The International Rescue Committee’s Efforts in Côte d’Ivoire

Alexander Laverty

27 November 2006

INTL 101

Eloise Nelson

The International Rescue Committee’s Efforts in Côte d’Ivoire

People have left their homes since the beginning of human existence. Sometimes their reasons are material, others spiritual. Wars have caused people to flee their homeland, while others initiate wars in order to enlarge theirs. Some people fled dictators, others fled to join them. Climatic shifts and natural disasters have caused people to look for new places to live as well. All of those people who had a perceived fear, and were thus forced to migrate are refugees. In terms of defining the contemporary refugee, a separation is made with natural disasters and those produced by human beings. Thus refugees can be classified as those who escape man-made disasters. Obviously the fear they have in staying in their present location is greater than that of fleeing to a foreign and uncertain land. Due to decisions of the state often being the underlying cause of human disasters, the formation of refugees is a political creation (Gordenker, 12-13)

Political escape is not a new development in the 20th century. Princes and defeated Kings have sought shelter in neighboring regions after being ousted by an opposing faction. When force is used in international politics, the result was usually the forced migration of certain groups. Religious conflicts have resulted in Jews escaping Spain during the Inquisition and wars over territory have caused the expulsion of the defeated people, much as the Native Americans were forced into leaving their lands by the European settler and later the American frontiersmen. Since the end of imperialism in Africa, African countries have undergone unparalleled internal strife resulting from political squabbles over national power. The severity of the violence conducted by African warlords is some of the most ruthless in world. While the people of Africa have for the most part been more nomadic than other peoples of the world, the recent outpouring of war refugees on the continent is almost unprecedented in modern times (Gordenker, 13-14).

Economic and political strife has enveloped Western Africa ever since the colonial powers withdrew earlier this century. One such nation, Côte d’Ivoire, has very recently been engulfed in a civil war that has divided the country in half, with the rebel faction holding the north and the government in the south. While being one of the most prosperous nations in the African tropics, conflict struck the country in 1999 after a military coup displaced the government by removing its president. Military generals were put in place, but elections were held in 2000 to elect a new president. This election was violent and rigged, where civilians squared off against military forces and resulted in the winner stepping down from power after nation wide protests. The probable runner-up in the election, Laurent Gbagbo, was installed as president. Political unrest erupted again on 19 September 2002, when an attempted assassination of the president took place. Troops that had been mobilized mutinied and by the end of the day the government had lost the northern part of the country almost entirely. Fighting ensued over the prime cocoa regions of the country, which had provided a great deal of its wealth throughout its history. There is still no resolution in the area as rebels are still angered by a citizenship law passed in 2000 that excluded a popular northern leader from the election on the basis that his two parents were not both born in Côte d’Ivoire. Many groups are blamed by both sides, with the government attributing blame to surround nations and the rebels putting blame on the French, Cote D’Ivoire’s former colonial power. Mercenaries from Burkina Faso and other neighboring countries poured in at the beginning of the unrest and many remain. Not only have Ivorians been displaced among the violence but tens of thousands of refugees who had sought refuge in a previously stable Côte d’Ivoire are now also under threat (“CIA-The World Factbook-Cote d’Ivoire.”).

The civil war in neighboring Liberia has caused over 750,000 Liberians to flee their home. Almost 75,000 of those refugees escaped to Ivory Coast in the early 90s seeking refuge from the civil war that had engulfed Liberia after a decade of authoritarian rule was followed by nearly a decade of civil war. Peace was signed between the militant rebels and the warlord Charles Taylor in 1995. This peace was brief however, with violence erupting in 1999 with accusations of foreign involvement in the uprising thrown about (BBC News). The many refugees that fled to Ivory Coast soon found themselves in another war-zone with that country descending into civil strife in 2002 (Coulibably). Having a close relationship with France after independence, resulted in French forces being deployed in some of the most treacherous parts of Cote D’Ivoire in order to stop the violence, but more were required. Thus a UN mission to Liberia (UNMIL) was sent to Liberia to maintain the peace that followed the signing of a cease-fire in 2003. UNMIL was also charged with disarming both sides of the fighting (“UNMIL: United Nations Mission in Liberia”).

Once short-term goals in regards to refugees have been satisfied, the onus is on outside agencies aid to sustain the development and the refugee’s welfare. Refugees require these organizations to provide commonplace services that are unavailable to them because of their displacement. While food is often provided by international aid agencies, it is frequently left down to the people to go to the market and do whatever they can to bring back enough food for their family. Education, however, is an important service that can only come from the international agency. This is because often the refugees are not integrated into the already established community and if they are, most likely they are not able to speak the language, and thus children are unable to attend school. The children need schooling for future skills to allow them to survive, whether in their own communities back home, or in the foreign country. Keeping children in school can also prove to be a way of keeping the safe from violence, as well as participating in it. Also, education support is also important for adults as it can make them more attractive workers (Gordenker, 107-110).

