Goal-Oriented Humanitarianism and Colombia’s Civil War

Developing Strategies Towards Ending and Preventing Civil Conflict in Colombia

Essay, 2011

19 Pages, Grade: 79%



Humanitarian organisations have always realised that their activities have geopolitical consequences and that they are inseparably linked to the political world. However, since the 1990’s, humanitarian organisations have increasingly begun acting upon this awareness (Barnett 2005: 724). The watershed for this transformation from minimalist assistance provision to goal-oriented humanitarianism, was the decision of numerous humanitarian organisations to pull out of Rwandan refugee camps in Zaire. The argument was that these camps were being used by Hutu genocidaires to launch violent attacks on Rwandan soil (Fox 2001: 279-280, 285-288). The shift to goal-oriented humanitarianism[1] has resulted in “a broad trend towards an increased use of humanitarian assistance as part of a more comprehensive strategy to transform conflicts and decrease the violence” (Uvin 1999: 8). This paper identifies three strategies in which humanitarian organisations can address the root causes of conflict in the 21st century: disaster risk reduction (DRR), the decision to withhold or focus aid in specific areas, and speaking out. DRR is usually executed pre-conflict or during periods of reduced violence, whilst the latter two are relevant at the time of conflict.

The main aims of this paper are to examine the phenomenon of civil war from a geopolitical perspective and identifying variables linked to both the onset and duration of civil conflict, specifically in the case of Colombia. The conclusions drawn here should assist humanitarian organisations present in Colombia, in identifying ways to implement the above three mentioned strategies so as to address the root causes of civil war. Halting conflict and preventing future reoccurrence of civil war is in the direct interest of Colombian based humanitarian organisations, as many of them work with internally displaced persons (IDPs). As Ibáñez and Vélez (2008: 672) note: “Violence and security perceptions are the major determinants of displacement and are, therefore, the key instruments in preventing displacement.”

This paper begins by examining Colombia’s ongoing conflict from a historical perspective, identifying the main actors as well as the impacts of violence on its civilian population. The chapter thereafter looks at how non-governmental organisations (NGOs) deal with the humanitarian consequences of Colombia’s civil war, specifically in relation to IDPs. An impoverishment risk and livelihood reconstruction (IRLR) model is used to identify which main areas humanitarian organisations do, and should, focus on, with regards to providing (developmental) relief.

The fourth and fifth paragraphs identify relevant independent variables for civil war onset and duration, drawing from the two main schools of thought within the civil conflict literature. These two schools of thought are divided amongst so called ‘grievance’ and ‘greed’ advocates. The first focus on grievances arising from a number of possible sources of relative deprivation amongst ethnic groups. Grievance theories are mainly grounded in qualitative analyses. This paper focuses on the works of Gurr (1970, 2000) and Stewart (2002, 2010). Greed theories of civil war focus more on individual incentives of rebels, most notably economic gain. These theories are often presented with the use of a quantitative model, the most famous and influential being that of Collier and Hoeffler (2004). This paper focuses both on civil war onset, as well as duration. This is done for two reasons: first, focusing on civil war onset is useful for the implementation of future DRR strategies, second some codifications for civil war used in this paper, e.g. Gleditsch’ (2004) revision of the Correlates of War (COW) project,[2] have recorded relatively recent periods of ‘peace’. This paper also argues that although studies of civil war onset and duration are not the same, the similarities between the two are so great that they are analysed together here.

By examining both theories of civil war, we should be able to identify which theory best explains the phenomenon of civil conflict in Colombia, as well as which independent variables causing civil war are addressed in the IRLR model. Humanitarian organisations can then employ this knowledge directly with regards to providing relief and indirectly whilst implementing DRR and doing advocacy work.

This paper puts forward the following hypotheses:

H1: Greed theories of civil war better explain the Colombian conflict

H2: Goal-oriented humanitarian organisations should focus on those components found in Muggah’s (2000) adapted IRLR model, which correspond to independent variables identified in greed theories of civil war relevant to the Colombian context, in order to effectively implement strategies of relief provision, in addition to DRR and advocating

Colombia’s Civil War: Historical Context, Actors and Impacts

In order to adequately understand the current day internal conflict in all its aspects, one must first understand the historical context of Colombia’s civil war,[3] its actors and its resulting impacts on the civilian population.

Colombia, South America’s fourth largest country, won its independence from Spain in 1819. Thirty years after independence, the Conservative and Liberal parties were founded. Disputes between followers of both parties led to small episodes of violence up until 1899. Ideological differences existed between landowners from Spanish descent who held both economic and political power. The peasants working on the farms of these landowners traditionally adopted ideologies similar to their employer. (BBC 2010a, BBC 2010b, Rogers 2002: 4-5)

From 1899 on there were a number of episodes of conflict, culminating in a particularly brutal period referred to as ‘la Violencia’, starting in 1948. (Rogers 2002: 5). The time period of ‘la Violencia’ sowed the seeds for the formation of the two most notable left-wing guerrilla movements: Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional (ELN) and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) (Minear 2006: 9, Rogers 2002: 5).

