Commentary, Projects

The Elusive Art Of Sustainable Development (Part 2)

Written by Hannah Todd

HART distributes emergency aid to its partners as the need arises. When it does so HART has the ability and agility to do so rapidly with targeted relief. Even if the size of donation is much smaller than larger NGOs, feedback from our partners has reinforced the importance of this facility. For example, in South Sudan one of our partners told us: “You gave little but in time. Others gave more but it came too late.”

HART responded to the refugee crisis in South Sudan with emergency aid to its partners in Bahr-El-Ghazal, Wau. Funds were also given for the purchase of seeds and tools for cultivation, anticipating that food shortages would be exacerbated by the rainy season. The type of aid HART supplied here had one eye on the future as well as dealing with the immediate problems the community was experiencing. The delivery of appropriate relief in South Sudan is but one example of how need can be combined with the necessity for sustainability.

Traditionally the time gap between emergency aid being withdrawn and developmental aid being injected into a society by major donors has been too large.

The two forms of aid have been too rigidly divided: aid distribution should not just coincide with the outbreak of conflict or natural disasters (frequently exacerbated by conflict). Rather, if aid is to be preventative as well as palliative then it should be given in times of peace and stability as well as conflict and hardship. In other words emergency aid should be combined with developmental aid. It is during crises of leadership (that cause or are caused by humanitarian disasters) that the seeds of development should be sown.

HART makes a special effort to ask its partners to identify their priorities for aid, thereby giving them the dignity of choice and respecting their knowledge of the problems confronting their people. For example, in Jos, Nigeria, HART visited a Peace Initiative Project earlier this year that seeks to heal relations between Muslims and Christians in the region through teaching entrepreneurial skills. The project has since sent HART detailed accounts of their most urgent needs which range from desktop computers to basic carpentry equipment. HART regularly visits its target communities to highlight these needs, to gather first-hand evidence of human rights violations (for example, in South Kordofan), and to ensure that it is fulfilling its remit in the most responsible and appropriate way possible.

International implications

Part of HART’s strength is its small size which helps keep it focused on the individuals it works with. Of course, larger NGOs and donor governments cannot hope to replicate this level of extremely personal and flexible care because with increased size comes increased responsibility. But what they can do is to adopt some of the approaches HART uses to build these relationships and apply them at a high political level. It is precisely because at this level bilateral and multilateral aid make up the vast proportion of international aid that it is vital that the art of sustainability is mastered.

Many critics have argued that bilateral and multilateral aid given in the form of concessional loans and grants is unsustainable and should be reduced, if not cut off altogether. The problems they cite straddle the social (government corruption and patronage) and economic (trade barriers between neighbouring countries) and all ultimately come down to the exacerbation of aid dependency. This is precisely where the values behind locally-led aid and development initiatives become vital.

It is possible for the ‘partner model’ of aid and development exemplified by HART to be scaled up to a macroeconomic level.

For example, applied at an international level the observation that aid should be invested locally and for a finite amount of time could solve the growing convergence between concessional loans and grants in the realm of international aid. Not differentiating between these two mechanisms of aid distribution – assuming that a loan will eventually turn into a grant – instils a lack of initiative in recipient governments. There is no incentive for them to nurture a fledgling situation of prosperousness so that they can escape the reliance on in-flows of aid to which they have become accustomed.

HART’s Projects Coordinator, David Thomas, says that one of the joys of being involved in HART is to see people’s enthusiasm to rebuild their communities before they have to worry about their ‘track record’ to impress larger aid agencies. It is this spark that larger aid organisations as well as governments need to capitalise on to make aid go further and last longer. The enthusiasm and trust that HART nurtures in its relationship with its partners is the vital aspect of sustainable development that continues to elude major donors and hamper their drive towards eliminating aid dependency.

Sustainability is about scaling up successful models of development. If international governments do not begin to realise this and learn from the models provided by smaller organisations such as HART then we will find that “sustainability” – currently an ever-evolving buzzword within the world of development – is still being discussed as the major hurdle to development in another fifteen years.

Commentary, Projects

The Elusive Art Of Sustainable Development (Part 1)

Written by Hannah Todd

With the deadline for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) looming and criticism of aid unabating, governments have begun to increase cooperation between departments towards the creation of a successor to the MDGs – the ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ (SDGs), due to be launched next year. Specifically this forges a triangle between economics, development and political strategy that has been lacking from aid and development to date.

