Monday, May 16, 2011

How to slow NGOs overwhelming a post-disaster area

When a large disaster strikes, an outpouring of support comes to aid the victims. That support can sometimes be overwhelming and ineffective.

The greatest example of this is the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake. Hundreds of non-governmental organizations and charities flooded the tiny country. With the government destroyed, there was no one to coordinate all of the efforts. Often, the aid from NGOs and charities went duplicated or wasted. To this day the NGOs remain, without anything to replace them so the people can begin to support themselves.

From the Guardian, writer Madeleine Bunting attended a recent roundtable discussion on this very topic. The panelists talked about possible solutions to the overflow of aid after a disaster. Many at the discussion conceded that it is a problem that might never be completely solved.

The proposal on the table is a certification system. But would this just be a club for the big NGOs to squeeze out the small, local or most innovative? Who gets to check the certification process – that in the midst of a disaster, "is your paperwork in order"? Who inspects to make sure that the NGO is delivering what it claims it does. The problems are legion, as everyone in the room agreed. Alan Duncan, the minister at the Department for International Development, was pretty clear that it was up to the NGOs to work out how such a certification system should work.

As one speaker pointed out, after every disaster there is a renewed attempt to sort out the chaos of the burgeoning international NGO sector. DIY aid is a huge trend created by the massive media engagement in a disaster; everyone watches the pictures on television and the global good will pours out – incoherent, passionate and convinced it can make a difference. After the 2004 tsunami, the "cluster system" was born in which NGOs worked together, chaired by the UN, on particular problems such as water or education. But another speaker pointed out that the cluster system becomes unwieldy: 200 people in a shack at the airport who can't speak the same language and then it starts raining so they can't even hear each other. Chaos.

The central issue is that it's the state structure of a stricken country that has to regulate NGO activity, and the whole point about a disaster is that it often overwhelms the capacities of states in poor countries. Haiti was a terrible example of a weak state that was itself smashed in the earthquake.

A more positive example, said Stocking, was Bangladesh where a strong network of community organisations has grasped disaster preparedness, and put in place measures that have hugely reduced the loss of life from cyclones since the 1990s. The model has been copied in many other countries prone to flooding, providing a low-cost, community-owned template of what Lord Ashdown's recent report on humanitarian emergency aid called "resilience". Stocking talks of building up local NGOs as the front line in a disaster; in Aceh, Indonesia, Oxfam works entirely through such local groups.

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