Are old ways of thinking applicable to complex humanitarian emergencies (CHEs)? Increasingly, the answer by relief staffs is “No.” For development workers, the answer seems to be “Yes.” Who’s right?

The basis of the traditional disaster model is that linear interventions lead from relief to sustainable development. In this paradigm, no serious breaks or discontinuities disrupt the progression of projects and programs designed to assist beneficiaries. Food distribution leads to food-for-work that, in turn, induces agricultural development, serves as an example of interventions in the traditional model.

The traditional model is open to criticism on two counts. Practitioners assume that discrete subsets of activities are associated with each phase. Certain interventions are done in the relief stage but not in rehabilitation or relief. Likewise, rehabilitation or development are associated with their own set of strategies and operations. This classification of activities into relief, rehabilitation, and development interventions is often arbitrary. Requirements of donors are partially responsible: government grants usually mandate discrete activities because program boundaries simplify financial accountability.

This specialization of activities associated with relief, rehabilitation, and development produces a double-edged sword. On the positive side, professionalism is encouraged. Negative aspects include a separation that arises between relief (or relief and rehabilitation) and development staffs. Separation in function and expertise lead to a division in programs and even personality types. Relief professionals see staff in developmental programs as ill trained generalists, while developmentalists view relief personnel as anti-developmental technicians. Often chasms evolve that lead to departmental “tribalism” and a “we-they” attitude.

A second difficulty with the traditional model emerged only recently. Linear intervention strategies do not work well in civil conflicts better known as CHEs(1). Most CHEs are armed clashes between warring opponents with different political agendas. These political divisions often reflect ethnic or religious differences. The toll of human life taken by CHEs is high, as attested in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Somalia. Populations flee to escape rival factions or because supportive infrastructures are destroyed. CHEs cause people to lose their traditional coping strategies that helped them to survive during natural disasters.

Relief specialists recognize that CHEs require new ways of thinking about disaster responses. The traditional relief-rehabilitation-development model simply does not work. In contrast, development staff behave as though CHEs are an aberration, and a linear progression of interventions is the norm. As a result, relief personnel see the need for development activities but development staff do not engage in relief operations.

New Relief Model

Diagrams 1 and 2 show the differences between natural disaster and CHE interventions. The models are drastically different, indicating that relief, rehabilitation, and development efforts often occur simultaneously in CHE situations. Recovery in CHEs is not linear. Indeed, life may become even more unstable and chaotic. Change is discontinuous. UN agencies, governmental departments, and NGOs seek stabilizing factors to help create security.(2)

Stabilization allows a variety of interventions, such as feeding badly nourished people or vaccinating children. Simultaneously, food-for-work programs may restore market roads while seed selection and multiplication activities take place.

Not all interventions will occur in the same district. Nor will a single agency or organization manage all activities. Increasingly, programs will need to be coordinated between relief and development providers. This mutual dependency means greater inter-agency accountability, which, in turn, will require higher profession standards of NGO staffs.

Some NGOs are starting to retrain relief personnel who work in CHE environments. Not only are new skills learned, but new words have entered the relief workers’ vocabulary. “Developmental relief” may seem to be an oxymoron when viewed from the traditional model. From the perspective of a CHE, it is not. The new relief model indicates that development activities should be introduced as quickly as possible. Because the relief arm on an NGO manages them, such interventions are termed “developmental relief.” The motivating rational behind these programs is to provide stability, reduce dependency, lessen vulnerability, and provide hope to populations devastated by war.

Illustrations of developmental relief abound in World Vision (WV). Examples include field testing and diffusion of improved seeds in Angola; enterprise development and vocational training in Bosnia; health clinics in Burundi; vocational training in Sudan; water and sanitation in Somalia; and improvement of market roads in Mozambique. WV is not an exception. Relief departments in other large NGOs also undertake simultaneous relief, rehabilitation, and development activities.

The reverse does not seem true, however. Few development units in NGOs are doing “relief developmentally.” A hypothetical example illustrates this point. Help U Dev has an office in Qaskorland. People with training in development, such as education, enterprise development, health, and agriculture, make up most of the operations staff. A few people are cross-trained to work in relief operations during and immediately after floods. An insurrection and rebellion that began in the Drista region spread to other districts where Help U Dev is arduously trying to maintain its community development projects. The NGO sees two options: continue its current development work under CHE conditions, or pull out of the area.

In this scenario, Help U Dev sees only two possible outcomes. We may liken them to landscapes. The first is the familiar; the mellow topography that permits incremental change. The second is a nightmarish image of steep cliffs, over which development programs could not survive. Are there no other options?(3)

Part of the dilemma facing Help U Dev is that the NGO wants to maintain its traditional development work under increasingly insecure conditions. Part of the problem is that Help U Dev does not know how to work in a CHE environment. Another likely complication arises if the NGO thinks doing relief work is a step backward. After all, the traditional model specifies relief-rehabilitation-development, and in that order. Can development workers “regress” and do rehabilitation and relief work?

Just as relief units do “developmental relief,” could performing “relief developmentally” be achieved by development operations in CHE-prone countries? Much of the same training in security, conflict resolution, and political awareness proposed for relief staff is equally applicable to development personnel. As most rehabilitation activities are quasi-developmental, training development staff to do rehabilitation work should not be difficult. Operating food distribution and therapeutic feeding centers or managing refugee camps is a different matter, demanding the skills of staff trained in the appropriate relief fields. Yet once a semblance of security is established, participatory development skills are needed to help people rebuild their lives.

