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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 emergencies.

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.


Development in reverse

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 was not.

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?

Destructive distinctions

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 before.2

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.


The 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
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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