            When refugees come into a new region, medical services are essential. Not only for the malnourished and disease-stricken refugees, but also for the ‘host’ community’s well being. This is why it is crucial that a medical facility be set up in the camps. Psychological support is just as an important service in these camps. Not only will refugees need counseling in adjusting to a new environment and dealing with the ordeals they have been through, but counseling for the children of refugees is also paramount. If gone unchecked, camp psychosis and the psychological pressure of camp life often leads to aggressive behavior among the youth that can translate into a new generation of militants (Gordenker, 107-110).

            The International Rescue Committee (IRC) was a combination of two previous international aids organizations that combined in 1942. One of the earlier organizations, the International Relief Association was created at the behest of Albert Einstein to aid the anti-Nazi opponents of Hitler. While being masked as a humanitarian organization, they ran counter-Hitler propaganda as physiological warfare campaigns. These measures were not viewed as an ethical dilemma and excused because winning the war in Germany at any cost was the paramount objective of the organization. One of the IRC’s first relief efforts was to initiate emergency relief programs in Europe after World War II that established hospitals and began refugee resettlement efforts throughout Europe. Throughout the Cold War the IRC would provide relief supplies around the world, often corresponding with US military engagements such as Vietnam and Cuba. However, there was an espionage side to the IRC that also continued throughout the Cold War. Beginning in World War II, the IRC actively recruited political exiles in Germany in order to gain greater intelligence of events on the ground. This continued against the Soviet Union and exploited this fact in their propaganda to demoralize the Soviets because their leaders were deserting them. (Chester 207-209: History of the International Rescue Committee)

            Throughout its existence the International Rescue Committee usually operated as a refugee relief agency however, it sometimes went further than that role to support covert operations that had very provocative results. . During the Cold War in Berlin, the IRC sponsored an operation by a West Berlin organization that was trying to destabilize the government on the other side of the wall. Additionally, the IRC sponsored the building of tunnels under the wall to enable East Berliners a method of escape  (Chester, 1-2).

            The Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the civilian intelligence agency created in 1942 to provide intelligence required by the Joints Chiefs of Staff, took an interest in the IRC because of their operations in wartime Germany. The OSS would help the IRC obtain visas for German and Austrian defectors that were being hunted by the Gestapo. This was to be the beginning of a strong relationship between the IRC and US government oversight, as the IRC was to eventually receive the majority of its funding from US governmental agencies. As the IRC evolved, the mainly left wing activists members that founded it were replaced by people from the corporate political establishment and political reformists as the IRC would grow closer to the intelligence community. However, this new direction also wanted to actively participate in development around the world (Chester, 206).

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the IRC has since autonomously set their own priorities, thus distancing the organization from the requirements of US foreign policy; though a close relationship still exists between the executive officers of the Committee and influential Washington decision makers. The IRC now diverts much of its funding to help refugees in areas where the United States does not have much economic or strategic interest (Chester, 213). Programs in Rwanda, the Ethiopia, and Burundi represent this changing directive (History of the International Rescue Committee).

            In 2003 the International Rescue Committee returned to Côte d’Ivoire and established programs for health, family reunification and education to deal with the displaced Liberian refugees and Ivorians that had been dislodged from their home by the fighting. Later programs such as environmental health, child protection, and gender based violence prevention were implemented in order to provide services to the dislodged people. These programs were to meet the goals of the IRC’s overall strategy in the country, which is to address the needs of health, education, and water and sanitation. While the lack of law enforcement throughout the country leads primarily to a fear of crime by the locals, the IRC hopes that in setting out to provide a number of these services they can improve the protection of those most vulnerable. All of these were guided by the five principles of Protection and Promotion of Human Rights: Participation, Capacity Building, Partnership, and Holistic Programming (Cote d’Ivoire Factsheet).

The IRC has set up six centers where they provide primary health care for displaced persons of Cote D’Ivoire and other refugees. Much of the IRC’s establishments are very close to the Ivorian-Liberian border as most of these efforts were first implemented to help out the Liberian refugees, but with the onset of war became an important resource for the people of Cote D’Ivoire has well. Also there are vaccinators and physician’s assistants that run village clinics with a complement of host nation volunteers. Education services provided by IRC Cote d’Ivoire play a prominent role in the IRC’s overall development strategy. While teaching French literacy classes, teachers organize recreational and cultural activities as well. To go along with education, child protection committees were put in place to maintain school attendance and recognize at-risk children that could respond to child protection issues as well as train others on the rights of children and to register separated children. Most of these educational services, like the medical programs, are located in the western part of the Ivory Coast where they can also be beneficial to Liberian refugees (Cote d’Ivoire Factsheet). In addition to child protection programs, the IRC also offers centers for survivors of gender-based violence. Counseling, psychosocial support, and medical assistance are provided that incorporate health workers in government backed awareness campaigns set up to reduce and respond to incidents of those people affected by conflict.

