Jürg Eglin, Regional Head of Red Cross, Discusses Humanitarian Situation in Mali and the Sahel

In this interview, Jürg Eglin, Head of the Regional Delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Niamey, Niger—which covers both Mali and Niger—discusses the implications of the conflict and recent military coup on humanitarian aid work in Mali. Mr. Eglin also answered questions about the ICRC’s work in the wider Sahel region, which is facing another looming food crisis.

Speaking on the phone from Niamey, Mr. Eglin described the careful balancing act of upholding the humanitarian principles of independence, impartiality, and neutrality in the current environment. Instability, the proliferation of armed groups and other non-state actors, and the increasing need to cooperate with governments render the work of a humanitarian aid organization such as the ICRC more and more difficult. Beyond that, the frequent relapse into crisis calls for new modes of action that increasingly blurs the lines between emergency relief and longer-term development aid.

The interview was conducted by Jérémie Labbé, Senior Policy Analyst, International Peace Institute.

The Interview:

Jeremie Labbe (JL): I would like to start with Mali, since it is on everybody’s mind since last week’s military coup. What is the response of the ICRC to this conflict that has triggered so far the displacement of close to 200,000 people since January? And how do you cooperate with other humanitarian actors to cover the needs in this vast region?

Jürg Eglin (JE): On the situation in Mali—one has to look back a little bit on the humanitarian situation in Mali today. What happened in the last few days actually has a history, a political history, also a humanitarian history that dates back quite a bit, a couple of years from what we see today.

From a humanitarian point of view, Mali—mainly the northern part of Mali—had some difficulties from a humanitarian perspective, already at an earlier occasion. They had a difficulty in 2010, they had a food crisis due to a bad season. 2011 was a year that was a bit better in terms of production, economic conditions, and so on. Again in 2012, announced itself as a difficult year.

The ICRC has been active at various levels. We have been active in emergency response programs, we also have been active in more midterm programs in terms of supporting the structures and systems that are in place in Mali.

In addition to this crisis, there has been a climate, for quite a period of time, of insecurity and dangers that come from various sources. We all know we have various armed groups in this context; we also know there is quite a bit of trafficking going on across the region of all kinds of illicit goods. With the consequence that the basic services have difficulties to be provided first by the government, secondly by development actors—they are less and less present in the north because of this climate of insecurity—and then thirdly, also because of the humanitarian actors as such cannot really deploy and operate the way we normally operate in this kind of context.

So on this basis, the ICRC has engaged in northern Mali for quite a while, and now we have to give up and adapt a bit what we have been constructing over the last couple of years in northern Mali to respond to these new emerging needs. You mentioned displacement. This is true. You are talking about large numbers of people that have left their homes. Partly, they have crossed international borders, gone to neighboring countries, and are now considered as refugees.

But about half of this population is displaced within Mali, and this is a population we are trying to take care of. We have already launched food distribution for these group of displaced people within Mali. We also do work on other subjects—more, as I mentioned before, with a mid-term perspective. We, for example, work on animal husbandry, which is the basis of these people, because most of these people are nomadic people or semi-nomadic people, and in this sense we have longer-term, structural programs to help these people. So it is quite complex if you look at this. Our ambition was and still is to be present in these volatile and difficult humanitarian environments and provide at least some answers on the humanitarian side.

On the second part of your question, the answer to that is unfortunately there are very few international actors in northern Mali today. There are some, we are not the only ones, often limited in space and scope that are present, often covering a rather small area and our privileged partners are quite present in northern Mali still. The Red Cross, the Malian Red Cross society, our privileged partner, they have a presence in many of these towns and villages, often they lack capacity, often they lack support. That’s when we are coming and provide some support to them. Jointly, we are able to provide some answers.

JL: You mentioned the insecurity in northern Mali due to the proliferation of a number of armed groups. In this respect, the press reported a security incident which occurred approximately two weeks ago where some ICRC teams were prevented by an armed group to carry out its activities near Tessalit, which is in northern Mali. How is the proliferation of these groups, notably Tuareg insurgent groups, criminal networks that you mentioned, as well as Islamist groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), how are they restricting ICRC activities and what steps are you taking to overcome these difficulties?

JE: That’s a big issue. It is quite complex. We are not facing one armed group that opposes an authority as such. That is one element that is there. We all know and hear and read about the group, the MNLA, National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad. This is a movement that appeared in mid-January, actually already before on a political front, but the first armed confrontations are from mid-January. Along these lines, there was a new dimension given to this situation, which today can be considered as a non-international armed conflict, where international humanitarian law applies in the given context.

