Q+A - How can we make humanitarian aid more effective?
LONDON (AlertNet) - For decades experts have been debating how humanitarian aid money donated by governments can be stretched further and provide better assistance to survivors of wars and natural disasters.
These questions are becoming increasingly important as climate change causes more frequent droughts and floods and as the global recession puts aid funding under pressure.
Here are some of the problems and possible solutions, based on interviews with experts and recent reports on humanitarian aid.
FRAGMENTATION IN THE AID SECTOR
There are too many aid agencies and most donor governments are helping to fund too many organisations and countries. As a result, demand for skilled aid workers exceeds supply, the administration costs of channelling aid funds are high, thereby reducing the value of aid, and other economies of scale suffer.
"Competition and diversity are advantages, but only when the system drives out inefficient or ineffective organisations and forces organisations to reduce their costs and improve their performance," Ethiopia-based researcher Owen Barder wrote in a recent report.
He added in an interview that there are too many agencies, both in development and humanitarian aid.
Barder suggests that every aid agency could be required to pay into a global pot an annual "entrance fee" for each country in which it works, to encourage the agency to concentrate on fewer countries.
This year's Humanitarian Response Index, which ranks rich nations on the effectiveness of their aid efforts, also notes the fragmentation and imbalance of their humanitarian actions and says this could be improved through better coordination and less initial earmarking of aid funds.
ALLOCATION OF FUNDS BY DONORS
Governments vary in the way they allocate aid funds but in general, there are several improvements that could be made, experts say.
More countries could stop requiring that the aid money is spent on materials or supplies in the donor country itself, or exclusively on funding organisations based in the donor country.
An example of this is U.S. food aid. Most of it is donated in the form of commodities such as grains purchased in the United States, rather than cash, benefiting U.S. farmers. Buying the food in the affected countries rather than shipping it from the United States would save about $600 million a year, says Medecins Sans Frontieres.
Limiting funding to organisations based in the donor country stops other aid groups from benefiting from the cash. Widening this out would help ensure the money goes to the most efficient ones.
Donors could also allocate more of the money based on aid agencies' performance rather than the proposals they put forward.
For instance, when a disaster strikes, Britain's Department for International Development (DFID) allocates funds based on its own assessment of the survivors' needs, often with the help of its team on the ground, discussions with aid agencies, and the agencies' proposals for action. The department will fund the groups whose plans it deems to be the most appropriate.
Instead, what DFID and other governments' aid departments could do is set clear targets for humanitarian aid agencies and put contracts to tender before a disaster happens.
Although this is not always possible in emergencies, it could be done in some instances .
For example, Barder suggests vouchers for health care services could be distributed in a camp for displaced people. The displaced could use the vouchers either at a government clinic or an NGO clinic. At the end of the year, clinics could cash in the vouchers - so the donor pays for services provided rather than promised.
There would be a transition period when the clinic would be providing services without funds but this would only be in the first year, he says.
Similarly, a donor can draw up a contract that says a certain number of shelters has to be provided within 24 hours of the news of a calamity and let NGOs bid for the funds.
EVALUATION AND REGULATION OF THE AID SECTOR
The tenders, the resulting contracts and the eventual performance of the successful contractors should be publicly available to help donors and aid agencies evaluate and, if necessary, adjust their practices.
To encourage thorough evaluations of humanitarian actions, they could be subsidised from the global pool of money. The pot would be funded by aid agencies' "entrance fees" to operate in a country, as suggested above, and fines for bad practices such as poaching staff.
Some mechanisms for measuring impact and cost-effectiveness of aid responses are already in place but could be sharpened up.
COMMUNICATION AND COORDINATION
Aid agencies must communicate better with the affected populations to understand their needs. The recipients of aid must be able to send feedback on the aid they have received so that good practices are strengthened and poor ones dropped.
Humanitarian aid agencies on the ground must also communicate among themselves and with local authorities during crises to ensure there is no duplication or gaps in their work.
Poor communication can lead to a waste of resources and even harm. For example, after the 2004 tsunami, a girl in Indonesia's Aceh province developed symptoms of measles after receiving three identical vaccinations from three different aid agencies, according to a report in Spanish newspaper El Pais.
Communication and coordination are key for effective aid but are often difficult to get right because there is no world government and emergencies by definition are chaotic.
Some initiatives to address these problems are already in place, such as coordinating meetings between aid groups on the ground, and crisis mapping via websites that allow users to exchange data and information and create quasi real-time maps to show where the affected populations are and where the aid is.
A simple measure to stay in touch with fellow aid agencies is to use Google Reader, which pulls together real-time internet data such as blogs relevant to a particular topic, says Barder.
He also suggests setting up a website similar to eBay for development aid organisations, which often do a lot of humanitarian relief work too. On eBay, buyers can rate providers. Similarly, affected people and governments could leave feedback on the aid agencies through the website.
ACCESS TO AFFECTED PEOPLE
In 10 of the 13 crises covered by the Humanitarian Response Index 2009, humanitarian organisations' access to affected populations was a major problem. The crises covered included those in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Georgia, Somalia and Sri Lanka, among others.
At the same time, 260 humanitarian aid workers were killed, kidnapped or seriously injured in 2008 - the highest toll in 12 years, according to the United Nations.
The index found that only half of donor governments actively worked to facilitate safe access and protection of humanitarian workers.
Many of the problems with access were due to barriers from host governments. Donor countries can and should make greater use of diplomacy to remove those barriers, the report says.
For example, following Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar last year, concerted diplomacy from Southeast Asian countries helped ease tensions with the local authorities and opened the door to international aid.
The international community should also work harder to prevent armed conflicts, minimise their impact on civilians and prepare to deal with any unavoidable humanitarian effects.
PREVENTING DISASTERS AND EASING THEIR IMPACT
Wealthy countries should increase aid for measures to prevent disasters and ease their impact if they want to maximise the value of aid. This would reduce the amount that cash-strapped donors have to spend on responding to natural hazards when they happen.
The United Nations says $1 invested in reducing the risk of disasters in developing countries saves around $7 in losses, and it costs $1 to feed a child compared to the $80 needed to save a starving child's life.
Risk-reduction measures include planting mangroves to protect against storms and coastal erosion and investment in flood control, early warning systems, evacuation and first aid training.
Malnutrition: How much is being spent? An analysis of nutrition funding flows 2004-2007 by Medecins Sans Frontieres
Interview with researcher Owen Barder.
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