Interview with Joseph Foumbi, UN humanitarian coordinator

The Central African Republic (CAR) is facing a serious humanitarian crisis in the northwest of the country, where people have seen their living conditions rapidly deteriorate during the past three years, since Gen François Bozize seized power in March 2003 after a six-month rebellion against President Ange-Felix Patasse. The insecurity in the northwest is mainly due to rampant armed banditry and attacks on civilians by armed groups. This has led to food insecurity, as farmers abandoned their fields and fled to towns or into refugee settlements in neighbouring Chad. United Nations agencies have reported that thousands of civilians in northwestern CAR continue to be subjected to violence. Women have been raped by armed men, and about 35,000 people are in dire need of food and medical aid. Because of the insecurity, humanitarian actors find it difficult to reach vulnerable populations. Joseph Foumbi, the head of the UN Children's Fund and UN humanitarian coordinator to the CAR, has been monitoring the situation since Bozize took over leadership in the country. Below are excerpts of an IRIN interview with Foumbi:

QUESTION: As the UN humanitarian coordinator to the CAR, what is your assessment of the humanitarian situation in the country?

ANSWER: The situation is especially critical at the moment. We did think that after the elections [in 2005] things would gradually go back to normal, but with the resumption of insecurity or conflict in the northwest, we have come back to the situation that prevailed in 2003, with a large number of displaced people in this very big region. The northern region has an important economic value for the country. We don't know exactly the main reasons behind the unrest, but we know that there is a dire need of humanitarian assistance.

The north is not the only region where there are humanitarian problems. We are in a country that has suffered more than a decade of recurrent conflict, with consequences such as the stoppage of economic activities, poverty, HIV/AIDS and widespread insecurity. The humanitarian situation can be characterised by an acute phase in the north and chronic phases that are worsening in other parts of the country. It is a matter of lack of medical care, adequate food and even sometimes violence and human-rights violations.

Q: Is there any solution to improve the humanitarian situation in the troubled areas in northern CAR?

A: There are short- and long-term solutions. In the short term, it is a matter of providing aid to 35,000 persons who urgently need medical assistance and food in the north. In the medium and long term, political problems should be settled. Something should be done to reconcile CAR’s people and bring all the different parties to understand the importance of peace and know that there is no development without peace.

In this context, the UN system can intervene better than any other organisation. Because of its neutrality, we are still accepted at the communal level to teach people how to live together without opting for violence. We have examples of UN interventions in CAR that show that communities involved in the development process see things in a different way. We hope to use these examples to sensitise and steer politicians and decision-makers towards rebuilding a prosperous nation.

Q: Can the UN easily get access to the troubled zones to provide assistance?

A: If security conditions are not met, only a certain type of UN personnel can go into the trouble-prone zones. We would like to deploy all our operational capacities into these zones, but we still need a minimum of security.

Q: You're talking about restoring security on the ground before any intervention in the northwest troubled zones. How can the UN wait for the return of peace in these zones while the humanitarian situation is deteriorating?

A: We cannot intervene while fighting is still going on. Our interventions have limits. We have to know which personnel should go on the scene, how to go there and how many persons should be deployed. Before we go there, acts of violence should stop, because these acts of violence are not confined to the people in the region - it can affect relief workers operating there.

For that reason, we have various types of personnel: There are personnel trained to intervene in the development domain. There are also personnel, limited in number, but specialised in emergency interventions. These personnel are well equipped to intervene in dangerous zones, but unfortunately the team in the CAR was conceived after the elections for development purposes - not for intervention in zones where conflicts are going on. We are now strengthening this team by bringing in experts who have experience in how to intervene in a conflict zone.

Right now we are working in partnership with NGOs that are more equipped, experienced and well prepared to satisfy the needs of people in these troubled zones. We are working in close partnership with these organisations, and this allows us to mobilise resources from the system and to plan, together with the partners, joint actions and to provide the necessary means for them to intervene.

Q: You seem to believe that the lack of peace in the CAR is linked to the lack of confidence among the people. Do you think that the UN has the capacity to help restore confidence in the CAR in order to pave the way for lasting peace?

A: This is the main core of the UN mission in the CAR. The UN is well structured. It has a political branch headed by a special representative of the UN Secretary-General that has as a main role to facilitate the reconciliation process in the country. Once the process succeeds, it allows development agencies, such as the UN country team, to carry out lasting development actions. These actions aim at repairing, reconstructing and developing the country. To reconcile the people, there are conditions to meet, such as the capacity to settle problems, neutrality and credibility. The UN system through the country team meets these three conditions. We are credible to the government and the communities, and this can help establish links between the communities and the government.

Q: Is there any plan for a lasting development programme for the CAR?

