Do More Good' in the Central African Republic

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Oct 20th, 2008 by Toby Lanzer UN

Once there was a fairy-tale image of the brave and noble humanitarian, who would storm into conflict zones - armed only with vaccines and sacks of food - and indiscriminately save lives, having no other impact that a strictly humanitarian one. In the mid-1990s, that image was shattered. Strikingly common-sensical, Mary Anderson laid out the idea of Do No Harm, based on the realisation that humanitarian assistance takes place within a political context, and that so-called humanitarians, in their eagerness to do good, risked exacerbating tensions and deepening conflicts. Of course, this insight was not new. As long as there have been conflicts, people in violence-ridden countries have seen foreigners appear and influence the course of events. Having them arrive in white Landcruisers with colourful flags hardly changed the essential point that, in a conflict zone, everything is political.

Acknowledging that emergency aid can have unintended and potentially disastrous consequences should not, and has not, led humanitarian organisations to pack up their vaccination kits and go home. On the contrary: while the idea of Do No Harm is as relevant today as ever, there is no reason why it could not have a positive twin. This twin idea - 'Do More Good' - suggests that impartial and effective humanitarian action can have a positive impact beyond its primary aim of saving lives and relieving suffering, i.e. to create some breathing-space for conflict-torn communities and lay the foundations for stability and development. Just such a window of opportunity may exist today in the Central African Republic. Although this window may close fast, it does appear that positive change could be possible. Aid organisations are playing a central role in helping to bring it about.

The context: violence and poverty intertwined

The modern history of the Central African Republic reads like that of many other African states. The rule of a despotic and self-appointed emperor in the 1960s and 1970s was followed by a series of presidents and coups, none of which managed to bring about much tangible progress for the country's destitute population. The past decade has been particularly turbulent, marked by recurring internal conflicts and a steady decline in the standard of living for the average Central African. For the past two years, parts of the country's north have been caught in a rebellion against the government of President Francois Bozize. Fighting has displaced hundreds of thousands of people from their homes, and has prevented the state from providing any kind of services.

Adding to its internal woes, CAR finds itself in a rough neighbourhood. With long and porous borders with Chad and the Darfur region of Sudan, Central Africans are caught up in complex regional refugee and returnee problems. The country's vast northern provinces provide a perfect hide-out for rebels, poachers and anyone else seeking some time away from the public eye. The virtually bankrupt and undermanned Central African state is incapable of controlling its territory, breeding lawlessness and rebellion.

The weakness of the Central African state goes beyond its inability to ensure the security of its territory. Landlocked and with extremely limited trade with the outside world, the country has never been able to develop its potential, and today lies 171st on the UNDP's list of the 177 least developed countries in the world. Successive governments have been unable to manage finances to allow civil servants regularly to receive their salaries. The past years of violence, fuelled by crippling destitution and a sense of being abandoned by the state, have caused a humanitarian crisis across northern CAR. With emergency and poverty needs so closely intertwined, help is required at every level, whether distributing blankets and kitchen utensils to the displaced or helping the government to repair roads and bridges.

The stakes: a window of opportunity for change

The stakes in CAR are high, notably in terms of human suffering. The scope of the crisis is staggering. Some 300,000 people have been forced from their homes, and tens of thousands are living in the bush, too frightened even to return to their villages to collect clean water. Per 100,000 live births, 1,355 mothers die during or immediately after the delivery, compared to 550 in neighbouring Sudan. Twenty per cent of CAR's children never reach their fifth birthday, and those who survive have little chance of ever seeing the inside of a classroom or a functioning health centre. Economic opportunities are scarce; even when people have access to a livelihood, insecurity and impassable roads reduce trade to a trickle. As the security situation ebbs and flows, aid organisations are gaining access to populations previously out of reach. The level of needs they are discovering is startling.

Despite this dire situation, there are some positive signs, suggesting that stability and recovery could be within reach. The foremost of these developments is an inclusive political dialogue in Bangui, at the initiative of President Bozize and supported by the UN Peacebuilding Office in Bangui (BONUCA). It is hoped that the dialogue will help settle some of the discontent that has been plaguing the country's political scene since Bozize's ascendancy to power five years ago. Indeed, after months of discussions with militant groups and the political opposition, it looks like the President will be able to get all major political actors, including the armed opposition, around the negotiating table and that there will be a comprehensive peace agreement to end the persistent conflict with the militant group APRD in the northwest and consolidate the agreements with militant groups in the north and northeast.

In a second bid to promote stability - and reassure donors concerned about its human rights record - the CAR government has embarked on an ambitious programme to reform its security sector. The aim is to ensure that the country's security forces are adequately trained and equipped to protect CAR's population and territory, while respecting the law and human rights. The reforms also include strengthening political institutions to make sure that the security forces are under democratic control. This process will cost millions of dollars and take years to implement fully. However, quick support from donors, and a commitment from the government, could allow the state to project, with international supervision, a benign presence across its territory, restoring some much-needed trust between the population and the state.

There have been signs that at least some of the donor support needed in CAR could be forthcoming. In 2007, CAR was finally able to finish a national poverty reduction strategy, as set out in its Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP), which it presented to donors at a Round Table in October 2007. At the conference, donors pledged $600 million for CAR's development and reconstruction. Across the country, this has raised expectations that the tide is turning. Were pledges not to materialise, there is a risk that the government's ambitions become yet another source of frustration for the population, already tired of promises of development dividends that never arrive.

