Tsunamis, accountability and the humanitarian circus
by David Rieff, writer and policy analyst March 2005

The debate over humanitarian responsibility and accountability dates back at least to the 1994 Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief, and the 1996 Danish government-sponsored Joint Evaluation of the International Response to the Genocide in Rwanda. Since then, the production of new statements of humanitarian principles, standards and codes of conduct has been a growth industry within the growth industry that the relief world became in the 1990s. The Sphere Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Disaster Response, the Humanitarian Accountability Project International and the Plate-forme Qualité are just three among a plethora of examples. Alongside these guidelines and codes, there are institutions like the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance (ALNAP), whose raison d’être has been to foster the diffusion and acceptance of what has been presented as a new, more responsive, more beneficiary-respecting approach to relief work. More recently, 21 governments have tried to develop improved guidelines for so-called Good Humanitarian Donorship (GHD).

Confronted with all this hard work, thought and scruple, it might be reasonable to assume that the most egregious errors of the recent humanitarian past – what Nicholas Stockton once called ‘the deterioration of humanitarian space, with a proliferation of agencies and a high degree of amateurism’ – would have become a thing of the past. After all, by the end of the 1990s the need to reject the old image of the aid worker as a Western freebooter, bringing in expertise and monopolising authority in zones of need and conflict, was an article of faith among mainline Western aid agencies (though it has continued to mark the conduct of many SRSGs – Special Representatives of the UN Secretary-General – whose style has become markedly more ‘colonial’, while NGO conduct has become more egalitarian). Much internal debate and many reform initiatives within mainstream NGOs such as Oxfam, CARE and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) were meant to institutionalise this new approach.

Few serious relief workers would ever claim that institutionalising accountability, whether to donors or beneficiaries, was simple. On the contrary, much good work was done trying to think through why it was so difficult. But it was generally agreed that progress had been made, and that, to the extent that the NGO world and the UN specialised agencies were experiencing difficulties, this was because they were being instrumentalised by states, the most egregious offender being the United States, and the most obvious examples of co-option being the attempt to turn relief NGOs into subcontractors of the war effort in Afghanistan and Iraq. The general assumption among humanitarian agencies was that they had changed for the better, even if the world, unfortunately, had not. There would be no more humanitarian circuses à la Goma; no rush to be present, no matter what the actual needs of the beneficiaries or the competencies of the agencies, à la Kosovo; and no more misleading advertising campaigns implying – as MSF had done in the 1980s with its claim that ‘we have two billion people in our waiting room’ – a direct correlation between how much money an NGO received and how much (presumably limitless) good it could do; no more disaster pornography of ‘before and after’ photos; in short, no more humanitarian presumption. Nor, said the Code of Conduct, would agencies allow themselves to be used as instruments of foreign policy by their donor governments (a commitment that was comprehensively abandoned in Afghanistan and Iraq).

Accountability and the Indian Ocean tsunami response

The response of NGOs to the tsunami in late December 2004 suggests to this author that this is one more case of let the buyer beware; or, as they say in my home town of New York City, if you believe that I have a bridge I’d like to sell you. From Action Against Hunger (UK) to World Emergency Relief (UK and US), from well-known actors such as Baptist World Aid, Cafod, MSF, Oxfam and Save the Children to less familiar names like Operation USA and Clear Path International, the list of relief agencies on the ground in the countries and areas affected by the tsunami is a who’s who of the mainstream relief world. Practically every relief NGO capable of deploying personnel and getting supplies over long distances is there, not to mention UN specialised agencies, Western government institutions (such as USAID, the US military and the French ministries of Cooperation and Health), let alone local government authorities and local NGOs.

Given the staggering amounts of grant money available from Western governments and regional states, and the unprecedented level of private interest, it is not surprising that so many NGOs are able to fund programmes in the tsunami zones. But how much of this programming is actually, really needed? How much is duplication? Some of the material supplied – and there has been the usual influx of relief kits, blankets, tents, food, water purification supplies, shelter construction and medical and public health expertise – has without doubt been useful. But the public health emergency predicted by the World Health Organisation and UNICEF did not take place. Even leaving aside such ill-advised claims as the one made by the French Health Minister that dead bodies would cause epidemics (an assertion icily described by Rony Brauman as pre-Pasteurian), OCHA’s repeated insistence that a post-tsunami humanitarian disaster was possible, one that could take as many lives as the tsunami itself, proved unfounded. NGOs with expertise in building refugee camps deployed throughout the affected zones, but there was virtually no need for NGO-built refugee camps because survivors were taken in by family and friends. Nor was food security a major issue in most (though not all) stricken areas. In fact, there were very few food shortages, hardly surprising in a region of such natural abundance, and the local health authorities actually coped very well, all things considered. In short, the massive deployments of foreign relief workers were to a very considerable extent an exercise in superfluity. As MSF-Belgium’s assessment report, written one month after the tsunami, puts it, in affected areas of Aceh the agency found ‘a population in generally good health. No wave of epidemics has been detected … even though the risk remains real’.

