2.4 Case study: Unintended impacts of food aid distribution in Burundi

In 2004, CARE Burundi commissioned research on the interaction of the food aid programme with local power dynamics and social networks (Kornfield, 2005). They were concerned that distributing food aid to only part of the population could have unintended negative impacts in communities already affected by conflict, still experiencing high levels of tension and trauma, where socio-cultural norms had broken down resulting in high levels of corruption, and where recurrence of violence was likely. Unequal power dynamics were an underlying cause of conflict within Burundi and thus a crucial aspect to be understood in ensuring conflict sensitivity.

The studies showed that the way in which food aid was delivered did have negative impacts on both individuals and communities. The food aid system was manipulated so that aid did not always reach those most in need and so that it reinforced the positions of those in power. Some aid was diverted to those connected with powerful people, while those in positions of power sometimes used people’s desperate needs for food aid to exploit them economically (through bribes) or sexually. The studies also showed how the ways in which food aid was used by beneficiaries-particularly how it was shared-affected social cohesion in a community. The studies suggested ways in which activities could be modified to reduce these impacts, such as clearer criteria to identify the most vulnerable people, measures to ensure that aid reached its intended beneficiaries, training for CARE staff in best practice during distributions, and improved coordination with WFP and other NGOs.

The studies into how a programme interacts with community dynamics in a conflict situation led to a ‘mindset change’ in CARE Burundi with widespread recognition that there could be unintended conflict-supporting impacts in their work but that they could act to minimise these impacts. It also made clear that interventions must be informed by a sound understanding of local power relations and conflict dynamics. This is a key step towards mainstreaming ‘conflict sensitivity’. This recognition led them to make changes to the Food Aid Programme in an attempt to minimise negative impacts. CARE Burundi also used the findings to advocate for changed practices of WFP.