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The global aid system: better the devil we know?

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Thu, 26 Jan 2012 10:00 GMT
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This blog is part of an AlertNet special report on humanitarian aid:

When hundreds of aid groups piled into Haiti in the aftermath of the 2010 quake, the sense of deja vu was strong.

Hadn't we been here before with the Indian Ocean tsunami and the same chaotic rush of NGOs not talking to each other enough, not coordinating their work?

Although the United Nations, Red Cross and aid charities embarked on a global humanitarian reform programme in 2005 - to make operations more effective and beef up resources for "forgotten" emergencies - it's taking time for real change.

What's new is the drive from big donor governments like Britain to show more "value for money" -- evidence that taxpayers' money is yielding the best possible results.

"The expectations of humanitarian aid continue to rise - rightly in many ways - and the media interest in it continues to rise," John Holmes, who served as the U.N.'s emergency relief coordinator from 2007 to mid-2010, tells me. "So we have to get better at it, even if the needs ... were not going up dramatically - which I think they will do over time."

But how best to "get better"?


It's perhaps no surprise that in an AlertNet survey of 41 of the world's biggest NGOs, two thirds (66 percent) agree the humanitarian aid system delivers value for money. After all, our respondents - nearly all of them senior managers of humanitarian operations - have dedicated their lives to it.

Over a quarter (27 percent) said the system did not deliver value for money, with the rest saying they didn't know.

But what was illuminating was the response to the last question: "What is the one change you would make to the humanitarian aid system to boost value for money?"

A few advised caution, arguing that the drive for efficiency is actually undermining their ability to help on the ground. "Too many resources (money, staff, tools) put into reporting for donors these days without real accountability to the people," said Frédéric Penard, director of operations for the French agency Solidarités International.

Dominik Stillhart, deputy director of operations for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), said too much time is being spent on coordination.

The "cluster" approach, for example, was introduced a few years ago to help agencies organise their relief activities better across different sectors - food, shelter, logistics and so on. But it has been criticised for soaking up time and resources, achieving little beyond information-sharing, and not including local NGOs. 

"While it is important to strive for efficiency, the concept of value for money - very much on the minds of a number of donor governments - needs to keep a sense of proportion," Stillhart said. "There is a risk of blowing up the bureaucracies of humanitarian agencies, and thus increasing their overheads."    

The most common proposal - mentioned by eight agencies - was to reform the United Nations in some way, including reducing the amount of funds channelled through it and cutting its bureaucracy, overheads and transaction costs. 

"More and more money has gone into the U.N. system over the last ten years with little being subsequently available for projects to serve the people for whom it was intended," said one humanitarian director.

One complaint often aired by NGOs is that they do not have direct access to money from the U.N.'s Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF), which only cascades down to them though U.N. agencies. Changing that could speed up their access to money and enable them to respond faster, they argue.

Jean-Michel Grand, executive director of the British arm of Action Against Hunger (ACF) said U.N. agencies "can prove to be a very expensive middle man in terms of programme funding".

"Instead, they should focus more on improving the coordination of humanitarian assistance and relations with host governments to increase access to vulnerable populations," he added.


Yet despite some dissatisfaction with the way the U.N. aid system operates, the survey also revealed that most aid workers think it is here to stay.

More than half of agencies (56 percent) said it would be of the same importance to humanitarian response over the next decade, while 17 percent said it would become more important and 5 percent said it would be indispensible. Only 22 percent said it would be of dwindling importance.

The likely persistence of the status quo was also reflected in responses to a question on the distribution of humanitarian funding in five years' time.

More than three-quarters (78 percent) said the system will continue to use a range of channels as now – which include the U.N.-led international appeals process. And only 17 percent said donors will bypass the U.N., giving money directly to national governments and charities.

This chimes with the view of former U.N. aid chief Holmes, now director of the UK-based Ditchley Foundation, who says there are no feasible "big bang" ideas out there for resolving the humanitarian system's problems.

After the quake in Haiti, then President Rene Preval suggested setting up a “red helmet” brigade of expert relief workers managed by the U.N. And others have suggested combining the various U.N. agencies that do humanitarian work into one.

Suggestions like these conjure up nightmares of a bureaucratic behemoth and the risk of even more fragmentation.

Holmes believes NGOs have little choice but to stick it out with their U.N. colleagues.

"I don't think it's sensible for (them) to think about bypassing the U.N. in some way, or not accepting that it's bound to have some leadership or coordinating role," he says. "I don't think there's an alternative, however unsatisfactory it may be at times, because the U.N. has the legitimacy and the acceptability to do that."


The key change he believes can and must be made also came through loud and clear in the AlertNet poll.

Many respondents recommended shifting the humanitarian "business model" towards putting more resources into reducing the risk of disasters, mainly by providing local communities and their governments with the means to make themselves more resilient.

"More investment with countries affected by disaster to reduce the need for international capacity," said one programme head. Another called for "disaster preparedness planning, including capacity building of local people in hazard-prone areas".

"International donors and humanitarian aid groups (should) work in direct partnership with recipient country governments to strengthen public institutions so countries can ultimately provide for their own people," proposed a U.S. health-focused agency.

It's true that in an ideal world, there wouldn't be a need for an international aid system. As distant a prospect as that may seem, doing yourself out of a job is probably the best value for money any aid worker can deliver.

(Editing by Katie Nguyen) 


AlertNet Special coverage: 

Expert poll

 Focus on donors

Focus on recipients



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