Traditional Humanitarian Aid is Vital

Photo: REUTERS/Anis Mili, courtesy Trust.org - AlertNet.

*Originally appeared in The Guardian's global development blog, Poverty Matters, on April 13, 2011.*

 By Joel Charny

After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the prevailing analysis was that the traditional pillars of relief response – UN agencies, large international NGOs and the Red Cross – were becoming irrelevant in the face of a vast array of new aid providers, including corporations, celebrities, citizens groups and the military.
We were supposed to be in the midst of a paradigm shift, demanding a new business model for the humanitarian sector.
 
This year, however, the demand for traditional humanitarian action has returned with a vengeance. International corporations are nowhere to be found providing medical supplies in Libya. No one is organizing bake sales to send volunteers to Ivory Coast. No celebrities are tweeting about their latest forays in Somalia. Even Japan hasn't fit the new paradigm, as the Japanese insistence on its own internal financial and logistical capacity to respond to the devastation of the earthquake and tsunami has prevented some of the excesses of the Haiti-style do-gooder invasion.
 
So who is providing vital, life-saving assistance in the midst of civil war? None other than the traditional pillars of the international humanitarian community: the International Committee of the Red Cross, first and foremost, providing emergency medical assistance in the midst of civil wars in Libya and Ivory Coast; the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) working in Tunisia and Liberia to help those fleeing conflict in Libya and Ivory Coast; the UN World Food Programme feeding hundreds of thousands of people in drought- and conflict-ravaged Somalia.
 
In each country, big international NGOs are mounting independent relief programs or working as operational partners with the UN agencies. Without these agencies, there would be no relief response in these tough, war-torn spots.
 
In contrast, the presence of the new aid providers tends to reflect not only ease of access but also the vagaries of international attention. Some emergencies capture the imaginations of the global public, especially immense natural disasters that seem to choose their victims at random. The combination of the blind, natural power of an earthquake and a relatively accessible place is irresistible, and if the locale has nice beaches – like Sri Lanka and Thailand after the 2004 Asian tsunami – then the lure is greater.
 
Emergencies that result from the slow torture of interminable conflict – like that in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the deaths of more than 4 million people in the past 13 years have elicited barely a whimper from the public worldwide – are "complex", and therefore resistant to easy involvement.
 
For crises that never have and never will compel the world's attention, donor government support is vital. But for international relief and development work, the funding situation is turning grimmer. Even stalwart donor Japan – struggling to deal with its own calamity – has suggested it may cut foreign assistance. In the U.S., representatives of both major political parties have targeted foreign aid in the current budget battles to reduce the massive deficit.
 
Haiti as the new paradigm was oversold from the beginning. Yes, it provided great fodder for cynics about international humanitarian action, and some of the criticism of the lack of coordination, inefficiency and of bypassing Haitians was justified. But as the first quarter of this year demonstrates, the fundamental problem is rarely going to be too many agencies and resources. Rather, the core challenge is the inability of the international humanitarian community to reach people in need due to lack of security and funds.
 
Against this backdrop, we may indeed need a new business model in the humanitarian sector, but its goal should be to increase the ability of our community to reach those vulnerable people who would never be more than an afterthought to the new aid providers. This will require better leadership, more efficient coordination and flexible funding to allow agencies to respond where the need is greatest.
 
But however tantalizing it may be to take celebrities around refugee camps – and hope that corporate and public interest will translate into new dollars for emergency response – the core challenge is in places far from the public eye. Those violent places are where the challenges are greatest and where only committed professional agencies, including big NGOs, applying humanitarian principles and standards, are likely to be found.
 
Photo: Injured people rest inside an aid ship operated by charity Medecins Sans Frontieres as it arrived at Sfax April 4, 2011. Wounded people who arrived in this port on Monday after being evacuated from the Libyan city of Misrata wept as they told accounts of tanks attacking civilians and of corpses in the streets. REUTERS/Anis Mili, courtesy Trust.org - AlertNet.