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Summer 2003


As global conflicts play out in headlines, quieter stories are often left untold. Here at Tufts, some of those stories can be found at the Feinstein International Famine Center and the EPIIC program, where innovative thinking and experiential learning are placing Tufts squarely at the frontlines of humanitarian aid and relief work. For the faculty, alumni, and students involved in these efforts, the task has never been more daunting, but their unflinching hope and shared commitment is making change possible.

The expertise of a small but highly focused center brings new ideas to a worldwwide mission

photos by Mark Ostow

See related stories:
Voices from the Field
Fulfilling a Dream: Heinz Henghuber and the Tufts MAHA program

Staff of The Alan Shawn Feinstein International Famine Center at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy (l-r): Sue Lautze, program director; Larry Minear, director, Humanitarian and War Project; Peter Walker, director; Ann O’Brien, administrative assistant; Estrella Alves, program coordinator; and Jennifer Gatto, administrative assistant.

In Afghanistan, Dyan Mazurana never goes out in Kabul without first veiling herself, or, when visiting rural areas, without donning a burka, a loose, body-covering sheath worn by many Afghan women. She and her team travel in unmarked vehicles with Afghan drivers. Because many crimes occur at dusk, they honor the UN’s suggested 6 p.m. curfew. For Mazurana, it’s just common sense: equal parts respect and safety.

“You have to build the trust of the people. You don’t want to insult them,” says Mazurana, a researcher with Tufts’ Alan Shawn Feinstein International Famine Center who heads the second team the Feinstein Center has sent to assess the needs and views of rural residents of post-Taliban Afghanistan. “Security concerns also dictate how and where you travel. Afghanistan is considered unsafe for foreign aid workers, particularly males. Killing aid workers has now become a pattern.”

Not long ago, it was a lot simpler for humanitarian aid workers. For more than a century, relief work was largely defined by the Red Cross. Think World War II–era ambulances, emblazoned with the universally respected Red Cross symbol, or the revered Red Cross nurse, healing the wounded and protecting the vulnerable.

These days, crises are often a toxic brew of manmade and natural disasters: civil war and drought; collapsing economies and health epidemics; corruption and earthquakes. When war—whether factional fighting or the battle against terrorism—figures largely in a crisis, humanitarian assistance can become a political pawn. And when the neutrality and trust of aid workers are called into question, increasingly they are targeted for violence.

“Where there is increased political interest by outside bodies in a particular crisis, Afghanistan and Iraq being prime examples, the political stakes go up,” says Peter Walker, director of the Feinstein Center, from his office on the Medford/Somerville campus. “Increasingly, there is a perception that aid agencies are effectively Western and therefore part of a global conspiracy. When the UN was bombed in Baghdad, it sent a shock wave through the humanitarian community. The ground rules have changed.”

Rethinking Humanitarian Aid
The Feinstein Center is taking a leading role in responding to that changing world stage. Staff are facilitating an international discussion about the humanitarian agenda, including how to preserve the so-called humanitarian space—a zone of neutrality and independence where civilian lives and livelihoods can be saved. They are also at the forefront of rethinking the classic style of relief work. Through an innovative and highly nuanced way of viewing crises, the center is trying to improve dramatically how humanitarian assistance is delivered around the globe.

Located within the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, the seven-year-old center has a broad mission: to understand the lives of people trying to survive in crises or marginal environments, and to use that knowledge to help aid agencies, governments, and government ministries to provide relief and develop policies that support people’s livelihoods. Dr. Angela Raven-Roberts directs the Master of Arts in Humanitarian Assistance (MAHA) program, the only master’s of its kind in the country (see sidebar), and is working with universities in Africa to help them develop similar degrees.

