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Humanitarian Crises: What is a Progressive to do?

January 2005


Tim Wise, former Executive Director of Grassroots International elaborated on this based on Grassroots’ principles back in 2005 shortly after the Asian tsunami. Those pointers are just as relevant today.

Progressive-minded people who want to contribute to humanitarian aid efforts too often abandon their progressive principles, particularly in crisis situations. Why? They want to help, and they want to do so quickly. And they focus on the service-delivery – food rations, medicines, shelter – rather than the service deliverers. Natural enough, when people are starving in front of you on your television every night.

The problem is that aid goes not to projects or services but first to service providers, the agencies themselves. And aid is power. Those who get more aid end up stronger than those who don’t. The issue that I think progressive-minded people should always keep in mind is how their donation is affecting the relative power of different groups involved in a crisis situation. In other words, when the crisis is over, who do you want to be stronger as an institution, and therefore better able to address or avert such crises in the future? Here are a few guidelines I like to use:

1. Support agencies that build local capacities and institutions– Some aid agencies, including most of the largest and best-known in the US, are “operational”, that is, they set up offices in-country and provide services themselves, often hiring large numbers of local residents to work for them. Operational agencies often weaken local institutions, drawing qualified staff out of relatively weak local organizations. This is true even if there is a fair amount of skill and/or technology-transfer in the process, because the transfer is individual rather than institutional. By contrast, some aid agencies work primarily through local partner institutions. Wherever possible, support those.

2. If possible, support institutions whose involvement pre-dates the crisis – There are a lot of ambulance-chasers in crisis-response work. Those who arrive late lack strong local ties, are often culturally insensitive, and don’t really know how to get things done. By contrast, agencies that have been working with local groups on non-crisis activities are well-grounded, sensitive, and can get things done.

3. Support privately funded initiatives – The US government is the largest aid provider in this country and it now contracts much of that work out to US-based aid agencies. More than half the budgets of most of the largest US-based aid agencies come from the US government. So what? Well, first, your money is relatively less important to such efforts, which tend to be multimillion-dollar activities. Second, those agencies naturally tend to be accountable mainly to the US government, not to its private donors or, more important, to the local community it serves. Third, official US aid programs are among the most political in the world, hewing to State Department objectives and guidelines first and humanitarian guidelines and needs second (or third or fourth). USAID brags that 75% of all its aid comes back to the US – paying US consultants, buying US products, etc. Is that what you want to support? This doesn’t mean all US-government-funded aid is bad; not at all. But you as a donor have a choice. Why choose that?

4. Small is beautiful – The aid industry is dominated by the largest agencies, which compete for and win government contracts and can then spend massive amounts of money promoting themselves to the US public highlighting how low their overhead is. Of course, their overhead is low because they’re getting multimillion-dollar US contracts. You have a choice; why strengthen the largest and strongest groups? Many of the smaller and lesser-known agencies do great work. And the last thing Rwanda or Haiti needs are aid agencies with more resources and power in-country than the government.

5. Be internationalist – In addition to supporting small, privately funded, partner-oriented activities, consider agencies with strong international ties to other such agencies. European and Canadian agencies, including some of the largest ones, are much more progressive and effective in practice than their US counterparts. Oxfam US, for example, is part of a large and growing network of Oxfam International affiliates who co-fund each other’s work in areas where each is strong. The partnership model is much more common in Europe and Canada than it is here. And their governments do not put the same kinds of strings on aid as USAID does.

6. Medical aid in a crisis is often more important than food, shelter, or other assistance – Why? Food and other goods are needed on a scale so massive it is difficult to have much of an impact with a private donation. It usually comes from governments and international agencies. Local public-health institutions, however, which are often weak and underfunded to begin with, are always overwhelmed in a crisis. Refugee camps and feeding centers are breeding grounds for disease, which usually take more lives than starvation or exposure (though they are obviously related).

7. Think beyond the immediate crisis – Where possible, look for groups that will stay with the issue and the people after the headlines (and the funding streams) die down.

8. If you find a good agency, consider making a long-term commitment to it – Crisis-driven funding makes nonprofit aid agencies difficult to manage. It also often leads agencies to focus on crisis-response work at the expense of long-term local institution-building, which is the most important work of all but the hardest to fund. Long-term support for such work is the hardest find. If you like the work you see during the crisis, you’ll probably like the agency’s other work as well. Support it with a multi-year commitment.

9. Last (but usually first on donors’ minds) support agencies that make effective use of funds – Overhead is not the only issue here, or the most important. Look for a track record of accountability. Make sure there is the capacity to carry out what’s being promised.

Tim Wise was Executive Director of Grassroots International in the 1990s. He is Deputy Director of the Global Development and Environment Institute (GDAE) at Tufts University. 

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