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Five ways foreign aid and NGOs can make things worse when disaster strikes

Taking stock. Man by Shutterstock

Charitable giving is big business, with many organisations handling millions in revenue. But big charities have come under fire for issues from bad accounting to actually doing more harm than good. In the third of our short series on The Problem with Big Charity, Gina Yannitell Reinhardt looks at how not to do international work.

In 2015, the world faced earthquakes in Central Asia, flooding in South-East Asia, and epidemic illnesses in parts of Africa. Together, natural and man-made disasters took more than 31,000 lives. People across the globe donated more than US$19 billion in humanitarian contributions of cash, material goods, and services to alleviate the harm caused by these critical events – but were our efforts are well spent?

Nearly all of us are collective donors in some sense – when governments send relief to disaster areas, the money they use comes from taxpayers. Many of us are also individual donors, sending funds directly from our own wallets to charitable organisations and coordinated appeals. But in the past ten to 15 years, allegations of counterproductive relief efforts and unused donations have generated concern among donors – not only because money might be misspent or cause harm but also because this this might also discourage charitable giving.

These concerns are not unfounded; large-scale international disaster relief can have drawbacks that range from wasting resources to seriously undermining local governments. Here are five potential problems.

1. Poor coordination

One of the biggest challenges to disaster relief is coordination. After disaster strikes, immediate necessities (food, water, medication, blankets) are important, but what is the best way to deliver them?

Picking the right things. Clothing by Shutterstock

We often feel compelled to donate our own clothing and other items. Unfortunately, pouring donated items into a devastated region can slow relief efforts. The influx can cause what many term “the second disaster”, overloading relief workers with extra responsibilities and taking up precious space.

In some cases, material donations also generate waste. When shoes are sent to regions where people do not wear shoes, for example, the host country may end up paying for their disposal. Or when maize is sent to regions where people rely mostly on milk and meat, it can lead to more alcohol being distilled.

Then there are the knock-on effects of appeals for sudden big emergencies. A heartfelt outpouring can harm other charitable endeavours by redirecting scarce funds. In difficult times even the best of us have to decrease our contributions. The 2007 recession, for example, hit US charitable giving which didn’t bounce back until 2014. In a time of donation scarcity, increasing donations to a disaster area can take funds away from other endeavours that might be able to use it better.

Good coordination, on the other hand, enables the most efficient use of donated money. For example, Juanita Rilling, director of the Centre for International Disaster Information, calculated the cost of supplying water to 40,000 people a day. It jumped from US$500 (if purchased locally by relief coordinators) to anywhere from US$200,000 to US$750,000 when purchased abroad and shipped in – an increase of 400%-1500%.

2. Exacerbating existing problems

Who gets to the front? Aid by Shutterstock

Without careful management and distribution, there’s a good chance that already-marginalised groups will suffer discrimination when it comes to relief and recovery. After the Indian Ocean tsunami, members of the Dalit caste were forbidden from drinking water out of the same tank as other survivors because they are considered “untouchable”. Similar discrimination has been suffered by women, children, homosexuals, the elderly, religious and ethnic minorities around the world.

There exists an important and unsettled debate over whether relief efforts might even fuel conflict by exacerbating class or ethnic divides. Already scarce resources may become critical means of securing allegiance and manipulating the opposition in a place of conflict. In Sri Lanka after the 2004 tsunami, an age-old struggle for power focused conflict on a battle for aid resources, and violence subsequently increased.

3. Internal brain drain

If coordination is good and immediate relief goes well, damaged communities move into the recovery phase. For individuals, this includes finding or returning to work, and rekindling personal networks, all of which require access to basic public services. After catastrophic disasters it makes sense for philanthropic groups to provide these services; the very governmental units that would respond to a disaster, and the neighbours on whom they might call on for help, have been damaged. In 1992, for example, Hurricane Andrew destroyed structures that housed welfare services, medical centres, and first response units (police, fire, and ambulance) in southern Florida.

Public sector jobs taken elsewhere. Health professionals by Shutterstock

The charitable provision of these services can have mixed consequences. Most philanthropic organisations want to staff their rebuilding efforts with local workers. This practice is beneficial to a post-disaster economy as it provides an external source of wages. But if salaries and work standards of these visiting organisations are higher than those offered in the recovery area, these visitors end up siphoning off that community’s best workers, causing an internal brain drain. Top employees are no longer available or willing to work in the public sector, and the local government must attempt to rebuild its own capacities without the community’s best thinkers and hardest workers.

4. Damage to accountability and trust

Hurricane Katrina: homes and livelihoods lost. Hurricane by Shutterstock

Perhaps more importantly, when external organisations step in to take over they can undermine recovery in multiple ways. For one thing, bad experiences can make citizens lose confidence in their own governments’ ability and willingness to provide public services. After Hurricane Katrina, for example, survivors exhibited less trust in their public officials’ credibility and competence at managing disasters than those who didn’t directly experience the disaster.

Public confidence is key to re-establishing public services, and implementing new policies to help mitigate or avert future disasters. People who don’t trust that education and healthcare will be reinstated are less likely to want to live in the affected area. And those who don’t trust their disaster managers may ignore key communications when the next disaster occurs.

Governments can face challenges when outsiders step in to provide key services, including a lack of ownership over policy decisions made by outside organisations, which means the governments themselves can eschew accountability and responsibility for any outcomes. If a government can blame poor decisions on organisations who have departed, then no one has to be accountable for the decision. Even accountable local governments can have difficulties stepping back in to provide public services after an external organisation has done so for too long.

5. Corruption

Who’s in control? Supplies by Shutterstock

Of course, organisations often have to navigate difficult issues on the ground, such as corruption – something that can hamper the work of organisations externally and internally. Transparency International (TI) produces a report that details how large inputs of resources, pressures for rapid distribution, and difficulties in expanding scope can increase opportunities for the abuse of power.

One of the most insidious side effects of poorly managed recovery involves sexual exploitation. West African refugee children in 2001 reported that humanitarian staff withheld food unless sexual favours were given. TI reported that this practice led to “unwanted pregnancy; abortion; single (often teenage) parenthood; abandoned children; HIV and sexually transmitted diseases; lost education and employment opportunities,” and psychological trauma.

Fortunately, humanitarian organisations and international donors are aware of these pitfalls, and have implemented several mechanisms to combat them. The results of these efforts are just now becoming available, and show cause for optimism. The Philippines is a prominent example: the Department of Social Welfare and Development coordinates disaster response, which means social protection is the highest priority. The national government now funds and operates several social protection programmes, such as training and cash transfers, which focus on the country’s most marginalised populations during recovery. It also takes the lead during international interventions, coordinating food security, shelter, camp coordination and management, and protection, which improves coordination.

Reports from TI and others also offer best practices and monitoring strategies for field staff, and organisations such as Integrity Action unite and empower citizens and local and international organisations to work amid colossal challenges without causing more damage. Responding to disaster isn’t easy, but there are ways of getting better at it.

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