            The International Rescue Committee also provides environmental health support to Ivorian villagers and to other foreign refugees. The IRC has a team of hygiene experts that travel the country and spread good hygiene practices. Infrastructure development is also a key program in IRC Cote d’Ivoire as they build and maintain family latrines and water wells. In war-ravaged parts of the country the IRC runs a water supply system that serves the villages. The IRC repairs and manages wells and pumps and rehabilitates facilities for schools and heath outposts. The theme of teaching proper management and self-upkeep to the locals continues with water safety as the IRC instructs villagers on protection, up keep, and hygiene (Cote d’Ivoire Factsheet).

            While, the International Rescue Committee’s efforts are still underway in Cote d’Ivoire previous efforts in other countries can be used as a basis to judging the long-term programs and what effects the IRC will have on a nation. A recently completed relief and development effort in the Balkans can serve as the basis for comparison.

The war in the Balkans in the mid 1990s was the worst conflict that Europe had witnessed since World War II. Ethnic violence exploded in the region with first the succession of Slovenia, and shortly thereafter Croatia in 1991. However, most of what was to become another European genocide occurred in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The war began after a mostly Muslim and Croat independence demonstration in Bosnia’s capital Sarajevo ended in violence after Bosnian Serbs, backed by the well-equipped Serb army, attacked the demonstrators. This was to be the trigger a war in which the primary targets became civilians in numerous atrocities by both sides. While at first the Bosnian Serbs were the aggressors in a siege against Sarajevo, division struck the Muslim-Croat coalition, and a second war between the factions began. In the end over 2 million people were displaced and 200,000 had died. As early as 1992, the IRC began to provide emergency relief supplies to victims of the Bosnian war. Items such as emergency shelters, agricultural seeds, clothing, and fuel, were provided to the war-affected populations. At the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords in 1995, the IRC shifted gears and began an extensive rehabilitation and reconstruction project. Included in the expansion of programs were repairs to school, factories, hospitals, roads, and gas and electric systems. A program that trained disabled victims in work related skills was established in Tuzla and Gorazde. In the process of the supplying all of these critical services the IRC became the largest relief organization in the area. By providing development projects that directly met local needs, the IRC was able to assist the people of Bosnia recover from a devastating war. At the close of the IRC mission in Bosnia in April of 2006, the IRC had totaled $120 million worth of development projects in the region and the economies of the war-ravaged countries had finally been placed on a road to recovery (Programs in Bosnia).

            The International Rescue Committee is devoted to spreading what UCSD Professor Nancy Postero terms as big D Development, in which non-governmental organizations attempt to “alleviate poverty and raise standards of living to Western levels”. In analyzing the IRC’s efforts in both Cote d’Ivoire and the Balkans, it is possible to see that this organization fulfills many of the characteristics that Professor Postero outlined as possible characteristics. The IRC brings medical supplies and assistance to devastated regions of the world, which, as shown before health care is one of the primary concerns of those people who are forced to migrate, in an attempt to lower the transition of infectious diseases. The IRC has attempted to provide schooling for affected children, in order to try to maintain or raise literacy rates, while at the same time aiming to give some sort of support structure to keep children from entering the violence himself or herself. The IRC provides shelter rebuilding and other infrastructure support such as water and sanitation. All of these life saving and life preserving services that the IRC provides are essential in the aid effort to refugees. Not only are these services essential during a time of great need to help the refugees survive their ordeal, but also when it comes to the rebuilding efforts that are to come after the cessation of violence in the region. While violence in Cote d’Ivoire has not yet ended completely, it is possible to take the IRC’s other reconstruction projects around the world into consideration when attempting to analyze their effect on the people they serve. Thus the example of the International Rescue Committee’s programs in Cote D’Ivoire can increase the understanding of what development is with on the ground examples and results shown to be taking place in Cote d’Ivoire.


Works Cited


Chester, Eric Thomas. Covert Network: Progressives, the International Rescue Committee, and the CIA. London; M.E. Sharpe, 1995.

 “CIA-The World Factbook-Cote d’Ivoire.” CIA World Factbook. 26 November 2006. <;

“CIA-The World Factbook-Liberia.” CIA World Factbook. 26 November 2006. <>

“Cote d’Ivoire Factsheet.” International Rescue Committee. 26 November 2006. <;

Coulibably, Loucoumane. “Thousands of Liberian Refugees to Resettle in US.” Washington 23 February 2004. 26 November 2006 <>

“Country Profile: Liberia.” BBC News. 26 November 2006. <;

Gordenker, Leon. Refugees in International Politics. London; Croom Helm, 1987.

“History of the International Rescue Committee.” 26 November 2006. <;

“Programs in Bosnia.” International Rescue Committee. 26 November 2006. <;

“UNMIL: United Nations Mission in Liberia.” UNMIL. 26 November 2006. <> 



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