RPN 19 published May 1995

6. NGOs and the subcontracting of humanitarian relief by Mark Duffield


It is common to regard an internal emergency as separate and unconnected with the external humanitarian intervention which is meant to ameliorate the effects of the disaster. It is argued here, however, that the nature of the humanitarian intervention is itself part of, and a contributing factor to, the complexity of modern emergencies.

The linkage of the internal emergency with the external response had become manifest by the mid 1980s in the form of the internationalisation of public welfare. In crude terms, this is characterised by NGOs replacing the state in the provision of basic welfare services. This article describes the linkage between emergency and international response and how the latter helps fuel the former.

NGOs and the sub-contracting of humanitarian relief

During the latter part of the 1980s, Africa became the world's largest regional recipient of food aid and humanitarian assistance. As this concentration grew, NGOs became increasingly important in the management and targeting of this aid. This trend has also seen the growth in NGO budgets and organisational capacity and has been encouraged by the increasing willingness of Western donor governments to direct official aid away from Southern states and through NGOs. In net terms, NGOs now collectively transfer more resources to the South than the World Bank.

In Africa, from the end of the 1970s, IMF/World Bank structural adjustment programmes have been attempting, with highly debatable consequences, to stimulate market reform and encourage local producers. For those people unable to benefit from these measures, since the mid 1980s an NGO welfare safety net of development programmes and relief operations has emerged.

Typical relief programmes involve a contractual relation between an international bilateral or multilateral donor and an NGO, whereby the latter acts as an implementing agent of the former in an agreed programme of assistance. If present at all, African governments usually play a symbolic role. The growth of official funding channelled through NGOs, reinforced by the high cost of relief work, has given donors a significant measure of influence over welfare priorities as the safety net system has spread. This trend has changed many NGOs from relatively independent bodies into implementers of donor policy.

Relief operations have drawn many types of NGO, including African agencies, into subcontracting relations.

Humanitarian relief and the support of the strong

Until the mid 1980s, aid to Africa usually followed a Cold War logic. Regimes inclined to the West received help while those still pursuing a centrally planned alternative were less favourably treated. Toward the end of the 1970s, however, changes were already underway. In 1977, the Carter Administration made the receipt of American development aid, although not emergency assistance, conditional on the respect of human rights. Although never rigorously applied by the Americans and ignored by the main European donors, the distinction between development and emergency assistance did have the effect of raising humanitarian relief above politics. It created, for example, a political space which allowed the USA and other Western donors to disregard Ethiopian sovereignty from the mid 1980s and assist those areas of Eritrea and Tigray not under government control.

The weakening of sovereignty and loss of revenue that has accompanied the internationalisation of public welfare and the enhanced role of NGOs has had contradictory effects on the African state. In some cases, antagonistic relations have developed between it and the international humanitarian agencies, especially NGOs. On the other hand, development aid has been declining since the end of the 1980s as a result of recessionary pressures. Western emergency assistance itself has therefore become increasingly important as a form of state support. In countries like Sudan, for example, humanitarian relief is practically the only Western aid it currently receives. It should be emphasized, however, much of this state help is an indirect or parallel consequence of the manner in which disaster relief is organized. Moreover, although the redirection of official aid from governments and toward NGOs has been mentioned, the indirect gains that the state is able to achieve from large-scale international relief operations greatly exceeds this potential loss. Essentially, one is dealing with a contradictory and inadequate form of assistance which is open to exploitation and abuse in a number of ways:

i. State finance

The treasuries of several governments in the Horn of Africa have been big beneficiaries of international humanitarian operations. In Ethiopia and Sudan, the official overvaluing of local currencies relative to hard currency has been the main means of facilitating this. It has had the effect of imposing an unofficial relief tax every time the UN or an NGO needs to exchange hard for local currency to support the relief effort. Given the high cost of large-scale relief operations, the financial benefit of overvalued currencies cannot be underestimated. In 1989 in Sudan, the UN's Operation Life Line into the southern war zone was begun. It has been speculated that from this operation alone (and there were several other large relief operations running at the time) the Sudanese government could have secured the equivalent of half its annual military expenditure.

ii. Diversion of food aid

The control of food aid is of vital strategic importance. In Ethiopia, relief food was regularly used to feed government troops and especially its unpaid peasant militia. Similar diversions have occurred on both sides of the conflict in South Sudan. Within a large-scale emergency, a 5% leakage of food aid is generally regarded by donors as acceptable. Due to the amounts involved, however, this can still support a lot of people. In the case of Ethiopia, 5% would have fed 300,000400,000 for several months in the latter part of the 1980s: equivalent to the entire armed forces.

