Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Thoughts on Aid

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)

25 comments:

Liz (LivingwithKids) said...

I think you're right to raise this. Unfortunately though some people also use a similar argument not to give to charity - they will say 'how do we know the aid gets through?' and use that as an excuse not to give. There does seem to be quite a lot of waste going on in the not-for-profit sector - I've seen some crazy job ads going up recently in this sector. I also object to chuggers because in most instances the first three months of your donations (if you sign up to one of them) do not go to the charity. But as far as Haiti goes... I feel that supporting an umbrella organisation like the DEC ensures that at least some of your donation will get through to the people who need it, and obviously the shelterboxes are another way of getting aid through as they try to ensure at least 90% of your donation goes straight to the boxes.

Brit in Bosnia / Fraught Mummy said...

HI Liz - You are right to re-iterate that people shouldn't be deterred from donating. The donations are hugely important.

I thought about including something about the debate that suggests that aid is actually detrimental to a country - undermines self reliance and coping mechanisms, distorts the economy blah blah, but didn't for precisely that reason of deterring people from donating. I don't agree with the argument but it is an interesting one.

The aid agencies will be recieving lots of money right now - probably more than they will need for the direct humanitarian efforts. But much like the Tsunami appeal, much of the money raised was used in development programmes or else in preperadness programmes so people will be better prepared when the next disaster strikes.

But I do think it is important that people are aware of the issues surrounding aid. It isn't just a case of you donate money to a good cause and it does good. The more people who know about the issues the industry faces, the more likely that the agencies will be held accountable for their programmes, both to the people they are helping and the people who donated to them. This will only help to make it more difficult for the less reputable organisations who may actually end up doing real harm, from operating in these environments.

I knew when I posted this post that I was raising too many issues at once and really ought to be just concentrating on one at a time.

Heather said...

It is a huge problem, the corrupt, mismanagement and in-fighting between agencies. In Haiti there were aid packages etc stuck at the aiport for a couple of days because the groups couldn't organise themselves. I dread to think what they were fighting about, who got the pitch closest to the TV cameras probably!

But Liz was right to point out, nobody should let something like that stop them from donating. By all means chose your charity wisely but still give.

Dan said...

A fascinating post. Thanks for writing it.

Nicola said...

Fantastic post. I just can't believe what a muddle it all is and the reports that aid is standing around, within the vicinity but unable to be accessed and distributed while people suffer and die is heartbreaking. There has to be a better way. It reminds me of the chaos of New Orleans, which didn't appear to be handled any better in the first few weeks. There has to be a solution. Who am I to criticise those people working so hard in the aid effort? I am sure most of them are pouring heart and soul into the operation and are equally frustrated. Something HAS to change to help maximise efficiency and minimise needless loss of life.

Babies who brunch said...

Great post. I feel I should write something about Haiti but what to say? It's just horrific and watching the news reduces me to tears, nightly. The thought of my 19mo alone under piles of rubble.... Ugh. All you can do is donate a little cash. It has to help. On some level....

On a vaguely similar note, I'm reading What is the What, by Dave Eggers. About a Sudanese refugee. Again, it just reduces you to feeling utterly helpless about never really doing anything. How can people's lives be so very different?

Motherhood and Anarchy... said...

Great post, it's good to have this discussed. Aid is horribly complicated. Sadly, it's not as simple as helping people who really need it. My husband is an international water consultant working around the world on aid projects, currently in Bangladesh. It was his work that took us to Egypt and Kyrgyzstan. Through these experiences we have both become horribly cynical about Aid. It's so political - it's not about helping individuals in desperate circumstances (ie, with no clean drinking water) but about "buying" government support or acquiesence for the donor governments policies. All that money out there does not get to the people who need it. It's very frustrating. I can recommend some good books on this if anyone is interested.

Muddling Along Mummy said...

This is really important to raise - most people don't realise that there are these wider issues that can cause problems and a dilution of the donations raised

Very Bored in Catalunya said...

