The HC Interview: Central African Republic
Working as Humanitarian Coordinator in Bangui since October 2009, Bo Schack has seen new efforts to improve health, education and agriculture in the Central African Republic, after years of chronic neglect.
Infant and maternal mortality rates remain amongst the highest in the world. But in recent years there has been a steady influx of NGOs, offering the prospect of improved social services in some areas. There are now growing calls for a more long-term assistance, particularly in agriculture, an essential sector in a country where most people live off the land.
CAR has embarked on a difficult disarmament and demobilisation campaign for former combatants, after a peace agreement signed by the government and rebel factions. But it remains vulnerable to internal conflict, as well as the destabilising effect of foreign insurgents, notably Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).
Humanitarian organizations have struggled to gain access to areas affected by conflict, and donor funding has fluctuated, often depending on the scale of crises elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa.
A Danish national, Bo Schack’s career has included senior postings with the UNHCR in Iran, Sri Lanka and the former Yugoslavia. He was the UNHCR Representative in Burundi from August 2007 to June 2009, and has extensive experience in West Africa.
Q: Is it a challenge that the CAR is not very well known to the international community?
A: There has definitely been a lack of visibility and attention. Some might say that the last time the CAR was in the limelight was in the Bokassa era, when he was first President and then Emperor.
It’s a country coming out of a number of conflicts, and trying to move into recovery mode, but is still hampered by the fragile situation and the set-up of the government.
We are working on a number of humanitarian programmes, in education, health, and the agricultural sector. But there is continuing insecurity, particularly in the north-east and the south-east, due to the presence of bandits and armed groups - both national and foreign.
Q: It’s a difficult environment in which to get humanitarian work done?
A: It’s very difficult on the security and logistics side. This country is much bigger than France, but with a population only half the size of Paris. Road conditions are very difficult.
Q: What kind of help do people need?
A: The main concern of ordinary people is getting through the day, feeding the family, finding employment. For the absolute majority, it’s about being able to prepare their land as farmers. Eighty per cent of the population lives in rural areas.
Q: Some observers say the situation in CAR is not a straightforward humanitarian crisis, that it’s more of a development crisis. Does that pose challenges for humanitarian organizations?
A: It’s definitely a country where the challenges are linked to the absence, or fragility, of state structures in education, health services and agricultural development. There is very weak capacity.
That means many humanitarian programmes are trying to support the initial phases of providing primary health care and education services, working closely with the authorities to see how they can take over these operations.
The number of NGOs is still very small and they have a tricky hand-to-mouth existence, often guaranteed funds for only a few months. But if you stop humanitarian programmes, there are real dangers of falling back into crisis. Recent outbreaks of polio and cholera highlight that.
Q: What gives you hope in the CAR?
A: The tremendous opportunities this country has. There is rain. There is water. There is fertile land. There is an enormous potential in agriculture. This country could become a bread-basket for the region.
Reporting by Chris Simpson.