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Evaluating the Rwanda crisis response

The scale and impact of the Rwanda crisis and the high profile response triggered significant critical reflection.

An evaluation of actions was first proposed by the Danish government’s aid agency (Danida) to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD, an intergovernmental economic development organisation with 37 member countries) just a few months after the genocide and the displacement of millions of refugees. When Danida failed to get buy-in to the proposed evaluation from all member countries, it coordinated the development of a representative steering committee and an organisational structure for managing and overseeing a complex and unprecedented evaluation process.

The review of humanitarian action entitled, ‘The international response to conflict and genocide: Lessons from the Rwanda experience: Humanitarian aid and effects’ (Borton et al., 1996) was written while elements of the crisis, including the experiences of refugee populations in neighbouring countries, were still playing out. Its timing and mandate was to objectively and critically look at this major humanitarian response while experiences were still fresh in the minds of key actors, and provide recommendations for similar initiatives in the future.

What the review said

Though limited access and security issues presented challenges to ensuring the protection of the civilian population, as well as being able to reach them at scale with relief assistance, Borton et al. (1996) highlighted many commendable efforts during the response.

However, the performance and experience of the many different agencies involved was mixed, and the report was clear that problems were a result not just of weaknesses in the humanitarian sector, but also a failure to align political, military and humanitarian strategies effectively. Significant limitations in the response were:

  • The insufficient capacity of NGOs to deal with the numbers affected
  • Assistance was influenced by availability of stocks rather than needs on the ground
  • The lack of coordination, resulting in both omission and duplication of services
  • Weakness in the humanitarian system for monitoring and providing early warning of population movements, food insecurity and disease outbreaks
  • Failures in dealing fairly and effectively with both genuine refugees and those who had been involved in the genocide
  • NGOs were unable to secure camps and prevent militia directing or appropriating aid and perpetuating displacement by interfering with repatriation efforts
  • Management of the humanitarian-military interface

Conflicting principles

Humanitarian agencies are guided by the principles of neutrality and impartiality – for example, aid should be provided to those most in need, independent of political factors (Feinstein & Beck, 2006). Therefore, agencies attempt to work in fragile and unstable contexts independent of the political situation or human rights record.

In practice, circumstances almost always intervene to make disaster interventions more problematic (International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, 2003). When the situation in Rwanda presented a conflict with the humanitarian principles of the agencies involved, and the international community failed to intervene to disarm the militia and protect the humanitarian space, some NGOs felt they had no alternative but to withdraw, further exacerbating the suffering of those affected.

Your task

The following link will take you to a published report from the ALNAP website: The international response to conflict and genocide: Lessons from the Rwanda experience Study 3: Humanitarian aid and effects (JEEAR). Read and review Chapter 9 ‘Findings and recommendations’ (click on the main report file on the right then go to page 190).

Based on your own knowledge and experience, in what ways are these recommendations and findings relevant to other contexts and emergencies?


Borton, J., Brusset, E., & Hallam, A. (1996). The international response to conflict and genocide: Lessons from the Rwanda experience Study 3: Humanitarian aid and effects (JEEAR). ALNAP. https://www.alnap.org/system/files/content/resource/files/findings/erd-2517-findings.pdf

Feinstein, O., & Beck, T. (2006). Evaluation of development interventions and humanitarian action. In I. F. Shaw, J. C. Greene, & M. M. Mark (Eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Evaluation. Sage. https://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781848608078.n24

International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. (2003). World disasters report. IFRC. https://www.ifrc.org/Global/Publications/disasters/WDR/43800-WDR2003_En.pdf

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Disaster Interventions and the Need for Evaluation, Accountability and Learning

Coventry University