SAVE US FROM OUR SAVIOURS

by Lindsey Hilsum

 

Good intentions are not enough. The chaotic mass of unregulated international aid is perpetuating suffering, argues Lindsey Hilsum.

 

It is the season to be generous. Aid agency appeals garner twice as much at Christmas and the New Year as at other times of the year. Heroic efforts by aid workers ease suffering: 'We alone established an air supply route and opened feeding centres . . . To sustain our single-handed effort, we need your support,' says Medecins sans Fronti. . .eres, raising money for war victims in Sierra Leone. Individual compassion plays its part. 'If you would like to send a message to a Bosnian mother, please enclose it with your donation,' says Feed the Children.

 

In the past decade, I have watched the emergency aid business " from the famines in Ethiopia and Mozambique in the mid-Eighties to genocide and the refugee exodus from Rwanda last year " grow from a small element in the larger package of 'development' into a giant, global, unregulated industry worth pounds 2,500 million a year. Most of that money is provided by governments, the European Union and the United Nations. Increasingly, they " like the general public " channel funds through non-governmental organisations (NGOs), which descend like migrating geese on every civil war and refugee crisis.

 

But the bland assurances of the advertisements " we are making things better, you can help " mask serious doubts about emergency aid. What would be called profits in any other sector have enabled NGOs to grow and proliferate. When a million refugees swarmed across the border between Rwanda and Zaire last year, more than 100 NGOs turned up. As a cholera epidemic swept through the chaotic camps, Operation Blessing " the aid wing of US evangelist Pat Robertson's right-wing campaign movement " brought in 70 doctors with no experience of Africa, working on two -week rotations. The German branch of CARE organised similar shifts. Officials of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees say they misprescribed drugs, took up space on cargo planes and got in professionals' way. Journalists, nearly as numerous as aid officials, watched eager workers scoop up orphans. The needs of lost, weeping children sitting next to their parents' corpses were undeniable, but some refugees abandoned their children believing the aid workers would do a better job of looking after them. They were wrong. Malnutrition and death rates in some children's centres were higher than in the camps in general.

 

The Rwandan capital, Kigali, became the aid capital of the world with 169 agencies resident, many staffed by young people on their first mission overseas. United Nations troops issued each newcomer with a handy laminated card featuring a map of the country and useful phrases in the local language: 'Hello.' 'Do not shoot.' 'My name is Bob.' 'Where is Kigali?' At one regiona l meeting I attended, 15 agency representatives, each carrying a two-way radio, turned up in white Toyota four-wheel drives. The Rwandan government official in charge of the region, whose job it was to coodinate the aid inflow, had no telephone, no car, not even a bicycle. He did not even chair the meeting; that was done by a woman from the UN.

 

There is a distinction to be made between professional agencies with experience in emergency relief and those who just want to be there or do something without knowing how. The International Federation of the Red Cross is pioneering a code of conduct as a form of voluntary regulation, but this may not be enough. 'To be a taxi driver in New York, you need a licence and an eye-check and some form of registration,' says Peter McDermott, head of Unicef's Emergency Unit. 'In these highly visible emergencies, we're increasingly seeing mom-and-pop organisations turning up who really have no qualifications whatsoever and are not being held accountable to certain standards.' But what about the established agencies? Should they be accountable to governments? To the public? Or to the refugees and victims of war they are supposed to help? The only form of accountability is through the press, but criticising aid agencies seems to be taboo. I, like other journalists, often travel to trouble-spots in aid agency planes or jeeps. It is nearly always the cheapest, and sometimes the only, way to get there. Perhaps that is one reason reporters rarely give aid workers tough interviews or write critical reports. Wars are frequently reported through humanitarian eyes " the dying child and the aid agency nurse is an easier story to tell than the complex causes of war.

 

One suggestion is for an international ombudsman, possibly under the UN, to review complaints about aid agencies. Standards could be enforced by UN agencies which coordinate disaster response, and agencies might only get official funding if they met certain qualifications. This, however, would not affect their ability to raise money from the public, and leaves unquestioned the ability and fitness of UN agencies to enforce standards.

 

These essentially technical measures do not address the central issue " that aid is not the answer to the problems of an increasingly violent world. Research conducted by Alex de Waal, an academic who founded the lobby group African Rights, shows that in the famines created by war in the Horn of Africa, food aid accounted for less than 15 per cent of what was consumed. 'No major famine of the past 10 to 15 years has had international relief as its major solution. The solutions are always political,' he says. Famine in Ethiopia and Mozambique only ended when war sopped. Studies by Mark Duffield of Birmingham University show that in Sudan, where war has continued for 12 years, famine relief has become integrated into the war economy, with soldiers, politicians and merchants rather than war victims as the prime beneficiaries.

 

War is the beast which eats the children. With food aid, we think we are feeding the children, but we may be feeding the beast. The International Committee of the Red Cross has a strict rule, under the Geneva Convention, of not providing food to combatants. But not all agencies follow the rule, particularly when passing through military checkpoints. A five-per-cent 'leakage' of food is generally regarded as inevitable, enough to feed several thousand militiamen or soldiers.

 

But aid is now the main plank of Western governments' policy in countries such as Sudan, Somalia, Afghanistan and Rwanda. Since the end of the Cold War, Western countries have disengaged from what used to be called the Third World. Last week's Observer Christmas special on peace was instructive " the four stories were of Ireland, Israel, the former Yugoslavia and South Africa, places of economic, strategic or historical significance where intense diplomacy is being followed by economic aid for reconstruction. The response of Western governments to the many conflicts in Africa and Asia, in contrast, has not been to try and end them by diplomatic, political, economic or military means, but simply to give aid. The received wisdom is that these wars are 'anarchic', rather than having complex, but explicable, environmental, historical and political causes. No one knows what to do, so the analysis proves that nothing can be done. Aid conceals the vacuum.

 

To Peter McDermott of Unicef, the only option for the aid agencies is to carry on with relief programmes while pushing politicians to re-engage in far-off wars. 'It's not an either/or. We don't have the luxury of standing on the sidelines and not addressing human suffering.' Yet it is not enough to behave like the UN official in Sudan who, after a meeting about what to do, exclaimed: 'Yes, we must think. We must analyse. But first we must act!' Thinking about the problem should not be permanently deferred. We seem to have accepted our governments' dictum that there is nothing we can do about conflict in countries where Cold War priorities no longer demand involvement. Every time starving children or refugees appear on the television, the public demands that 'something must be done'. Our first response should be to understand that sending aid is not 'doing something'. It is one aspect of a policy of doing nothing at all.

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