How the Central African Republic can start to end its aid dependency

by Enrica Picco*

As the CAR starts a new chapter under President Touadéra, there are two strategies that can help him break with the mistakes of his predecessors.

Shouldering the burden: the UN’s mission in the CAR distributing food aid. Credit: UN Photo/Catianne Tijerina.
Shouldering the burden: the UN’s mission in the CAR distributing food aid. Credit: UN Photo/Catianne Tijerina.

After more than three years of the worst crisis in its history, the Central African Republic (CAR) is today completely aid dependent. The role of humanitarian agencies in providing basic social services is so deep and universally accepted that a way out seems almost impossible.

The turmoil of the past few years was triggered by the overthrow of President François Bozizé by the Séléka rebels in 2013, but it came after a long decade of instability andrebellions. Over these years, the country was essentially in the throes of a protracted crisis, punctuated by violence, mass displacement, and humanitarian emergencies. In these moments of particular need, international relief agencies flooded in, but often ended up taking over structural projects too.

By contrast, development actors committed to longer-term interventions were typically reluctant to engage in the country during Bozizé’s decade in office. Donors felt that the basic security conditions required to launch structural interventions were lacking, while a lack of good governance and political will also progressively discouraged many stakeholders.

In this regard, international interventions in the CAR have always expanded and contracted like an accordion, with the influx of NGOs and UN agencies being followed by progressive disengagement of both relief organisations and development actors once the emergency has passed. During the last years of Bozizé, many basic services nevertheless ended up being provided by the humanitarian actors that stayed. These actors lacked the funds or resources to properly address the country’s huge long-term needs, however, and in 2012 the country reached the worst development indicators in its history.

After the Séléka overthrow of Bozizé in 2013, it took more than a year and the outbreak of unprecedented inter-communal violence for the full humanitarian machine to be redeployed. And, as before, the relief agencies that entered the CAR increasingly came to take over state duties such as healthcare, education and infrastructure.

The transitional government, in place from 2014 to 2016, watched this happening, constantly calling for more aid, though occasionally reaffirming its authority with controversial decisions such as the closure of the displacement camps in Bangui. No action was taken by the government to assume responsibility towards the population, whose daily life support was delegated to foreigners. This trend reached a point to which NGOs were not only expected to cover social services but also key state prerogatives such as the protection of civilians, despite their lack of a mandate or the means to respond to the extensive protection needs of Central Africans.

Two strategies

The CAR is now entering a new chapter in its story. Elections were held at the start of the year without major incident and a new president, Faustin Touadéra, assumed office a couple of months ago. The political and security challenges he will have to face are huge, but the question of NGO dependency deserves a place on his list of priorities too.

After the last post-conflict period in the CAR, emergency funds were quick to disengage when Bangui and the main cities were considered relatively stable and a narrative of normalisation started to spread. This time, the high concurrence of humanitarian crises elsewhere in the world – and ones that are affecting Western interests more directly than that in the CAR – could speed up this process even further.

Touadéra and the CAR can’t afford that. If the humanitarian system were to pull out, the country would collapse before any structural intervention would even be thinkable. Fortunately, there may be two broad actions he can take to avoid this.

Firstly, it is crucial the president recognises that the CAR’s recent crisis was largely one of bad governance. Bozizé was always reluctant to commit to durable change and considered development a concern of the international community; a general feeling of hopelessness at mismanagement and diversion of international funding spread during his time as popular discontent grew.

For what he has shown so far, Touadéra seems keen to address this. By surrounding himself with people of good reputation and cutting the number of government positions, he is heading in the right direction if he wants to change the bad habits of the national political elite and earn the trust of donors. But this may not be enough. The new president must also avoid the temptation of copying the transitional government and adopting a predatory approach towards wealthy NGOs in an attempt to replenish the state treasury. This would risk accelerating aid agencies’ disengagement.

Additionally, Touadéra should take full advantage of the joint fragility assessments planned in the coming months by major development stakeholders. This could be a unique opportunity to establish concerted national priorities for reconstruction and place them on the international agenda.

This consideration leads to the second factor: efforts to address CAR’s structural needs cannot be limited to the capital and its surrounding areas. This would be the easiest way to show progress, but it would also sharpen the divide between Bangui and the peripheries where most of the rebellions have started. Countrywide development strategies should therefore be a priority.

Planning for the whole country doesn’t mean the same solutions should be implemented everywhere. Rather, it means evaluating locally-driven approaches and putting them in a national framework. In this way, the different degrees of stability of the country’s provinces could be properly taken into account. For instance, in a large part of the country, violence and displacement are still putting the population in extreme need ofhumanitarian assistance, and structural interventions can only be planned in these areas if emergency response capacity is preserved and humanitarian access granted.

It is crucial that President Touadéra learns from the mistakes of his predecessors. Pressure from the country’s political elite to stick to the pre-existing corrupt and Bangui-centred system is probably unavoidable. But showing a clear will for change to both public officials and the international community will be crucial if the CAR is to leave the crisis behind, end its dependency on NGOs, and prove to the population that the state can do more than just harass and take resources from its own citizens.

*African Arguments.Enrica Picco is an independent analyst on conflict and humanitarian issues in Central Africa. She has been involved in humanitarian work for more than ten years, mostly with Médecins Sans Frontières. She was a contributor to the book Making Sense of the Central African Republic (Zed Books, 2015). Follow her on Twitter at @EnriPicco

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