Although bilateral aid (passing directly between governments) and multilateral aid (between countries via aid agencies and/or multilateral institutions) dwarfs the charitable and emergency aid of smaller NGOs like Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust (HART) it is important that we do not disregard the work of such agencies. It is precisely because smaller organisations have less margin for waste that they are forced to maximise their own efficiency. They thereby gain a better grasp of sustainability and their morals and mechanisms of working should arguably be made more central to the politics of bilateral and multilateral aid distribution.

Organisations such as HART not only help the communities they work with but also strive to engage with the principles and responsibilities surrounding aid and development. The most illuminating lesson I have learnt through working with HART this summer has been that aid is not cold hard cash. Instead, it is a decision. Most importantly, it is a decision that affects the course of a communities’ history. If delivered in the right way, for the right length of time, and in the most appropriate form aid has the potential to lay the foundations for an affluent and peaceful society.

Aid distribution: partners

The way aid is delivered dictates its value. HART exists to support its partners on the ground in eight countries around the world. Many international organisations can only go to locations with the permission of a sovereign government. But because HART’s partners are local, it maintains access to these areas even during times of crisis – when others have been forced to withdraw, either through conflict or because permission is withdrawn by the government. HART has no in-country staff and so if violence breaks out it doesn’t have an obligation to pull its staff out. In other words, HART maintains an access point to societies in need when they are most in need.

HART’s partners know how society works in their country and can achieve things that outsiders cannot. They are both the recipients and distributors of the aid HART sends them and this makes them more able to lay a sustainable foundation for the work that they do. The ‘partner model’ restores local agency and makes HART’s aid a form of private investment albeit without the conditions of repayment. HART’s aid provides the capital for project start-ups, local crisis relief and a range of other initiatives that contribute towards the overall improvement of a community’s standard of living.

This model successfully promotes sustainable development. The relationship is temporary and the supply of aid is withdrawn once the partner has built up their own contacts, thereby enabling them to continue along the path they started with HART’s help.

The unique role aid agencies such as HART play in facilitating this starting point is lending their voice and unique access to international governments that partners on the ground lack. This highlights the importance of the second of HART’s twofold remit: advocacy. Frequently partners move onto bigger funders but it was HART who got their work off the ground and HART who can recommend them as a referee in their applications to larger funders. The Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) in Yei, South Sudan, is one such example. Its healthcare clinics and agriculture projects no longer need funding from HART because EPC has grown to the point where it can forge partnerships across the country on its own and teach others, drawing on its now considerable experience.



The World Food Programme and UNHCR recently announced that refugees across Africa are facing dramatic cuts in their food rations. The new, reduced WFP rations equate to around 850 calories, a figure that inspired a new campaign that hopes to generate awareness of the dramatic food ration cuts in camps across Chad, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Liberia, Burkina Faso, Mozambique, Ghana, Mauritania and Uganda.

Yep, that’s a lot of refugees – an estimated 800,000 – in a lot of countries, living on less than half their recommended daily calorie intake (for reference, average recommended calorie intakes are 1,000-1,400 for children under 5, 2,000 for adult women, and 2,500 for adult men).

So, why have the WFP cut rations so dramatically? To put it simply, they are facing a funding gap of $186 million; and in the absence of these essential funds, food supply sheds are becoming increasingly bare and rations are being reduced in order to be shared over a largely-food-dependent refugee population. As has been well documented in the UNHCR’S three-part Tracks blog series, lack of food availability has devastating consequences for refugees, who respond to such crises by utilising ‘negative coping strategies’. These strategies may include turning to forms of dangerous and exploitative labour such as prostitution, selling off of assets such as livestock, unsustainably over-exploiting natural resources such as firewood, and removing children from education in order to generate more income.

Undoubtedly, the immediate solution here is to find the $186 million. This funding is needed in order to restore current food supply back to full rations, to address the “unacceptable” levels of acute malnutrition, stunting and anaemia in camps, and to prevent the likelihood of further ration cuts later in the year. Without this funding, food insecurity in camps will persist, and could ultimately escalate to the point of famine. As the 850calories campaign writes, “the world is facing a famine inside the UN’s refugee camps.”

