little progress made in the Somali economy, is driven by the desire of the EU to use up European surplus food, is motivated by the EU's need to establish an identity separate from the United Nations, and is intended to embarrass the US and UN for failures in Somalia.

EU supporters dismiss the criticism as sour grapes over dwindling US finances and as turf wars with the United Nations. No one has overtly suggested that there are geopolitical considerations, but the question should be raised since it does represent a shifting of the sands on the Horn of Africa. Certainly, the ironies of food support for Somalia include the fact that it is exporting twice as many animals as before the civil war, to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states; that exports of fruits and vegetables have picked up; and that Somalis spend about $300,000 a month on the drug "khat", imported from Kenya, food aid officials said.

"Africa is a culture which used to be much more self-sustaining in the past, when there was no United Nations," said Gekard van Dijk, Somalia country director for WFP. "Now, with the development of towns and [misguided international aid programmes] both are destroying that self reliance."

Pat Reber is a freelance writer for American newspapers, including USA Today. Formerly based in Nairobi, she has now moved to Johannesburg.

Hunger in the United States:
a failure to administer the cure

The real tragedy behind hunger in the United States is that at least 30 million men, women and children are plagued by a problem that exists for no apparent reason. Not only is the United States famine-free, but food is in such plentiful supply that, nationwide, US households waste enough food to feed the population of Canada. Christine Vladimiroff of the Chicago-based Second Harvest, America's largest domestic hunger relief agency consisting of a network of 181 food banks, comments on what many consider to be a problem that only plagues Third World nations.

By Christine Vladimiroff, Order of St. Benedict

Hunger in the United States is a problem that looms large, but it also is largely hidden. Too many people in the United States think hunger is a problem that exists only in foreign countries. Their perceptions are shaped by the memorable scenes of famine-stricken lands shown on television. In everything from 30-second television ads to 30-minute infomercials (information commercials), US viewers routinely are bombarded with heart-wrenching images of emaciated people in poor nations. Listless children with sparse, discoloured hair, gaunt faces, distended bellies and skeletal limbs stare at viewers through vacant eyes and capture their hearts. The plight of these pitiable children is sad, touching and comfortingly remote.

The causes of widespread hunger abroad are explained as television cameras pan either flooded farmlands, or the cracked, parched and unyielding earth of drought-stricken countries. Cameras show the hunger of displaced families cut off from basic food supplies after fleeing the battle zones of their war-torn nations. Viewers learn of overpopulation, poor living conditions, limited resources and the general deprivation of peoples living under oppressive, corrupt or bankrupt governments. These powerful and increasingly familiar images evoke sympathetic responses from American viewers, as well they should. But these same images may make it difficult for Americans to recognize the face of hunger at home.

Hunger in the United States is insidious, preying on one out of nine Americans, including more than 12 million children and 3 million elderly people. It also means low birth-weight babies, the second-highest highest infant mortality rate among the world's 20 largest industrialized nations, and 40,000 infants who die each year before reaching their first birthday. Hunger in the world's richest country is a malnourished toddler who may never achieve his or her full mental potential, a child who is small for his or her age, a student who cannot learn, and an adolescent whose chronic health problems suggest a shortened life span.

At the same time, hunger in the United States implies malnutrition -- not having enough of the right foods to maintain good health. Chronically undernourished children are beset by lethargy as nature sets triage priorities that, according to the Tufts University Center on Hunger, Poverty and Nutrition Policy, require conserving the body's energy, first for the maintenance of vital internal organs, next for physical growth and, finally, for mental development. Malnutrition may begin when a single-parent family or other working-poor household attempts to stretch the food budget by adopting a more-affordable, high-starch diet -- a diet that may leave them overweight, undernourished and chronically short of energy.

Hunger also is found among the elderly and disabled. Faced with the difficult choice of "heating or eating," retirees living on fixed incomes may subsist on meals of tea and crackers in order to pay the winter heating bill. This type of hidden drama is replayed for even higher stakes when the "choice" is between buying food or prescription medication. In addition, hunger affects America's newly unemployed, whose ranks have swollen in recent years as more white-collar (office) workers fall victim to corporate "downsizing."

Hunger also afflicts the long-term unemployed, people with untreated mental illness, homeless people, alcoholics and substance abusers -- those the judgmental would call the "undeserving" poor.

