FEATURE: Transition phase after conflict vital for success of humanitarian programmes

18 August 2009

By the late 1990s Liberia appeared well on the road to recovery. A disastrous civil war had ended, democratic elections had been held, refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) were beginning to return home, emergency humanitarian programmes were winding down and the focus turned to longer-term development.

But within a few years a disastrous new civil was raging, the United Nations and other relief agencies had to rush back in again, and the whole raft of humanitarian emergency programmes had to be re-launched.

As the UN marks the first annual World Humanitarian Day this month, with much of the focus on continuing emergencies, forgotten emergencies, and those that are under-funded because they have barely registered in the first place, there are also those that have moved beyond the urgent life-saving phase to longer-term development. But it is no easy walk in the park in this crucial transition stage, and the threat of relapse is ever-present.

“Once peace has been attained and you emerge from the immediate crisis, the challenges are in a way much more profound because they are more complex and they’re more long-term and in my view that’s where we’ve really got to try and get it right,” UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) Officer Sarah Muscroft tells the UN News Centre.

“If you suddenly turn the tap off and people go back to their villages where they have nothing, they are left entirely bereft, and that’s when, of course, tensions begin to develop, reintegrating soldiers coming in, ex-combatants; the social cohesion doesn’t work, there’s no proper traditional justice programme set up, there isn’t the strengthening of governance at the local level,” she says.

“That’s where you can really make mistakes, and that then of course creates conditions ripe for discontent and rebellion and civil unrest and spiralling back into feeding militia groups, rebel groups,” she adds, citing Liberia as “a classic case in point” and underscoring the UN’s redoubled focus on peace-building in the immediate aftermath of conflict in countries in so-called transition.

“In the mid-‘90s we thought we’d solved the crisis and Charles Taylor was elected as the President of Liberia in free and democratic elections, but slowly the country unravelled again back into conflict, and we had to go back in again and rebuild everything again.”

Another example is Liberia’s neighbour, Sierra Leone, which likewise spiralled back into exceptionally brutal fighting when the end of one civil war in the 1990s and the holding of elections provided but an illusory, temporary lull.

“We see the transition period as the critical period,” Ms. Muscroft says, calling the immediate humanitarian response “very much quick fix, it’s band-aid,” such as when food is rushed in to keep people alive and the focus is on getting social services in place. Early recovery targets much longer-term goals – for instance, using food as part of reconstruction efforts, or rebuilding schools instead of setting up makeshift facilities.

“In the height of a crisis the WFP (UN World Food Programme) will be giving basic food rations to the populations that are displaced,” she explains.

“As it moves into a longer-term recovery mode, they’ll start shifting their programming and giving food for work programmes, whereby you’ll get community members helping to rebuild villages or roads, and they get food rations as their payment. So they basically reorient their programming, and they do school feeding programmes.”

Countries that in the past decade have or are transitioning out of the emergency humanitarian phase include Angola, Burundi, Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia, Nepal, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Timor-Leste and Uganda.