Sudan: Rebuilding lives in longer-term emergencies


Executive summary

Responses to humanitarian emergencies on the scale of the Darfur crisis concentrate on meeting immediate basic needs and ensuring the safety and protection of the endangered population. It is well documented that older people, as a vulnerable group, are often neglected or ignored in this initial response. Prolonged violence and displacement present a further challenge to humanitarian agencies, creating longer-term social, economic and psychological needs.

In this report, HelpAge International draws on its experience of working in West Darfur and in comparable protracted emergencies to suggest ways to identify and respond to these longer-term needs among older people and their families. In addition to addressing older people's specific needs, HelpAge International advocates integrating its work with older people into a broader cross-generational approach that helps to build the capacity of communities affected by protracted conflict and violence, so that they can function effectively beyond the period of the crisis.

The Darfur humanitarian emergency of 2003/4 has become a prolonged humanitarian crisis, with an estimated 1.65 million to 2 million internally displaced people (IDPs) and a further several hundred thousand Darfurian refugees in neighbouring Chad.

Research by HelpAge International in IDP camps indicates that older people, some 8 per cent of the camp population, have derived little benefit from the international aid effort. In part this is the result of INGOs' strong and justified focus on protection of women and children who are at particular risk of violence. HelpAge International has also concluded that the unrecognised vulnerability of older people is exacerbated by their isolation in IDP camps where they are often separated from their extended families. In their villages, older people were respected and well cared for, even in a crisis. In the camps, however family structures have fragmented. Older people, especially older men lose their status and have few family members to support them. Indeed they are often caring for young dependants themselves.

The disintegration of families is also creating rifts between different generations and leading to violence among another vulnerable and neglected group - teenagers, who no longer see traditions and respect between generations as relevant to their lives.

In response, the agency has initiated a series of quick impact projects focusing on key areas of vulnerability for older people: health problems, social isolation and lack of intergenerational support. The success of such work depends critically on cooperation with other INGOs working in health care and supporting other vulnerable groups, particularly women and children.

HelpAge International puts forward a series of suggestions for best practice in prolonged emergencies, building on its previous research on supporting older people in emergencies:

1. Relief delivery - ensure that services reach the most vulnerable rather than the most visible and that they meet chronic needs

Health programmes should respond to chronic health care issues, not only typical emergency-related problems. This is particularly relevant for older people, who are intrinsically more vulnerable due to age, physical weakness and susceptibility to disease. To begin addressing the needs of such groups requires a longer-term commitment and a much more sophisticated targeting of the most vulnerable, accompanied by more effective data collection.

In the experience of HelpAge International, this has meant building a network of community-based staff and volunteers capable of following individual cases and, wherever possible, providing home-based care.

2. Integration versus alienation - develop a cross-generational approach

HelpAge International believes that a cross-generational approach adopted by a larger number of agencies could help mitigate some of the longer-term impacts of conflict and societal upheaval. For agencies mandated to address the needs of specific groups - children, women and older people - this means adopting a more inclusive approach to programming. It can also mean building stronger programming links between various humanitarian actors.

3. Peace-building and reconciliation - start early, involve older people

Early support for community coping mechanisms and conflict resolution processes could bolster the eventual peace-building role of community members. The potential contribution of older people, who would typically guide community discussions and actions in Darfur, has been largely ignored and their role undermined by the loss of status they have suffered in the social upheavals since the conflict began.

Understanding conflict resolution processes, identifying strategies to involve communities, and supporting the important role older people can play are steps that humanitarian actors should undertake as early as possible if potentially violent tensions are to be healed.

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