There is an ongoing debate over the value and pitfalls of the policy and practice of 'linking relief and development' or 'developmental relief' in aid responses to complex political emergencies (CPEs). Driven by concerns about relief creating dependence, sometimes doing harm and failing to address root causes of emergencies despite its high cost, pursuit of both relief and development has become a dominant paradigm among international aid agencies in CPEs as in 'natural' disasters. In CPEs a third objective of 'peace-building' has emerged, along with the logic that development can itself help prevent or resolve conflict and sustain peace. However, this broadening of relief objectives in ongoing CPEs has recently been criticised on a number of counts, central concerns being that it leads to a dilution of commitment to core humanitarian principles and is overly optimistic. This paper addresses these issues in the light of two of the CPEs studied by the COPE project: Eritrea and Somalia/Somaliland. It is argued that the debate has so far suffered from lack of clarity about what we mean by 'relief', 'development' and, for that matter, 'rehabilitation' and 'peace-building'. The wide spectrum of possible aid outcomes does not divide neatly into these categories. The relief-development divide is not always as clear-cut, technically or politically, as the critics claim. Moreover such distinctions, constructed from the point of view of aid programmers, are often of little relevance to the concerns of intended beneficiaries. Second, there has been insufficient attention to context: rather than attempting to generalise within and across CPE cases, a more productive approach would be to examine more closely the conditions under which forms of aid other than basic life support can fruitfully be pursued. This leads to consideration of collective agency capacity to respond effectively to diverse needs in different and changing circumstances.
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