After a decade of deregulation and expansion, the emergency relief business is in a mess. Alex de Waal laments the industry's lack of professionalism, but welcomes official recognition of the problemby Alex De Waal / October 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Western governments have become much more stingy about humanitarian aid to Africa. Curiously, this may be good news for many famine vulnerable Africans. For all is not well in the aid business. Morale is low and some relief workers are questioning whether they are really doing something worthwhile.
The last decade has seen a rapid expansion and deregulation of the “humanitarian international”-the industry providing emergency relief to disaster stricken people in poor countries. Private and official aid agencies have proliferated; relief consumes ever larger proportions of aid budgets; and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) now dispense more aid to Africa than the World Bank. There has been a boom time in the emergencies business, but rarely for the recipients.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, the international relief network was a smaller and more clubby place. There were vigorous NGOs, strong third world national governments and weak UN specialised agencies. They were often at loggerheads with one another, but there were informal codes of practice and self-regulation. Relief was rarely sufficient or quick enough, but there was a gradual development of better techniques of health care, therapeutic nutrition and the like; a cadre of professionally qualified relief workers was emerging. Things were improving.
This changed in the 1980s. The US Agency for International Development began to push a new model of privatised relief operations. Relief food was transported by private contractors and distributed by private voluntary organisations. This deregulation was supported by a broad coalition of (mostly leftist) relief and development workers and (mostly rightist) civil servants determined to privatise third world welfare safety nets. African governments lost the power to control foreign agencies just as austerity measures began to bite. In Sudan, the number of NGOs rose tenfold between 1978 and 1985.
Privatisation undermined the nascent professionalisation of disaster relief. There are no barriers to entering the field: literally anyone can set up an overseas charity, raise money from the public, and try his or her hand at running an orphanage or an intensive feeding centre. Industry standards cannot be enforced. The best that happens is press exposure of incompetence, but charlatans are by their nature immune to shame. In the last decade, badly run relief camps have cost thousands of lives, perhaps tens of thousands.
The buyers in the humanitarian market are the donors, not the recipients. A better form of deregulation would have been to place emergency budgets…