Interviewing Gianni Rufini

Humanitarian Aid Today

The role of NGOs and the EU in Chad: Mr. Rufini explains us the job of an humanitarian aid worker

, by Translated by Michele Gruberio, Marta Semplici

All the versions of this article: [English] [italiano]

Humanitarian Aid Today

In today’s conflicts there are more than not just two sides: a part from two armies fighting each other there are many organizations that try to alleviate the sufferings of the populations living in conflict zones. We interviewed a professional humanitarian aid worker to better understand this job.

Mr. Rufini, you have gained a lot of experience working in the NGO sector in many countries all over the world. Nevertheless you don’t look like a strong and fearless Rambo that saves human lives. Is the idea people have of your job misleading? Could you explain us what is a humanitarian worker and what is his job today?

I’ll explain you what being a humanitarian worker today means, but I know the myth of the Rambo survives in lots of milieus. Of course it is necessary not to be weak because of the difficult situations in the countries and the climates people have to endure during their work and also because our work still requires a certain dose of handedness. But it’s also true that being a humanitarian worker today is very different from the one people imagine. A humanitarian worker is a figure that has to express good sense, wisdom, pragmatism, he has to be able to maintain calm in situations that can also be very dangerous. He has to be sensitive, open-minded and care for his neighbour. He is not a hard and cynical person, but someone that can conjugate sensibility and ability to operate in difficult situations. In order to do this, people have to be skilled, both in psychological and technical terms. We don’t have resources to waste and we cannot neglect important things on which the quality, and moreover the survival of the communities we assist, depends. All this demands from the humanitarian workers to be skilled and sophisticated, multidisciplinary. And that’s not so easy.

Even though this is such a hard job, the whole sector of humanitarian aid had a strong increase in the last decades. European Union too increased her financial contribution and is now the world’s biggest donor. Do you think available resources are efficiently employed?

System efficiency is seriously conditioned by some factors, first of all the unexpected: the necessity to operate in emergency situations. We must underline that humanitarian aid and emergency are not the same thing: most humanitarian aid is not emergency aid but an operation that takes part in crisis areas, crisis that exist for a long time. Operations in case of emergency means facing a crisis without knowing what you find and this increases the possibility of wasting resources. For example, we can arrive with 5000 vaccine doses but if people that need this vaccine are less or there isn’t the necessity to do this, the vaccine will be wasted. But if I didn’t take those with me and there is a disease, this will be seriously worse. In the medium period aid becomes more efficient because we can identify better the real needs. In this case too, of course, problems can still occur in particular due to the presence of delinquents or armed groups that steal from us. Remarkable levels of inefficiency take place when the aid is destined to big organizations that must hold a big part of the resources to pay their operating costs. This risk is much reduced when we talk about NGOs, that have margins fixed by financial regulations and their operating costs are destined for only the 5% of the resources. Another form of inefficiency is represented by the excessive number of expatriated people. Often, the locals could do the same work with fewer costs.

Is there some kind of coordination between institutions and NGOs?

On this issue we made remarkable progresses, especially after the Rwanda crisis in which coordination totally failed. Nowadays NGOs try to do it among them. Institutions too are coordinated among them. This is the task of the UN Interagency Standing Committee. Instead, when talking about the European Commission, there have always lacked conjunctions among activities in crisis cases and the reconstruction activities at end of it. We need continuity. But unfortunately continuity lacks: at the institutional level you have different institutions that cannot coordinate among themselves in an efficient way.

Let us return to actuality. Thanks to the good will of the French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner the EU will send 3000 men to Chad to protect homeless and refugees from the Darfur war and consequently international workers operating in the area. Do you think it is a positive initiative?

Yes, absolutely! In the 90’s we experimented several times in a positive way that military forces could contribute to the security of operations and victims, and serve as logistic support. But only when specific conditions exists that allow doing this. Military forces have to be neutral forces and mustn’t be involved in the conflict, otherwise being as further as possible away from fights and have a much defined task to be interposition forces. But this, unfortunately, in the last years is very difficult to do, like in Afghanistan or in Iraq, where the army had a role of fighting forces: due to this it was impossible to cooperate with humanitarian organizations. Where cooperation happened in this way, despite of being impossible in the technical-judicial sense, we have very negative consequences due to the wrong perception of people that humanitarian organizations weren’t neutral forces but expression of one of the conflicting parties.

Military forces have to be neutral forces, otherwise cooperation between them and the humanitarian organizations is impossible, as was the case in Afghanistan and Iraq

Which are the perspectives for Chad?

There is the strong need to protect homeless and refugees and probably EU forces would to be too weak for such a wide territory. Line up a 3000 men force means that only some hundreds will be really operating for shifts mechanism, rests and training. I believe it is also very difficult thinking about French promoters of this initiative. They are an ex-colonial power that maintained some interests in the continent and this is not the ideal condition for a peacekeeping mission. We saw this several times, e.g. in Rwanda with Belgium, and have had a role of colonial power did not always play in favour of lined up forces.

In short, some doubts remain…

Its good Europe does this. It corresponds to the evolution of foreign politic and common defence to give European forces a mandate for stabilization, crisis intervention, conflict prevention; this corresponds to what we as European and humanitarian workers have always been dreaming about. This happens in a sort of continuity with a European policy of cooperation that has always been the most important in the world. Europe, alone, amounts to more than 50% of international aid in all the sectors and in particular in the humanitarian aid one. This made Europe a soft power.

This is a good point that was unfortunately lost a little in recent years, especially after 9/11 when the military solution prevailed. I would wish this to be an occasion demonstrating that Europe has returned to its soft power role – paraphrasing the words of Mr. Kagan, an American conservative scholar, a European Venus against the American Mars. We saw Mars fail in inefficiency and inability, especially in Iraq, and I believe it would be better to rediscover Venus’s role and try to build up a positive dialogue with developing countries based on friendship, help and collaboration.

Gianni Rufini – born in Rome in 1954 – is an expert in humanitarian aid, director of the European co-ordination of humanitarian NGOs VOICE from 1997 to 2001. Since 1996 he has been Associate Fellow to the Post-war Reconstruction and Development Unit of the York University. From 1985 to 1994 he worked in Ghana, Palestine and Argentina as director of development and humanitarian aid projects. Moreover, he has been engaged in more than 60 missions in Africa, Asia, the Middle-East, the Balkans and South America, with several Italian and international NGOs (Relief International, Movimondo, Handicap International, ActionAid, Intersos, NCCI, etc.) as well as UN agencies such as FAO and UNDP. Furthermore he was member of the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre (Canada), and is currently research director for CeSPI (International Political Studies Centre), and coordinator for several courses by the universities of La Sapienza in Rome (Master in Cooperation) and IUAV in Venice, as well as for the ISPI (International Political Studies Institute). He also teaches at S. Anna in Pisa, the ULB in Brussels, the American University in Washington, John Cabot University, and in Legon (Ghana), and he has been visiting lecturer at the Paris Sorbonne (DESS) and in Madrid (Carlos III), Bocconi (Milan). Finally, he is director of the humanitarian operators formation net Fields, and Member of the Director Committee of CeSPI, and of the Editorial Board of Humanitarian Affairs Review (Brussels) and The Humanitarian Times (Washington).

Image: The Claim, picture taken by Javi Monki in Gambia, source: Flickr


 Homepage of the European Commission Humanitarian Aid Department (ECHO)
 The Humanitarian Times
 EU takes first step for Chad Darfur refugee force, article

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