Yet donations to MSF-Belgium equalled the group’s entire budget for its operations in Angola, Afghanistan, Liberia, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) combined. This pattern of giving has been repeated across the relief world. But to my knowledge no NGO has said to DFID or USAID or ECHO, ‘sorry, we don’t really have a role to play in the relief effort, and, actually, the money you’ve earmarked for Aceh would actually be much better spent in Darfur or Angola’. On the contrary, what the tsunami has demonstrated is that, for all the conferences, internal reviews, pledges of accountability and transparency, codes of conduct and the like, the humanitarian circus is alive and well and performing in Aceh. Goma rules – or more to the point Kosovo rules, since after all the cholera epidemic in Goma was real – still apply. For all the talk of coordination and accountability, the need to maintain market share continues to trump sound humanitarian practice – at least in crises like the tsunami, where the Western public and Western donor governments are attentive and engaged.

On its website, Oxfam has a lot of sensible things to say about the need for debt relief for tsunami-affected countries, and the need to pursue long-term development not only in the affected areas but throughout the poor world. But in advertisements in the US in January, headed ‘Help the Tsunami Victims’, Oxfam America claimed that ‘immediate food, shelter, and clean water are needed for victims of the Asian earthquake. Oxfam America, one of the world’s largest humanitarian agencies, is working tirelessly to provide aid to the survivors and prevent the death toll from rising needlessly. In Sri Lanka, one of the areas hardest hit by the tsunamis, Oxfam is already assembling 25,000 food kits and shelter for 10,000 families. The survivors need your help’. And of course they do, just not in the way that this advert claims. Oxfam is not alone in using this kind of language, but this is, I would argue, a misdescription of the situation. In particular, it was always extremely unlikely that the death toll among survivors would rise very much – in a tsunami one generally either dies or survives.

Obviously, to say this is not to claim that there was not a great deal of human need in Banda Aceh and the rest of northern Sumatra, in Sri Lanka, or in Thailand. Nor is it to minimise the task of reconstruction and redevelopment that will be necessary if these regions are to recover (obviously for the families and friends of those who have perished, recovery will be a matter of generations; being made whole materially, even assuming that this is possible, will only be one, subordinate part of the story). But it is to insist, as MSF-France’s president, Jean-Hervé Bradol, has put it, that ‘the reconstruction of a region, [or] of a country is what we call public aid for development. It’s the domain of states, of the World Bank, and the G-8. [So] if one asks individual donors [in Western countries], people who already finance this aid through their taxes, to do it through their donations as well, one must be very precise, very clear about what and how the money one is asking them for is going to be used’.

Plus ca change?

MSF-France was the first mainline relief NGO to break from the apparent NGO consensus that there is virtually no limit on the role relief groups can play, and consequently no logical reason not to keep on soliciting for and accepting contributions for programmes in the tsunami zone. Since then other groups, including Oxfam, have followed suit. But when it made the announcement, in early January, MSF’s decision was greeted with consternation by other mainline groups, who either denounced it (ACF), or demanded that it be explained very carefully, lest the public misunderstand (Médecins du Monde). I would argue that this in itself demonstrates how little change there has been in the practice of humanitarian fundraising, and in how mainline NGOs construe their role. If one assumes that relief NGOs do not, ipso facto, need to be involved in every crisis and are limited in what they can accomplish, the controversy that followed MSF’s announcement that it was no longer soliciting funds for relief efforts in the tsunami zone seems not just misplaced, but incomprehensible. A medical emergency relief organisation was asserting that it had contributed what it could, both in resources and expertise, and that no matter how much more money it received, there was nothing else it could do – at least, nothing of any significant value to the survivors. Interestingly, MSF has contacted its supporters inviting them to ‘de-restrict’ their tsunami donations to allow them to be spent elsewhere; alternatively, the agency is offering to refund donations.

MSF’s decision was not meant to preclude international development aid reaching affected areas. On the contrary, MSF’s position was that a crisis of the depth and breadth of the one engendered by the tsunamis was such that it was fundamentally beyond the remit of emergency relief NGOs. It was, in effect, a call for humanitarian humility – something that has not been much in evidence over the course of the tsunami response. A serious reading of accountability towards donors would involve not just the familiar demands for more coordination, higher standards of performance for the agencies involved (a key point made by Oxfam in its post-tsunami assessment), let alone more benefit concerts. Rather, it would demand that NGOs say clearly how little they, as opposed to Western and regional governments, can actually do in the aftermath of the tsunami. Accountability to donors would demand candour about where the limits lie to how much money can be spent usefully and responsibly. What it would not do is predict an apocalyptic outcome and then, when this does not occur, take credit for averting it, as Jan Egeland of OCHA has done (and he is not the only major relief official to do so).

Eleven years after Goma, this remains the fall-back position for many NGOs and the UN system both as a crisis infolds, and in its aftermath: predict the worst, take even minor public health problems as indicative of a possible apocalypse to come, and continue in a fundraising mode that in effect says ‘we’re not quite sure what we’ll do with the money, but we’re good people with good intentions and we’ll think of something’. This is neither responsible nor wise. Yes, in the short term the public is engaged. In the long term, however, such a strategy – the antithesis of accountability in any serious sense, and the antithesis of any code of conduct worthy of the name – can only breed cynicism.

David Rieff is a New York-based writer and policy analyst. His work on humanitarian action includes A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003) and, most recently, At the Point of a Gun: Democratic Dreams and Armed Intervention (New York: Simon & Schuster, forthcoming, 2005). See also Alexandra Frean and Ben Hoyle, ‘Charities Struggle To Spend Cash for Tsunami’, The Times, 14 February 2005, www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,18690-1483564,00.html.