But besides these groups, you have other armed elements, and then it gets a bit complicated here, and quite diverse of who is who, and who controls what. That is not that easy. For us, it is a constraint, because it is our principle that we do not work with armed escorts, we are not asking for any active protection of our teams, of our activities. What we seek is security guarantees. What we have been doing in the last couple of years in the region, we have sought the establishment of a network of interlocutors, be they traditional leaders, be they village elders, be they political leaders. We have quite an extensive network to foster an understanding of our operations, our actions, our principles, of our very being in this context, and we seek through these people guarantees of our security, and an understanding of our pure humanitarian mandate, and action that is neutral and independent.

This is the principle that we work on almost on a daily basis, actually to do step-by-step, how to move forward. Obviously this is not always understood by everybody, people have different interpretations, different agendas, and when you come in as the Red Cross, you might have opposition from certain extremist groups with an extreme view on things, and that was a bit the case with our team that had the confrontation with a group that was quite aggressive against the Red Cross as such. But luckily the incident turned out positive; our people were not harmed, and we could turn back to our bases and the issues are solved for now. It remains a challenge to have our operations and our presence accepted by everybody. It’s quite diverse, as you mentioned.

JL: Still concerning Mali, I mentioned already the coup that overthrew the government last week, do you expect this coup to impact your activities in the country, given that, as you mentioned, you need to entertain a dialogue with all parties, including the Malian government and its armed forces?

JE: That is a very pertinent question. We know what happened last week in Bamako. For us, it is also obviously very pertinent what is going to happen in the north. It is a bit early now to conclude and to see what it actually means for the north. We have seen a bit what is going on, we have seen declarations from armed groups, how they see this coup d’état in Bamako.

But we can say that so far it has not had direct effects in the north. What we have been doing so far, we have slowed down a bit with our activities to see what is happening, the evolution concretely on the ground. We have called back a couple of teams back to base just to wait and see a bit. Now we are in the process of redeploying and resuming with our activities. Actually, in the field, not much has changed for us. We still have the same environment, the same people around us, the same interlocutors we are able to talk to, so there things have not changed too much yet.

What is happening in Bamako is a different thing. Of course, there is a political process now going on. Regional implications, with political forces all around . We are observing this to see what is happening, and we try actually to integrate a humanitarian element in this dialogue. We have approached the new authorities about detention issues, about people arrested in the frame of this coup d’état. We are asking for access to see these people and we hope to do some visits to detained people in the near future in Bamako.

JL: I would like now to step back a little bit and move on to the broader Sahel region, since your regional delegation also covers Niger. Governments, UN agencies, and other humanitarian organizations have been warning of a looming food and nutrition crisis for months now. As a matter of fact the government of Niger launched an emergency appeal as early as November 2011. What is the concrete situation on the ground today and what is the response given by the ICRC?

JE: When you focus a bit on the food security crisis, that is an issue that’s not only concerning Niger or Mali, it’s an issue that affects the whole Sahelian belt that goes right across the band, across the whole region, affecting various countries. I think it’s important to have a bit of a historical view looking back on what we had to do here in the last few years. If one keeps in mind what happened here in 2005, that was a year of quite acute crisis in terms of food security, that was a bad year, the previous harvest was very bad with quite dramatic consequences. The next crisis along these lines was 2010, again with a bad harvest, with a drought, with quite severe problems across the board.

Now in 2012, we again talk about a food crisis, I have already mentioned that in the introduction. At the same time, I think the rate, in terms of how severe it is—2005 was a very bad year, 2010 was bad as well, maybe not as bad as 2005, and now 2012 comes right behind. I wouldn’t rate it above these previous two crises. I would rate it a bit below.

On the question about the appeal by the government of Niger: I would see this as a very positive development. For once, the government is ready quite early with warning signs, with a call for alert, there is a problem coming up next year, we need help, we need support, there is a crisis in the making, and I think it is important that for once everybody was quite early on the crisis. There’s a new government here in place, they have a policy of openness and cooperation. That helps everybody actually get prepared earlier. This could sometimes then lead to an understanding, while we are used if somebody cries for help, it’s already very late, we are already ahead of a big catastrophe.

