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What are the complexities in ‘complex emergencies’

The term ‘complex emergencies’ emerged during the late 1980’s as a pseudo-euphemism for crises in the developing world. This term has often been used by governments of developing nations themselves to hide the reality of an internal conflict and to encourage indiscriminate aid distribution (i.e. aid distributed to the perpetrators of war rather than the victims of war). However, the term ‘complex emergencies’ implies much more than a simple euphemism for internal conflict, as the complexities of the situations that occur under this ‘label’ are many and varied. It is not just the actual situations themselves that are complex (i.e. the environmental disasters, civil wars, ethnic killings) it is the way in which the situations are dealt with (by the international community) that presents even more complexity to the situation.The phenomenon of complex emergencies in the developing world seems to have developed during the post-cold war period. The states of the developing world were used as the political (and military) battlefield by the capitalist and communist superpowers, leaving little scope for any kind of domestic politics reflective of the states themselves. The power vacuum left by the downfall of the Soviet bloc allowed states in the developing world a newfound political freedom to question the status quo. “The post cold war period saw a questioning of national sovereignty and a rash of internal conflicts bursting forth, most notably in the Balkans and in Africa1”.The number of conflicts that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union were many, so much so that by 1996 10 percent of global official development assistance and one half of the UN aid budget were devoted to relief2. Also, the nature of internal conflicts changed after the cold war. Prior to 1989, the conflicts were largely based on defined political goals (i.e. pro capitalist/communist) and at least claimed to be based on popular support. However, Civil war in the developing world is now far more likely to be based on ethnicity with the use of ‘terror tactics’ used more frequently.The complexities of complex emergencies arise from the confusion over what kind of situation is exacerbating a disaster. The International Community is extremely adept at dealing with natural disasters such as floods or drought and has acted accordingly in the past. “Initially the model for relief efforts was based on those for natural disasters, with relief and development being seen as very separate issues3”. However, when the phenomena of natural disasters are combined with a situation such as civil war, the circumstances of relief and development become much less ‘black and white’ for the International Community. This is because aid is seen by opposing factions (quite rightly) as a valuable resource, particularly during a time of war. The presence of aid can create further conflict between the warring factions and help to make the situation deteriorate further.For example, in Sudan, there is a drought situation coupled with war between the government and the SPLM (rebel forces). “UN sources said Sudan’s civil war would make it harder to get food aid to rebel-held parts of Eastern Equitoria state where the government is refusing to give permission for UN humanitarian flights to land4”. This situation is further perpetuated by war in neighbouring Ethiopia and Eritrea. “The recent resumption of hostilities between Eritrea and Ethiopia is adding to Sudan’s already swelling population of displaced persons with 50,000 Eritreans fleeing across the border to escape the Ethiopian’s mass offensive5”.What has become apparent through aid operations over the last 15 years is that aid can have a very negative effect. This is especially apparent in war-torn areas where government or rebel factions control the areas where aid is needed. “Again and again aid workers tell how their aid is distorted by local politics and is misappropriated by warriors to support the war6”. Not only does the aid itself become a resource for the warring factions (acquired through theft or local collaboration) but also the distribution of aid can feed rival tensions by discriminating between rival groups, free the use of local production for the purpose of war and legitimise local forces in the area of distribution. For example, in Sudan ‘Operation Lifeline Sudan’ (an agency designed to ensure access to the civilian population) has been reported as becoming a legitimising force for the government. “The Report to the Aid Agencies identified 11 major institutional problems.These included the uneven observance of international law by the belligerents [and] the structural bias of OLS toward the Sudanese government7″. As a humanitarian non-governmental organisation, OLS should not become politicised, yet the situation in Sudan (and many other developing countries where a complex emergency is occurring) makes it very difficult for such agencies to remain outside of the role of ‘political legitimisation’, as these agencies have to deal with local military forces on a daily basis and are reliant on their cooperation for success. The administration of aid has also caused a perpetuation of conflict. During the Relief work after the Rwandan genocide, Refugee camps in Eastern Zaire were controlled by former perpetrators of the genocide.”These leaders saw the camps as a means to maintain control over the population