Africa: 'Front Load' Africa's Development, Say UN Humanitarian Aid Coordinators

19 November 2003

Washington, DC — Foreign assistance has helped Ethiopia get through the droughts and food emergencies that have regularly battered the east African nation over the last five years, says Samuel Nyambi, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) resident representative there. But the real emergency that has to be faced is the lack of development.

"We need to think more and more of development as not a long, long something that we plan to make happen in the future, but whether or not we can front load development, [put it] on emergency mode as something we want to follow immediately after or even during the 'relief' period," he says.

Nyambi was one of four United Nations representatives based in Eritrea, Liberia and Congo, as well as Ethiopia, speaking to an audience at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington, DC, Tuesday, on "new ideas and issues in the transition from relief to development."

Although there is certainly need for assistance in countries like Ethiopia, said Nyambi, relief assistance can become "a comfortable mode" for populations used to getting relief year after year; how do you fight 'dependency syndrome?'"

"The emergency period that we thought was going to be very brief has now become protracted," said, Abou Moussa, who heads the UN Mission in Liberia.

Most humanitarian funding by international donors does not really favor transition to development the UN panelists agreed. In Ethiopia, said Nyambi, Official Development Assistance (ODA) money from all sources totals about US$1.9bn and US$900m is for humanitarian relief. "There's not very much left for development intervention."

Nevertheless, he said, the transition from food aid to sustainable development must be made. A nation that is "dependent on rain-fed agriculture in an arid region," has to develop irrigation capacity and other key elements of rural infrastructure, he said. Last year doners averted a major disaster by providing emergency food to Ethiopia, but eight million people are projected to need emergency assistance in 2004.

A UNDP "development effectiveness report" released last week found that UNDP "organizational performance" has risen from 56 percent to 84 percent in 1999-2002 compared to 1992-1998. But "all too often, success at the project level has not translated into positive, sustainable country or region-wide development," UNDP Administrator Mark Malloch Brownv said in the report.

No place illustrates these points better than the Democratic Republic of the Congo, said Herbert M'Cloud, who represents the United Nations in that central African nation. The DRC's current crisis does not date back only to the invasion of 1998, he argued. Starting with colonialism and since independence in 1960 "the fundamental basis of society was flawed - politically, socially and commercially - we cannot rebuild on the same basis."

For all of Congo's complexities and difficulties, said M'Cloud, there is now "an opportunity to set the foundation for good governance." One crucial issue that must be addressed, he thinks, is "the disconnect between national politics and community level imperatives - there is no tradition of politicians answering to an electorate."

This is a modern phenomenon, M'Cloud said later when asked to elaborate on the point. "It is not intrinsically Congolese. In traditional society chiefs are answerable to their subjects though not necessarily in forms recognized in the West."

At a press briefing prior to their appearance, Nyambi and Moussa, along withe UNDP resident representative in Eritrea, Simon Nhongo, also addressed the issue of HIV and its effect on food security. Liberia's infection rate was relatively low until the latest fighting between rival armies, but the virus has spread and will be a challenge for the future.

Eritrea's adult HIV prevalence rate is low, around three percent. Ethiopia, however, has the third highest number of HIV-positive people after South Africa and India, with a prevalence rate of over 13 percent in urban areas.

Although still well below the 20-30 percent range in much of southern Africa, Nyambi said the trend must be halted, lest Ethiopia's development goals become diverted by the pressures of dealing with Aids. "You can see the scenario playing out in South Africa already," he said. "In Ethiopia, you can see the writing on the wall."

All three UN representatives at the briefing, along with the UN's deputy humanitarian coordinator in Eritrea, Musa Bungudu, said, in response to questions, that governance issues play an increasingly important role in development planning. The human rights abuses of the former government of Charles Taylor in Liberia have mobilized both the local and the donor communities to monitor the new Liberian authorities, said Moussa.

Humanitarian aid to Eritrea will not be affected by questions about governance in Eritrea, said Nhongo, but he acknowledged that donors have made it clear to Eritrean officials that human rights abuses and authoritarianism will affect the levels of development assistance. In June, Denmark closed its embassy in Eritrea over concerns about the lack of democracy.

Both Bungudu and Nyambi pointed out that Eritrea and Ethiopia, whatever their flaws as governments respponsive to their people, have made efficiant use of emergency aid. "There is no culture of corruption in Ethiopia," said Nyambi. "There may be bottlenecks and bureaucracy, but food and development assistance generally gets to where it's supposed to go."

Although the representatives were essentially exploring hopes and ideal possibilities in their discussion, they rarely strayed far from the day-to-day realities in the nations they cover. Eritrea has "essentially lost" the last four years because of the combination of drought and its war with Ethiopia, said Nhango. Two words define what's needed in the transition from relief to development, he said: "sustainable livelihoods."

And, chimed in Bungudu toward the end of the session: "There is hardly any African country today that cannot manage itself if its resources are put into proper use."

Tamela Hultman contributed to this report.

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