Fixing the humanitarian aid system

UN, relief groups seek to bolster and speed up food delivery
From Africa Renewal: 
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International food relief often arrives too late — after the hungry have begun to die in large numbers International food relief often arrives too late — after the hungry have begun to die in large numbers.
Photograph: UN / Eskinder Debebe

Is there something wrong with the way the world responds to famines, earthquakes and floods? Ask Josephine Kachebe. The 83-year-old grandmother from Tiki Mwiinga community in southern Zambia is among 12 million Southern Africans in desperate need of emergency food aid, according to estimates of the World Food Programme (WFP). In June 2005 the agency appealed for enough food to feed the region through the April 2006 harvest.

But five hungry months later, only a fraction of the target had been met. In November, Mrs. Kachebe told WFP investigators that her only meal that day had consisted of scavenged seed pods, wild nuts and tree roots, which she mixed with ashes into a bitter gruel. The day before, she admitted, she had eaten nothing. If help ever does arrive, she said, “I think it will be too late. I will be dead.”

Cruelly, Mrs. Kachebe’s death — and those of thousands of her friends and neighbours — may be what it takes to spur the world into action. Too often, WFP Executive Director James T. Morris told a US audience in August, donors ignore warnings until the images of the starving appear on television screens. Only then are purse strings loosened and life-sustaining aid sent to the survivors.

“We simply cannot wait until our televisions beam these devastating images into our living rooms to take action,” Mr. Morris declared. “When the warning bell is sounded about imminent disaster... we must listen and act.”

Fixing the global humanitarian emergency response system and anchoring it more firmly in long-term development goals is an important part of Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s plan for UN reform. It is also a moral obligation. With 2005 bracketed by two of the worst natural catastrophes in recent years — the Indian Ocean tsunami and the devastating earthquake in Pakistan — and with famine deepening in West and Southern Africa, efforts to make the system more responsive, more consistent and more effective could mean life or death for millions of future disaster victims.

Africa’s long-term plan, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), argues that the continent’s widespread hunger and food insecurity can ultimately be eradicated only if local agricultural production is strengthened and rural living standards are raised. But in the short term, especially when countries are hit by famine or some other disaster, adds NEPAD’s Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme, “rapid humanitarian interventions followed by rehabilitation are required before normal development can resume.”

Too little, too late

Although there is a vigorous debate among relief workers, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and donors about how to improve emergency services, there is general agreement that the current system does not facilitate rapid responses and fails to generate adequate resources. As Oxfam International noted in a recent study, emergency aid “still does not cover all needs. It often arrives late and is determined more by media profile or political criteria than humanitarian need.”

Reforms in the relief aid system aim to deliver enough food to needy people, rapidly Reforms in the relief aid system aim to deliver enough food to needy people, rapidly.
Photograph: Associated Press / Schalk Van Zuydam

Part of the problem is money. Although the UN established a $50 mn cash reserve for disaster relief known as the Central Emergency Revolving Fund (CERF) in 1991, it has been hampered by a requirement that agencies like WFP or the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) obtain donor pledges of reimbursement before CERF funds can be released. For countries like famine-stricken Niger (see Africa Renewal, October 2005), finding donors can take months — slowing the arrival of assistance and increasing human suffering.

Another mechanism, the Consolidated Appeal Process, was also set up in 1991 to alert donors to emergencies and mobilize resources rapidly. Operated by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the system issues “flash” appeals for sudden crises. But there too the response from donors has been uneven. In a 20 October report to the General Assembly, Mr. Annan reported that flash appeals generate on average just 16 per cent of requested funds.

Fixing the global humanitarian emergency response system and anchoring it more firmly in long-term development goals is an important part of Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s plan for UN reform. It is also a moral obligation.

“Imagine if your local fire department had to petition the mayor for money every time it needed water to douse a raging fire,” UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egeland noted in early 2005. “That’s the predicament faced by anguished humanitarian aid workers when they seek to save lives but have no funds to pay for the water — or medicine, shelter or food — needed to put out a fire.... These delays are deadly.”

