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Literature monitoring - September 2018

  Table of contents  

 Aid Quality


Making humanitarian response more flexible: challenges and questions, Alice Obrecht, ALNAP background paper, August 2018
This report presents the issues at stake and questions related to flexibility and the capacity to adapt during humanitarian responses. It reviews the different ways in which humanitarians change their engagement in a response and the common situations in which they must do so, highlighting challenges to making these changes, based on recent evaluations. The author also analyses the barriers to flexibility within humanitarian organisations. The study concludes with a brief summary of the state of evidence on adaptive approaches and a set of questions for further discussion.

 Food security and nutrition


Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine, Alex de Waal, Polity Press, 2018, 260 p.
We thought that the great famines had disappeared. We saw this type of crisis as a characteristic of the evils affecting the African continent. In his new book, Alex de Waal, one of the leading specialists on these issues, lays both of these myths to rest. The second first. Faced with the cries from Ethiopia and the Sahel, the great famines of China, India or the Soviet Union were quickly forgotten, even though they killed many more people and were very much linked to phenomena that had nothing to do with drought: already, politics and its relations of power, oppression and alienation (what Waal calls the “political marketplace”) were central to these famines of the past. The whole thesis of the Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen is based on this idea: where there is good governance, there is little risk of famine. Then the wind changed direction, and famines linked to drought became more visible in the press, for donors and actors. These famines were “easy” to manage as long as there was a good warning system, emergency stocks and efforts were made to reinforce people’s resilience. This was the direction that the aid system took with major “resilience” programmes such as AGIR pour le Sahel and SHARE in the Horn of Africa. Asia, with its authoritarian governments and its economic growth would not allow “agro-climatic” famine to return. But history was waiting at the corner. As Alex de Waal explains, wars, the destruction of services, and unscrupulous governments allowed major nutritional crises to return. Would we see the return of major famines? Not for the time being, because the system equipped and prepared itself. Governments increasingly know that a badly managed food crisis can lead to the loss of power. The international aid sector no longer wants to be accused of incompetence, as happened after the famine in Somalia in 2011. But the return of famine as a weapon of war is still lying in wait, and unscrupulous leaders do not hesitate to use it against civilian populations who can do little to defend themselves. Even more serious, there are more and more situations where vulnerability is so high that a tiny disturbance, whether climatic or political, can make the fragile scaffolding collapse and lead to extremely serious food crises. In certain cases, when the political context is favourable to this type of development, these become “famines” as defined by epidemiologists. Are there options to avoid these tragic developments? According to de Waal, improving governance and combatting impunity for war crimes are some of the key factors to reduce the risk of mass famine. Then there are all the economic strategies (poverty reduction, market organization), environmental strategies (improved management of soil, water, forests, etc.), and agricultural strategies (more relevant research), and finally, there is more social justice. Impossible? Not necessarily. Difficult? Definitely.

Food Aid in Sudan: A History of Power, Politics and Profit, Susanne Jaspars, Zed Books, 2018, 249 p.
Often, crises are analysed over a short period, and themes are analysed in specific contexts, within limited time and space. Susanne Jaspars’ book opens a new perspective: that of a longitudinal study over almost four decades, several phases of war and peace, and a geographic area that is as big as half a continent: Sudan. The context of the crises in Sudan, from the war in the South to the Darfur crisis via the Nuba mountains, is very complex and diverse, as are the parties to the conflicts in each of these wars and the stakeholders involved in the response to people’s needs. The war of independence in the South, which ended at the beginning of the 2000s and led to independence, took place in a context of tension within the South. This tension re-emerged following independence in a hideous civil war. But even before, hunger was present and food and nutritional aid was implemented, with airdrops of aid, nutritional centres, access problems, etc. In Darfur it was another type of conflict that took place, and no doubt is still going on: with its conflicts between agro-pastoralists and nomadic pastoralists, manipulated by the authorities in Karthoum via the notorious Janjawids, it is a war to control territories, and for some it is even the first climate change war. Here too, there are problems of access, of food convoys that are attacked, but this time in a conflict where the issue at stake is not national integrity. The first major urbanisations appeared, linked to the presence of the displaced, such as around Niallah and Al Fasher, with new, more urban forms of coping strategy and new resilience issues. Almost fifty years of food aid in various forms in this diverse Sudanese territory raises the question of the impact of the billions of dollars spent, of the millions of tonnes of aid distributed. How many lives have been saved, how many villas have been built, how many families have been helped back onto their feet? How many bank accounts have been filled? But, above all, how much organized, political and territorial manipulation has there been? The arguments of certain actors (“we should help the active forces of Sudan to survive so that they can contribute to the development of the country”) regularly come up against the manipulative arguments of the government (“food aid is a tool used by the West to destabilize the government”). The population affected by the conflicts, who remain terribly vulnerable and dependent, and do not see their future improving sustainably, wonder who is “profiting” from the system: aid organisations or the national institutions and their leaders? How have governments organized themselves so that this food aid has become a major source of funding; and how has the aid system managed to create an endless source of money? Susanne Jasper’s book does not provide any simple answers to these questions, but it calls on us to look further, to look at the situation from a long-term perspective, with complexity as the analysis framework.