Give Burundi a chance

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), this year's Nobel Peace Price honoree, recently suspended its attempts to assist more than three hundred thousand people in regroupment camps near Bujumbura. MSF abandoned its operations because it was having little impact on improving conditions for the regrouped people. The underlying context - and message

  • was that MSF staff was taking great risks while accomplishing little.
    This grim reality has increasingly limited the humanitarian response in Burundi. Vulnerable populations are left to fend for themselves because the security of relief workers - both international and local staff - is impossible to assure. But the people of Burundi continue to struggle for peace. While men with guns try to tear Burundi apart along Hutu and Tutsi ethnic lines, many Burundians are standing up for their communities.

Almost before the shooting stops, Hutu and Tutsi alike cross the few feet of red dirt separating their respective communities to give aid and comfort to their neighbors. Women involved in Burundi's internal peace dialogue have stood their ground literally holding neighborhoods together with the force of their indomitable wills. Their actions in maintaining community bonds despite the terrible danger says louder than any words that they want peace. Even the young men who had been drawn into violence in the past are resisting efforts by radical groups to enlist them in the violence. We must do what we can do to help them. While recognizing that humanitarian agencies will be unable to work effectively in insecure environments, we should do all we can to assist civil society during the current crisis. It is a high-risk investment in humanity that must be made.

We must make modest investments in transitional relief to development programs so that people can see that progress is possible. These programs can be implemented in areas of the country that remain secure. Such programs build momentum for peace by focusing people on the future instead of the past. Most importantly, donors should work together now on plans to move Burundi back on the development path as soon as a cease fire is achieved. Having such plans in place and on the table is one of the most important actions that the donors can take to convince all parties that it is in their interest to move quickly to a peaceful resolution of their differences.

Key, of course, to halting Burundi's slide into chaos and ethnic war will be the early and dynamic resumption of the peace process, which has been in Limbo since the death of former Tanzanian President Nyerere. A first critical step should be to secure a cease-fire in place to stop the killing and permit safe and unhindered access to vulnerable populations by the humanitarian agencies. Threat and attacks against those trying to relieve the suffering of the Burundian people must stop. RI believes that, pending the success of peace negotiations, several significant steps by donors and international organizations can continue to support Burundians who wish to bring peace to their troubled country. Donors and international agencies should also be prepared to move immediately to support a cease fire or other significant moves toward peace when they are achieved. Refugees International, therefore, recommends that Refugees International recommends that:


* Work closely together to have in place a relief to development transition package with committed resources for implementation as soon as a cease fire is reached.

* continue to support civil society groups-- continue to support efforts at transitional development in areas that are still secure

* make it clear to all sides that development aid will not be forthcoming until the security and access of humanitarian agencies and personnel is assured

United Nations:

* Prepare now to implement relief to development programs when peace is achieved and when the security of humanitarian workers is assured

* à make every attempt to keep together teams from UNDP and UNICEF so that valuable institutional memory and capacity is preserved

Humanitarian NGOs:

* Work closely with development focused counterparts in Burundi to plan for transitional programs as soon as they are practical.

* Implement relief to development programs such as assistance to street children, micro-credit, and public health education within Bujumbura itself while security conditions remain untenable in the outlying areas.


Steven Smith (202) 828-0110