One of the best blogs about Bosnia is Tim Clancy's Pure Intent. Tim is the writer of the only Guide Book to Bosnia that I've ever seen, but more importantly is an environmentalist doing his best to keep the Bosnian politicians from destroying the country's most beautiful natural features and writes regular posts sharply criticising the political scene in this country.
But, following the events in Haiti he wrote a post which I found fascinating and am going to quote from here. (and Tim, if by any chance you are reading I hope you don't mind. I can't work out how to comment on your blog to ask permission, and I can't find an email address for you either, if you would rather that I didn't quote please get in touch and I'll take it down)
"Don't know if any of you are following CNN reports....but watch out for Karl Penhaul. On nema dlak na jezik. I love the man for it.
Working in Bosnia, Albania and Kosovo over a span of eight years of war I learned some hard lessons. One of them....a hard one to swallow for me....was the utter lack of coordination and disgusting competitive flagwaving of the UN and the NGO's on the ground.
So many times it seemed as if planting the Unicef or Care or Save the Children flag was more important than helping the victims. The amount of time and resources that goes into PR & 'coordination meetings' often dwarfs that of quality time on the ground.
Karl was setting the record straight. Openly talking about the lack of coordination and fierce competition within the Haitian emergency response. Make no mistake, there are many exceptional people with an inspiring level of dedication and passion for helping others. It has, however, turned into a multi-billion dollar business of the years. And it is the most uncoordinated and unregulated business in the world.
I finally quit in protest after having to leave Kosovo after a death threat. But I must say that the whole business has left a bitter taste in my mouth. These feelings are experiencing a rebirth...knowing all too well how the Haiti situation is being handled.
I know its not easy working in those conditions. I know there is no magic wand. But we have been doing this for decades...and keep making the same unforgivable mistakes time and time again.
When will the humanitarian aid world finally clean its own house? Serious self reflection is in order...and has been for some time. Sadly, in the heat of the moment we often forget our purpose and fail to act with 'pure intent.' "
There's been some amazing fund raising efforts going on and the amount of money raised to help the Haitians is astounding. But it is helpful to examine the role of the aid agencies. Undoubtedly they are doing a difficult job in extremely difficult circumstances, but that doesn't mean that all the aid is being used in a useful fashion.
I've not been in a humanitarian situation, but I have spent time in countries that have recently required the intervention of aid agencies, and I totally agree with much of what Tim says. Humanitarian Aid is an industry and there is fierce competition between the different agencies. The flag waving is quite literal, any programmes are well advertised. You know which agency is where. Even today, 15 years after the end of the conflict here in Bosnia, there is a sign (in English) advertising which agency was involved in rebuilding 15 houses in my neighbourhood. It annoys me everyday.
The UN agency, OCHA (Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs) is supposed to coordinate the agencies to ensure that they don't replicate their work, tackle the most pressing issues first, are spread through the country and operate to a certain standard) but they are often criticised for not taking a proactive enough role. With the infrastructure of Haiti non-existent, this organisation has a particularly vital role to play. But it isn't as simple as that, being the UN it will be vulnerable to all the political shenanigans that usually accompany any UN activity.
Aid in this situation quickly becomes a commodity. Those who control the aid have power. Those who control access to the aid have power. These people may not be the ones you want to be in control and having power. The conflict in Bosnia was characterised by the profiteers, people who were able to obtain aid packages and then sell them on at hugely inflated prices. Many of these people remain on the shady side of the law today, contributing to the gun/drugs/human trafficking that occurs which continues to destabilise Bosnia and skew its economic development.
Good aid agencies operate to SPHERE standards which mandate that agencies think through carefully the way in which they operate to ensure that their activities do not contribute to the problems Haiti is facing. As Tim says, it is unthinkable really that such a large industry could be so unregulated, uncontrolled and uncoordinated. I will join his call to those on the ground to keep their original intentions to the fore of their actions, and to think clearly about the way in which their aid can impact Haiti's future. And then, when the immediate issues of this emergency are over, to really think about how this industry can be streamlined and coordinated, so that the money it controls is most effectively used to help those who really need it.
(PS - if anyone is interested in any of Karl Penhaul's reports for CNN, they can still be watched here. I'm not usually a CNN fan, but Karl Penhaul is brilliant)