The center derives a lot of its depth from a commitment to academic collaboration with the Fletcher School, Veterinary School, School of Medicine, and other universities in the Boston area. “We’ve got practitioners who come into academia, academics who are moving into practice, people dealing with the nitty-gritty of how households work, and people who have an impact on government and intergovernmental policy issues,” says Walker, a 25-year veteran of relief and development work and most recently a top Red Cross official stationed in Bangkok. “We’re dealing with research, education, and trying to change institutions—all focused on how we can help people survive during times of crisis.”

At the moment, Feinstein Center staff are helping to eradicate deadly cattle diseases in the horn of Africa; devising famine response strategies in Ethiopia; researching improvements in emergency measles vaccination; developing a national nutrition strategy with the Ministry of Health in Afghanistan; training UNICEF staff worldwide in emergency health and nutrition; and researching the effects of terrorism and counter-terrorism on aid work around the world.

And the roster of organizations and governments the Famine Center works with and seeks to influence reads like a “Who’s Who” of the humanitarian world: the African Union, UNICEF, the UN’s World Food Programme, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), as well as private aid groups like Oxfam and CARE.
“Food security and dependable livelihoods form a complex web that is inextricably linked to the resolution of complex humanitarian emergencies,” said William Garvelink, senior deputy assistant administrator in the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance at USAID. “The Feinstein Center has been and continues to be at the forefront of the research and design of innovative programs that USAID uses to respond to these complex emergencies.”

A Changing World Landscape
An evolving humanitarian landscape requires new ideas. Not long ago, those who worked in the field were for the most part considered untouchable. Conflicts were largely between sovereign states and most wars were fought between standing armies. The line between civilian and military was more clear-cut. Lending succor to the injured or hungry tended not to be viewed as a political act.

“There was a deal struck towards the middle of the 19th century by the Red Cross that they would provide relief to those in need—POWs, wounded soldiers, or civilians inadvertently caught up in a battle,” says Walker. “In return, the organization told the warring parties, ‘We’ll do this in an even-handed way so it doesn’t affect the outcome of the battle. Our work is not pertinent to your grand political designs, your long-term political strategy.’”

Those distinct lines between military and civilian have become blurred in recent years. Now combatants are likely to be irregular forces, militias, and gangs with agendas that at times are craven or inscrutable. And in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, where the U.S. government is both soldier and aid source, the neutrality and independence of aid workers is constantly questioned. The risk to those in the field is high. Consider the 24 UN workers killed when a car bomb decimated their Baghdad office in August. Between 1997 and 2001, 249 aid workers were killed while engaged in humanitarian work, according to the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Experts say this number is probably much higher; murders of local aid workers—as opposed to expatriate staff—frequently go unreported.

It’s often simply a matter of guilt by association. “I’m a Brit,” says Walker. “When I go to Afghanistan or Iraq, I’m perceived as part of the occupying power, whether I’m working for the Red Cross or Tufts University or whomever.”
Larry Minear, the director of the Feinstein Center’s Humanitarianism and War project, keeps a close eye on these and other troubling trends. “There’s a lot of soul-searching going on in the humanitarian community these days, and for good reason,” says Minear from his tiny office on a quiet side street in Somerville.
Most recently, the project sponsored a series of seminars spurred by the August bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad. The seminars, the first of their kind, brought together senior staffers from the UN, Oxfam, the Red Cross, and dozens of other organizations, first in Boston, then London, Geneva, and Washington, in an effort to move beyond hand-wringing and into action mode.

“There were two views around the table,” says Minear. “The first was that ‘business as usual’ is no longer possible. Because of the increased threats that agencies face in places such as Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iran, it is time to go back to the drawing board and rethink humanitarian principles and the rules of engagement.

“Others took a less alarmist view,” Minear continues. “They hold that the world’s humanitarian machinery is well-conceived and well-constructed. What is needed is not a change in how assistance is delivered or basic human rights protection. Instead, there is a need for a higher level of professionalism, more savvy about the politics of countries, and better intelligence about the grievances people have that might ultimately threaten humanitarian agencies’ work.”

