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A new age of development uncertainty

The experience in the Sudan illustrates a pattern that is currently being replicated in many countries in Africa, the Middle East, the Balkans and Central Asia. In the past, civil wars usually ended with outright victory by one side. Nowadays, however, the conclusion is less clear cut. War and peace have an uneasy coexistence: fighting may stop in one place but linger sporadically elsewhere. And even after peace is declared, fighting may flare up again at any time.

This blurring of the distinction between war and peace is matched by a corresponding ambiguity in the programmes of aid agencies—uncertain about whether they should be aiming for short-term relief or long-term development. Most agencies have long agonized about seeing their long-term objectives interrupted by demands that they respond immediately to emergencies. These chronic conflicts are adding new dimensions to this conundrum.

At first glance, it does look as though the answer has simply been to increase relief. At the global level, the proportion of official development assistance devoted to emergencies has certainly been rising. And while in the early 1970s, much of this assistance was on a government-to-government basis, an increasing proportion of emergency aid in recent years has been passing through NGOs and the United Nations agencies. UNICEF's expenditure on emergencies between 1987 and 1993 rose from 7 per cent to 28 per cent, before declining slightly in 1994.62

These statistics are based on a supposedly clear distinction between emergency relief and development aid. However, these categories are often blurred. It is not clear that immunizing a child in a refugee camp counts as relief rather than development. And a borehole sunk near a refugee camp could later be used by the local community—and thus be seen as investment in rural water supplies.

In the case of chronic conflicts there is a further reason to set such categories aside—and reject the notion of relief first, development later. When the emergency is a climatic disaster, relief agencies work on the assumption that normal government services will later be resumed. In long-standing, conflict-related emergencies this assumption breaks down because a central element of the crisis is that many forms of governance have totally collapsed. In developing countries where the State is already weak, endless years of strife have only served to further undermine already frail public services.

In these circumstances, it is vital that relief does not inhibit recovery. Massive flows of emergency aid controlled by outside agencies may be the only way of feeding people in time. This form of assistance could displace already weakened government services and further compound the crisis. Relief and development activities ideally should be pursued simultaneously—and both should be seen as opportunities to build long-term capacity.

In politically complex and ambiguous circumstances, this is difficult to achieve but by no means impossible. It does, however, mean carefully assessing the strengths and weaknesses of existing institutions and making the best use of them. In Haiti, UN agencies and NGOs were able to make some contribution to development, but not in any way that would strengthen the illegal regime. Obliged to bypass the Government, they were nevertheless able to arrange for considerable amounts of food, fuel, water and medical supplies to be directly managed and controlled by communities and churches. This sustained capacity at the community level helped pull Haiti through its initial period after the restoration of democracy.

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