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 in a trust fund and let disaster stricken communities buy in whatever services they wanted using this money. Aid agencies would have had to compete for the favour of the recipients (alongside other service contractors), under the eye of a regulatory office-an OffAid.
A second, at the time wholly unexpected, phenomenon also shook the aid world in 1984. This was BandAid: not the first, but certainly the definitive media driven demotic fundraising bonanza. One of Bob Geldof’s aims was to cut through the inter-agency competition that he believed was impeding relief. But BandAid intensified the scramble for brand name relief agencies with celebrity sponsors.
BandAid had profound political repercussions that are still not fully acknowledged. In the face of the generosity and righteous anger of millions of ordinary people (electors), western governments seemed cruel and niggardly, indifferent to the fate of starving Ethiopians whose government happened to be communist. But western policy did have a rationale other than starving out Soviet satellites: the famine was largely caused by the military strategies of the Ethiopian army, which, western governments rightly assumed, would be the main consumer of any international food aid supplied to the country. It was an ethically controversial position but at least it warranted debate. However, in the face of Bob Geldof’s blunt simplicities, no one dared make such reasoning public.
Instead, western governments capitulated to the public outcry; they provided massive food aid, much of which duly went to support the Ethiopian war effort. An implicit bargain was made with Colonel Mengistu: he should allow the UN and western NGOs to operate with a reasonable degree of freedom, while the donors would turn a blind eye to most abuses. Both partners wanted the aid operation to be seen to work. One penalty was that the large number of famine victims in rebel held areas suffered; another was that no systematic evaluation could be permitted. To this day, no one knows to within half a million how many people were killed by the famine. (My attempts to make a more systematic assessment were blocked by the UN.)
The problem of the past decade is that the growth of humanitarian relief agencies is not necessarily related to their success on the ground. Tried and tested models of response (generally low key, reliant on local organisations and host country professionals) have been abandoned in favour of publicity seeking operations full of expatriate volunteers and fronted by pretty young women press officers. A sort of humanitarian Gresham’s Law has been at work.
At last this may be beginning to change. The backlash came first from the recipients of this doubtful charity. No small part of the Somalis’ anger at the UN derived from the contemptuous way in which they had been treated by foreign humanitarians and their lack of benefit from billions of dollars of “aid.” Agencies refused to listen to complaints, so “recipient fatigue” was expressed by taking up the gun.
After General Aidid’s humiliation of the US special forces, the US government was in turn stricken by “donor fatigue,” manifest in presidential decision directive No. 25, which set strict conditions on the dispatch of US troops on peacekeeping missions. Privately, many of the US officials involved also blamed the relief agencies which had led them into the morass by drumming up support for the military intervention, but then refused to take any responsibility for the consequences.
Another sign of change is the first independent, public evaluation of an important relief programme-the response to the genocide of 1994 in Rwanda-which was published in March by the OECD. Five teams of researchers looked at many aspects of the diplomatic, political, humanitarian and economic response. Their five volume report makes remarkable reading. The volume on conflict management points out that the secretary general of the UN himself, seemed, at key moments in the crisis, to be basing his reports to the security council on analyses in the New York Times instead of the cables from his staff in Kigali.
Of more than 170 agencies claiming to be present in Rwanda and refugee camps in adjoining countries, almost one third could not be traced-and hence their performance could not be assessed. Most were new to Rwanda; others set up from scratch; some had never been heard of until the Rwandan government expelled them last December. Of $1.4 billion spent on emergency relief, the researchers could not even discover in which country some $120m had been spent. They found extreme variations in performance between agencies. One of the worst was a television evangelist outfit that hired staff with no prev-ious experience of Africa, left patients with intravenous drips unsupervised, and dispensed just one antibiotic because they were dependent on donated drugs. But big relief agencies come in for their share of criticism: the UN High Commission for Refugees was totally unprepared for the inflow to Goma, despite reliable warnings; Unicef claimed to have increased the water supply of a town when it had drilled but not equipped a borehole; every two weeks Care Germany sent a new shift of 200 unqualified volunteers, totally new to Africa; the French army exaggerated by a factor of six the number of lives they saved. The team found that agencies’ “over-emphasis on the positive and playing down of the negative is a distinctly unhealthy development within the relief system.” They were shocked by the agencies complete failure to consult the Rwandans on what they needed.
Another indictment of international humanitarianism is expected later this year when the independent review of Operation Lifeline Sudan is completed. For seven years, Operation Lifeline has been supplying food and other relief on both sides of the front lines in southern Sudan. Initially a path-breaking initiative, the first time that a government and rebel army had jointly agreed to a humanitarian programme, Operation Lifeline has become mired in an apparently intractable war. It is also expensive at over ?250m per year. But compared to Rwanda, it is a much better regulated programme with fewer NGOs; the barrier to access has been the sheer expense of flying around Africa’s largest country, which gives the leading agency, Unicef, a controlling influence.
The Operation Lifeline review is likely to focus on how the relief programme has become “integrated into the cycles of internal violence.” In other words, is enough relief being diverted by soldiers to prolong the war indefinitely? Have aid agencies, courtesy of the western taxpayer, become quartermaster to both sides in one of the bloodiest wars of modern times? If taken seriously, this review could profoundly reorient humanitarian aid to Africa.
In the 1870s, faced with a series of catastrophic famines and disorganised relief efforts, the British Raj set up a famine commission to investigate all aspects of relief operations and ensure that lessons were learned. The resulting Famine Codes remain the core of successful famine prevention systems in India today. Something similar is needed now: an international humanitarian commissioner with quasi-judicial powers to investigate what is going on. Enforcement is not as straightforward as in 19th century imperial days. But quality control remains possible while a dominant slice of emergency relief comes out of western governmental budgets and is passed through a relatively small number of UN agencies and NGOs.
Ultimately, the sanction is money: moral certainties tend to be immune to argument. I stopped giving money to disaster relief charities long ago. I would urge private and public donors to insist on professionalism and accountability before donating.