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Africa has some work to do before it starts its own humanitarian agency

Burundian refugees fleeing conflict at home gather on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in Kigoma region in western Tanzania. Thomas Mukoya/Reuters

The African Union (AU) has recognised that there needs to be an urgent response to the humanitarian crisis caused by millions of people being displaced on the continent.

Africa has a huge challenge. Almost 30% of the world’s 41 million internally displaced people and close to 20% of the world’s refugees are in Africa. The root cause of displacement across the continent is conflict. The impact is felt internally as well as beyond Africa’s borders.

And more people are bound to be displaced given the threat of climate change and a growing wave of natural disasters.

Several proposals were canvassed at the first meeting of the specialised technical committee set up to consider the issues of migration, refugees and internally displaced persons. The most significant was the establishment of an African Humanitarian Agency.

The idea isn’t new: it was mooted in 2015 by the East African Regional Consultation on Humanitarian Effectiveness meeting in Arusha, Tanzania. And the AU presented the idea to the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, Turkey.

But can it work?

Ideally, what the agency would do

The rationale is that Africa needs an institutional pillar for effective responses to humanitarian crisis across the continent.

The idea is that the new body becomes the key agency managing forced displacement in Africa. Its remit would include working with member states on addressing the triggers of humanitarian crisis on the continent including conflict, natural disasters, development projects and climate change.

Some of this capacity already exists. Within the AU Commission, the Humanitarian Affairs, Refugees and Displaced Persons Division is involved in strategic policy formulation on forced displacement. Key humanitarian instruments have been developed through it, including the Kampala Convention and the African Humanitarian Policy.

The agency is expected to coordinate groundwork on humanitarian actions in collaboration with AU member states and regional economic communities. While this initiative is laudable, its structure is yet to be decided.

In anticipation of the establishment of an agency, there are certain concerns that need to be addressed.

I will discuss the five key ones.

Pitfalls to avoid

Institutional proliferation: The continent has a wealth of standards and institutions. But standards are often ignored and institutions battle to carry out their functions.

The AU must undertake a comprehensive assessment of the mandates of existing institutions involved in humanitarian activities. This will show what institutional gaps need to be filled. If the purpose of the agency is to harness, oversee and provide technical support to existing AU institutions with humanitarian-related mandates, such an assessment would help map the landscape it would be managing.

Staff selection: The agency will need to be properly staffed. People should be appointed for their ability to handle complex humanitarian issues rather than because o their political connections. A selection plan would need to be drawn up prior to its formation. The AU must develop a clear strategy on how this will be achieved.

Women collect water at a camp for the internally displaced in Bama, Borno State, Nigeria. Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters

Collaboration: Clear and realisable goals need to be set. One clear target could be that in its first five years, the agency works with states to review laws that criminalise migrants, refugees and other forcibly displaced populations. Any targets set must reflect short and long-term humanitarian needs and serve as a benchmark for assessing the agency’s efficacy.

Awareness and perception: The AU must develop an effective strategy to popularise the agency. One of the criticisms often levelled against the AU is that it does little to promote peace and security on the continent. This criticism is based partly on past events, but it is equally the result of low levels of awareness about some of the AU’s activities.

There is a perception that the AU is removed from ordinary people. These criticisms need to be addressed if humanitarian action is going to be effective. How the envisaged agency is perceived by key stakeholders – ranging from national humanitarian agencies, civil society organisations, external agencies and ordinary people – will matter. An effective strategy is needed to popularise its activities with the media on board as a key partner.

Financing: The agency must be properly financed. This issue was flagged during a West African regional consultation held in Abuja, Nigeria. There, states emphasised the need to explore African funding solutions given a decline in humanitarian assistance and growing fatigue among traditional external donors. Currently, 80% of the African Union Commission’s budget comes from the region’s cooperation with the European Union and its member states. This funding trajectory needs to be revisited.

A new funding model to foster African ownership of AU programmes and activities was proposed at the AU summit in July 2016. This included imposing a 0.2% levy on “all eligible imported goods” into Africa. This would generate an annual income of about US$1.2 billion.

However, the proposal is fraught with challenges. What qualifies as ‘eligible goods’ needs to be clarified. And the question of whether the levy can meet the AU’s financial needs must be answered.

The African Humanitarian Agency is a welcome initiative. But political, technical and financial support will matter. This will require the AU to take a pragmatic approach. The only question is: can it?

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