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Aid and Erosion of Humanitarian Principles in Sierra Leone

Guinea - Sierra Leonean refugees in the Gueckeodou region

Published paper

David Keene's article which is largely based on a review of humanitarian agency documents about Sierra Leone written between 1992-5 and interviews with agency staff, asserts that at least three recent developments threaten further erosion of humanitarian principles in the provision of emergency relief.

These developments are:

  1. a growing emphasis on the need to repatriate refugees and the containment of would-be refugees within their home countries
  2. pressure on aid budgets
  3. the changing nature of contemporary conflicts, i.e. conflicts are protracted and often highly factionalised struggles where immediate economic goals often take precedence over political objectives.

According to Keene, aid agencies are having difficulty adapting to this combination of changing circumstances and there is often a reluctance even to find out about complicated realities that may call into question tried and trusted responses. For aid organisations, the chosen responses must be seen to be appropriate to the needs that have been recognised and publicised. But it may be easier to achieve this effect by misrepresenting the needs, misrepresenting the crisis and indeed by misrepresenting the response rather than by bringing the response into line with the actual needs and crisis.

Using Sierra Leone as a case-study (1991-5), Keene attempts to show that the aid system failed to deliver the needs that had been assessed, but that this failure was effectively disguised and accommodated through a variety of techniques. For example, the planning figure of 500,000 agreed in November 1994, was itself some 300,000 fewer than the number WFP felt were displaced at that time. Also, although the severity of the conflict was tending to increase over time the level of the ration was progressively reduced from 350 gms of cereal per person per day in 1992 to 300 in 1993 and again down to 200 in 1994 and 1995.

Distribution was also a major problem. Apart from the problem of insecurity, aid organisations were working to a tight budget and frequently did not have the flexibility to match the rising fees that were paid to truckers by commercial traders. WFP were facing a major funding crisis in Sierra Leone, with the crisis in Rwanda taking attention and resources away and donors supplying only a fraction of what they had pledged.

Keene identifies a number of methods that were used to give the appearance of a relief operation that was meeting assessed needs. Some of the arguments were apparently made in good faith while others were not. He asserts that these methods have been used much more widely than in Sierra Leone and that understanding them may help in appreciating how the erosion of humanitarian principles can be made to seem legitimate.

Conflating the needy and the accessible

This means conflating the assessment of needs with the assessment of numbers who can 'realistically' be reached. The 1994 plan to help only 500,000 people apparently took account of the limited NGO food distribution capacity and security constraints. Yet this figure took on a life of its own and according to one report, there were only 500,000 displaced people in S.Leone.

Accepting the constraints

Security constraints were never as immutable as claimed.

Neglecting the monitoring of aid

In spite of the diversion of aid, reported to be as much as 60% for some agencies, food aid distributions and receipts were not carefully monitored or recorded. Exposing impediments to the actual receipts of relief would have required investigation and discussion of many facets of the emergency that major donors were anxious to dismiss., e.g. the diversion of food aid by government soldiers and the emergence of economic interests in continued conflict.

Emphasising coping strategies

Ration reduction it was said would boost coping strategies and discourage dependence. Relief to Sierra Leonean refugees in Guinea and Liberia appears to have been phased out prematurely on the assumption that they had become self-sufficient. In reality many returned to conditions of considerable danger as a result of ration reductions. The failure to deliver the needs that had been assessed was justified in part with the contention that relief was not intended to meet people's nutritional needs. The ration, claimed WFP and UNHCR, was simply an income supplement. If this was its primary function it was difficult to explain the move from distributing rice to bulgur wheat, a commodity that was a much less valuable income supplement than rice. Keene argues that it was clear that its adoption reflected resource constraints in light of the considerably lower price of bulgur on international markets.

Closely related to the discussions of coping strategies were concerns about dependency - an enduring obsession with the UN system in particular. As in some other relief operations, the masterstroke of those in charge of faulty operations was to claim credit for a lack of relief, a failing that could be presented as cleverly avoiding the negative effects that relief could bring.

Keene explains how amid 'all this jargon and sloppy language', no evidence was advanced to support the suggestion that people were avoiding farming or other economic activities because of a dependency syndrome, rather than because they had been subjected to violence and feared for their safety. He also describes the impression reading WFP or UNHCR documents that arguments - some of them good, some bad and some merely incomprehensible, - were being picked up and dropped with a view to justifying a response that has been dictated by more prosaic resource constraints.


Keene. D (1998); Aid and Violence with Special Reference to Sierra Leone; Disasters, 1998 22 (4), pp 318-327.

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Reference this page

Aid and Erosion of Humanitarian Principles in Sierra Leone. Field Exchange 7, July 1999. p7.



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