Overall, hungry Americans are more mainstream than previously thought, according to the groundbreaking 1993 National Hunger Study commissioned by Second Harvest, a nationwide network of food banks focusing on hunger relief. The study, involving personal interviews with more than 8,000 clients of soup kitchens, food pantries, shelters and

other emergency feeding programs, reveals:

  • · nearly 95 per cent of these clients live in the same county as the programme from which they receive food;
  • · more than half (51 percent) of food recipients are non-minorities;
  • · most (60 percent) of the clients are high school graduates or have educational training beyond that level;
  • · 54.5 percent of clients did not foresee needing emergency food assistance as few as three months before they were interviewed;
  • · 66.5 percent of the unemployed client respondents are looking for work;
  • · 23.5 percent of food recipients are recently unemployed (three months or less), and
  • · 43 percent of food recipients are children.

What these statistics indicate is that hunger in the United States is affecting our friends and neighbours -- many of whom are educated and hard-working. These are real people with problems not unlike our own. We ourselves could be in similar straits should divorce, widowhood, illness or unemployment jeopardize our financial stability.

Among the inestimable costs of hunger is the loss of human capital. Will the next Bill Gates, or the person who could give the world a cure for cancer, be lost because that child lacks adequate nutrition during the critical first two years of life when the brain grows to 80 percent of its adult size? Can we afford to let the light of hope dim in the eyes of more than 12 million US children?

Dorothy Day, a leading proponent of social justice, once said, "When I feed the hungry they call me a saint. When I ask why they are hungry, they call me a communist." There we have the problem in a nutshell: hunger in the United States has both a moral and a political side. Everyone knows that food is the solution to the problem of hunger. Since the United States clearly has the food resources necessary to eradicate domestic hunger, it can only be assumed that hunger persists because the nation lacks the moral passion and political will to end it.

Children and the elderly account for half of the chronically hungry people in the United States. If the measure of a just society is gauged by how well it treats its most vulnerable citizens, then the moral imperative to help the old, the young and those who cannot help themselves, is clear. As for the rest, they may require help to overcome the chronic hunger that robs them of the health and stamina they need to help themselves.

People who recognize the face of hunger see the fallacy in the old adage that says, "Give a man a fish and he'll eat for a day; teach him to fish and he'll eat for a lifetime." If we are to teach people to fish we must first give them fish to eat, so that they will be equipped to learn. This is today's reality, while the politicians give mixed signals.

So far in this presidential election year, politicians have called for massive welfare reform and have threatened funding cuts for food subsistance, nutrition and government commodities programs -- the potential effect of which is to push more Americans into the ranks of the hungry. On the other hand, prospects are bright regarding congressional support of an increase in the minimum wage standard, which would give the working poor a livable salary.

One thing is certain, if strong, bipartisan government support is partnered with private efforts, hunger in the United States can be eradicated -- as it very nearly was a few decades ago.

In 1967 the Field Foundation sponsored a study by a team of pediatricians who examined thousands of poor children in the rural South and reported to the US Congress: "Wherever we went...we saw children in significant numbers who were hungry and sick, children for whom hunger is a daily fact of life...They are visibly and predictably losing their health, their energy and their spirits. They are suffering from hunger and disease and directly or indirectly they are dying from them -- which is exactly what `starvation' means." Afterwards, CBS television aired an emotional documentary titled, "Hunger in America," and then- President Richard Nixon called for an end to domestic hunger and formed a special White House Conference on Food, Nutrition and Health made up of private citizens. Government food assistance programmes, including School Lunch, Food Stamps and WIC (Women, Infants and Children) programmes, were enhanced and extended to those in need throughout the 1970s.

When a second Field Foundation pediatrician team revisited the same areas in 1977, they reported tremendous progress during the intervening decade, and attributed it to the federal food assistance programmes. They concluded: "...There are far fewer grossly malnourished people in the country than there were 10 years ago...This change does not appear to be due to an overall improvement in living standards, or to a decrease in joblessness in those areas...But in the area of food there is a difference."

The Field Foundation model is one all hunger-relief organizations must strive to emulate in order bring about an end to hunger in the United States. By providing a clear definition of a national problem, Field Foundation researchers were able to garner significant, thoughtful media coverage which, in turn, spurred public outcry and gained government attention. Then, through public/private alliance, remedial action was instituted.

