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Overseas Development Institute (ODI)

Mozambique: A case study in the role of the affected state in humanitarian action

Conor Foley

Overseas Development Institute (ODI), Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG)

September 2007

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This is the first in a series of case studies examining the role of the affected state in humanitarian action.

Key research questions for the project are:

  • What role should governments play in the coordination of humanitarian actors, and how do state coordination roles relate to international actors?
  • How do international humanitarian actors assess the capacity of the state to respond to disaster and make decisions about when it is appropriate to substitute for the state?
  • What is the appropriate role of nongovernmental actors in influencing the state to fulfil its responsibilities to assist and protect citizens affected by disasters?
  • What are the perceptions of government officials involved in particular disaster responses about international humanitarian actors, and vice versa?
  • What capacities do states have to respond to disasters and legislate for and coordinate international actors at both national and local levels?
  • How can tensions between the desire of states to ensure the accountability of humanitarian organisations and the concern of humanitarian actors to maintain independence be resolved?
The report is based on a visit to Mozambique carried out in late May/early June 2007 to examine the response to floods and a cyclone that struck the country at the beginning of the year.

During the early months of 2007, Mozambique suffered a double disaster of severe flooding in its central region river basins and a category four cyclone that devastated coastal districts in one of its southern provinces. Between 300,000 and 500,000 people are believed to have been affected by the two disasters through the loss of their homes or livelihoods.1 These simultaneous catastrophes seriously stretched the capacity of the national authorities and humanitarian agencies based in the country, and highlighted a number of issues related to coordination and communication between them.

The emergency response was coordinated by the government of Mozambique’s Instituto Nacional de Gestгo de Calamidades (INGC). It succeeded in evacuating up to 200,000 people from the flooded area without loss of life. Its emergency preparedness measures undoubtedly also reduced the number of deaths and injuries from the cyclone that struck around the same time. The two largest UN agencies in Mozambique, UNICEF and WFP, played the leading role in providing emergency relief along with the Mozambique Red Cross and a number of international on-governmental organisations (INGOs). Within two weeks of the declaration of a ‘Red Alert’, WFP had distributed food aid to some 33,500 flood victims.2 UNICEF had provided water and sanitation supplies, including plastic sheets, chlorine, water tanks and latrine slabs.3 Other agencies ensured that emergency medical supplies were being provided and that people’s basic life-saving needs were being met.

Over 100,000 people spent between one and three months living in the temporary accommodation centres before the flood waters receded. There were no major outbreaks of disease or any indications of serious excess morbidity rates in the centres. A subsequent evaluation of the international relief effort concluded that ‘the real needs for emergency relief were largely met’ by the operation.4 These findings are discussed in more detail later in the report.

International agencies in Mozambique responded to the emergency through the adoption of the UN’s ‘Cluster Approach’ system. The decision to adopt this system was taken without formally consulting the national authorities. The UN Country Team carried out a rapid needs-assessment of the affected areas and issued a Flash Appeal in March 2007 for $24 million of additional assistance.5 The response to this appeal was disappointing. Although $21.5m had been paid or pledged by mid-April 2007, over half of this was from the UN’s own Central Emergency Relief Fund (CERF). Other funds included in the figures were not a direct response to the Flash Appeal and, according to one assessment, the appeal itself only raised about $1.5m.6

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) also issued a fundraising appeal, which performed poorly. Most international NGOs did not make financial appeals in response to the crisis.

The INGC had prepared a detailed contingency response plan for the emergency, but this had never been tested in practice before the 2007 crisis. During previous disasters, international humanitarian agencies had largely substituted for the role of the national authorities. On this occasion, the government made a deliberate decision not to issue an emergency appeal for international assistance. Consequently, international donors probably provided less support than they might otherwise have done. The consequences and implications of this are discussed in more detail later in this report.

The most striking feature of the research trip was the near unanimity with which people assessed the way in which national and international agencies had responded to the disaster and the mutual respect shown by both sets of actors. While not glossing over problems, respondents gave a generally positive evaluation of the government’s disaster preparedness arrangements and praised the political leadership shown by the INGC. The government for its part welcomed the assistance provided by the international humanitarian community.