A great post. I obviously know very little about how aid was or wasn't distributed and dealt with in Bosnia, but I have read quite a bit about Africa and various failed or over ambitious aid attempts that have not had the best interest of the actual people they were supposed to help.

I really hope that ALL the aid raised gets to help at ground level in Haiti and that all the agencies work together to make everything that should happen, happen quickly and as efficiently as possible.

Footballers Knees said...

Your post was an eye opener, thank you for writing it. Am off to take a look at Pure Intent.

Big Beluga Baby said...

Totally agree. We were living Thailand when the tsunami hit, and it was quite disgusting to watch the aid efforts in many ways. We knew someone who was an AID professional, and he was very interesting to talk about on the subject. He told us that one of the large problems they have to deal with is non-professionals of good intent who kind of globe trot following the disasters (like ghouls) as volunteers. The situations they come to are so horrific that they kind of get hooked on disaster and sit around in the evenings like a group of sick back packers swapping gruesome stories about rotting bodies they have seen, or other such disgusting things. I was also struck, when we visited Khao lak (an hour north of Phuket and obliterated in the tsunami) how many brand new motorbikes and houses there were in areas which ad not been hit by the water - quite clearly, in a country which is fabulously corrupt anyway, how much of the money had been bagged by quick-thinking locals and used as a quick cash injection even if they did not really deserve direct financial help.
I wish that the coordinating UN body could be publicly shamed into acting more professionally and effectively, but probably after this disaster as I am sure they are all trying quite hard at the moment, for all our criticism.

G xx

WeDoAdventure said...

It's sad but true. Our little brushes with the humanitarian aid machine here have not filed us with confidence. I imagine it's the same the world over. Still, as has been said, people should still give. I see it like voting in a UK election. Due to the way the system works your vote may not actually make any difference but it's important to remain engaged in the democratic process.

nappy valley girl said...

Fascinating post. I guess human politics will always rear its ugly heads in these situations, however pure the motives. I have one friend who argues that there is no such thing as pure altruism; there is always self-interest. I actually think that this view is too cynical, but I agree with you that aid ought to be regulated just as much as any other area.

Mud in the City said...

Really interesting post - thank you for your considered views. Reminds me of a friend who spent time working for an NGO in the Congo - she has a very similar view and is incredibly frustrated by the false competition and the instilling of a culture of dependency. Better stop now - could rant for hours!

Lynn said...

I've never been a fan of NGOs because of the lack of regulation. I know that many people who work for or volunteer with NGOs are good people with their hearts in the right place, but in the end, so few workers/organizations understand the cultural differences that their efforts end up getting bastardized by the locals. It's a sad state of affairs, but it is what it is. I would love to see aid agencies clean themselves up/out, but I think the entire community has just turned into a giant, self-licking ice cream cone.

A Modern Mother said...

It's right to question -- but there is ineffiency everywhere (especially government).

Brit in Bosnia / Fraught Mummy said...

Heather - it must be incredibly difficult in such chaotic conditions, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't be highlighted to try and minimise the spats.

Dan - Glad you enjoyed it. If you want to know more about this kind of thing I can direct you to all sorts of books/blogs of people who know far more than me about it.

Nicola - it is really difficult when there is no infrastructure and such chaos, and aid does need to be carefully thought through to ensure it does more good than harm. But that does mean people need to be constantly thinking about how to minimise disruption etc.

Babies - it is awful - and I find that these things affect me so much more I've had children.

Motherhood and Anarchy - it is so political, disgusting really, but that is life. I'd be interested to know what books you'd recommend, I have a few too - we should swop ideas.

MAM - the more people who know, who realise that there is so much more to it than handing out food, the more likely it is that standards will be raised.

VBC - You should read Mary Kaldor's Do No Harm book, which is eye opening about aid and its effects.

FK - Glad you enjoyed it, hope you enjoy Pure Intent too.