The problem is that the job of ending domestic hunger was never completed, but because there was significant progress and initial success, many people concluded that there was no more work to be done. The challenge now is to keep the issue of hunger foremost in the mind of the public and to continue looking for that defining moment that will once again thrust the issue into the media spotlight. Second Harvest responds to this challenge by assuming a leadership role in public education and advocacy on behalf of chronically hungry Americans. In addition to feeding 26 million people this year, the food bank network is raising public awareness of the nature and solutions to the problem of hunger, confident that the nation cannot remain silent if it knows about the effectiveness of federal food and nutrition assistance programs, such as the WIC programme for pregnant women, nursing mothers and infants. WIC has the potential to prevent the 20,000 infant deaths per year that a Baylor College pediatrician, in a US Senate hearing, attributed to poor prenatal nutrition and care. Further, a government study cites Medicaid savings of up to $4.21 for each WIC dollar spent.

The problem of hunger in the United States has been clearly defined. It is a problem without adequate cause, but with ample solutions. What greater injustice will it take to again inspire the moral outrage and political action that led President Nixon to vow to "End hunger in America for all time"? Every day, 30 million Americans are being consumed by hunger, and we have the antidote. How long must they wait before we administer the cure?

Christine Vladimiroff is executive director of Second Harvest, an agency which promotes the distribution of surplus food to hungry people by helping community food banks obtain donations from food producers, processors, and retailers for distribution to local charities. It also seeks to educate the public about the nature of and solutions to the problems of hunger.

Contact: Second Harvest, 116 South Michigan Avenue, Suite 4, Chicago, Illinois 60603-6001, USA.

Tel: 1(312)-263-2303. Fax: 1(312)-263-5626.

Creative radio for development

For four days in May, radio broadcasters from twenty countries gathered in Birmingham, England, to examine how radio can be used more extensively in humanitarian crises throughout the world. Entitled "Creative Radio for Development." the conference was concerned not with radio's reporting role, but with its ability to convey life giving basic educational skills such as child health, farming, coping with environmental and human disasters. The participants were united in believing that radio has great potential in this field , and they started making plans to campaign for its greater use worldwide. In the following articles, CROSSLINES looks at some of the issues raised in the Conference. First, Gordon Adam, deputy editor of CROSSLINES and coordinator of the Conference, considers its outcome and how the "creative radio" initiative can be carried forward.

By Gordon Adam

The premise for the "Creative Radio for Development " conference was that the aid community has largely ignored radio as a means of reaching millions of the most disadvantaged people on earth, despite its unrivalled reach and its cost effectiveness. This is against a background of greatly increased numbers of people being faced with humanitarian crises and needing access to impartial information, a rise from 11 to 75 million people in the past 30 years, according to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

The conference heard a number of case studies which proved beyond doubt that high quality radio could have a remarkable educational impact. But often where radio is being used in developing countries, it is not educationally effective because of poor programmes or lack of resources. An additional problem is that the few radio practitioners who are making original programming are usually working in isolation, and to some extent re-inventing the wheel in their individual attempts to overcome common difficulties.

Gathering together eighty broadcasters from 20 countries in one place for four days had the benefit of defining at least some of the problems, and coming up with potential solutions. The timing, it seems, was right: in the words of Britain's Minister for Overseas Development, Baroness Linda Chalker, in her address to participants and funders, it was "a nettle which needed to be grasped." Lady Chalker is not alone in thinking that the malevolent use of radio in Rwanda "helped to bring into sharper focus" the possibilities of a more positive use for this medium. She stressed that in future "we must make sure the positive is in action before the negative."

That is an ambitious objective, but one which Britain's Overseas Development Agency (ODA) seems to be backing, with a strong hint from the Minister that a Media Adviser would shortly be appointed to help coordinate best practice in development communications projects. The US Agency for International Development (USAID) has similarly indicated that it will be formulating a radio communications strategy following a hearing of the Senate African Affairs Sub committee, at which the pro-active use of radio programming for development was scrutinised. Two major international broadcasters, the Voice of America and the BBC World Service, are laying new emphasis on their educational, as opposed to their traditional news and current affairs, role.

What's now needed are better communications between development radio practitioners, more advocacy for radio's use amongst funders and aid policy makers, and an initiative on training radio professionals both in the North and the South in the specific skills needed in creative radio for development. In addition, it is clear that there is a special role for radio in conflict areas, both as a provider of basic education and as a means of promoting peace building.