and prepare for a future invasion of Rwanda8”. This provides a shocking example of how the complexities of complex situations can be ignored; resulting in the exact opposite effect of what is trying to be achieved. Conversely, the role of aid can be ‘overplayed by some academics. For example, the UNITA faction in Angola derives a massive portion of wealth (around $500 million per annum) from the sale of diamonds to finance its war against the Angolan government. This figure dwarfs the dollar value of aid in Angola, and monetarily plays virtually no part in financing military operations in the country.Yet it is the current (and past) paradigms of the International aid community that further complicate the matter. For many years it has been accepted that aid distribution along the lines of the European Recovery Program (the Marshall plan) used during the post war period in Germany. Although this approach certainly has its advantages (such as the emphasis on local involvement in recovery) it has failed to adapt to contemporary society. “These dissimilarities [of today’s society and that of 50 years ago] include the current distribution of global power; the locus and nature of contemporary violence; the nature and absorptive capacities of today’s postconflict states; and the resources and will of the donor community9”.The International community has also embraced the idea of ‘peace at all costs’. The 1991 UN document ‘an agenda for peace’ defined the overriding paradigm of the UN. Yet the agenda for peace has not been fulfilled. For example, the Rwandan peace process (set out in the Arusha accords) was fiercely ‘guarded’ by the International Community. Yet this incessant devotion to ‘peace at all costs’ served to distort the issue of ethnic tensions and is partly to blame for the slow response of the International Community to the Genocide.The framework of ‘abstraction’ that the UN and other international organisations have adopted has led to a rigid, linear approach to complex emergencies. Certain assumptions have been made about the processes of complex emergencies that have been detrimental to the civilian populations of states contain within a situation of emergency. “The tendency among donors and within international organisations to treat “conflict” and “postconflict” as separate categories and distinct phases in a quest for “lasting peace” has carried with it the expectation (and planning assumption) that the formal end of armed hostilities also marks a definitive break with past patterns of violence10″.The International Community has also adopted a stance of ‘State-Centrism’ whereby negotiations are principally conducted with the recognised, formal apparatus of the state. This ignores potential spheres of influence that may operate within the nation (such as rebel groups, warlords) and further exacerbate the situation of war. This is no more apparent than in Rwanda, where negotiations prior to the genocide were conducted chiefly with the Hutu government. It has now become apparent that within that government were the main planners of the genocide, yet the International Communities obsessive dedication to ‘peace at all costs’ and the narrow focus of negotiation with the ‘formal’ government lead to a disastrous ignorance of the genuine issues.The devastating effects of complex emergencies are multiplied by the vulnerability of the populations of developing countries. Poor infrastructure, the legacy of war, drought, famine and other ‘natural’ disasters serve to undermine the ability of people in the developing world. These factors not only make the devastating effects of complex emergencies worse, but they also make recovery far harder. Under such conditions (particularly war) relief work is made far more complex. What has emerged from the practise of International Development is that the agencies operating in countries under a state of complex emergency have been separating ‘Relief’ and ‘Development’ into two distinct processes. It has become clear is that these processes are intrinsically linked and the success of one is dependant on the other and vice versa. “Duffield points out that in both Africa and the Balkans, complex emergencies were occurring precisely because of the failure of development11”.This complexity created by the approach of International relief agencies has since lead to a re-appraisal of development and relief techniques and a shift in the current paradigm. There has emerged a ‘relief-development continuum’ whereby it has been acknowledged that the two issues cannot be separated, with the focus on development becoming more important.Yet another dimension of complexity introduced by the UN is the practise and deployment of peacekeeping operations in areas affected by war. Barry Munslow points out three main factors of complexity created by these operations. The first is that media coverage and opinion may not favour the task being undertaken by the UN forces. As the military manpower needed to carry out peacekeeping operations is derived from the member states of the UN, the media may perceive certain ‘distant’ operations as ‘unworthy’ when compared to the risk that UN soldiers experience while undertaking peacekeeping missions (thus leading to negative public opinion on such operations).Secondly, it is possible that the task forces may heighten tensions between the warring factions, as they may be seen as favouring one faction or the other (as I mentioned earlier, the UN has often been ‘state-centric’ in its