Development for survival
By Deborah Eade
Relief and development are terms
that often go hand in hand, but in reality they are two very
distinct phenomena – far too distinct argues specialist
Deborah Eade. Because the methods of administering relief can
be detrimental to those it is meant to aid, the author makes
a heartfelt call for all assistance to become more truly humanitarian:
for it to be an investment in the human beings it seeks to help.
Emergency relief is on the increase. Even aid agencies that
view development as the only sustainable form of crisis prevention
are now seeing the balance of their budgets tip towards relief
programmes for the first time in half a century. This shift
is not because of a rise in “natural disaster”
assistance, such as relief for the victims of droughts, floods
or earthquakes. Rather, it reflects the changing nature of
Today, there are some 50 un-resolved conflicts around the
world, compared with only 10 in 1960. Ninety per cent of these
are internal, in which the overwhelming majority of victims
are civilians, not combatants. In the last decade, some two
million children have died in wars, and six times as many
have been made homeless. Living with armed conflict in what
the UN has dubbed “complex emergencies” is the
daily reality for millions of ordinary people, from Angola
to Guatemala, from Bosnia to Sri Lanka. So grave is the situation
that some of the very agencies that helped put development
on the map in the 1970s are now spending more than half their
budgets on work arising from conflict.
At the same time, the demands on non-governmental development
agencies have never been greater or more urgent. Increasingly,
they are called on to deliver public services, as indebted
governments apply externally imposed cuts in social expenditure.
Some authorities have even slashed spending by up to 50 per
cent in areas such as health, education, transport and housing:
sectors on which development so crucially depends. For many
millions, rolling back the State has reversed the often fragile
development gains of earlier decades.
With such draconian austerity measures, the divide between
rich and poor has deepened. In spite of the international
consensus that development is “not only a fundamental
right but a basic human need”, its benefits are today
realised only by a small minority. The UN Secretary-General
recently noted that “while one-fifth of the world’s
people now share only 1.5 per cent of its income... the gap
between the 20 per cent of the world population at the bottom
of the income ladder and the 20 per cent at the top of that
ladder is widening”.
Thus, for example, while Latin America is a net exporter
of capital to the industrialised nations, one citizen in two
there has been reduced to extreme poverty. Even within the
United States and western Europe, 15 per cent of the population
now lives below the poverty line. The seeds of future wars
and social conflicts are being sown today in the fertile ground
of such inequitable distribution of resources.
Aid agencies are thus faced with a more insidious kind of
emergency: situations in which people’s toe-hold on
subsistence is so insecure that the tiniest slip pushes them
into an abyss of impoverishment and disempowerment from which
they may never escape. These people cannot wait for development.
For them, it is a matter of survival.
Breaking the mould
In the early 1980s, as a brutal civil war swept through El
Salvador, thousands of poor and illiterate rural people sought
refuge in neighbouring Honduras. About 9,000 formed a camp
at Colomoncagua, five kilometres from the border.
It was clear that these refugees wanted to keep their enforced
dependence to the very minimum. Within months, six experienced
tailors were busy altering the old clothes that had been donated.
Soon, with a couple of sewing machines and material given
by a local church agency, they began teaching others how to
make shirts, trousers and dresses. Nine years later, every
single item of clothing — including underwear, hats
and shoes — was manufactured within the camp in collective
workshops which boasted 150 semi-industrial machines and 240
trainees, virtually all of them women and youngsters.
The pattern repeated itself across a comprehensive range
of activities — building, carpentry, tin-smithing, hammock-making,
car mechanics, literacy, administration, horticulture and
health care, as well as teaching and communication skills.
On the eve of their return to El Salvador in 1990, their numbers
included 350 health workers and over 400 teachers and trainers.