A significant step in improving networking has been taken with the Internet mailing list for radio practitioners being set up under the umbrella of the International Centre for Humanitarian Reporting (ICHR) as part of a new project to be known as the Radio Partnership. The mailing list should prove to be a valuable tool for collecting information on best practice, which will be fed into advocacy efforts to promote the use of radio in this field.

Funders, however, tend to be convinced only by results: a start was made in the Conference presentation to Lady Chalker, where a number of successful projects were summarized; to take just three contrasting examples:

In Kenya, the Johns Hopkins Centre for Communications Programmes' AIDS awareness broadcast "The Youth Variety Show", resulted a shift of 39 percent to 71 percent of young people attending the sexually transmitted diseases (STD) clinics saying they came after hearing the show.

In Mali, a pilot project by Cranfield University's Disaster Preparedness Centre working with an Oxfam-funded local radio station "Daande Dwentza," concentrated on informing villagers how best to protect the young shoots of naturally regenerating trees. After the programmes, 42 percent of villagers asked were marking the shoots in the recommended way, compared with just 6 percent before the broadcasts.

In Afghanistan, the BBC Afghan Education Drama Project's three times weekly radio soap opera "New Home New Life", is followed by millions of listeners, mostly women, children and young men. It seems able to influence women's understanding of vital life-skills, which is of particular value as women in Afghanistan, as in many other developing countries, are difficult to reach. One example: the need to give new-born calves their mothers' colostrum -- understanding of this rose threefold as a result of listening to "New Home New Life".

Underpinning these, and most other success stories, is painstaking research of the issues prior to the broadcasts among the target audience. The use of participatory research techniques to discover the listeners' agenda -- what their major problems are in everyday life -- is the key to producing programmes which are lively and relevant. People listen to the programmes, remember them, discuss them and perhaps even act on them, making them an educational "success."

But there are difficulties in defining "success." In radio-led development communications: should this be simply a calculation of the numbers of people whose behaviour has changed due to the broadcasts, or some wider definition? Proving behavioural change as a result of radio listening is often not possible. A conference working group provided a helpful starting point for a wider definition of "success": that impact could occur at any stage in the broadcasting process from research and pre-testing through to training, interviewing and intersectoral collaboration. One example of this is the partnership with the British NGO Health Unlimited who sponsored the conference and runs a media-led health education project in Cambodia. The emphasis here is on-the-job training with a core group of local broadcasters.

These difficulties are particularly acute in conflict areas where radio has a proven role in providing essential health and other humanitarian information, as Radio Agatashya has shown in Rwanda. This Swiss-managed radio station was set up in August 1994 within six weeks of the Rwanda crisis unfolding, and with UNHCR funding it continues to use accurate reporting to combat the partisan information of other local broadcasters.

A related challenge is to provide effective programming for conflict resolution. The BBC Afghan Education Drama Project has just held a workshop with a British conflict resolution NGO "Finding Common Ground" to plan the integration of a conflict resolution storyline into the "New Home New Life" soap opera. Among the themes for inclusion are outsiders profiting from in-fighting, the role of women as peace makers, and the frustrations of the stop-start process which frequently characterizes mediation attempts.

As Clare Pointon discusses in her article on page 33, Paul Richards' idea of emphasising "smart relief" rather than "bulk relief" evoked great interest both at the conference and subsequently. His argument is that radio programming is -- or should aspire to be -- fair and all-inclusive: access to radios is very considerable in the developing world, with an estimated 53 million sets around. Bulk relief such as food is, of course, essential in emergencies, but its long-term provision distorts the market and frequently causes conflict because it is exclusive -- some communities are perceived to benefit at the expense of others. Appropriate radio programming could, by countering rumour, help reduce tensions and foster reconciliation.

For some journalists, this emerging role for radio in humanitarian crises poses ethical problems. What is the dividing line between enhancing listeners' choices and supplying propaganda? This is discussed further by Loretta Hieber. The arguments are likely to continue, and it is right they should. But what is emerging is the great potential role for radio in humanitarian crises, a growing willingness by international broadcasters and aid agencies to explore the possibilities.

This is a task in which the ICHR, with its new Radio Partnership, plans to be closely involved. After all, ICHR was set up to facilitate the responsible coverage of humanitarian and development stories. The concept of promoting the creative use of the media on behalf of those living in areas of humanitarian crisis, is the other side of the coin, and it lies at the heart of the ICHR Radio Partnership's mission.