negotiations). Thirdly, it is quite clear that the USA is essential for the running of these missions as it is the only member state large enough to fund the very costly ‘business’ of peacekeeping. This gives the US massive influence in deciding where peacekeeping should be undertaken. This dimension has been extremely distorted during the last year since September 11th as most foreign operations undertaken by the US seem to operate on the basis of an ‘anti-terrorism’ agenda. The 2001 report on UN peacekeeping operations stated “Over the last decade, the United Nations has repeatedly failed to meet the challenge” of protecting people from war12″.This presents a major dilemma for the UN peacekeeping agenda. Firstly, there is a major distinction between peacekeeping and peace enforcement. The former operates on the basis of an already established but fragile peace, whereas the latter operates on the basis of continuing conflict. The latter poses many problems, not least of all the notion of the impartiality of the UN. “The main difference between peace enforcement and war was impartiality… The key difference from war is there was no designated ‘enemy13”. This is an extremely sensitive issue, as military operations and the use of force make it very difficult to operate without a ‘designated enemy’. This also poses the problem of ‘re-igniting’ tensions between warring factions where it is believed that one side is being favoured over the other.Perhaps the most diverse and atomised feature of complex emergencies is the volume and variety of the organisations that assist in humanitarian aid. There are multilateral organisations (UNHCR, World Food Program) independent government development agencies (i.e. Overseas development ministries) (Non governmental organisations (Oxfam, Christian aid) and financial institutions (World Ban, IMF). However, the coordination of these agencies is often haphazard and lacking in focus. No overall plan is defined in the distribution of humanitarian assistance, leaving the development stage of assistance without any real chance of significant success.It is also pertinent to the debate that almost all of the NGO’s involved in relief and development are wholly unaccountable and act in ways that they think best. This leaves NGO’s ‘competing’ against one another in an effort to deliver humanitarian aid, a phenomenon that is detrimental to the populations of countries in a state of complex emergency.The main grey area however, is between the UN and the NGO’s. “Coordination with NGOs for purposes of emergency relief is also losing out due to overlapping jurisdictions within the UN. Under the present modus operandi the decentralization needed for effective and efficient emergency relief delivery is not possible14”. The lack of a defined process to designate which agencies go where and do what is causing further complications in a situation that is already enormously complex.Arrested Development has paradoxically, often been caused by the International Community itself (somewhat inadvertently) through the failure of structural adjustment programs (SAP’s). These SAP’s have been forced on developing countries as pre-requisites for the administration of badly needed financial and humanitarian assistance. This has resulted in a vicious circle of failed SAP’s followed by international aid, the ‘welfare state’ of the developing world. A further aspect of complexity arises from this; aid is the product of the international community and is controlled by the international community both in volume of aid and distribution of aid. This leaves much of the developing world without any real influence in the development of their own countries, a situation akin to the days of European colonialism.Health care during complex emergencies is also a massive priority, yet the sheer scale of expertise required and the lack of political will or funds to provide such care is sometimes lacking. “Emergency relief remains largely an amateur field, practiced by people who are deeply concerned by the sometimes overwhelming problems, but who are unaware of even the most firmly established health care priorities15”. HIV and AIDS has reached epidemic proportions in Africa and the developing world, largely due to the lack of Sex education available and has been described as a ‘threat to human security’. This presents a massive problem, especially during a complex emergency when other more ‘overt’ diseases and injuries take priority. “HIV spreads fastest wherever poverty, social disenfranchisement and instability prevail. And nowhere all these conditions more extreme than in complex emergencies16”.The complexities in complex emergencies vary greatly, and new facets of complexity are emerging constantly. This is perhaps the most problematic aspect of complex emergencies. As new factors emerge (AIDS, terrorism, environmental disaster) it becomes increasingly difficult for relief and development agencies to develop a consistent and coherent framework for dealing with complex emergencies. Complexity also comes (in no small amount) from the institutions themselves, and the debate on the benefits versus the drawbacks of humanitarian aid is largely inconclusive.However, it is clear that complex emergencies cannot be dealt with in a ‘two dimensional’ way; the plethora of complexity means that flexibility and a non-linear approach to relief and development seems to be essential for success in the future.

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