the lost american new international crisis intervention group

the last year and a half of his life, Fred Cuny was working with Mort
Abramowitz, President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and
several others, to create an organization that would independently bring
attention to complex emergency situations around the world. Originally called
the International Crisis Action Group (later shortened to International Crisis
Group), Fred Cuny hoped that it would include many of the beliefs and
approaches to crisis management that he had developed over the years.  Cuny
outlines those below in a memorandum written in November 1993 while he was in
the middle of the war in Bosnia.

The ICG was founded after Cuny's death. It currently maintains offices in Belgium at: 26 Rue des Minimes, 1er etage, B-10000 Bruxelles, Belgium

Tel: 32-2-502 90 38; Fax 32-2-502 50 38; Email:


To: Mort Abramowitz From: Fred Cuny

Dear Mort;

As we pursue the idea of establishing the International Crisis Action Group, I thought it might be helpful if I gave our group some of my thoughts on what it will take to improve humanitarian operations and how we might be able to evaluate the UN's and other agencies' performance.

How to improve multilateral humanitarian operations:

The first and most important obstacle is the problem of mandates. There will be no meaningful changes in the way the UN system operates until this issue is addressed. For example, there is still no agency specifically tasked with the problem of displaced persons, border crossers fleeing from non-war emergencies (e.g., famine), expulsions of third country nationals, etc. Until the gaps are plugged, each operation will be ad hoc, slow to respond, and poorly coordinated. Therefore, ICAG must address the issue of mandates and the broader question of the international humanitarian architecture.

The second major problem facing multilateral response is funding. There is not enough money on standby to permit agencies to respond to early warnings or to take pre-emptive actions. Furthermore, the way that funds are raised by the UN (i.e., pledging conferences and combined appeals) means that the lead agency cannot plan ahead, cannot count on specific projects or activities being funded, nor can they respond quickly to changing needs. Few decision-makers are willing to take risks with the money they have at the outset of the emergency, and that discourages innovation. Worse, the way that DHA runs the process, it legitimizes every whacko idea that gets into the appeal. ICAG must work to develop standby funding mechanisms that can funnel large amounts of cash into operations early in the crisis. This will be a major undertaking and will require a lot of creative thinking.

Third, there is still a widespread lack of understanding about how to solve many recurring problems. That is not because the research isn't available; it is because (1) most humanitarian operations are staffed by young, first timers and (2) most UN decision-makers don't have the requisite training about how to solve specific problems. For example, we've known for years that famines are economic problems and that food aid has very little impact -- yet most relief agencies are totally unaware of the vast body of research on the topic and continue to repeat the same mistakes. The role of ICAG should be to promote an "epidemiological approach to relief operations," i.e., to focus on proven techniques that prevent death, disease, and malnutrition, as well as improving overall coordination and management. If we want to make real changes, it will require a radical departure from existing practices and will require taking some very controversial stances. In order to be very clear about what we are trying to accomplish in each situation, we need to develop our own doctrines, a portfolio of programs and approaches that we want to advocate and make sure that all the on-site staff are in tune with the approaches being promoted.

Fourth, it is well known that humanitarian agencies are only marginally accountable for their actions. The problem is that no one holds them to any standard of performance. However, the standards and norms are there. A major function of ICAG should be to review these standards, revise them if necessary, and then promote adherence to them. This will be the only way that we will be able to measure others performance. To get the agencies to comply with the standards may require being tough in our evaluations, but we should never hesitate to point out when an agency is just wasting time and resources. In some cases, this may require going to the press with the criticism.

Fifth, few relief agencies really have a clue about what they are doing. The best way we can influence change is to promote training. We should develop close links to the existing training institutions and help them reach the relief community. However, we need to recognize that much of what they are training people to do is not very effective and ICAG should be prepared to help the trainers improve as well as their clients.

Finally, the media drives many relief operations. We need to develop close working relations with the major press agencies and offer to help train and orient news organizations about what issues to look for in crises. The press is potentially our greatest ally but misguided press have sabotaged many an innovative program (for example, a creative CRS cash-for-work program in Ethiopia was killed when the press accused them of selling food to starving people; CRS was selling the food but they were giving the people a chance to earn the cash to buy it).

How will we be able to evaluate a humanitarian effort?

Since monitoring and diagnosis are going to be the key elements of the ICAG, we need to be clear about what it is we expect agencies to be able to do. In many cases, public expectations may be too high or unrealistic given the structural obstacles that the UN and other agencies have to overcome. However, there are both objective and subjective criteria that can be applied.

Objective criteria include the things that can be measured. They include:

1) Mortality (death rates)

2) Morbidity (disease rates)

3) Malnutrition rates

4) Adherence to dietary requirements (quality, quantity, and mix of vitamins and minerals)

5) Adherence to standards and norms for services

6) Cost effectiveness of approaches, programs

Subjective criteria will be harder to assess. They have to do with quality of services, timing of actions, results of the various interventions, security issues, and whether or not the interventions are promoting solutions or simply increasing the problem. They will also include many esoteric factors such as quality of life for the people being helped, self sufficiency vs. dependency, etc. As an advocacy organization, ICAG will need to develop a way to examine these subjective issues and find ways to measure and realistically report on them.

FCC: 22 Nov. 93

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