Navigating Africa’s humanitarian challenges

The PSC Report spoke to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) President Peter Maurer about how to respond to the heavy pressure exacted on communities by armed conflict, climate change and COVID-19.

What do you consider the most pressing humanitarian concern in Africa and what has been the ICRC’s response?

Unfortunately, we are witnessing the direct and indirect humanitarian impacts of armed conflicts and violence on communities in several countries and regions on the continent. The situation in the Sahel, the Horn, and central and southern regions is extremely challenging.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is confronted with an increasing fragmentation of armed actors on the battlefields, easy availability and use of weapons contrary to international humanitarian law (IHL) and the negative impact of national, regional and global power-dynamics in most of the protracted conflicts. Of particular concern are the longevity of conflicts and the negative impact on individuals and social systems.

What worries me the most today are the increasing number of attacks against communities, and intercommunity and criminal violence spreading in conflict settings. Many people are struggling to meet their basic needs because of fighting or lack of access to essentials such as water, food, health services, agricultural facilities and means to sustain their livelihoods.

Today, Africa is shouldering close to 85% of the global refugee and internally displaced population, a figure that is rising continuously. Furthermore, the 48 000 cases of missing persons in Africa documented by the ICRC are only a fraction of the actual number. This is why I am so worried to see new frontlines emerge. We all know that conflicts and lack of stability severely affect lives and livelihoods of people. What makes things worse are the limited prospects for durable solutions.

In addition, we should not underestimate the combined impact of climate shocks and conflict that continues to exacerbate existing vulnerabilities and inequalities. Without measures to help people adapt to climate change shocks, many are forced to move internally or across borders. The COVID-19 pandemic comes on top of the devastating humanitarian situation, with far-reaching socio-economic impacts, especially in countries affected by armed conflicts.

Africa is an important region for the ICRC, where it spends close to 45% of its field budget almost USD 900 million this year. We operate from 26 delegations, covering 35 contexts, and currently employ about 8 000 national staff on the continent.

The impact of climate shocks and conflict continues to exacerbate vulnerabilities and inequalities on the continent

The ICRC works throughout Africa to address protection concerns and assist people affected by armed conflicts or other situations of violence. Many suffer from the effects of climate-induced emergencies, extreme poverty, and limited access to resources and essential infrastructure.

We have noted that COVID-19 is often not the key issue for affected communities, whose main concerns are ongoing violence and lack of access to clean water or food. The pandemic has, however, shed light on growing inequalities, the vulnerability of essential infrastructure and unstable access to healthcare in numerous fragile contexts.

Our goal is to respond to these complex and overlapping challenges on a systems level by rehabilitating essential infrastructure, strengthening local capacities and co-creating solutions with affected communities. We strive to adapt our response to the scope and scale of the long-term needs generated by protracted crises. Today, we have to be agile and combine emergency interventions with longer-term resilience-strengthening to help people to regain their livelihoods in a dignified way. We closely work with the National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to achieve this.

What challenges do you foresee for humanitarian action on the continent?

Humanitarian actors face several critical challenges. First, it is becoming increasingly difficult to reach people in need, partially because of volatile security situations, but also because humanitarian space for impartial organisations is steadily shrinking.   

Threats to the humanitarian space include counter-terrorism measures and sanctions which do not have humanitarian exemption clauses, and thus exclude from the scope of application exclusively humanitarian activities of impartial humanitarian organisations such as the ICRC.

The worrying trend of violence against health facilities undermines people's ability to access healthcare

Humanitarian exemption clauses aim at preserving the capacity of humanitarian organizations to work, as foreseen by IHL. Without them, the danger is that humanitarian organizations like the ICRC lose access to affected people. Such measures may, for instance, prevent us from visiting persons detained by parties to a conflict designated as terrorists treat the wounded and sick, or disseminating IHL to all parties involved in an armed conflict.

Another big concern for us is the increasing violence against health facilities, ambulances, medical personnel and patients. This worrying trend undermines the ability of health systems to cope and prevents people from accessing care.

How is the ICRC supporting the new African Humanitarian Agency? 

