The Context of Crisis

Millennial chaos

Rwanda. Somalia. Bosnia. Northern Iraq. Sudan. Afghanistan. The roll-call of countries on the world's critical list continues to grow, yet none seems to move off it. At least 50 conflicts are currently being waged around the globe. The World Disaster Report 1995 shows that the total number of refugees has more than doubled from 10 million in 1980 to over 23 million today. The number of internally displaced persons is even larger: approximately 26 million in 1994 and rising. No fewer than 71 countries are currently producing or hosting significant numbers of refugees and it is estimated that 250-300 million people are affected by disaster worldwide, a number which is growing at the rate of 10 million each year.

Quite apart from the human cost of conflict, the financial costs are spiralling. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies calculates that $3.2 billion was disbursed by the OECD in 1993 on humanitarian assistance and this figure excludes the value of food aid and donations from the general public. In the mid-1980s there were five peacekeeping missions; now there are sixteen. The annual expenditure on UN peacekeeping in 1994 had more than doubled to $3.3 billion in just two years; and in one agency alone - the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) - expenditures have increased steeply from $8.3 million in 1970 to a figure that is projected to exceed $1 billion in 1995. Conversely, the increasing resources committed to emergency aid and disaster relief operations result in diminishing sums available to meet reconstruction and development needs.

Donor Fatigue

Unmet grassroots aspirations for political, religious, and economic empowerment; unyielding separatist claims; virulent nationalism; ethnic hostilities; the collapse of civic institutions; economic catastrophe and bad governance: all are spawning conflicts and man-made disasters on an alarming scale. At the same time, the optimism which was evident in multilateral operations in the immediate post-Cold War years has now all but evaporated; and if near-instantaneous global media coverage has highlighted in graphic detail to a stunned world audience the human costs of conflict, it has brought home to it too the grave risks accompanying intervention and served to encourage an inward focus on domestic priorities. The end result is that governments, international institutions and non-governmental organisations now find themselves subject to extraordinary yet contradictory pressure to intervene in certain situations and steer well clear of others.

The necessity to conduct international peace operations against a background of violent conflict has seriously complicated humanitarian relief efforts. The massive UN-led humanitarian missions in Somalia and the former Yugoslavia have become embroiled in hostilities and controversy. Undoubtedly they have saved many lives, but they have also been held hostage, drained political will and stretched donors' capacity to the limit. This, in turn, produces a lack of resources available to deal with renewed or forgotten crises such as Burundi, Tajikistan or Angola. In post-Cold War Afghanistan, a war weary population suffers in isolation the onslaught of incessant violence, with little international assistance. Many more countries teeter on the brink of chaos whilst still others turn a blind eye to genocide, their will to act diminished as enemies become harder to identify and the problems confronting their societies grow increasingly complex.

Despite a million Rwandan citizens dead and over a billion dollars spent, UN Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali's appeal to sixty governments for peacekeeping troops failed to elicit a single positive response. This leaves agencies like Médecins sans Frontières "caught in a lose-lose situation", with little choice other than to "continue being reluctant accomplices of genocidal war-mongers or withdraw from the camps, leaving the refugee population to the mercy of their jailers."

The challenge of crisis response

So the demand for UN peacekeeping and humanitarian relief operations goes on growing as the number of countries facing serious problems continues to increase. But the gulf is widening between what is needed and what is done. Though the resources devoted to humanitarian operations are substantial, too often the response of the international community to crises has been late, ineffective, and wasteful.

Almost all informed observers and practitioners agree that the international response system needs a substantial overhaul and the adjustments needed extend not only to the institutional structures at its heart, but to the priorities and policies of governments themselves.

That prevention costs less than cure is axiomatic; yet in practice scant account has been taken of this simple truth. Governments may consider that early action risks precipitating the very crisis they seek to avoid. They may hope that problems will somehow be managed and that they will avoid the need to commit scarce resources. They may have internal preoccupations; they may shy away from the domestic politics of intervention, or simply see no feasible course of action. As a result, many post-Cold War crises that might have been prevented were not and many opportunities to limit suffering and loss of life were missed. The disintegration of Yugoslavia and its consequences, for example, were predicted well in advance by numerous governments, but the will for timely, vigorous action was absent. Somalia's slide into civil strife, famine and mass death did not escape the attention of the international community, but the fear of intervention was great enough to block effective action until hundreds of thousands had died and thousands more were threatened. Information on the probability of ethnic violence in Rwanda was available even before the assassination of the country's President; later, fear of being drawn into hostilities prevented robust measures to protect the Tutsi population from systematic slaughter. In this case, the essence of the emergency was not the absence of adequate humanitarian relief measures, but a clear failure of will.

All this, however, is not to overlook the conspicuous accomplishments and valiant, indeed heroic, efforts of various groups in a range of very difficult circumstances. But, overall, the bloody record of lost and brutally disrupted lives constitutes an appalling indictment of the international community's failure to address the causes of conflicts and to limit their damage.

See also: The Need for Advocacy

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