Achieving such success was not without difficulty. From the
outset, the refugees insisted that their survival depended
on more than mere material welfare. Investing in the future
of their community was essential to their human dignity and
sense of purpose. For many of the international relief agencies,
however, this vision could not be reconciled with their own
priorities and ways of working. Accustomed to delivering relief
programmes, they were unable or unwilling to hand over any
management responsibility to the “beneficiaries”.
In one extreme case, a relief agency withdrew rather than
change its methods. Donors too made sharp distinctions between
relief and development: giving out second-hand clothes was
acceptable, supplying fabric for refugees to make their own
The implicit message was that to qualify for relief assistance,
the refugees had to remain both dependent and disempowered
— a message that this group resisted and overcame. But
why is relief given in a way that weakens people’s resolve,
and undermines what limited capacities they possess to control
their own lives?
Conventional distinctions between development and relief
tend to obscure the wider challenges facing humanitarianism.
Agencies usually separate the two, with emergency relief programmes
characterised by high-speed, high-budget, high-profile interventions,
rushing goods and personnel from one part of the world to
another. Development — including the time-consuming
process of finding out what ordinary women and men actually
think — is seen as something that can wait until
things have “returned to normal”. Donors encourage
this by insisting on often arbitrary distinctions between
“relief assistance”, and what they consider constitutes
“rehabilitation” or “development”.
All this fosters the fiction that human lives fall into neat
categories, with a logical progression from one stage to the
next. It encourages agencies to treat people as “targets”
of assistance, rather than as agents in their own recovery.
It disguises the fact that women, men and children are affected
in different ways by crisis, so that their needs and priorities
may not coincide. It leads agencies to focus on vulnerable
“groups”, rather than seeing what makes some people
more vulnerable than others.1 It implies that there is anything
“normal” or acceptable about the status quo to
which it is assumed that people should return before “development”
can begin. And it means that relief aid is often given in
a way that undermines people, that treats them as “victims”
rather than survivors, that strengthens some at the expense
of others, and thus leaves the weakest more vulnerable than
False distinctions between development and emergency relief
also allow international financial institutions and governments
to regard crisis as just a temporary hitch, rather than the
necessary outcome of their own policies. Yet millions of women,
men and children now live in a state of such permanent emergency
that any intervention — including ill-conceived aid
— can tip them “over the edge”. It is precisely
because vulnerability is rooted in people’s social and
economic realities that relief must be done developmentally.
future is now
This does not, as is often assumed, boil down to whether
aid programmes are short, medium or long term. Rather, it
means working towards the future in the course of dealing
with the here and now. Whether it involves supplying goods
such as food and medicine, training local health workers,
or exposing human rights abuses, relief assistance always
has a longer-term impact than is immediately apparent. Humanitarian
agencies must therefore look not just at what they are giving,
but also at how they are giving it. Their contribution should
be evaluated in terms of how effectively it enables people
to withstand threats to their future survival and well-being.
Aid agencies are largely reacting to complex situations in
which their individual contribution can only be limited. Thus
some will give priority to influencing international policy,
while others stress their technical expertise — for
instance in water and sanitation — or their experience
in areas such as adult literacy or organisational skills.
A degree of diversity between different humanitarian agencies
is inevitable and often valuable. What is vital, however,
is that any such assistance is rooted in an understanding
of the longer-term interests of the people they aim to help.
Above all, emergency relief should be committed to developing
people’s own capacity to overcome adversity.
Humanitarianism is first and foremost about people: addressing
human suffering. So it is inescapably about defending people
whose rights are denied, whose needs are ignored, and whose
voices are unheard, whether because of war or for reasons
of poverty and exclusion. Humanitarian agencies should therefore
not confine themselves to picking up the pieces, but should
also work towards crisis prevention, by promoting the right
to development of every human being.
Deborah Eade was for nine years a relief and development worker
in Mexico and Central America. She is currently Editor of
the quarterly journal Development in Practice and, with Suzanne
Williams, co-author of The Oxfam Handbook of Development
and Relief (1995).
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