Politics too plays a role in determining the size and direction of humanitarian flows. During the Cold War, noted a 2001 study by the UK’s independent Overseas Development Institute, aid was used by both sides to build alliances, reward allies and punish opponents. The end of the Cold War also ended the strategic importance to the North of some developing countries, including many in Africa. This in turn eroded these countries’ influence with donors.

“Humanitarian assistance has always been a highly political activity,” the study asserted. “It has always influenced the political economy of recipient countries, and has always been influenced by the political considerations of donors.... Stark differences between the amount and type of humanitarian assistance given to various countries facing acute crises show that humanitarian aid has never been disbursed solely on the basis of need.”

The statistics bear out that grim conclusion. In June Mr. Morris of the WFP told the Security Council that urgent appeals for African countries in crisis attracted just a fraction of the needed resources, in contrast to the overwhelming response to the tsunami disaster. Only 17 per cent of requirements for the flood-stricken Central African Republic had been received, while appeals for the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Côte d’Ivoire attracted just 35 and 30 per cent, respectively.

“Occasionally,” Mr. Morris told the council, “I have thought the worst place for a hungry child to live in Africa today is a country that is at peace with its neighbours and relatively stable. Funding levels rise with the incidence of violence and media interest.... In our view there are few phenomena in modern life as political as humanitarian aid.”

A deadly ‘lottery’

Television and press coverage are sometimes the only means of prodding donor governments into action, but there is no guarantee that the media will focus on any given crisis situation or that press attention will stimulate contributions. It is almost a given, however, that the cameras will arrive only in time to record the dying — not in time to prevent a looming crisis.

Mr. Egeland likened the situation to a “lottery,” in which victims of disaster vie for the media attention needed to attract the support of fickle donor governments. “You have 25 equally desperate communities playing in this lottery for attention every week,” he told the Columbia Journalism Review in July. “Twenty four lose and one wins.” In 2005, he noted, the survivors of the Indian Ocean tsunami and the humanitarian crisis in western Sudan received massive media coverage and generous support. The victims of conflicts in northern Uganda and eastern DRC, however, “are among the losers of our attention lottery. I find it in a way incomprehensible because in terms of drama, needs, cruelty, human touch and heroic efforts to help, the situations are on a par.”

Reforming the Fund

Addressing these flaws in the humanitarian emergency response system feature prominently in Mr. Annan’s blueprint for reform of the UN, In Larger Freedom, released in advance of the 14–16 September World Summit (see Africa Renewal, October 2005). His detailed proposals, submitted to the General Assembly in October, amount to a fundamental overhaul of the CERF, including:

  • a ten-fold increase in funding, to $500 mn, within three years
  • restructuring to provide all but $50 mn as grants instead of revolving loans
  • the earmarking of two-thirds of these grants for early interventions and rapid response programmes
  • the ability to release funds within 72–96 hours
  • the reservation of up to a third of annual disbursements for the urgent needs of under-financed humanitarian operations.

The revamped CERF, renamed the Central Emergency Response Fund, would in effect free aid workers from their case-by-case dependency on donors, enabling humanitarian agencies to respond to natural disasters within days, rather than weeks or months, permitting them to respond to early signs in order to avert full-blown emergencies. This rapid-reaction capacity will save lives, relief workers say, and also money. The months-long delay in responding to the famine in Niger, for example, both increased demand for costly intensive-care services and forced the WFP to use aircraft for food shipments instead of slower, but less expensive, sea and land transportation.

Funds will also be used to pay for vital needs not covered by specific donor contributions, including activities such as spraying against mosquitoes at breeding time or purchasing seeds and fertilizer during planting season. In many underfunded emergencies, Mr. Annan’s report noted, donors may fund only some programmes, such as child feeding centres, while ignoring equally vital services, such as providing clean water, medical care or shelter.

Niger again provides a graphic example of how inadequacies in the system can worsen a local emergency. A major cause of malnutrition in Niger was the damage done to pastures by locusts in 2004. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization failed to find donor funding for a programme to eradicate the locusts, allowing them to spread and tipping parts of the country into crisis.

“You have 25 equally desperate communities playing in this lottery for attention every week. Twenty four lose and one wins.”