Gordon Adam is Deputy Editor of CROSSLINES Global Report.

Small wars and smart relief

Nowhere is radio more vital than in areas of conflict, when there is no electricity to run TVs, newspapers can't be circulated, ground communications are often disrupted, and radio is typically the only way of countering rumour and keeping people informed. In his presentation "Small Wars and Smart Relief", Professor Paul Richards of University College London went one step further.

By Clare Pointon

"Peace is a process and must be facilitated...there are no magic solutions," says Paul Richards, Professor of Anthropology at University College, London. In his speech to the conference, Richards outlined his vision of using radio in brokering peace in conflict zones. In his view, it is all about empowering people from the region, themselves, to use the airwaves for peace.

For Richards, it is often not enough to give relief in the form of food and provisions in a war or conflict. He calls this "bulk relief," which creates a sense of patronage, and a clientele. By helping one group, an agency can effectively be excluding another. This kind of aid, he argues, can end up exacerbating tensions. What is needed instead, he maintains, is "smart relief," a form of aid which does not create relationships of dependency on one side or power on the other.

Radio broadcasting can be used as "smart relief," argues Richards, because it has the potential to signal incorporation rather than exclusion. As an example he points to the civil conflict in and around the town of Bo in Sierra Leone. With the need to draw the rebels into the peace process, radio is now the most obvious medium to speak to them. It is too early for face-to-face talks, he suggests: a group of women who went to meet the rebels in an attempt to broker peace were slaughtered. Armed units on the ground are too nervous and unpredictable. Radio, however, is just the kind of remote contact needed.

In a situation where the rebels have radios and listen avidly to the local FM station, Richards says, there is powerful potential to get across clear messages of peace. But this is something which must be done from inside the community itself. "As outsiders, we've no magic solution that can trigger a peace process," he says. "People have different contributions to make to allow a community to learn more quickly what has happened to itself and help lift the fog of war. But if they don't want to, there is nothing an outsider can do..."

So, what role can international NGOs play in this process? Richards believes that, where there is a civic momentum for peace in a community such as Bo, outsiders should work as facilitators. Rather than taking to the microphone themselves or even directing the messages put across, NGOs should be encouraging local people to do it for themselves -- whether by scattering radios for rebels to pick up or by helping train journalists on the ground.

In the debate which followed Richards' presentation, participants in the conference explored a number of more general ways in which broadcasters can contribute to peacemaking. There were suggestions that broadcasters should consciously see themselves as mediators, giving as much airtime as possible to those involved in the peacemaking process, rather than focusing, as is often the case, on those responsible for the conflict. And the idea was floated of highlighting the economic benefits of peace in an attempt to counter the perception among large sectors of the population that they have more to gain economically from war. However, there was also the argument -- powerful among many journalists -- that the purpose of reporting is to reflect rather than to change society.

But before any of this new effort can start, the question remains: how to assess the need in a particular part of the world, especially one in conflict? The conference gave participants the chance, in one of the workshops, to discuss this issue. Those involved agreed in the main that, where a conflict is at crisis point, the needs will reveal themselves, while in a situation of more long-term conflict it is appropriate and important to carry out a thorough investigation before sending people and aid into the field.

There was a general consensus that greater co-ordination is needed. Aid agencies considering entering an area should have access to information gathered by those already on the ground, and there should be some form of resource documentation containing a record of strategies and best practice as well as lists of expertise and experience to match specific needs. The workshop also discussed the importance of good co-ordination with the media.

Among the ideas put forward for using radio as a tool in areas of conflict was the training of local journalists in the precepts of impartiality and neutrality -- a project already undertaken by CARE UK in Rwanda. The use of radio soap operas to transmit specific messages was also highlighted and the importance of comedy as therapeutic relief for those living in conflict zones.

But one of the most challenging questions raised -- and one not wholly resolved at the workshop -- was how far it was possible to anticipate conflict and work to prevent it happening in the first place. Radio monitoring, it was pointed out, is a key part of that equation -- and one that could also be used to help answer the question of where and when to send in aid.

Clare Pointon is a radio journalist working with the BBC World Service.

Education or propaganda?

As the previous article discussed, the role of the radio journalist in a conflict was a hotly debated subject. Some of those at the Conference also needed convincing that the "creative" element of radio programming was relevant in making an educational impact on listeners. Among them was a radio journalist formerly with Swiss Radio International.