Another aspect of the diversion of food aid concerns the co-option of NGO subcontractors. In many respects, especially in a situation of internal war or divided governance, NGO relief operations, lacking an international mandate or externally guaranteed access, will almost inevitably be co-opted by one side or another. Indeed, the perceived threat to an NGO's operations by straying from the government's domain has commonly been used to justify non intervention in contested areas. Few international agencies practice the `active neutrality' of MSF which aims to work on both sides of a conflict.

iii. Tacit donor support and the denial of food aid

In Sudan and Ethiopia, the state's denial of international food aid to civilians in contested areas was accomplished by a variety of means ranging from a

reluctance to acknowledge emergency conditions; assurances to donors that relief supplies were reaching all the needy; claiming insurmountable security and logistical problems to account for interminable delays; denying access for assessment purposes; through to plain obstruction. In Sudan since 1989 some bilateral donors have become more critical and in some cases have cut development assistance. The UN and many NGOs operating in the North, however, have continued to provide tacit support for predatory government policies including the forcible relocation of displaced Southerners from Khartoum and Nuba from the Nuba Mountains.

iv. Grain speculation

The delays between assessment and the delivery of emergency food aid, together with the increasing demand on the world's emergency stock, has meant that stated emergency requirements have seldom been met in full or on time. This has necessitated various stopgap measures mainly local purchase and swop arrangements which have created opportunities for speculative and parallel activity.

Without having to detail the important local employment effects of large relief operations, or the support for the rented property market, transport and so on, sufficient has been said to indicate that humanitarian intervention provides a significant amount of political and especially economic support, albeit often indirect or as the result of otherwise benign processes, for the dominant political and commercial groups. However, while diversion and indirect gains flowing to predatory structures are difficult to condone, the effect of withdrawing or restricting aid could be worse.

Humanitarian relief and the support of the weak

Given the indirect and appropriated benefits that disaster relief can impart to the politically strong, it is legitimate to ask what do the losers, the object of the humanitarian intervention, receive? Where estimates have been made the answer is, broadly speaking, very little. In Darfur during 198485, in relatively good operational conditions, it has been suggested that the international relief programme supplied no more than 12% of required assistance. In Ethiopia, a figure of 10% has been suggested. While still important to the groups concerned, relief aid should not hide the fact that the other 90% or so has been supplied through peoples' own coping strategies.

For donors, the basic principle of African relief operations is to define, usually according to nutritional status, the most vulnerable groups within a population and target them with the minimum necessary food, water and shelter to sustain life. The problem here is that one is not dealing with a temporary emergency, involving a normally robust and self-sustaining population which can eventually resume its former life. Relief operations may, to varying degrees, help keep people alive but, even at best, this is all they do. The way such programmes are conceived and resourced means they are usually unable to tackle the process of resource depletion. It is no coincidence that since that since the role of NGOs has become clearly established, vulnerability and impoverishment have continued to grow apace.

It should be noted that the donor/NGO relationship is a contradictory one. As mentioned above, not all NGOs involved in relief work have uncritically embraced a subcontracting role. This conflict, and the manner in which agencies have attempted to align themselves either to the weak or, often by default, to the strong has effected a rough division between `progressive' and `conservative' NGOs. Progressive NGOs usually attempt to maintain a certain independence in relation to large subcontracting operations. They have also tried to protect subsistence assets using a variety of means (such as cattle vaccination programmes and credit schemes). Furthermore, they have pressed human rights issues and have attempted to expose the limitations of the international humanitarian system. Despite the enhanced role of NGOs and their frequent cooperation in consortia, however, the sheer scale of impoverishment means that NGOs are over-stretched, under-resourced and, apart from political obstacles, frequently face major logistical constraints. Sub contracting from individual donors, moreover, makes for fragmentation and poor overall coordination. In almost every respect, the donor/NGO safety net is an inadequate response to the unfolding crisis.

Establishing a new framework of analysis

The drafting of humanitarian policy in such situations is a difficult matter. Realistic policies can only emerge from an adequate understanding of the situation that one wishes to ameliorate. The evidence suggests that the international community continues to misunderstand the significance of complex emergencies and to disregard the importance of parallel activities. If international intervention is not to continue to fuel a process of active underdevelopment, then a framework of analysis needs to be established. This involves:

In the Horn of Africa, there is a growing danger of disengagement by the main donor governments leaving NGOs and an increasingly financially and politically marginalised UN to pick up the pieces. For those in the region who stand to gain from permanent emergency, the under-resourcing of disaster relief together with the lack of clear policy and political will within the international community means that, for them, the future is perhaps less uncertain.

[Extract from War and Hunger: rethinking international responses to complex emergencies, ed J Macrae and A Zwi with M Duffield and H Slim, London, Zed Press, 1994.]

Dr Mark Duffield lectures at the Centre for Urban and Regional Studies, School of Public Policy, University of Birmingham, UK.


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October 1996