Aiding Libya: The view from the ground

Author Note

Mohamed Elshabik is an aid worker who served as emergency coordinator for Libya and Tunisia at a leading aid organisation between September 2015 and June 2016. He holds an MSc in International Development and has also worked in Lesotho, South Africa, Pakistan, Uganda, Ethiopia, Sudan and South Sudan.

Since the removal of Muammar Gaddafi, the former dictator who ruled for 42 years, Libya has experienced very little stability. Recently, things have gone from bad to worse.

UN efforts to achieve political change are on the verge of failure. On 30 March, the UN-sponsored Government of National Accord entered the capital, Tripoli. The GNA received a reluctant welcome from Libya’s disparate military and political elements, particularly from its main rivals: the General National Congress in Tripoli has lent it limited support and the House of Representatives in Tobruk rejects its authority. Thus far, the new government hasn’t been able to exercise genuine power beyond its Tripoli bureaus. Libya remains a deeply divided country and is now juggling three governments.

Most international attention is focused on attaining political deals and on how to fight the rapid growth of extremism, represented by the Libyan branch of so-called Islamic State. How these complexities play out in the humanitarian arena has been badly neglected. The chaotic political and military landscape has made access to basic necessities such as food, shelter, cash, electricity, and water extremely difficult in most parts of the country. The UN’s top emergency aid official for Libya has warned that 2.44 million people need protection and some form of humanitarian assistance – including an estimated 425,000 internally displaced persons.

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Prices of goods and commodities continue to increase. The healthcare system lacks essential supplies – access is blocked by warring parties – and is on the brink of collapse. The 2016 Humanitarian Response Plan, produced by the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, prioritised seven areas: health, protection, food insecurity, shelter, non-food items, water, and sanitation.

It is well known that there is a shortage of international funds being assigned to humanitarian operations generally, but, given the scale of the Libyan crisis, it receives particularly minimal attention.

There are several reasons for this:

Firstly, Libya was considered as a country with a majority middle-income population and has frozen assets estimated at $67 billion. Before conflict erupted in 2011, Libya had an operational and established infrastructure, which technically still functions despite the conflicting regimes. With dual (and now triple) administrations, more open channels of communication to facilitate services are necessary rather than haphazard humanitarian arrangements. One consequence is that funding agencies seem reluctant to designate scarce humanitarian funds to Libya, preferring to adopt a ‘wait-and-see’ approach, hoping for a political agreement that will release the country’s frozen assets.

Secondly, humanitarian operations have to follow the usual aid narrative of neutrality and impartiality, as these are believed to be crucial for ensuring access and acceptance. Libya’s conflict is highly political – characterised by an ever-changing landscape, with alliances that shift constantly, according to interest and circumstance.

Aid organisations are forced to bend the rules and forge alliances to ensure access, while respecting the fine line of tribal and ethnic differences. Some aid workers advocate that such compromises – in aid efficiency and ‘integrity’ – are necessary to access those most in need. But others interpret this sort of intervention as bribery that fosters opportunism. In a highly polarised and militia-dominated context, they fear this places aid workers in danger.   

Thirdly, despite the reality of humanitarian needs, aid volunteers in Libya struggle to identify the priority areas for intervention. The chief reasons are cultural constraints and social barriers, as contact with vulnerable populations remains a challenge. In the Libyan context, this group includes stranded irregular migrants and refugees, the majority of whom are from sub-Saharan Africa, as well as IDPs, mainly groups of women and children.

IDPs who are the victims of war need psychological support but may not seek humanitarian assistance because of dignity and social norms. “They vanish; we hear of them but we don’t see them,” stated one aid worker. In Libya, IDPs appear to mostly seek refuge in homes in relatively peaceful areas and cities. Generally, the humanitarian need is not vast, but mental health assistance is necessary. This support could be a second phase of intervention when circumstances improve and a different type of long-term support is required. 

Fourthly, Libya is unfortunately an obvious example of how aid is being misused to achieve certain political endeavours. In essence, the Libyan humanitarian funding is not only limited but also tailored to supporting political objectives. For instance, the EU and other major Western governments actively support the UN-led dialogue between Libyan parties to reach a peaceful settlement and are prepared to support the GNA. The formation and legitimisation of the GNA will allow for intervention to tackle two major international concerns; the illicit migration to Europe and the creeping infiltration of IS. Presently, the EU and other major donors are procrastinating on offering humanitarian assistance in order to pressurise the other warring parties to endorse the GNA.

The Indirect consequences of this are seen in the scarcity of cash liquidity and lack of medical supplies. This brings issues of humanitarian neutrality and impartiality once again into focus, as aid and its humanitarian actors are dependent on the security and political plans of Western donors.

Obviously, contributors have more interest in long-term development plans to stabilise governance, security, and migration issues rather than short humanitarian interventions in this oil-rich country. But it is vital that humanitarian actors are not excluded, and that these concerns about the credibility and objectivity of humanitarian work in Libya are recognised.

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Photo: UNICEF