Thursday, April 14, 2011

Four core principals to improve humanitarian aid

The criticism we hear often about humanitarian aid is that it is self-serving. This criticism seem contradictory, but there are plenty of cases where the people receiving the aid are never asked what they really need. The governments or charities simply dole out goods or programs without getting a feel for what the recipients are really lacking. For instance, you can see many times in the history of aid where food and water are given out but the people are never taught how to grow their own food or maintain their own wells.

In an essay for the Poverty Matters blog at the Guardian, writer Mark Tran talks about a new blueprint for aid work established by the Sphere Project. Sphere attempts to establish common principals and best practices for all humanitarian groups to strive for. Tran has four basic principles in his essay, our snippet focuses on the first two.

The latest Sphere handbook, considered the blueprint for aid work, includes a fresh chapter on "protection principles" that urges organisations to consider the wider impact of their actions.

The first principle is: avoid exposing people to further harm as a result of your actions. Dr Unni Krishnan, disaster response policy co-ordinator for Plan International, and a member of the Sphere board, cites the example of the floods in Bihar in 2008 that affected more than 1.4 million people. The floods were not the result of monsoon rains but of a breach in embankments that had been built by the government to protect people.

"This disaster demonstrates that 'good intention' alone is not good enough," said Krishnan. "Participation and ownership of communities, especially the most vulnerable, like children, are key in development and humanitarian response."

Or as the handbook asks: "What might be the unintended negative consequences of our activities for people's security, and how can we avoid or minimise these consequences?"

The second principle is: ensure people's access to impartial assistance – in proportion to need and without discrimination. It's a fine principle, but sometimes hard to uphold in a situation of armed conflict, as a member of the Sphere board noted.

"In Ivory Coast, the UN has appeared to take sides in the conflict," said Ed Schenkenberg van Mierop, executive director of the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA). "Local NGOs that were supposed to distribute aid to areas held by Gbagbo's forces on behalf of the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, were forced to return the aid to the organisation. Now too few impartial and independent humanitarian agencies are present on the ground in Ivory Coast."

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