However, this crisis will not be ‘solved’ once the international community has closed the funding gap and returned refugee camp food rations to normal quantities. This disaster has to be seen not as the failure of the UNHCR, nor of the WFP, nor of a single state or refugee population. This disaster is a collective failure, and one which represents the failures and inadequacies of the current international refugee regime. Without addressing these inadequacies and putting other policies and strategies in place, this crisis will, unfortunately, occur again. There are three main reasons for why this crisis will not be solved simply by closing the $186 million funding gap:

  1. Many refugees in Africa live in semi-permanent protracted camp settlements (i.e. camps which have existed for more than five years, in which refugees are largely dependent on humanitarian assistance). These camps would have initially been designed to be short-term, emergency-response-driven settlements in order to provide protection and assistance to refugees, but in many cases across Africa have now existed for over a decade. It must be noted that many such camps are characterised by self-sufficient and income-generating livelihood activities; but humanitarian assistance continues to play a vital role in providing not only food assistance, but other services such as health and education.
  2. In the midst of ongoing conflict, the refugee population continues to grow: in December 2013, for example, the UNHCR estimated that South Sudanese refugees were arriving into neighbouring countries at a rate of around 1000 a day. The humanitarian community is therefore under pressure not only to protect and assist existing refugee populations, but to also be able to cope with increasing numbers of refugees arriving into camps every day.
  3. Finding money is getting harder. For example, Martin Ohlsen, the WFP Country Director for the Democratic Republic of Congo, in a recent interview spoke of ‘donor fatigue’; of the effects of the global financial crisis; and of the increasing number of crisis ‘hot spots’ in the world. He argued that “donations are rather for current crisis regions, such as Syria”, and that as a result aid organisations are all competing for available funds. Although it is imperative that the $186 million funding is provided in order to solve this current African refugee food crisis, it is clear that funding challenges will remain in the future as protracted refugee camp settlements and ongoing conflicts continue to demand humanitarian assistance alongside other global crises.

The fact that this current crisis has gone relatively unnoticed in the Western media is a disaster in itself, but also ill acts in parallel to the challenges of drumming up the necessary funding. As was described by blogger Tom Murphy (who tweets at @viewfromthecave) in a recent article: “Media reports, including one I wrote, shared the announcement and then moved on”.

And as those media reports move on, the WFP food stocks continue to dwindle and hundreds of thousands of African refugees continue to go hungry.


Demystifying South Sudan

AidLeap published a great piece highlighting the attitudes and opinions of South Sudanese people facing an increasingly ominous looking crisis ostensibly about a tussle for power between former Vice President Minister Riek Machar and current President Salva Kiir.

Of course, the conflict also has an ethnic element to it as well as being linked to the ongoing problems the world’s youngest state has had with Sudan, from which it split in 2011. The spectre of the International Criminal Court also looms over the politics of the whole region, with both Sudanese President Omar Al Bashir and Machar himself operating under the threat of prosecution. And, as ever, the neighbouring East African states all have their roles to play – this is a region where pretty much all conflict crosses borders, either by design or by accident.

In short, it’s an extremely complicated and confused series of events leading to tragic consequences.

The most important story is how the people of South Sudan are coping , as AidLeap correctly identified. The report that their post mentions is fascinating, offering glimpses of conflict from the inside. Sure, the ethnic elements to the conflict are obvious but more is revealed. The conflation of the military and the political spheres; the use of political violence as an intimidation tactic leading into the 2015 elections; that the political will of key leaders actively combats democracy to enforce personal power. The responses of these 1200 respondents are nuanced and clear eyed, painting a picture of a crisis that can and does mean a lot of different, sometimes contradictory things*.

Sadly, this is rarely the story that we (as consumers of Western media) get presented. The news agenda tends to have focused, with depressing inevitability, on a) how this will Westerners in the country and b) the well worn clichés of African tribal conflict.

Clearly, these are major issues that I do not wish to denigrate. But there is an enormous amount of context missing from the majority of reports about this conflict. Why is that? Sure, a 2 minute broadcast update on a particular offensive doesn’t give a reporter or news organisation a lot of space to discuss the background in much detail. But long, in depth newspaper copy should be dealing with all these issues.

