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Humanitarian issues: African leaders' silence disturbing

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Interview by Atsen J. Ahua: Editor, Africa Link Magazine
Yvette Stevens could not have arrived at her new job as Director of OCHA (Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) at a more apt time. She had packed her bags in New York on Christmas Eve and boarded the flight to Geneva. She landed in the city of Calvin on Christmas day. It was to be a long weekend and she was certainly looking forward to shaking off the jetlag, unpacking her bags and perhaps catching up on a bit of relaxation before launching into the new assignment with her usual gusto. The Tsunami decided otherwise when the world woke up on boxing day to the devastation caused by this natural disaster in the Indian Ocean that left dead bodies and broken lives from Somalia to Sri Lanka.

Born in Sierra Leone, educated in Moscow and London Mrs. Stevens has seen her fair share of the human drama. She spent many years in the refugee agency, UNHCR and in the United Nations Headquarters where she was charged with responsibility as Special Coordinator for Africa. Since the Tsunami welcomed her to OCHA, she has hardly had any room to catch her breath. Some of the situations that have found their way to her docket one way or another have included the locust invasion of the West African Sahel region, the famine in Niger that everybody saw coming but seemed powerless to prevent ... until the fly-infested orifices of skeletal African babies started doing their rounds ... again. How does she see the picture as an African in the higher echelons of the international humanitarian and development world?

"There has to be a linkage between the humanitarian and development strategies for long-term solutions to be found to these persistent emergencies. The silence of African voices in the dialogue on humanitarian issues is most disturbing. The voices of African leaders are decidedly silent when it comes to talking about humanitarian issues that directly affect their people. It is true that Jan Egelund can speak about the looming disaster in Niger and elsewhere and appeal for the action of the international community. But in crises in Africa, we do not often hear the voices of the African Heads of State.

Mrs. Stevens says by disconnecting their pursuit of the development agenda from the equally important humanitarian one, African leaders deny themselves the opportunity to raise their collective voice in favor of forging that vital strategic linkage necessary for sustainable development that could reduce and eventually eliminate these preventable emergencies.

"Take for instance, these cases of droughts that become life and death crises in our African countries. The technology exists and there is evidence in other parts of the world of deserts being turned into fertile land that supports sustainable agriculture. It would only take a small fraction of the cost of flying all these planes and putting in place the costly logistics necessary for delivering life-saving necessities to populations at the point of death. If African leaders don't make the point about this vital connection between humanitarian and development strategies, who will do that for them and their people? What stops them from making the development of drought-resistant crops a priority so that even when there is drought, the people can still afford to produce food?"

Africa Link: Would you say then that they are laying emphasis on the wrong things?

"No! I am not saying it is either humanitarian or development emphasis. I am saying we have to take both together. The mistake is made when the two are de-linked. For instance, when you talk to them, they say, "Our priority is development and humanitarian issues divert money from development." But what is development? Of course foreign direct investment, infrastructure and market access are important and need to be pursued. But if you get market access and your people are not in a position to produce anything for the market because of humanitarian crises, what is the use of that market access to you? Don't get me wrong. Of course Africa has changed over the last ten to twenty years and you can't say things are the same. For instance, there is hardly any African country under military rule now and NEPAD, whose focus is economic development, is getting more and more buy-in, so a lot of progress has been made. However, African voices are virtually absent in the humanitarian dialogue and this is not good strategy.

Take for instance, the African Union. It does not have a specific structure for dealing with humanitarian issues. At the regional and country levels, there is the same gap. If you ask, you find that some of it is in the political department, some is scattered in other departments. When you compare that to Europe for instance, you find that the European Union has an active humanitarian department although Europe is much less prone to crises."

Africa Link: But even when the Africans and others speak, are their voices heard? Both in the case of the locusts and the drought, Jacque Diouff of FAO and your boss Jan Egelund the Humanitarian Coordinator had been warning of the looming catastrophes months before their manifestation. Has it not just become part of the International Community's habit to wait in the case of Africa until the revolting images of fly-infested dying babies destroy their breakfast appetites courtesy of CNN, before any action?

"Of course Diouff and Egelund can scream until the cows come home but once again I ask why the African voices within the continent are so silent. Then there is the issue of what Africans can do for themselves. There was a locust control mechanism in place that served the continent fairly well in the past. What happened to it? If locusts and drought are critical to our human development, why don't we take that into our hands, prioritize with long-term strategies so that we can say even to those who want to help us, this is what we want to do to solve this problem in the long term? Some countries, such as Ghana have adopted this approach but most have not. Why should we leave what is critical to the survival of our people dependent on the goodwill and in the hands of others?"

Africa Link: There are those who propound sinister conspiracy theories to the effect that the so-called international community is really against the African. The developed world does not want Africa to develop, as this is inimical to its interest. What is your take on this? Mrs. Stevens is of the opinion that if there be such a conspiracy, it would be all the more reason why Africa should take control of its destiny and use its resources effectively to break out of the woods.

"Look at the example of Asia. If you go back to the 1960s and look at a country such as Ghana in Africa and Malaysia in Asia, Ghana was way ahead of Malaysia. Now you go to Malaysia and you ask yourself what's wrong with us in Africa? An example might suffice to show what they are doing right and we are doing wrong. Malaysia has qualified people who went through the same institutions as these advisors that come from developed countries to us. So do we in Africa. Now when they had the financial crisis of 1998, they called all their people who had trained in the best economic institutions in the West and asked them to propose solutions that were taken seriously and implemented. Consequently, Malaysia came out of the financial crisis faster than any other country that was depending on IMF solutions. In Africa we complain on the one hand of the "brain drain" from the continent but fail to use our human resources effectively. We need to do more of this instead of playing the blame game or looking up to the West for solutions because we do have qualified people."

Africa Link: Having seen both the Humanitarian and Development sides from the UN perspective and having identified this vital strategic disconnection, do you have a model that you could recommend to African governments and civil society for more effective long-term strategies?

"Africans have to get into the driving seat and take control of their own destiny. They can't sit down and wait for their problems to be solved from the outside. It is a mistake to think the United Nations or donors will come to solve their problems. The donors have their agenda; the United Nations has its various agencies with their mandates and their bureaucracies. African countries and the region in its entirety need to focus on their priorities, develop their strategies and take their people into confidence. Internationally, it is vital to sit at the table and get your voice heard so that your concerns can be taken into consideration and you can be part of the formulation of the international agenda. The low priority that African countries assign to humanitarian dialogue needs to be changed. In some cases this requires a change of mind-set that will not happen overnight. Persistence is necessary and the leaders must recognize the importance of the link between humanitarian and development strategies.

On its part, African Civil Society needs a lot of capacity building. Although it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between the genuine and the fake non-governmental organizations, there are good opportunities for national and regional action for positive impact. For instance, I am pleased that African Humanitarian Action, an African NGO to which I was instrumental in getting a first assignment in Rwanda in 1994 when I was in UNHCR invited me last year to their 10th anniversary celebration. They are now working in 15 countries and plan to establish a regional humanitarian training centre. With focus and persistence, we can have many more such success stories of Africans impacting positively on other African lives."

Atsen Ahua can be reached at atsenahua@africalink.ch