CAR is at a crossroads. On the one hand, violence and displacement continue in the north. On the other, there is a real chance of political stability and concrete progress towards recovery and development. With the PRSP, CAR's government has shown that it has a plan to pull its country out of its current state, and that it is aware of its responsibility to improve the lot of its citizens. But even with the best intentions, the government will need time and money to build up its capacity to provide basic services across the country. Aid organisations are helping to build that capacity, while covering - in the short term - the provision of key services in areas where the state is not yet present, thereby bringing home the immediate benefits of stability to the worst-affected populations.

The approach: working together to Do More Good in CAR

Making sure that relief efforts help the CAR to move in the direction of stability and development is no mean feat. It requires working closely with a broad range of partners, including the government, and aligning emergency priorities with recovery and development strategies. Humanitarian and development organisations in CAR are joining forces to meet immediate needs and, at the same time, strengthening the foundations for longer-term development.

This approach has meant bridging the often artificial divide between what is humanitarian and what is developmental. For example, the humanitarian 'clusters' have been merged with existing development sector groups, in which aid agencies engage with each other in an open and substantive discussion on humanitarian and development needs and priorities. In line with the Paris Declaration on aid effectiveness, the clusters are aligned with the government's coordination mechanism established for the Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper. To make sure that aid agencies are working coherently, the CAR's Humanitarian and Development Partnership Team (HDPT) meets weekly to discuss security, politics and emergency and development operations. So far, these efforts seem to have been successful. Indeed, in the 2008 CAP for CAR the HDPT (including NGOs, UN agencies and key government ministries) decided that one of three strategic priorities for the humanitarian response in 2008 would be to ensure coherence and complementarity between humanitarian assistance, early recovery and development programmes.

In addition, the HDPT has worked hard to get donors and more aid organisations engaged. Here too, efforts have paid off. In the past 18 months, the number of aid agencies engaged in humanitarian action and recovery has risen from five to 22. Together, these organisations received more humanitarian funding in 2007 than in 2004, 2005 and 2006 combined: $69m, which - though it might seem small compared to aid giants such as DRC and Sudan - is comparable to the bigger settings when measured per capita. As for the use of funds, one way of making sure that they are put to the best possible use has been to empower sector groups to set clear priorities that are then communicated to donors. As such, all the projects included in the CAP have been prioritised by the HDPT and ranked as 'medium', 'high' or 'immediate' priority, based on six clear criteria. Another mechanism which is serving to improve coordination and the quality and coverage of humanitarian action is the Emergency Response Fund, which was set up in early 2007 to fund start-up costs and responses to breaking emergencies; to date, this has funded 66 projects, with nearly $10m spent and $12m raised.

While a transparent and inclusive approach is all very well, the raison d'être of the aid community is of course its ability to bring about positive change on the ground, first and foremost by alleviating suffering. Fortunately, in CAR, it looks like results are being achieved. In 2007, over 90% of CAR's IDPs received clothes, kitchen utensils, plastic sheeting and other non-food items. NGOs and UN agencies are giving some 2m people access to health care in hospitals, health centres and mobile clinics across the country. In the education sector, NGOs and UN agencies have teamed up to take some 97,000 children in the conflict-torn north back to school, and hundreds of wells, pumps and boreholes have been constructed or rehabilitated. In addition, increased HDPT field presence (HDPT members' offices outside the capital, Bangui, increased five-fold in 12 months, from seven to 35), coupled with intense advocacy efforts towards the government and armed opposition groups, have contributed to a marked decrease in some of the conflict's worst human rights abuses, such as the torching of villages. As a result, aid agencies are saving more lives and alleviating or preventing more suffering than anyone could have predicted when humanitarian donors and organisations engaged seriously in 2006.

Beyond alleviating immediate suffering, these activities could be making a more lasting difference. In fact, by giving people access to livelihoods and opening previously cut-off trade routes, relief and recovery in CAR is helping the population put an end to its isolation and relaunch the defunct economy. By working in close coordination with the government to keep children in school and by rehabilitating health centres and hospitals, aid agencies are strengthening the state's capacity to provide basic services, and are 'filling the gap' to provide those services until the government can do so. By being present in conflict zones, international organisations can protect civilians and help prevent abuses. Although such contributions alone will not bring CAR out of its crisis, they help to create the breathing-space needed to put peace and stability back on the agenda. Indeed, by helping people to meet their most immediate needs, humanitarians are creating a chance for tension to dissipate, people to come together and stability and development to take root.

In short, humanitarian action in the Central African Republic is having a positive impact well beyond the immediate alleviation of suffering and the saving of lives. Far from Doing No Harm, this seems to be a case of humanitarians Doing More Good by coming together with development professionals and planning beyond the short term. The timing could not be better. For Central Africans 2008 is crucial. If humanitarian and development professionals can help tip the situation in the direction of peace, they will have made a difference which will serve the country not only in the months, but in the years and decades to come.

This article appeared in the Humanitarian Exchange Magazine, published by ODI's Humanitarian Practice Network.

Toby Lanzer is Deputy Resident Coordinator/Humanitarian Coordinator for northern Sudan. Formerly he was Resident Coordinator/Humanitarian Coordinator, Central African Republic.

Humanitarian and Development Partnership Team CAR
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