— Jan Egeland, under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs

The reform proposals have attracted strong support from donor governments, NGOs and relief agencies, along with pledges approaching $200 mn by end-2005. Norwegian Ambassador Mona Jull, in announcing a contribution of over $29 mn in November, told the General Assembly that her government welcomed bolstering the CERF because it would permit the UN to “quickly respond to — and possibly prevent — crises like the one in Southern Africa.”

The US, by far the largest single contributor of humanitarian aid, also endorsed the expanded CERF. Mr. Sichan Siv, a deputy US representative to the UN, welcomed the initiative in November, noting that “a centralized source of rapidly available funding could help effectively address urgent needs in rapid-onset emergencies and swiftly deteriorating crises.” Although the US has not yet made a contribution to the fund, US mission spokesperson Benjamin Chang told Africa Renewal that “this simply reflects our budget process, not any reservations” about the fund.

According to OCHA officials, over 80 per cent of the pledges represent new commitments, allaying concerns that CERF would drain money from existing programmes. The fund is expected to begin operating early in 2006.

Money or maize?

There are other proposals to reform the delivery of emergency aid. A 2005 study by the industrialized countries’ Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) called for donating cash rather than commodities (wheat, maize, cooking oil), which is now a common practice. For example, in the US, the largest supplier of food aid, national law requires that commodities be produced in the US and shipped via US-owned ships or aircraft, a practice called “tied aid” (see Africa Recovery, January 2004).

Tied food aid, the OECD argued, increases costs by as much as 50 per cent over locally purchased goods, reduces market incentives to expand production in the affected area, slows arrival times and runs the risk of destroying rural economies by flooding recipient countries with free food. Almost all US food aid is provided as commodities, as was much of the more than 5 mn tonnes of food distributed by WFP in 2004.

The issue has even become a subject of concern at the World Trade Organization (WTO), where European countries in particular have called US tied food aid a disguised agricultural-trade subsidy. They have also called for food aid to be provided as cash and for donated commodities to become subject to WTO “disciplines,” or global trade regulations.

This “cash versus commodities” debate has attracted significant editorial attention in the world press, mostly in favour of untying food aid. However, a number of those actually delivering such aid — the WFP and charitable groups — oppose the plan.

Addressing representatives of African and least developed countries in May, Mr. Morris touched on the WFP’s concerns. “Providing food aid in a timely way is a complicated business, especially in developing countries.” Large purchases by relief agencies in regional grain markets, he explained, often drive up food prices beyond the means of the poor. This increases the number of hungry people. Inadequate roads and railways in developing countries mean that “regional purchases sometimes present high transport costs and storage problems,” not the vast savings predicted by critics of tied aid.

“While we often prefer cash,” he continued, “we also recognize that commodity donations help maintain a level of support in donor countries, and this is absolutely critical for our beneficiaries.” Untying food aid, in the view of many humanitarian agencies and NGOs, risks destabilizing what is sometimes called the “iron triangle” of powerful domestic interests — farmers, shipping companies and charities — that provide political protection for aid budgets. Untying aid reduces the attractiveness of emergency aid for Northern farmers and shippers, since they are less likely to benefit from it, and this exposes emergency programmes to budget cuts. The result could be the worst of all possible outcomes: less money and less in-kind food aid.

Aid agencies oppose efforts to bring food aid under WTO regulation for many of the same reasons. In a letter to WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy in September, Mr. Morris cautioned that banning in-kind donations “will undercut overall donations and reduce flexibility.... When one of our major donors switched to a cash-only policy, its total food aid donations in tonnage terms dropped by more than half.” Moreover, he noted, an increasing percentage of WFP donations are coming from middle-income developing countries, which can afford to provide commodities but not cash. Diversifying the donor base is an important long-term objective for the emergency aid community, he wrote. “A true pro-poor policy at the WTO would make special efforts not to interfere with the funding and delivery of WFP food aid.”

Many NGOs share these concerns. Mr. Will Lynch, a senior adviser for the major US humanitarian group Catholic Relief Services (CRS), told Africa Renewal that world food aid represents just 0.03 per cent of the value of the global trade in agriculture, “yet the discussion is around emergency response and trade. That’s not the issue. The real issue is that governments simply aren’t providing enough, not how they are providing it.”

