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Liberia: twenty years of helping victims of past conflict

10-11-2010 Interview

In 2003, Liberia emerged from a brutal war in ruins. Recovery, with international assistance, is very slow and many Liberians struggle to survive. The most vulnerable still need humanitarian assistance, explains ICRC head of delegation, Karin Hofmann. The organization is marking two decades of operating in Liberia.

What is the ICRC doing in Liberia today?

After the war ended, the delegation gradually moved away from massive assistance programmes and protection activities for conflict victims. It concentrated instead on selected projects targeting the most vulnerable people, mainly by supporting programmes of the Liberia National Red Cross Society. Beside that, we continue to facilitate access to clean water in urban Monrovia by constructing water distribution stations. We also provide technical and financial follow-up to agriculture and medical projects in Lofa County, and help improve access to water, sanitation and healthcare in Liberia's prisons.

Like elsewhere across the globe, in Liberia, we promote respect for international humanitarian law (IHL) and the fundamental principles of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.  Here we focus on the troops of the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), the army, the police, other security services and the general public. The ICRC also supports the government in implementing IHL treaties.

Will the ICRC ever leave Liberia?

I hope so! But when this will be is difficult to predict. The decision on the future size of the ICRC operation will mainly depend on the political stability after the presidential and legislative elections in 2011, the development of a functioning security and justice sector that maintains stability after the withdrawal of UNMIL, and last but not least, the remaining humanitarian needs.

In my opinion, it would be wrong to determine the end of humanitarian action based on a timetable rather than on needs. How long do we give a country to rebuild itself after decades of war? How long should an "emergency" or an "early recovery phase" last? There are no answers to that. Rather, the question should be, "What are the humanitarian needs and are they being addressed?"

Should the ICRC stay until all humanitarian needs are covered?

That would be unrealistic. But in my opinion, it depends on the scope and gravity of those needs and how and by whom they are addressed. In fact, what struck me most, when I arrived more than a year ago, was the vast destruction that 14 years of civil war had caused to the country and how it had affected the life of each and every Liberian, and how it still affects most people today. In many ways, the needs are bigger than what I have seen in other countries in the midst of a conflict.

In which sense are the needs bigger?

In every sense, take the infrastructure, for example. To this day, very few roads exist, and those that do are in bad shape. With a rainy season that stretches over almost six months, all the government’s efforts to fix and maintain roads are literally swept away every year. Everyone who has passed through Liberia remembers that trips here are "the ultimate camel trophy" on roads with pot holes so big that they swallow up entire trucks! Without roads, everything becomes difficult. Goods are overpriced and do not reach remote areas easily, and that includes food for detainees, medicine for clinics, salaries for doctors, teachers, civil servants...

Take other examples. Liberia's maternal mortality is among the highest in the world. Two decades of war have left several generations without education. Since the war, only six doctors have graduated. Only 17% of Liberians have access to sanitation facilities, not to mention lack of access to healthcare, clean water, food, you name it, for the majority of Liberians. Although progress made in Liberia after the war has been enormous, the challenges lying ahead are equally enormous.

Why should it be up to the ICRC to address humanitarian needs in post-conflict situations?

The ICRC can make a difference in this crucial recovery phase and maintain humanitarian action until the country has reached political and socio-economic stability, either by its own means or with the support of development partners. In the best case scenario, this will not only meet the population’s remaining basic humanitarian needs but also help stabilize the country and prevent the resurgence of conflict.

In stable yet still fragile countries, it is essential to maintain a good network of contacts, human resources and logistical capacity in case things go wrong again. However, keep it small and simple! What is needed is not huge action, but action that responds efficiently and effectively to needs that otherwise remain unmet, and maintains the delegation's capacity to respond to emergencies if need be.

Can't other aid agencies do the same?

Yes and no. On one hand, many humanitarian non-governmental organizations struggle to get sufficient funds for their projects in post-conflict situations. On the other hand, funds are often bound to criteria such as good governance, a stable economy, and so on.

In addition, the ICRC is best placed to intervene in some fields. Caring for detainees is one example. No organization other than the ICRC has the vast experience, both in protecting the lives and dignity of tens of thousands of detainees, and improving their material conditions through water and sanitation or healthcare projects in prisons. Take the case of Liberia. With a limited budget and shortfalls in all sectors – health, education, security, and so on – prisons are certainly not on top of the government's priority list. At the same time, many donors shy away from financing programmes in prisons. In this case, the ICRC might be one of the few organizations able to respond to the often dire needs of detainees. It has the necessary funds and expertise.

20 years of the ICRC – are you proud of the ICRC in Liberia?

I certainly am! Leading the delegation at this moment in time is an honour for me. However, the tribute goes to the hundreds of staff members and delegates who contributed to the achievements of the ICRC in Liberia in the past 20 years. In fact, in all my years with the organization, I have never worked in a context where the acceptance and the appreciation for the ICRC's work among an entire nation have been as good as in Liberia. This is the consequence of exceptionally committed staff, who gave everything to provide protection and assistance to the Liberian population during terrible times, sometimes risking their own lives.