World Vision Examples

Relief, rehabilitation, and development tasks were examined in 17 countries where WV operates. Countries were selected if relief operations managed them (10) or if they were developmental operations experiencing or subject to CHE conditions (7). The terms “hot,” “warm,” and “cool” identify the general condition of the CHE. Tables 1-3 show three ways to summarize and view the data. Listed in the tables are interventions mentioned at least twice.


Condition of complex humanitarian emergency (CHE)
(number of countries shown in parentheses)

Food distribution (8) Food distribution (3)  
Distribution of non-food items (3)    
Health (3)    
Reconciliation (2)    
Shelter (2)    

12 of 17 countries have relief activities.
Palestine and Uganda are development country with relief programs in its CHE-affected areas.
All relief countries have relief interventions.


Condition of complex humanitarian emergency (CHE)
(number of countries shown in parentheses)

Seed & tool distribution (3) Psycho-social training/counseling (4)  
Psycho-social training/counseling (2) Reconciliation (3)  
  Seed & tool distribution (3)  
  Shelter rehabilitation (3)  

12 of 17 countries have rehabilitation activities.
Cambodia, Haiti, and Uganda are development countries with rehabilitation programs.
All relief countries except Zaire have rehabilitation interventions.


Condition of complex humanitarian emergency (CHE)
(number of countries shown in parentheses)

Health (5) ED/IGA (6)* Education (3)
Agriculture (4) Agriculture (4) Agriculture (2)
ED/IGA (2)* Health (4) Health (2)
Education (2) Reconciliation (3)  
Nutrition (2) Education (3)  
Reconciliation (2) Water & sanitation (2)  

* Enterprise development/income generation activities.

15 of 17 countries have development activities in CHE-prone areas.
Lebanon does not have development programs in CHE areas.
All relief countries have development interventions.

Results. The findings in Tables 1-3 lead to these conclusions:

Only two of the seven development (29%) countries experiencing or susceptible to CHEs operate relief-type programs.

In contrast, all relief countries (100%) have development-type programs. Four of those countries face Hot” CHEs in the form full scale civil wars.

Rehabilitation interventions occur in three of the development countries (43%). Rehabilitation programs are found in nine of the relief countries (90%).


The traditional, linear relief-rehabilitation-development model may be appropriate for “natural disasters,” but is not germane for complex humanitarian emergencies (CHEs). CHEs are essentially civil wars in which much of a country’s infrastructure is destroyed. This means that people’s normal disaster coping mechanisms no longer work. The dramatic rise of internally displaced people is a testimony to the cruel societal disruptions caused by CHEs.

World Vision and other large NGOs recognize the inappropriateness of the traditional paradigm in CHE relief operations. As a result, new relief interventions call for initiating rehabilitation and development activities as quickly as possible. This means that relief, rehabilitation, and development programs operate concurrently in a CHE-torn country. In the example of World Vision, all 10 of the relief countries examined have “developmental relief” programs.

If relief departments are doing development, are development units prepared to operate relief programs? The answer is generally no. Is the chief reason vision? While relief staff see the need for development in relief, most development workers do not seem to see the need for relief in development. Still, the logic behind “developmental relief” is identical to doing “relief developmentally”: helping people in human disasters known as CHEs.

This raises another question. If relief does development and development can do relief, why should an NGO manage two parallel operations? Does it make sense to investigate the possibility of operating one unit, at least in the fields? New offices could be established that freely mix relief, rehabilitation, and development activities. Directors of established national offices could be encouraged to select the blend of interventions best suited for working in a particular CHE.

Dr Donald P Brandt is a senior researcher with World Vision International, a humanitarian development and relief organisation with a Christian focus. The author serves in the Policy and Planning Department as a member of World Vision’s Early Warning System team. Another of his responsibilities is to help facilitate enterprise development with the organization’s field offices.


1. The inappropriateness of the traditional model in CHEs is becoming recognized by practitioners and academics. See, for example, D. Eade (ed.) Development in States of War, (Oxford, UK: Oxfam 1996). Earlier, ACORD questioned development interventions based on an “evolutionary process” that is “uni-directional, cumulative, and irreversible.” ACORD-RAPP, “Operationality in Turbulence,” (unpublished: November 1992), p. 8.

WV Relief staff did some serious thinking about relief paradigms for work in CHEs. See: M. Janz and R. Burke, “Input to the Sub-Working Group on Local Capacities and Coping Mechanisms and the Linkages to Relief and Development”, Unpublished paper, World Vision International, (Nov. 1996) and M. Janz, “Relief Skills & Best Practices to Address Changing Resource Parameters”, Unpublished working paper, World Vision International, (Oct. 1996).

2. D. Eade, loc. cit.

3. “Cliffs” are the “cusps” discussed in ACORD-RAPP. This report, which should have received much more notice than it has, says that attention must be spent in discerning “critical thresholds” that enable people to cope with CHEs, AIDS, and other types of potential cusps. ACORD-RAPP, loc.cit., p.17.



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