Photo credits: © L Grosjean
'After 20 years in humanitarian aid, the phrase I have heard politicians use the most is ‘never again’. They said it after Ethiopia 84, After Rwanda 94, after Bosnia, Kosovo, Darfur, Congo…. I could go on. Unfortunately, it is looking likely that we will have to hear it again.
On Monday, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator Valerie Amos and the European Commission Humanitarian Chief Kristalina Georgieva met in Brussels to chair a conference on potential solutions to the crisis in the Central Africa Republic. The problem is however, that this might already be too late.
One of the primary problems we are facing as humanitarians in Central Africa Republic is one of trade and logistics. The question we are asking ourselves is who will supply the food needed by the general population? Both in the capital Bangui and across the country. We as aid professionals can provide some of it, and support the most vulnerable with (expensive) imported aid, but how will the general population cope?
Previously, much of the food consumed by the average resident of Central Africa Republic has been imported, transported and sold by local entrepreneurs. Many of these businessmen and women have now fled the inter-ethnic violence reprisals that are tearing this country apart, and have rejected the appalling living conditions in the displaced camps around the major towns (who can blame them). They have run either to the safety of mono-ethnic communities deep in the countryside where there are fewer reprisals and attacks, or increasingly for Chad and Cameroon taking their stock and trucks with them. In addition to this the roads across the country are becoming increasingly unsafe, with violence and looting now commonplace.
The most vulnerable will suffer
Without trade, and without imported food the general markets, the ones used by the poorest, will run dry and the most vulnerable will suffer even further. We are already seeing less and less produce for sale, and an increase in infant malnutrition in Action Against Hunger’s Nutrition Clinics and Therapeutic Feeding Centres, and unfortunately we're expecting this to rise.
Experience has shown us, from Sudan to Congo to Zimbabwe, that when the markets no longer function and hunger takes over, violence increases. It is a vicious circle. If therefore on Monday the UN and EU take half measures and look for cheaper short term solutions to the security and associated political problems faced by the Central African Republic, then they better be prepared to pay the price in the long term. The result will be that the violence will increase, the remaining entrepreneurs will leave, the markets will run dry, commercial importation will become increasingly dangerous, and the population will become totally dependent on expensive aid delivered by international agencies. This is something the EU and UN member states will have to bankroll for a very long time if they are to prevent widespread hunger and starvation.
The critical nature of this crisis has in part been caused by years of neglect and ignorance on the part of the international community. They have allowed bad governance to reign because Central African Republic is not of ‘strategic importance’, and what was a problem has become a crisis. Let’s not allow it to become a catastrophe. We need considerably more short term aid right now to stabilize the humanitarian crisis and stop the most vulnerably dying, but of equal importance is long term international engagement, security and appropriate investment. Without a commitment to provide this, a catastrophe is what we will get, and that will cost all of us a great deal more than is being anticipated. Never again? Let’s see if the politicians actually mean it this time.'
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