Colombia: A case study in the role of the affected state in humanitarian action

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Karina Wong

HPG Working Paper

1. Introduction

This case study forms part of a broader research project on the role of the affected state in humanitarian action. It contributes to a comparative study of how a wide range of governments respond to humanitarian crises. In particular, it focuses on the relationship between the state and domestic non-governmental actors and the international community. The overarching research question for the project is: what would good humanitarian governance look like?

Colombia offers an interesting case for the project because, while it has middle-income country status, it has been plagued by a decades-long conflict which has caused a large-scale humanitarian crisis that requires international assistance. Fighting between different armed groups has forced millions to flee their homes, and all areas of the country are affected by the conflict - some as violent conflict zones, and others as recipients of internally displaced persons (IDPs). With over 2 million IDPs, Colombia is host to the world's second largest population of displaced persons, who need basic food and health provisions as well as longer-term livelihood and stabilisation assistance. Besides displacement, Colombia also suffers from regular natural disasters, which affect thousands of people each year.

In making decisions about how to appropriately respond to the humanitarian crisis, the international community must consider the fact that Colombia has well-functioning state institutions and its own response mechanisms, but at the same time the conflict has caused corruption and weakened the state in many parts of the country. This calls for an approach different from the standard humanitarian package provided to victims of complex emergencies in fragile states such as Sudan or Congo. In addition, the government plays a part in the conflict, which raises questions about how non-state actors can uphold the principle of neutrality while working with it. This has made the humanitarian response a highly sensitive issue with international actors anxious to maintain diplomatic relationships with Colombia.

This case study focuses primarily on the humanitarian response to forced displacement in Colombia, but touches briefly on how this intersects with responses to natural disasters. Within the humanitarian response, the paper concentrates on evaluating emergency assistance, with some discussion of how emergency relief links with protection, prevention, stabilisation and resettlement. This case study consisted of a literature review supplemented by email surveys and telephone interviews conducted in January 2008. Interviews were conducted with officials from 12 different institutions, including government agencies, national NGOs, international humanitarian agencies, UN agencies, donors and research organisations. In order to respect the confidentiality of the people interviewed, names have been withheld and specific references to some organisations have been avoided.

The paper examines the capacity of the Government of Colombia (GoC) to respond to humanitarian crises and the interaction between GoC and non-state actors in their responses. The next section provides a political, economic and social background of Colombia. Section 3 outlines the institutional and legislative framework of Colombia's humanitarian response, and section 4 describes the role of NGOs and international actors in that response. In section 5, the paper analyses the strengths and weaknesses of the humanitarian response by GoC, and section 6 concludes the paper.