A: The UN's actions in CAR are guided by the analysis of the situation on the ground. This country has suffered many conflicts and recurrent destruction, stoppage of economic activities and a significant decline in habitant revenue. There is also a decline in life expectancy and a weakening of the institutional capacity at national level. When we intervene here, we don't have capable partners to work with to make sure that the aid we provide may foster development. Consequently, UN system actions are directed at three fields: good governance, reconstruction and health and HIV/AIDS. If these three fields are not supported simultaneously, there is doubt that the lasting development process succeeds. It is a must to intervene in the domain of emergencies, but credible institutions should be created so that the government could efficiently work.

In the field of good governance, the UN system supports the restoration of democratic institutions by promoting the respect of human rights, the participation of women in the decision-making process and the protection of vulnerable populations. There are also actions to improve the macroeconomic situation, the management of public funds and the fight against corruption.

Concerning reconstruction, the first thing to do is to ensure food security by helping the populations resume agricultural activities and providing food to vulnerable populations such as children, pregnant women and people with HIV/AIDS. One of the UN actions is the distribution by the WFP [World Food Programme] of food items to farmers who are willing to go back to their activities. This chapter includes the restoration of security in supporting the disarmament and reinsertion process of former combatants so that they can reintegrate their communities and start a new career. We are dealing with education, without which we cannot stop violence. We attach importance to girls' education. When people are educated they have a long-term perception of development and reject violence. In these conditions, it is easy to promote human rights.

In the field of heath, we have to prevent epidemics through vaccination and restoration of basic health services. Concerning HIV/AIDS, the UN system looks forward to promoting authentic responses against the disease.

Q: What do you mean by authentic responses?

A: We have organisations that fight against HIV/AIDS. In many countries, youngsters are mobilising against the disease, and this practice has started here in the CAR. Young people have succeeded in many East African countries. Thanks to youngsters in Uganda, the country has succeeded in slowing the spread of HIV/AIDS. In the CAR, we have female and religious associations that are following the practice. The UN supports these kinds of initiatives to involve political, religious and traditional leaders as well as youngsters in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

Fighting against HIV/AIDS does not require external aid at the beginning. People should use their willpower to say "No" to HIV/AIDS. Once there is such willpower, foreign aid can intervene to make the fight against the virus more efficient.

Q: There are allegations that people in the violence-prone northwest are dying of hunger or hunger-related diseases. What is your comment on this?

A: We know that there are displaced people who ceased their agricultural activities. There are 35,000 internally displaced people who are in need of food and medical assistance. There are also a large number of people who crossed the border to seek refuge in neighbouring Chad. [At least] 5,000 have entered a refugee camp in southern Chad since the beginning of 2006, and UNHCR [UN refugee agency] is caring for them. The problem is not to know if these people need food assistance, but we should know how to reach them, where are they hiding, what logistics should be put in place to reach each of them if they are not living together. We should also make sure that they live without fear and see if it is safe to bring them the assistance they need.

Q: Are development programmes in the CAR well supported by donors?

A: The CAR is always being considered by UN agencies as an orphan country. To some donors, the country does not fulfil true humanitarian crisis conditions, like the situations that prevail in [Sudan's] Darfur and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The case of the CAR is rather perceived as a situation of bad governance by donors, who claim they are not helping the country unless something is done to eradicate it. Interventions in this field are subjected to conditions such as good governance, respect of human rights, to point out a few. As the CAR represents a hybrid case, there is currently no donor interested.

I have to mention that in humanitarian assistance we don't look at these conditions. What the UN is trying to do in these conditions is to prove to donors that the case of the CAR is a real humanitarian crisis. In the CAR, the humanitarian crisis is combined with development problems. We, therefore, try to ask donors to participate in the long-term development and help the new government of this country restore the good functioning of its institutions. To reach this goal, aid to the CAR should not be subjected to heavy conditions, as is the case now.

More recently, in Yaoundé [capital of Cameroon], we launched the Consolidated Appeal Process [CAP] with solid arguments to convince donors to do something for the CAR. It is clear that if nothing is done the crisis here will become serious and may be costly - not only for the CAR people but also for the entire Central African region. At the international level there could be tremendous consequences.

Q: Do you get the feeling that donors are likely to help this time?

A: I think they are gradually focusing their attention on this country. There have been improvements in funding programmes in favour of the CAR during the past few years. Consequently, the amount of assistance is growing every year. This is a positive and encouraging sign.

We need US $46 million to meet the country's needs this year and the year after. The problem is that we never get one-third the total amount of the funds we deem necessary to help the country. We hope we are going to get more than one-third of the money we appealed for this year.

I appeal to donors interested in this very unstable Central African region - marked by waves of upheaval with serious repercussions on the whole continent - to help the CAR. If the CAR happens to join in the wave of serious crises, as is the case in Darfur and Democratic Republic of Congo, it will be very difficult for the international community to bring it under control. It is high time donors intervened in the country, funded actions that will help set up institutions on the ground and settle emergency humanitarian problems.