BBB - Ah yes, the Disaster Junkies. Really not helping very much at all. I think the UN genuinely does try hard, it is staffed with really committed people (on the whole) but they are so hamstrung by their structure and the politics that surround it. But can anyone think of a better way of doing it that would actually work?

WDA - The Aid here makes me cross. I have a whole other post brewing about it. But you are right, people should still give - which is the broader underlying issue, then the rest can be worked on.

NVG - Human nature is human nature wherever you are. But aid needs to be regulated.

Mud - exactly. I'd better not start, we'll be here forever!

Lynn - Lots of people have their hearts in the right place but just don't understand what is actually needed. So, you end up with people doing programmes that they want to do rather than what is actually needed. Such a waste of time, effort and money not to mention the opportunity. But, what would you do instead?

MM - there is, but governments are accountable to their electorate. The NGOs are accountable to no one (or at a push to the donors) and the people they should be accountable to, the Haitians in this case, don't get a look in.

Motherhood and Anarchy... said...

I would like to swop book names and ideas. This was something I became very interested in when living abroad, seeing how Aid worked, or didn't work. Happy to do it here or by email...

Michelle said...

A real eye opener, thanks for posting. Mich x

k said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Owen said...

Just got back from second spell contributing to two days collecting for the DEC appeal at Underground stations. It's quite hard effort doing these volunteer collections, particularly for our stalwart organiser who takes holiday time to do it, gets up at 5.30 am and doesn't get home till round 10 pm, and the rest of us tend to feel fairly creaky after our shifts as well.

It's not the sort of lark that you want to be involved in just for the sake of warm glow. However there are rewards, like the encounters with former beneficiaries, like the Somali ex-refugee who came up to me while we were collecting at Victoria station - I think it was for Darfur but I've lost track - and wanted to know how to do a covenant to Oxfam as a way of showing his appreciation for the water supply in the camp where he'd been at the start of the journey that led him to spot me and my bucket on the concourse.

I've heard both sides of the story from people in Oxfam, CAFOD, Christian Aid and other agencies as well as people who've been on the receiving end and people I have respect for and confidence in have been able to convince me that the overall balance is positive rather than negative, enough so to persuade me that the collateral is a price that needs to be beaten down but is still worth paying. People are human, which means that they're decent and appreciative (sad I can't use grateful) as well as corrupt and dissatisfied.

And even in a time of recession the UK public are still generous. On two days we've collected a lot of money, and I mean a lot lot - however minimal compared with the scale of need. And one thing that's particularly pleasant is the way that you no longer get stared at with that sour, suspicious hostility that I can remember from fifteen years or twenty years ago. One thing globalisation and instant communications has achieved is the realisation that no man is an island any longer.

The points you/Tim make are reasonable, fortunately the help-skivers Liz refers to are in a minority.

Kate said...

Very thought-provoking. There was a piece on the World Service this week about this issue. The advice given was to do some due diligence before donating to make sure the agency asking for donations was (a) real; and (b) already actually on the ground and helping. Then at least there is some chance of some of your money going where you want.

Brit in Bosnia / Fraught Mummy said...

M&A - Email would be good, but my off the top of my head contibutions for anyone else interested and reading the posts are
Do No Harm by Mary Kaldor
Deliver Us from Evil - William Shawcross

Michelle - glad you enjoyed it.

Owen - you are right, and I don't subscribe to the aid is not helpful at all argument. People are generally decent and honourable, and long may that last.

Kate - there's some more pieces coming up on the world service about aid and development which should be pretty interesting!

Motherhood and Anarchy said...

Hello, my quick recommendation would be Give and Take: What's the Matter with Foreign Aid by David Sogge.

Brit in Bosnia / Fraught Mummy said...

M&A - haven't read that one, will be making its way to my reading list shortly. Thanks for taking the time to come and add this comment. I feel a post brewing about the short termist effect of aid... got anything you want to add?