Putting New Approaches to Work
The work of Mazurana’s team in Afghanistan is a good example of cutting-edge field research on which the Feinstein Center is developing a wide reputation. USAID, one of the world’s major donors, commissioned the report, building on the first survey conducted by center researcher Sue Lautze just after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. This year’s work seeks to learn how the country’s security situation is affecting the ability of rural Afghans to survive on a day-to-day basis. In this case, the word “security” is used in its broadest sense and the team has investigated everything from how public safety is maintained to the ways families earn a living.

The livelihoods approach used by the Tufts team was pioneered in the last decade by Sue Lautze, who adapted many of its principles from similar methods used in the world of development. The approach is based on the reality that people in complex emergencies like Afghanistan or Liberia depend on their own strategies to survive. Those strategies encompass everything from what they own to whom they know to what types of skills and knowledge they possess, and are broadly termed “livelihood systems.” “The key to effective humanitarian assistance lies in supporting, not undermining these systems,” says Lautze. “International aid too often assumes local people are helpless and doesn’t take the time to do accurate people-based needs assessment.”

Karen Jacobsen, a center researcher on refugees and displaced people, is using the livelihoods approach in an action-research project aimed at developing effective microcredit schemes for displaced communities on the edge of Africa’s many conflicts, and Darlington Akabwai weaves it into his work on conflict resolution in East Africa.

“A sack of food dropped from 1,000 feet isn’t a very nuanced way to get at these livelihood systems,” says Lautze. “In complex emergencies, we save livelihoods as a way to save lives.”

Lautze hopes the livelihoods approach will some day become the standard approach to humanitarian aid. “The litmus test for me is when the next Liberia or Ethiopia or Iraq erupts,” she says. “What will be the types of relief interventions the CAREs and the Save the Childrens and the UN will turn to?”

Through hundreds of lengthy interviews, Mazurana’s team is discovering that Afghans are finding a variety of ways to survive, but the day-to-day situation is exceedingly difficult. Most people are down to two meals a day of tea and bread or rice, and few have eaten meat in the last year or two. Livestock herds have been decimated and everyone lives on credit. Some families have reluctantly begun to marry their daughters off at very young ages—as young as six or seven, says Mazurana—because of the bride price they can fetch.

As far as physical security, many Afghans have told Mazurana’s team that public safety was a lot better under the Taliban. Bandits, many of whom are former combatants, roam the countryside and make their living by extortion, robbery, and violence. Police are unable to do their jobs because they lack the basic tools: vehicles, safe places to store their weapons, and even pencil and paper to record arrests.

The lawlessness has all sorts of implications when it comes to livelihoods, says Mazurana. “For example, to what extent can you bring your goods to market, and once you get to the market, how secure are you?”

Mazurana says that because her team is still doing interviews, it’s too early to say exactly what their recommendations for interventions will be. But she does know that gender will play an important role in the analysis and advice. Typical in a livelihoods approach, the sort of relief the team recommends will be highly tailored to the situation at hand.

For instance, because many rural women do not venture outside of their villages, the team would be likely to suggest that mobile healthcare workers be an integral part of the healthcare system. And while cash-for-work programs outside of the village won’t work for families headed by widows, it is important for women in families with able-bodied males.

Afghanistan is like so many of the crises and issues the Feinstein Center takes on—enormously complex and rapidly changing. With its small staff, the center and its collaborators specialize in bringing a nimble, multifaceted approach to the evolving challenges of humanitarian relief. Walker says that despite being relatively new to the scene, the center’s influence is being felt around the world. And more and more, the major humanitarian players are seeking out its expertise.
“We have a deserved reputation as critical thinkers who are able to link that thinking to the daily work of international policy, disaster needs assessment, and program design,” says Walker. “It’s that balance of research, education, and effecting institutional change that is our hallmark. There are precious few organizations around the world able to deliver across this spectrum.”