New Internationalist

This is our story

Issue 334

Oxfam’s John Magrath describes the dilemmas that have to be faced on the ground.

This is a story of difficult choices, moral dilemmas and trying hard to behave honourably.

In October 1992 a train puffed slowly into the station of the sprawling and impoverished Zairean town of Kananga. It contained several hundred people, tightly packed together, who had been on it for a week with little food or water.

These people were being sent ‘home’, victims of what the world would later call ‘ethnic cleansing’, from the province of Shaba, far to the south-west, where they had been working in the copper mines – until a new Governor decided to expel them. En route most were thoroughly looted of the few possessions they had accumulated over many years.

Oxfam, which had a small office in Kananga, worked with local NGOs and churches to set up a transit centre and distribute food and blankets. But the trains kept rolling in and the numbers of people grew to thousands and, ultimately, to tens of thousands. By early 1993 we were running a major relief programme. We were also helping people return to their ‘homes’ by providing seeds and tools and transport, and liaising with local chiefs and churches for land to be allocated.

The problem was that there was no way of paying for this, as there was no local currency available. On 1 March 1993 Oxfam’s representative in Zaire faxed that: ‘The bank has NO money – AT ALL!’ And outside of Kananga town, for hundreds of miles in every direction to where the displaced were returning, there were simply no banks.

She said: ‘Everybody is rushing round town accosting any person or company or organization that is managing to sell anything and therefore has zaire notes… We have a large number of unpaid grants… and we are desperately trying to find the means of meeting our obligations.’ She went on: ‘Tomorrow, I’m going to see the boss of Tabazaire who happens to be an Englishman, and beg him for zaires, in return for Sterling – and if he can give me £20,000 worth, I will take them.’

Over the next few months local currency obtained from Tabazaire enabled Oxfam to scale up its relief operation as the crisis grew. This undoubtedly saved lives and helped thousands to rebuild their ruined livelihoods. From time to time Oxfam used this route to obtain further funds as Mobutu’s Zaire began to implode and political violence engulfed one part of the country after another.

The disaster in Kasai was little publicized and few international NGOs were involved, yet the financial problems were enormous, and the time-consuming and frustrating task of trying to find money grew ever more difficult. There were two currencies, the old zaire and the new, and inflation reached fantastic levels until the old zaire traded at 3,000,000 to the dollar. In Kananga local staff wages ($3,000) were weighed in blocks and required a box three-feet by four-feet by two-feet.

All NGOs used all sorts of channels to obtain cash to pay for their operations, none ideal. The Roman Catholic Church had money, but ran its own relief operations and was soon itself desperately short, so this ceased to be an option. There was a soap company, but it didn’t have enough, and a beer company, but this had political connections. Finally, there were private merchants who had access to often very large amounts of currency. But how had they made it? Often, from dealing in diamonds or even more dubious commodities. Furthermore, merchants charged a hefty commission.

The shortage was not just of zaires – it was often necessary for the UN and NGOs to have staff hand-carry dollars into the country. This placed them at considerable personal risk, given the levels of corruption and intimidation at border posts and airports.

We tried to use the banks whenever we could, but most of the time they were simply not functioning, even in the capital. As Ian Brown himself wrote in late 1995, ‘the national economy has ground almost to a halt and is beyond the present powers of description’. There were, he noted, no government services of any kind – no health, no education, no infrastructure, no postal service, no national radio or television and no functioning banking system. When the Goma region became the home to nearly a million Rwandese and NGOs poured in to help, the problems became even more acute.

In the circumstances there were two alternatives. Obtain local currency by the most acceptable means on offer, or shut up shop. Throughout the 1990s we did think of stopping, because conditions were so frustrating and Mobutu’s officials made life so difficult – especially for our Zairean staff who were constantly hassled for money. But we stayed because humanitarian needs continued to grow.

The influx of Rwandan refugees in July 1994 added a further, moral dilemma. In the first few weeks 50,000 people died, mainly from diarrhoea.* Oxfam’s expertise at providing large quantities of clean water was crucial in stopping the epidemics and bringing the death-rate down. But then, in the longer term, was it right to assist populations – even with clean water – whose members included genocidaires?

This was debated in the field and in Oxford. If we did not, people would die, especially women and children. But we did not turn a blind eye to this serious moral and political dilemma. Oxfam issued many appeals for political action, urging governments to fulfil their legal obligations and separate out genuine refugees from the military and from possible war criminals. They fell on deaf ears – perhaps we were naïve to expect otherwise.

At the same time, we ran a programme to provide clean water to Zairean ‘refugee-affected’ rural communities in North and South Kivu, targeting areas where cholera was endemic. Once the refugee pressure had eased we also installed a water system for some 80,000 people in Goma town.

The Red Cross/NGO Code of Conduct in Disaster Relief, to which we are a signatory, always guides our humanitarian work. Furthermore, in 1997 Oxfam helped start the Humanitarian Accountability Project (HAP). Consultations with local NGOs and beneficiaries in Kosovo, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, Sierra Leone and Central America showed real interest in a mechanism to enable the views of people affected by emergencies to be better heard. Over the next two years the HAP, which is currently setting up in Geneva, intends to run three pilot projects in different types of emergency. A website will be set up soon.

The International Response to Conflict and Genocide: Lessons from the Rwanda Experience, volume 3, 1996, joint donor/agency evaluation.

John Magrath is a senior staff member who has worked for Oxfam Great Britain and Ireland for 16 years.

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