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Published: July 11, 2023

Humanitarianism in the Central African Republic: a context analysis

By: Dan Ford

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Reflecting upon his recent research trip, Dan Ford (GISF Research & Communications Assistant) explores the factors that shape risk towards aid workers and exacerbate the levels of humanitarian need in the Central African Republic.

Dan Ford recently went on a research trip to the Central African Republic as a research assistant for a project co-run by GISF and Humanitarian Outcomes. This research is part of a larger project that is expected to be published in late 2024. The following blog is Dan’s independent assessment of the humanitarian situation in the country.


On the evening of Sunday 21 May, I walked down the moveable steps that were rolled up to our jet plane and onto the humid tarmac at Bangui M’poko International Airport, situated just a few kilometres northwest of central Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic (CAR). The only other planes sat on the tarmac were a collection of propeller planes upon which were stamped the logos of notable international aid agencies and organisations, including the United Nations (UN) and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).  

Upon exiting the airport, I slid into the back seat of our rented car and bounced over the city’s rough roads, looking out of the window to see small, tin-roofed homes packed together on orange dirt. Weaving through the neighbourhoods were mothers carrying goods in woven baskets balanced steadily on their heads while their children ran with their friends through the sun-dried dust. Meanwhile, white vans brandishing the logos of recognisable humanitarian organisations dotted the crowded moped-packed streets as they taxied staff between their homes, offices, and local restaurants. 


Development and humanitarian challenges in CAR 

As a landlocked, underdeveloped country surrounded by some of Africa’s most politically and economically powerful states, CAR gets limited attention from Western-based journalists and media outlets. However, the country’s complex security terrain and large humanitarian footprint make it an essential country for humanitarians to understand.  

In CAR, humanitarianism and development are closely linked; the country’s low level of economic development means the infrastructure for effective aid delivery is widely unavailable. Perhaps the most obvious of CAR’s development challenges is the fact that, on average, only 14.3 per cent of Central Africans have electricity. This rate fluctuates from 35 per cent in Bangui to 0.4 per cent in rural areas.  

Electricity is particularly unreliable when storms hit, as occurred on my first night in the country. The powerful rainy season brings torrents that often cut the electricity, at times leaving residents and visitors in the dark for hours with no air conditioning or internet. For this reason, some establishments—particularly those visited regularly by humanitarian staff—rely on battery-powered generators to maintain electricity when it suddenly disappears. Only 8 per cent of the country’s hospitals have access to electricity, making the health and humanitarian consequences of such limited electrical power severe. 

The need for humanitarian aid in CAR is widespread and multi-fold. Of the country’s 6.1 million inhabitants, an estimated 3.4 million need humanitarian aid. Half of all Central Africans do not have enough food, and very few have access to good healthcare. These factors combine to create the fifth-highest child mortality rate in the world, with 103 deaths per 1,000 children below five years of age. Likewise, the country has the fifth-highest maternal death rate in the world, with 829 deaths per 100,000 births. Despite these statistics, only one paediatric hospital exists in the capital. 


Armed group conflict and humanitarian security 

The country has also suffered from years of armed group conflict, which has forced over a million people to flee their homes. As of last December, an estimated 762,700 Central Africans were living as refugees in nearby countries. 515,000 of those who have forcibly fled their homes remain within CAR’s borders as Internally Displaced Peoples (IDPs).  

The country’s government has worked for years to push away armed groups that had taken control over many of the country’s cities and towns. In recent years, the Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary group, has entered the country and supported the government’s effort to reclaim control over its cities and towns. Wagner’s military capabilities have successfully pushed armed groups away from dense towns into the thick brush and along the country’s borders. This has eased humanitarian access into cities, where NGOs are now less likely to encounter armed conflict. 

For humanitarians delivering aid, the security situation in CAR is generally stable, though some threats continue to exist. From January through May 2023, there was one reported death of a humanitarian worker in CAR, and four reported injuries. Of the 75 total humanitarian security incidents that occurred during that time span, 67 per cent were the result of theft at gunpoint, burglary, or the result of armed group members intruding on property. These dangers are most pronounced when humanitarians pass through armed group checkpoints and while walking through Bangui’s streets at night.  


The wider picture 

The security challenges in CAR are not unique; the humanitarian situation in the nearby Sahel has been defined for years by heavy armed group violence and weak development.  

However, CAR’s level of development is significantly weaker than many of its neighbours. As a result, there is very little local funding available for national NGOs, whose work is stifled by the country’s poor transportation, housing, and communication infrastructure. All of this hinders efforts to localise the humanitarian response. As a result, the country is particularly reliant upon international NGOs, donors, and intergovernmental bodies, such as the UN, to provide desperate humanitarian relief and access to security information, greater funding, and staff trainings.  

Given the size of the international humanitarian response in CAR and the complexity of its local security landscape, international humanitarians need to understand the reality of humanitarian operations in CAR and learn to manoeuvre within its constraints. 


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