Both national and international organisations spoke frankly about some of the difficulties that had arisen in coordinating their responses, and both highlighted the same issues as proving most problematic. There was a general consensus that the national authorities had responded far better to this disaster than to previous ones. This view was even shared by the displaced people who were interviewed. Many international agencies held up Mozambique as a potential model for the development of disaster response strategies by other countries.

From the perspective of the humanitarian actors, the most important issue in responding to a natural or man-made disaster is how to alleviate human suffering and prevent large-scale loss of life. Although most statements of principle start with a reaffirmation of the primary responsibility of states for action within their own borders, in practice, faced with a large-scale, fast-moving complex emergency, many international agencies often feel that it is simpler and more effective to implement projects directly than to trust the national authorities to do so.

International donors and relief agencies rarely have detailed information about national capacities and how these can best be supported during an emergency. Many international agencies make a decision to intervene on the basis that they think that local capacities have been overwhelmed. However, without a detailed knowledge of what these capacities actually are, they may end up duplicating or substituting for them. This is often wasteful, in terms of resources, and means that emergency humanitarian responses may undermine support for long-term development. Deluging a country with resources, which bypass national structures, may weaken existing capacity and make it more dependent on external assistance in the future. However, denying support to a government on the grounds that it ‘appears to be coping’ could ‘penalise’ a national authority for its effectiveness and lead to preventable suffering amongst the affected population.

The following sections of this report provide a brief overview of the disaster itself and place this within the context of Mozambique’s recent history, particularly in relation to its capacity to deal with previous humanitarian emergencies. The report then looks at some of the institutional arrangements that have been developed for dealing with emergencies, by both national and international actors in Mozambique, and discusses how these actually worked in practice in the most recent case. The purpose is not to carry out a detailed evaluation, but to draw out lessons that may have a wider applicability to issues that concern the appropriate role of the state and how it relates to international humanitarian actors in responding to disasters.


The trip included interviews with government officials and representatives of national and international aid agencies, including the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the UN Development Programme (UNDP), WFP, the Mozambique Red Cross, Save the Children, Oxfam, Mйdecins Sans Frontiиres (Switzerland), CARE, the UK Department for International Development (DFID), the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the European Commission Humanitarian Aid Department (ECHO), the World Bank, the German Embassy and the Canadian High Commission.

Several meetings were held with staff of the INGC, at national and regional level. This included one-to-one discussions with its director, Paulo Zucula, and with Wolfgang Stiebens, who has been seconded to the INGC as a special advisor by the German international cooperation agency, GTZ. There was also an opportunity to sit in on an interdepartmental meeting of the government’s Technical Council of Disasters Management (CTGCN), which included representatives of all the government’s lead departments on disaster responses. The author also attended a meeting of the UN Country Team and Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), which had been specially convened to coincide with an ECHO delegation to the country. A number of temporary accommodation centres were visited during the field trip, which provided an opportunity to talk to the people who had been displaced by the flooding as well as with the INGC’s field staff.

  1. These figures are discussed in more detail later in the report.
  2. UN World Food Program, WFP helps Mozambique flood victims, as a second tropical storm brings heavy rain to Central provinces, 20 February 2007,
  3. UN News Centre, Mozambique: UN agency to buy food locally for flood victims to help economy, 20 February 2007,
  4. John Cosgrave, Celia Goncalves, Daryl Martyris, Riccardo Polastro and Muchimba Sikumba-Dils, Inter-agency real time evaluation of the response to the Feb uary 2007 floods and cyclone in Mozambique, Inter-Agency Humanitarian Standing Committee, Humanitarian Country Team, Mozambique, April 2007.
  5. UN OCHA, Mozambique, 2007 Flash Appeal, Floods and Cyclones,$FILE/Flash_2007_Mozambique.doc?OpenElement.
  6. Real Time Evaluation, 2007, p.40.

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