Fortunately this is not the case here. What we are talking here is more a crisis that has some centers, that has some regional problems, but is not a crisis that affects the whole land in the same way. It is a matter of certain locations that are touched that had no harvest at all last year, that had very bad crop production, livestock was affected, and this touches certain regions in the Niger, in Mali, in Chad, in Mauritania. These are the main countries affected, and again not throughout all territories of these countries but more regionalized in certain areas. If one searches a bit the internet, certain agencies they publish maps about priority regions. This is relatively easy to be identified, where these hotspots are today.

We are part of this effort now to respond to this crisis a bit in the way that I mentioned before with certain activities purely in emergency response. We are already involved in the food distribution. Interestingly, one of the hotpot areas in Niger is the border area with Mali, where we saw an influx of refugees in the last few weeks. So we have a double problem there – we have refugees coming in. At the same time we have a local population that is already in great difficulty. So we are trying to separate things a bit there. Our first response was to provide to the refugees. Now these people are taken care of by the government and by UNHCR. And as the ICRC, we are refocusing more on the local population in this border region.

We are in Agadez, Niger. There we apply a different concept. Instead of doing general food distribution, we support local mechanisms, we support what they call here cereal banks—these are mechanisms that allow people access to cheaper cereals. They are not for free, but they also come a bit with an advantage that people can buy things cheaper than actually the local market would dictate.

At the same time that is a problem, because it’s mainly not a matter of non-availability of food, it’s mainly a matter of price relationships. Grain prices are climbing, people cannot afford it anymore. What they have for sale is their livestock, their animals, they are in bad shape due to bad conditions. Meat prices are dropping, so people are in difficulty to make ends meet on the relationship between meat prices and cereal prices. So we try to intervene on that by making sure grain is available at an affordable price. At the same time, we do intervention in the livestock sector to ensure that livestock remains healthy, that livestock remains a viable economic resource for people so they can go on with their life.

There is a multitude of responses for mid-term structural support and, in certain instances, also purely emergency responses and distributions of food—sometimes also are non-food items—when the situation is really dire. We also work on certain health interventions in certain areas where we provide primary healthcare for populations also with a component of water and sanitation support where it is needed. There is a whole range of activities which are an integrated part of the response by the international community and the government of Niger.

JL: You made quite clear that what the countries of the region are facing is a chronic food and nutrition crisis, and not a one-shot event, which requires, as you pointed out, supporting the governments of the region in addressing the underlying causes of food insecurity in order to avoid costly relapse into acute crisis. Yet some within the humanitarian sector worry that this approach conflicts with an independent and impartial humanitarian action. What is your take on this debate? And concretely, how is the ICRC dealing with this dual objective of immediate relief and longer term capacity building?

JE: This is a very important issue the way you mention it. It is true, and it also came out the way I explained a bit the way we are looking at crises on a regular basis. Unfortunately, the crises here are closer and closer together, like the example I mentioned before. This is a big issue, a big problem, and you have mentioned the potential contradiction between long-term strategies facing chronic crises versus humanitarian interventions on the basis of neutrality and independence. The debate is an issue we are taking seriously. One first remark I can make on that is our primary policy in this dimension, the logic is “do no harm.” We definitely try to consider whatever policies are put in place, whatever long-term strategies are there, actually to help people, communities, governments, local authorities, to face this chronic crisis, and to find ways out of this that we are not working against these initiatives. I think it sounds trivial, but these are important to consider in our approach as a humanitarian organization.

It’s true. We are the ICRC. We are not a development organization. We are not building structures within the government. This is not our job. This is against our principles. We go in the same direction, and today we have gone quite a long way where we work closely with government structures, we work quite closely with development organizations, where we apply, for example, veterinarian or animal husbandry issues to use a wider term fully in line with national policies, fully in line with development issues, fully in line with views on security, on stability, and so on.

We try, of course, to underline that the nature of our work is humanitarian, is neutral, but that does not prevent us from entering into more technical issues, and actually look a bit at the longer-term work, look at the issues with a mid-term view. The humanitarian stance is that we are here for the emergencies and then we go, but often we don’t go, we don’t leave this context anymore, we stay on here. Our budgets might vary a bit, they might be higher in a crisis year, and a bit lower in a normal year, but we are here in the long run. Hence, we adopt our programs, our views, our policies, and align them with these long-term strategies.

Unfortunately we do not have all the answers, but at least we are part of the improvement, part of the solutions, and we are definitely not working against these longer-term considerations.

JL: Thank you very much Jürg for speaking with the Global Observatory today.

JE: Thank you, it was a pleasure.