Too often incompetent, self-serving aid agencies make matters worse

Published in the Daily Mail (November 16th, 2013)

The stories are heartbreaking. Families have been ripped apart, houses flattened and communities crushed. The images of towns and cities torn into tiny pieces by the fury of nature are terrible to behold.

Once again the world is faced with a gigantic human catastrophe. Helplessly, we watch the harrowing TV footage from the Philippines — wondering if there is anything we can do, or contribute, to aid the rescue operation.

For all our economic woes, we are fortunate to live in a prosperous country blessed by relatively benign weather. Our storms are puny compared with those in Asia, where two-thirds of the 1.3 million people killed by natural disasters in the first decade of this century lived.

Inevitably, the instant reaction is to send money to one of the charities working in terrible circumstances to take relief to the injured, homeless and starving. Many people admire the courageous work of aid agencies, widely seen as the secular saints of modern society.

Yet as the multi-billion-pound aid industry appeals for more money, I must warn that those armies of self-declared saviours — so keen to display their logos in front of the television cameras — can sometimes do more harm than good.

Having witnessed them operate in the field, I have seen the problems they can cause rather than solve. Little wonder that in the wake of the cataclysmic 2010 earthquake that hit Haiti, the incensed mayor of the country’s capital city described the relief agencies as a ‘second earthquake’ after being besieged by these organisations.

While the world responded in sympathy — sending billions of pounds in donations — we were given a demonstration, sadly, of the arrogance and deficiencies of the ever-growing global relief industry, with chaos on the ground caused by so many competing agencies, followed by vast sums blown on ill-conceived, extravagant and vainglorious projects.

I hope we don’t see a similar experience in the Philippines. Sadly, the omens are not good. For as is so often the case with the aid industry, despite undoubted dedication in often-difficult conditions, good intentions keep backfiring.

Already, we have seen examples of the charities exaggerating the gravity of the disaster while raising money.

This cavalier approach to the facts could be seen on Tuesday when the chief executive of the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) — a 14-strong coalition of Britain’s big aid charities — indicated on the Radio 4 Today programme that the disaster could be as bad as the 2004 tsunami, which killed 250,000 people in several countries.

After I posed the question of whether the storm really had been that deadly, the DEC accepted that the comparison was misleading and corrected news stories that carried the original figure. That evening, the Philippine authorities put the number of dead at about 2,500. However, nearly 24 hours later, the appeal website was still claiming 10,000 fatalities.

You may argue that this was a minor quibble, given the grievous circumstances. But it brings into question the approach of the aid industry, where the big players increasingly resemble corporate giants. They disguise themselves in the garb of Mother Teresa while senior executives pocket six-figure salaries and preside over slick publicity machines.

The truth is that this has become a highly competitive sector; why else, after all, are the charities so desperate to be first on the scene and get their names into news reports?

Moreover, we are talking about huge sums of money that are raised following such natural disasters. The Red Cross, for example, still had £310 million of unspent cash from the Haiti earthquake appeal in its coffers at the end of last year.

The number of aid groups has soared, too, as can be seen in the ballooning numbers that have been present at various international crises in recent decades.

In 1980, there were 40 non-governmental organisations on the Thai border helping Cambodian refugees after the fall of the brutal regime of Pol Pot. A decade later, there were 250 active during the Yugoslavian war. By 2004, 500 were helping tsunami victims in Sri Lanka alone, and another 2,500 were active in Afghanistan.

Some relief groups send entirely inappropriate items. For instance, in Cambodia, people were offered food that a Western zoo declared unfit for its animals. During the Balkan wars in the Nineties, Bosnians were donated anti-depressants past their sell-by dates. During the Somali famine, the starving were sent laxatives. In 2004, victims of the tsunami were given G-strings and high-heeled shoes.

With so many aid groups jostling to help, there are inevitably logistical problems, with bottlenecks at key entry points for shattered regions hampering relief efforts. I have seen how locals — who tend to know best what is needed on the ground — get elbowed aside by the big global organisations.

In the Sumatran city of Banda Aceh after the tsunami, there were reports of children developing symptoms of measles after being vaccinated three times by competing aid organisations.

In Haiti, there had to be dozens of meetings each week to co-ordinate the sprawling array of aid groups — invariably held in English rather than the French or Creole spoken locally. When a steering committee was elected, 60 international bodies voted at a meeting without any Haitian agencies present.

Perhaps this is why, in Haiti, £5.6 billion has been spent on a nation of just ten million people — yet at least 200,000 people remain homeless from the quake. Only 7,515 permanent new homes have been built (against about 300,000 destroyed or badly damaged) and there is still no running water or reliable electricity even in the capital.

Survivors were given soap but no water, condoms but not food. Families forced to bathe babies in sewer-contaminated water were sent risible hygiene text messages telling them to wash their hands before eating. On top of this, cholera was imported — almost certainly by United Nations troops — to a country that had, until then, been clean of the disease. Another 8,300 people were killed, and more than half-a-million contracted the disease, which has since spread to neighbouring countries.

The respected medical magazine The Lancet accused charities of competing for publicity, while I saw how their staff rented unnecessarily expensive flats, drove around in fleets of costly new vehicles and ate in fine restaurants. The final insult? After creating endless chaos and confusion, the unaccountable aid caravan simply moves on to the next high-profile disaster.

Crucially, few in the relief industry admit how little money trickles down to those most in need; one expert suggested ten pence in every pound donated, while Haiti’s prime minister said 40 per cent of aid went on supporting those doling out donations.

Some money, unfortunately, has even gone into the pockets of terrorists: in Somalia, aid groups paid substantial ‘taxes’ to al-Shabaab, the group behind the recent Kenyan shopping mall attack, while rebel Tamil Tigers imposed levies on post-tsunami reconstruction work in Sri Lanka.

The sector’s endlessly repeated mantra is that it is learning from past failures. But if only this were true. The mistakes, after all, go back at least to the Biafran War in the Sixties, when hunger was used as a weapon of propaganda and aid money prolonged a brutal civil war in Nigeria by propping up the rebel movement.

I was once told by an African government minister that he believed aid agencies love international emergencies and exploit the photo-opportunities. A harsh verdict — but there is no doubt that these crises provide the chance to raise funds and shore up crumbling public support for aid policies.

Quite rightly, people are more supportive of campaigns that help specific disaster victims than of governments blowing billions on flawed and outdated theories of international aid development. It should be pointed out, however, that only 4.3 per cent of the British government’s ballooning £10.8 billion aid budget goes on direct emergency relief.

So what can we do to make sure those in need, such as the survivors of the typhoon in the Philippines, get proper help?

First, give money to any organisation whose core activity is emergency work, which doesn’t spend huge sums on fund-raising, which doesn’t overpay its executives, and which is open about the difficulties of delivery. Medecins Sans Frontieres is one such body; it even limits fund-raising when it has raised enough after disasters.

Also, local organisations should be encouraged to take the lead if they clearly have the right expertise. By using the internet, it is possible to donate directly to them — or to regional branches of big global organisations, if you prefer.

Be careful: fake charities are sometimes set up after disasters to dupe foreigners, and projects that seem attractive can often prove utterly counter-productive. After the tsunami, so many boats were built that it led to over-fishing, while the excess of orphanages created resulted in appeals abroad for orphans to house!

But if you really want to help all those stricken families suffering such torment today — and I would urge you to do so — the best thing you can do is ensure that you eschew the false prophets who bedevil the aid industry and give your money to those who’ll genuinely pass it on to the victims.

That is the very least we owe to those poor people in the Philippines, who have already suffered so much these past few days.

Related Posts

Categorised in: , , , , ,