Hungry Africa

Efforts to expand and streamline the CERF, however, have been welcomed by humanitarian groups. WFP Communications Director Neil Gallagher told Africa Renewal in November that “it will be great to have this kind of fund.” The ability to respond at the first sign of danger, he said, would save lives, alleviate suffering and speed up rehabilitation and recovery efforts.

But Mr. Gallagher cautioned that emergency programmes, however well funded and administered, can never substitute for accelerated agricultural and economic development. Higher standards of living and improved harvests leave the poor less vulnerable to weather and changing prices. Increased investment in agriculture and rural infrastructure, such as in irrigation schemes, roads, access to fertilizer and improved seeds could dramatically lessen the impact of droughts and other natural disasters.

However, he added, donor aid for agricultural development has declined sharply, from 12 per cent of global aid spending a decade ago to only 4 per cent in 2004. “We lurch from emergency to emergency and hope that the TV crews capture it all on film,” he continued. “Meanwhile, the number of chronically hungry people is going up, particularly in Africa, and the amount of food aid contributed by donors is going down. That’s the real problem with the way the world feeds the poor.”

Significantly, chronic hunger and malnutrition were the cause of 92 per cent of the 10 million hunger-related deaths around the world in 2004, the WFP reports, compared to 8 per cent caused by humanitarian emergencies. Despite a global pledge to halve world hunger by 2015, the numbers have risen sharply in the past decade, from 790 million in the early 1990s to an estimated 852 million in 2005 — over 300 million of them in Africa. Despite the increased need, contributions of food aid have dropped precipitously, from more than 15 mn metric tonnes in 1999 to just 7.5 mn in 2004.

Advocates charge that some donor policies also undermine national emergency relief programmes. In Malawi, for example, many humanitarian organizations, donor representatives and national officials have alleged that pressure from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank induced the government to sell much of its strategic grain reserve. Then came a famine in 2001–2 that took thousands of lives.

The charge has been heatedly denied by the IMF. But a 2005 study by the US government’s Agency for International Development found that after Malawi’s grain stocks reached 180,000 tonnes, “the IMF argued for a number of reasons that it no longer made sense to hold reserves at this level.... IMF therefore recommended... a much smaller reserve.”

When famine struck, it was discovered that the entire reserve had been quietly sold off, triggering an official investigation and forcing the government and relief groups to invest money and precious time importing emergency food.

Patching the safety net

Addressing chronic hunger through ongoing, sustained feeding programmes, such as school lunches and maternal and infant nutrition schemes, are a far less costly and more effective way to attack hunger than are emergency relief operations, Mr. Gallagher said. Children in particular suffer lasting damage from malnutrition, which can be prevented only with predictable, long-term and targeted nutritional support.

Twenty years ago, he continued, 80 per cent of WFP food shipments supported ongoing or “social safety net” programmes, with 20 per cent devoted to emergencies. But in 2004 only 557,500 of the 5.1 mn tonnes of food shipped by WFP was earmarked for safety-net services.

“Donors don’t find [safety-net spending] exciting,” he explained. “It’s not cutting-edge. It’s not being involved in a big crisis situation. They say providing food aid as part of a social safety net isn’t a long-term solution. But it is a long-term solution for the child who gets at least one good meal every day. If you don’t feed kids when they’re young and women when they’re pregnant, you’re just creating people who physically and mentally won’t be able to help themselves later on.” The mindset that food aid is only for emergencies, Mr. Gallagher observed, “just leads to greater hunger. It doesn’t make sense.... Until the donors say ‘a basic level of nutrition is everyone’s right and we’re going to provide it,’ we will never end hunger.”

The refusal of donors to support long-term nutrition initiatives, the CRS’s Mr. Lynch noted, means that the charity can no longer continue the feeding programmes it runs for 800,000 people, including AIDS orphans, expecting mothers, schoolchildren and the rural poor in Angola, Benin, Kenya, Niger and Rwanda. The governments of those countries are unlikely to be able to continue the programmes on their own, and no other suppliers have been found.

“That’s part of the problem,” Mr. Lynch concluded. “The people these programmes serve are the poorest of the poor. They’re off everyone’s map.”