By Loretta Hieber

As a radio journalist I have produced features on development projects in various parts of the world. I presumed that radio in development meant the production of news programmes and magazines devoted to development issues. Instead, in Birmingham, I was introduced to a different type of development radio, one in which fictional Nepalese tribal chiefs compete to hold the most lavish weddings and fictional places with names like Soul City come alive as its inhabitants cope with real life hopes, aspirations and fear.

As I listened to the radio producers in Birmingham discuss design teams and needs assessment, images of my own past reporting assignments kept springing to mind. How often had I reported from countries where similar radio programmes could have had an important impact and in some cases, even saved lives?

One example: the remote mountainous region of inland Yemen. For years the Swiss Development Corporation has sponsored a reforestation programme designed to save Yemen's last indigenous forest. One day in November 1992, I accompanied the Swiss Field Officer Martin Herzog and his Yemeni staff on a trek to a remote village: the men were sitting on the ground, Indian-style, puffing away at ghat-filled pipes, radios blaring in the background. We stayed just a half-hour -- enough time for Martin, through a translator -- to spread his reforestation message. Then we began the long descent back down the mountainside.

In Birmingham, I realized how much easier and cost-effective it would have been to broadcast radio programmes to this population. In this part of Yemen, a soap opera drama style programme would have reached a captive audience, one which clearly would have enjoyed a diversion in their daily lives.

Another, more tragic, example of where radio could have had an important impact was in Somalia in spring 1992. Aid workers were desperate to spread the message to the countryside that Somalis should not attempt to walk to the capital Mogadishu to seek food. Yet each day, thousands of starving Somalis would arrive in there, exhausted and in a weakened state, only to find that no food was available. Radio could have, and should have, been used in this crisis situation to prevent suffering and loss of life.

Why hasn't radio been used more effectively in development projects and in crisis situations? Perhaps the answer lies with the question: who should produce these programmes? The journalist/broadcaster is, after all, an impartial provider of information. He or she is not a social worker, nor a development specialist, and certainly not a purveyor of messages designed to bring conflicts to a peaceful resolution. This lies squarely within the Anglo-Saxon notion of journalism and one which I had until recently willingly adopted as my own. The question of the role of journalist vs. development worker was one I grappled with during the conference and the best answer I have yet to find is this: we may carry the title journalist or producer but in effect, we are all communicators.

The messages we communicate -- whether hard news programmes, or soap opera dramas -- should be judged by the impact they have on the audience. In a world where powerfully negative forces have understood the power of radio, as in Rwanda, it is shortsighted to shrug off development radio as just another form of propaganda. The skills of experienced and creative producers are needed to ensure the success of development radio programmes or radio programming in crisis situations. Is this advocacy rather than journalism? Perhaps, but I believe journalists have a responsibility to provide audiences with the information they need, not just the information we want to give them. It just makes good sense to provide this information in a format which fully captures the attention of the listener and is entertaining. Drama works on an emotional level and it is precisely on this level that people in a crisis situation are most susceptible to influence. If the aim is to change the behaviour of the listener, for his or her benefit, then drama would indeed be the most effective way to achieve this goal. Excellence of story telling crosses all frontiers.

As an example, during the conference we heard a clip of a Jamaican couple lamenting a future without grand-children. Their son had become infected with the AIDS virus. From the looks on the faces of the other conference participants, it was clear this message, transmitted through radio drama, was extraordinarily powerful. It is doubtful that a more traditional means of communicating AIDS awareness could have had the same impact.

The Birmingham conference convinced me as an international radio broadcaster that international radio, in particular, could profit by becoming more actively involved in this field. Radio soap operas such as "New Home New Life" produced by the BBC World Service's Pashto section have attracted faithful audiences of millions. This remarkable success comes at the same time that other international stations are constantly seeking new ways to attract a waning international audience. Often these stations attempt solutions such as increasing satellite transmissions, or rescheduling news programmes to better time slots. It seems likely that focusing on issues which directly impact listeners, and doing so in an entertaining way, might go a long way to help counter the decrease.

I left determined to create a radio drama drawing creatively from Rwanda's tragic past and conflict-ridden present in order to help, even just a bit, create a more peaceful future for that country. This isn't at odds with my journalistic vocation. It is, rather a reaffirmation of why I chose this profession -- to have an impact on those who listen to my programmes.

Loretta Hieber is an American radio journalist based in Switzerland.


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