Even relatively good examples – like this New York Times article – deal with (some) of the other issues related to the conflict but uncomfortably package the whole crisis as to how it relates to US geopolitical interests, rather than, I don’t know, the actual problems that South Sudanese people are going through. Take a look at this quote from the piece. I don’t know about you, but including this quote instead of, say, an opinion from a South Sudanese person smacks of a disturbing lack of interest in real reporting:

“We can’t allow the carnage to go on; we can’t allow the capital to be overrun,” said Tom McDonald, who worked on Sudan issues as the American ambassador to Zimbabwe during the administration of Bill Clinton. “We have too much to lose; we’ve put too much into this.”

No wonder people get annoyed with Western reporting on these kinds of issues. (For the record, there are seven quotes in this piece, none from South Sudanese people, none from East African people).

Even worse, as highlighted by this recent Al Jazeera article, foreign reporting within African countries is largely sourced from Western media organisations. This sort of thing isn’t just making people in Europe or the USA take on skewed views of conflicts like the one in South Sudan, its messing with readers in neighbouring states. Hopefully, more people will turn away from shoddy coverage like this and turn to the blogosphere for real nuance.

Good sources

Three cheers for AidLeap!

Paan Luel Wel, a South Sudanese reporter whose blog gathers news focused on the country.

For Twitter users, I recommend James Copnall, a BBC South Sudan reporter.


* Interesting as the report was, it was lacking a lot of detail about respondents and, crucially, direct quotes. Perhaps the authors at the Community Empowerment for Progress Organisation has a more detailed version which I have not seen? Let me know if you find anything.



I am a member of the reality TV generation. Big Brother made the UK go crazy when I was 10 and there have been god-knows how many terrible versions of that since then. I don’t like any of these programs, I should note, but nobody my age could possibly deny knowledge of them and their various formats. I don’t even really remember when MTV played music on it. Pretty depressing right?


When I read this post about a ‘humanitarian reality TV show’ featuring refugees (actually, internally displaced people but who wants any facts ruining ‘reality’ tv?) I couldn’t believe it was real. It sounds like a dark joke in some terrifying dystopian comedy. I looked for a listing of the show but couldn’t find any. I hoped it was an internet invention, like alots or bonsai kittens. It’s quite hard to check because the sites are in Italian and, being an ignorant Englishman, I only speak my mother tongue. Luckily, I had a kindly Italian friend on call to check it out.

It is most definitely a real thing. Here are her notes on what she could find out about the format:

  • program, created in collaboration with UNHCR and Intersos
  • 8 VIPs put into 4 pairs
  • live for 15 days in close contact and collaborate with volunteers from missionaries in Mali, South Sudan and Congo
  • all adventures/stories told in the studio
  • objective is to share experience, raise awareness of the issue

Where to begin! The original post on African Voices articulates well the myriad of issues surrounding making a spectacle out of some of the most vulnerable human beings on earth. 15 days seems an appropriate amount of time for a humanitarian effort, particularly one spread across three enormous and incredibly different countries. The VIPs are a couple of actresses, a journalist, a prince:

“…the kind of people you see on TV all the time, talk shows and things, TV presenters. Whether it’s a dancing show, cooking show, politics talk show, or humanitarian reality show, TV presenters in Italy never change”

Which is reassuring to those people who might, I don’t know, think that UNHCR has lost its damn mind. Television isn’t responsible for making informed, nuanced television about poverty or about Africa – The Newsroom and its exalted writer Aaron Sorkin showed us that only recently. We know TV executives to be cretinous and lazy but, goddamnit, the UNHCR should know better.

Of course, because we know that television is full of uninformed, gawking lunatics doesn’t mean we should forgive them for dreaming up this dizzying new low of bad taste.  We need to tell them off, undoubtedly, or this crap will keep happening. Sign this petition to shout back. Tweet UNHCR about it, call them, email them, write them a letter, protest outside their offices, construct a crude macro image to mock them – do something!

For some reason, people in charge of television seem to think that we want this stuff. Inevitably, as a member of the reality TV generation I assume that a) this is about me, the viewer and b) I can somehow affect the outcome of this situation. Maybe this last decade or so of terrible television has been useful after all – as a generation, we expect to be able to alter television. This is the kind of activism we have been training our whole lives for.

UNHCR Italy is on twitter. It should be quick easy enough to fill up there timeline with the thoughts of sane human beings. Use #stopthemission, it might get them to at least clarify what they are thinking.


Advocate, Causes

We Need To Do Something About Television