Well-meaning, but not well executed?

Article published on Sept. 27, 2017
community published
Article published on Sept. 27, 2017

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

The ongoing refugee crisis, which has once again intensified in the Mediterranean Sea, should focus attention on the activities of humanitarian aid agencies too. While NGOs are undoubtedly important, some developments need to be considered carefully. The airing of criticism must be allowed, even if it concerns this highly competitive market for charitable donations.

For decades now, millions of people have lived in camps. Rather than being a new phenomenon, this is something that is now simply more visible. Some camps have existed for 20 years (Kenya), 30 years (in Pakistan, Algeria, Zambia and Sudan) or, as in the Middle East, for more than 60 years. Over the past ten years, the number of those who depend on humanitarian aid has doubled to 125 million. Increasingly, no adequate assistance can be provided to those who need it: the UN estimates that up to 700 million in need of help remain reliant on their own resources.

A lack of funding is often the main problem. The assessed need for emergency aid has doubled over the last five years, while donations have remained at the same level. Is it not possible to achieve more with this money that is available? As in other sectors, we could be witnessing a systemic crisis in the “business” of providing humanitarian aid. There are several contributory factors. Worldwide, the number of crises has increased substantially recently. The structures that enable distribution of monetary aid are rarely available in some countries, and people in need are only reached with difficulty. And an army of relief organisations is competing for contracts, even though most of them have different ideas, methods or priorities, and they work next to rather than with one another.

Assistance provided at the discretion of each organisation, and not directed towards coordinated goals, is likely to lead to confusion rather than the relief of hardship. The large number of bureaucratic obstacles and monitoring procedures only make things worse in this respect. Most NGOs are convinced that they are the ones that know exactly what is needed, rarely asking those affected what their needs are. This is why hardly any aid funds are passed to local relief organisations, even though it is these organisations that do know what is needed. What’s more, local organisations operate in areas into which Western aid organisations hardly ever venture. Even aid for specific purposes, provided directly by countries, appears to make little sense. Half of the products provided by the US as food assistance come from America, rather than being bought locally. One could argue that this is a nice export subsidy.

The immense interdependence of commerce and humanitarian aid has grown greatly too. In 2016, Ikea was the largest private donor with €32 million. The company, among other things, provided high-quality tents.

Though the UNHCR (the United Nation's refugee organisation) is officially a UN organisation, a large portion of its budget comes from several countries: the United States supplies 40% of the €7 billion budget, and Germany, Sweden and Japan provides much of the rest. But there is not likely to be more money available, and the corresponding need is not getting smaller. More and more, attempts are being made to bring the private sector on board. While not necessarily a bad thing, this does carry some risk. The provision of humanitarian aid has become a real professional activity. Ikea is taking care of the shelter, UPS is responsible for logistics, and Google can take care of the school lessons. This is doubtless a good thing, but some of these developments need to be scrutinised critically. What if companies want to test new materials? Who is responsible for inspection in this case? Could organisations become eligible for tax benefits, as otherwise these potential aid payments might not materialise?

In one refugee camp in Jordan, refugees pay for their shopping in the supermarket using iris recognition. There, the UNHCR has established a digital account for each refugee at a Jordanian bank, from which they receive €50 a month to purchase items. Often, there are no food packages any more, just supermarkets that oversee this informal "self-administered" trade in food. Would it not be more sensible to teach the refugees how to open a business, so that they can supply themselves? No one gains an understanding of what they need to work towards just by receiving money from a bank without having done anything. If they get involved, people would certainly be able, in the long term, to take an active role in administering aid, rather than always relying on others.

The UNHCR does not officially acknowledge the massive influence of the US or other sponsors on its work. However, it is acknowledged behind closed doors that help is provided in those places for which the funding has been granted, and not necessarily where help is perhaps needed the most. 

Aid organisations make major contributions to tackling crises. This criticism of NGOs — that better aid does not simply mean more money — should not belittle their work. Agencies have to ask themselves whether, for example, certain rescue measures in the Mediterranean Sea could, in one way or another, have led to better outcomes. This is about human life, a fact which sometimes gets lost in the discussion. One cannot claim the moral high ground every time another person is criticising charitable activities, just because the activities are ostensibly good. By creating a more efficient system, more lives can be saved. What could be a greater incentive than that?

Dr. Wolfgang Glass is a political scientist and consultant based in Vienna