Central African Republic: Remaining close to the victims

The combined effects of poverty and internal conflict have caused tremendous suffering in the Central African Republic, especially among displaced groups in the north of the country. Jean-Nicolas Marti, head of the ICRC's delegation in Bangui, explains how the organization intends to improve the situation in 2007.

1. How has the humanitarian situation in the Central African Republic changed over the past six months?

In the north-western and north-eastern parts of the country, the situation is relatively stable in terms of population movements. Those who fled their villages and sought refuge in the bush are, for the most part, still in the bush. The rains have started, and that is the main change. The displaced will have to live through a second rainy season under tarpaulins or makeshift shelters. So even though there have been but a few military operations in the past months, notably in Birao in early March, humanitarian needs have grown.

Assessing those needs is difficult given the size of the areas involved and the relative dispersal of humanitarian organizations in the country. The ICRC maintains a continuous presence in Paoua and Kaga Bandoro and we are going to open a delegation in Birao, which will give us a better overview of the situation. At this stage, it is important not to forget the resident population, which has also suffered the consequences of armed conflict, or the people who have returned to their lands and require assistance. The needs are huge since they stem not only from conflict but also from decades of underdevelopment and chronic poverty.

2. How is the ICRC responding to those needs?

Basically speaking, the ICRC is committed to helping 100,000 people - mostly displaced - in 2007. Distributions began in late April in Paoua and others are about to begin in Kaga Bandoro. These operations will be extended to the north-east when we have the logistical means to do so.

Our response takes different kinds of needs into account since we are distributing essentials like blankets, mosquito nets and kitchen utensils, but also farming tools and fishing nets, as well as rehabilitating strategically located water points.

Mainly, though, our response seeks to address protection needs. We try to persuade bearers of weapons to change their behaviour, be they members of regular forces, the Republican Guard or rebel groups. In the bilateral talks we have with them, we always insist on the plight of civilians and the need to respect the basic principles governing the conduct of hostilities. Obviously, we also need to provide conflict victims with material aid.

3. During the course of the year, the ICRC increased its budget for the Central African Republic. Why ?

The budget increase amounted to CHF 5,249,321, the initial budget for our activities in the country having been set at CHF 5,539,000. The funds obtained will be used to step up our field operations. Because it has no port and only a primitive road network, the Central African Republic presents a logistical challenge we don't face in other countries. To be effective, not only must we import aid supplies but we must also bring them into the interior of the country. Most of the time this is done by plane, which means that a costly logistical system must be set up. However, some parts of the country are only accessible by road four or five months out of the year.

Let me add that the ICRC's wish to carry out its protection and assistance work in as close proximity to the beneficiaries as possible implies a considerable investment in terms of staff and infrastructure in a country where little or nothing exists, even if we keep a close eye on expenditure. Ultimately, the cost of our programmes is mainly determined by the number of victims we wish to reach -­ a number that has increased from 40,000 to 100,000 people in 2007.

4. Is security a problem?

Security conditions are both complicated and volatile and a lot more must be done to understand local interactions if we are be truly effective. For example, it took us a whole year after opening our office in Paoua before we grasped all the dangers involved in travelling in this region infested with highway bandits. Such things take time. It is impossible to understand the population's needs, the dangers they face and the security environment by taking a quick trip across the country.

Fortunately, the Red Cross generally has a very good image, partly because of its neutral and impartial approach, but also because the National Society has shown itself to be effective despite its limited means. Humanitarian organizations are sometimes accused of partiality - of "only helping the rebels" for example - but such accusations are commonplace in every context. We must therefore make a constant effort to clear up misunderstandings with the various actors involved.