The 1970’s saw a dramatic rise in poverty, specifically in rural areas, in addition to the continued inability of the Colombian government to address inequalities of land distribution. At the same time the global demand for cocaine was on the rise, and many peasants moved into FARC controlled territories to grow coca plants (Leech 2002: 17). The seventies also saw the formation of right-wing paramilitary groups. They were formed as a result of land owners and businessmen wanting to defend their capital from guerrilla movements and advance their own interests in the absence of a strong state structure. These paramilitary movements were able to grow significantly through their involvement with the drug trade as well as being given free reign by the military. (LeoGrande & Sharpe 2000: 5). With regards to recruitment, the paramilitaries used similar tactics to those of left-wing guerrilla groups and recruited from the marginalised peasant classes. A number of these small paramilitary groups came together in 1997 to form the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC). Together with the left-wing guerrillas and the government they form the three principle (armed) actors to the Colombian conflict (Minear 2006: 10).

In the 1980’s, the FARC attempted to form its own political party – the Unión Patriótica – which was heavily targeted by right-wing paramilitaries, resulting in the deaths of over 3,000 party members, making the party unviable. During this time, the global demand for illicit narcotics such as cocaine and heroine allowed for an increase in financing of both right and left-wing armed groups (LeoGrande & Sharpe 2000: 4).

The end of the Cold War and the 9/11 terror attacks have also had a large influence on the civil war in Colombia, specifically with regards to United States’ political, military and financial assistance to the government of Colombia. With the winding down of the Cold War, US priorities shifted from combating Marxism to combating the perceived threat of narcotics trafficking. The global war on terror, which the US launched in the wake of 9/11, once again shifted the paradigm from combating ‘narco-trafficking’ to the fight against ‘narco-terrorism’. The culmination of US assistance is the realisation of ‘Plan Colombia’, which in theory is supposed to address a wide array of issues in Colombia but in practice weighs heavily on security (Minear 2006 12-14).

According to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the civil conflict in Colombia, as of 2009, has led to the displacement of up to 4,360,000 people (Carillo 2009: 527). This has resulted in a major humanitarian and human rights crisis. Many of the IDPs and refugees are without identity papers or formal titles to their land. Colombia’s Indigenous and Afro-Colombian populations are being particularly affected. The human rights situation is deemed to be particularly grave and includes violations of both political and civil rights (Minear 2006: 1-2, 18-19). It is undeniable that Colombia’s civil conflict and responses to it such as aerial spraying are primarily responsible for the humanitarian crisis of displacement. Ibáñez and Vélez (2008:661-662).

Using the IRLR Model in Addressing both Humanitarian Needs and the Causes of Conflict.

As the last section of the previous paragraph shows: there are many different aspects of, and implications arising from, displacement. Cernea’s (1997) impoverishment risk and livelihood reconstruction (IRLR) model, and more specifically Muggah’s (2000) adaptation to conflict scenarios, provides a good starting point from which to identify areas different humanitarian organisations currently do, and should, focus on in relation to displacement. Both models contain components that resemble, and build on, the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement (Deng 1998). Muggah’s conflict induced displacement model contains 11 variables relating to impoverishment risk resulting from displacement. These include; “landlessness, joblessness, homelessness, economic marginalisation, increased morbidity, food insecurity, loss of access to common property, (…) social disintegration, (…) limited access to education, declines in political participation and the increased risk of political and criminal violence” (Muggah 2000: 199-200). These impoverishment risks are coupled to 11 components designed to reverse such risks, such as; land based re-establishment, re-employment, social integration, reformation of political activity and protection, etc. (Muggah 2000: 200).


[1] Also referred to as developmental relief

[2] There is now generally agreed definition for civil war, most qualitative studies mention a period of over forty years of armed conflict (UNHCR 2010: 3), whilst the quantitative studies used in this paper denote the year 1984 for the start of civil war in Colombia. (Collier & Hoeffler 2004: 566, Collier et al. 2009: 7)

[3] The Colombian government does not view it’s civil conflict as a war, however most of the quantitative studies referred to in this paper do codify it as such.

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Goal-Oriented Humanitarianism and Colombia’s Civil War
Developing Strategies Towards Ending and Preventing Civil Conflict in Colombia
University College Dublin
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Civil War, Humanitarian, Colombia, Greed, Grievance, DRR, IDP, IRLR, Gurr, Collier, Hoeffler, Murshed, Tadjoeddin, Muggah, Marginalization, Poverty, Violence, Laitin, Quantitative, Qualitative, Theory, Resource, Primary Commodities, Illicit Drug Export
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Ralph Myers (Author), 2011, Goal-Oriented Humanitarianism and Colombia’s Civil War, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/215493


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