We welcome the establishment of the African Humanitarian Agency, especially as humanitarian effectiveness is at the top of its agenda.  Today’s protracted conflicts are generating increased humanitarian needs that far outweigh the available resources and capacities to respond. Active participation and collaboration of governments, private sector and development actors are necessary for more sustainable impact for people struggling amid conflict and violence, often for decades and through generations.

The agency can bring an added value in advancing the continental agenda on humanitarian action. We also see potential for enhancing coordination, mobilisation and capacity building of African member states, especially in preparedness and early response. The successful response to COVID-19 of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows how such models can build capacity and mobilise countries, while strengthening confidence in African institutions and increasing the potential to raise local funds to finance interventions and provide sustainable solutions.

As one of the key partners to the African Union (AU), the ICRC has been involved in the consultation process to establish the agency, sharing its longstanding experience in emergency response. We look forward to collaboration with the agency to address humanitarian needs on the continent.

What should be the role of AU-led peace support operations in humanitarian action?  

Humanitarian actors often share theatres of operations with peace support missions (PSMs). Since inception, the ICRC has worked closely with armed forces to enhance the protection of civilian population. We engage in dialogue with commanders to limit the impact of military operations on civilian population and civilian objects.

Several members from troop-contributing countries participate in our annual senior workshops on international rules governing military operations. In 2021 to date, we have engaged with over 3 000 AU Mission in Somalia personnel from Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda in pre-deployment events.

The politicisation and manipulation of humanitarian aid leads to the shrinking of humanitarian spaces

AU-led PSMs could play a strong role in enhancing respect for IHL, using their influence on parties to the conflict by virtue of their support of state authorities and security forces. I commend the AU Peace and Security Council decision of 2012 that AU PSMs must carry a mandate for protection of civilian population according to the principles of IHL and international human rights law.  

How has the politicisation of humanitarian interventions and the use of the military affected humanitarian work in Africa?

Interventions in response to humanitarian crises do not take place in a political vacuum – in Africa or elsewhere. Regardless of the objectives pursued by such interventions – be they political, economic or military, they sometimes impact our ability to assist and protect people affected by armed conflict.

Our first concern is the politicisation and manipulation of humanitarian aid, which leads to shrinking of the humanitarian space. It puts affected people and humanitarian workers at greater risk and dramatically reverses the impact achieved by aid actors for the affected communities. There is an urgent need for States to uphold humanitarian space by respecting IHL, a legal framework to which they agreed. 

Secondly, it is the negative impact of counter-terrorism measures and sanctions, to which I alluded earlier. Restrictive measures take a heavy toll on affected communities, often preventing them from receiving the aid and protection they most need. It is, therefore, urgent and essential for states to adopt humanitarian exemptions to such measures to limit their impact on humanitarian action. States’ concerted action to preserve humanitarian space for affected communities is required to demonstrate strong commitment and the needed political will to protect affected communities in fragile contexts.

Does humanitarian assistance ever undermine peace or prolong conflicts?

The connection is complex between humanitarian action and broader objectives such as peace, development and human rights. Humanitarian actors are not peacebuilders: neutral, impartial, independent humanitarian action is distinct from political agendas and it must remain so.

While others make peace, humanitarian action helps to make peace possible. IHL has a positive impact when it is respected. For example, when the principles of proportionality and distinction are applied, lives are saved, hospitals and schools remain open, markets can function and reconciliation after the conflict becomes easier. Furthermore, principled frontline humanitarian action is a vital factor in fragmented environments and a building block towards greater stabilisation. It serves to protect against development reversals caused by armed conflict and divisions in communities.

Violence, the pandemic and climate change have brought disruptions on all levels: from global value chains to local community fabrics. Faced with the challenge of responding to multiple, complex needs of affected communities, the ICRC works towards designing ways out of dependency on humanitarian aid for affected people.

For example, in Niger, we support the creation of small businesses to lift affected people from poverty and contribute to socio-economic reintegration of communities. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, we partner with numerous actors to build sustainable access to safe drinking water for the population of Goma.

Our work focuses on creating dignified solutions and sustainable humanitarian impact to respond to diverse needs and help mend communities, which I hope will help make peace possible in the longer term.

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