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Central African Republic: the ICRC gives its views on humanitarian action in the country

19-02-2008 Interview

During a meeting with some national journalists, Jean-Nicolas Marti, the ICRC’s head of delegation in Bangui, took stock of the organization’s activities in the country in 2007 and outlined the principles guiding its action in 2008. The coordination of humanitarian action and the protection and assistance of victims of the violence have to be tailored to the uncertain and precarious situation.

 Could you take stock of your activities in 2007 and say how do you see them developing in 2008?  

In 2007, operations from the newly opened sub-delegations in Kaga Bandoro and Birao brought the ICRC closer to the victims and made it possible to gain a better understanding of the general situation and, above all, to react quickly when an emergency arose. 

For example with the support of volunteers from the Central African Red Cross Society (CRCA), we were able to assist some 130,000 people in the conflict areas, where we pursued our protection activities and endeavoured to spread a knowledge of international humanitarian law (IHL), especially among arms bearers.

In 2008, we plan to distribute basic necessities to 210,000 people. In addition to more than 130,000 " old " beneficiaries who will receive supplementary assistance, some 60,000 new beneficiaries will receive full-scale assistance. Over 5,000 families will be supplied with farm implements and seed. We have also stockpiled enough provisions to feed 5,000 people for a month.

We are planning to rehabilitate health facilities in the conflict areas and to support the trauma unit of Bangui Community Hospital. The health programme being run in places of detention in the Central African Republic (CAR) will likewise continue.

Protection activities and efforts to spread a knowledge of IHL will be stepped up. This is long-term work. The ICRC is convinced that things will not be changed by a media blitz without any follow-up. On the contrary, in order to secure a change in behaviour it will be necessary to work in the field an d in due course to approach the authorities of the country.

Furthermore we are going to boost our support for the CRCA. Having a strong National Society as our main partner is crucial for the success of ICRC operations in the field. The CRCA has gone through some difficult periods from which it is gradually recovering. We have helped it to strengthen its response capacity by supporting the construction of a functioning head office in Bangui and a prefectoral office in Bangassou and the establishment of local branches at Ndélé and Birao.

 Given the vital importance of water supplies in the CAR, why have you restricted your water and sanitation projects to the regions of Mboumou and Basse-Koto?  

The ICRC decided to launch projects in the regions of Mboumou and Basse-Koto back in 2004. Although the situation in the country was relatively calm at that time, the ICRC did not wish to withdraw from the CAR completely. So we ran a water and sanitation programme in these regions. The CRCA will gradually take over responsibility for the programme, but it will continue to receive ICRC backing.

I should add that the ICRC does not seek to engage in large-scale development assistance; that is the job of other international bodies, such as UNDP.

Today the problem of water supplies outside the areas of the CAR where the ICRC is active is caused by the weakness of the infrastructure, whereas in the northern part of the country it is linked to the conflict. And that is where the ICRC is going to play a role.

We are going to help almost 120 villages in the conflict areas to deal with their water and sanitation problems. At present we have reached the stage of assessing where and how to provide this help. In this particular sphere we are going to c oordinate our action with other humanitarian organizations.

 What are the main difficulties you encounter in the field?  

Let me first stress that the ICRC maintains good contacts with the political and military authorities of the CAR and with armed opposition groups. This state of affairs constitutes a sound basis for obtaining the security guarantees which are essential for the conduct of our work.

In the CAR our main difficulties are logistical. It is a real organisational challenge to dispatch assistance in some regions on account of the very poor state of the road network. We also have security concerns because of the people who are still setting up road blocks and plundering some regions. Their activities are unfortunately hampering the movement of humanitarian aid workers. 

 Many humanitarian organizations in the CAR are getting together to coordinate their activities. What is the ICRC’s position on such coordination?  

Within the Red Cross family the ICRC coordinates all the international activities of the various components of the Movement which are present in the CAR.

Having said this, the ICRC intends to promote coordination with other humanitarian organizations in order to avoid duplication and possible gaps in operations. At the same time this coordination must not endanger the ICRC's image as a neutral, impartial and independent organization devoted solely to the protection and assistance of victims. We wish in all circumstances to keep the trust of all the parties involved. This is essential if we are going to reach victims, ensure the safety of our personnel and play our role as a neutral and impartial intermediary, as we have done recently in Colombia, for example.

I am sure that you will agree with me that mixing politics, military matters and humanitarian action might jeopardize this trust. We must make sure that coordination does not imperil our image.

In point of fact, in Bangui, the ICRC maintains relations with several NGOs and with institutions, programmes and funds in the United Nations system. The delegation holds an ongoing dialogue through daily contacts in the field and the more formal setting of sectoral meetings or coordination meetings of the Humanitarian and Development Partnership Team (HDPT).