An embarrassment of riches
by Toby Porter August 2002

The rhetoric of humanitarianism fails to disguise a global system where media profile, geography and political considerations are more effective than need in attracting humanitarian assistance. Yet if humanitarian actors are to press for greater fairness with a clear conscience, they need to look to their own shortcomings first.

Many reasons have been put forward to explain why some humanitarian crises remain out of the spotlight: the lack of strategic, political or commercial interest in a given country, high levels of insecurity or donor fatigue, to name just a few. But the main reason is that the funds and attention have simply gone elsewhere, to the high-profile or ‘loud’ humanitarian emergencies. ‘Silent’ emergencies and ‘loud’ crises are two sides of the same coin.

An analysis of eight years of global contributions to the UN Consolidated Appeals Process (CAP) shows the extent to which resources are concentrated around a small number of humanitarian crises. Each year since 1994, one or two appeals have dominated the donor response; only on two occasions – 1998 and 2001 – have contributions to the largest CAP not exceeded the total given to all the other appeals put together. Up to the beginning of April, 79% of donor contributions to all CAPs worldwide in 2002 had gone to Afghanistan.

What makes an emergency ‘loud’?

The international humanitarian agenda is inextricably linked to the political and foreign policy considerations of the small number of powerful countries that finance the international relief system. France and Britain, for example, tend to concentrate their emergency funding for Africa on their former colonies. The US, with its influential Hispanic community, and Spain tend to be the most generous emergency donors in Latin America. Public response follows similar patterns. In January 2001, for example, donations from the British public in response to the Gujarat earthquake far outstripped what was given for the earthquake in El Salvador the week before. In Spain, it was the other way around, with banks, post offices and schools sustaining a high-profile appeal for El Salvador over several months.

Donors also tend to respond generously to crises nearby, as with the European response to the Balkans crisis, or the high levels of Australian government funding for humanitarian work in Indonesia and the Timors. Other responses may be politically motivated, such as the large donation of in-kind food assistance to North Korea, despite the unacceptable conditions attached to working in the country. Finally, donors may evince a particularly strong commitment to a particular group if they feel implicated in precipitating the crisis. Arguably, this is what happened in Kosovo, and is at work in Afghanistan.

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Aside from these questions, the level of media coverage is by far the most significant factor. Where there is sustained media interest, a large and well-funded humanitarian operation is virtually guaranteed. Massive population movements are almost always well covered by television networks, and so receive significant funds: the Great Lakes and the Balkans were the two largest CAP appeals for six out of the seven years between 1994 and 2000. Displacement in Colombia, however, tends to take place on an individual or family basis; it offers no story for the camera to tell, and aid agencies have long struggled to find funding for their programmes.

As for natural disasters, earthquakes tend to elicit huge media interest and public sympathy. Droughts that slowly erode livelihoods do not. Even similar events in different countries receive completely different levels of exposure. Within a few months in late 1999 and 2000, flooding hit Venezuela, Orissa and Mozambique. Many more people died in the first two emergencies than in the last, but it was the dramatic and compelling pictures from Mozambique that captured the world’s imagination and inspired the huge donor and public response. Venezuela and Orissa received very little coverage, and very little aid.

Too much, or too little?

In most high-profile crises, most major donor governments as well as multilateral donors immediately make substantial emergency funds available, while media attention tends to mobilise a significant public response. As a rule, the bigger the emergency, the greater the amount of funds received from both sources. An over-abundance of funding is not, however, the most fertile environment for responsible programming. As the evaluation of the response to the Rwanda emergency observed: ‘Donor organisations and implementing agencies should take greater care to ensure that during periods when resources are comparatively freely available, as was the case for the two months following the Goma influx, they continue to be used wisely and cost-effectively.’

The most visible characteristic of high-profile humanitarian emergencies is the presence of very many more aid agencies than the situation requires. Agencies without prior experience of a country or region rush to the area. In addition to the humanitarian imperative, there may be less altruistic reasons for their presence, such as media exposure, and the domestic fundraising opportunities afforded by being there. The term ‘briefcase’ NGO has been used in recent years to describe this phenomenon. Not only is their professionalism and ability to implement quality programmes often questionable, but such agencies tend to have little interest in or appreciation of the importance of participating in field coordination mechanisms, or in broader standard-setting initiatives such as Sphere and the Humanitarian Accountability Project. As a result, the impact and reputation of the overall aid operation are damaged.

In high-profile crises, the conventional project cycle is often jettisoned. Whereas in standard situations, aid agencies usually try to secure donor funding in order to implement programmes that they have already assessed, in major emergencies this order can be reversed. A good proportion of NGOs start not with a project in search of resources, but with resources in search of a project. This is a recipe for poor programming, and partly explains some of the least savoury aspects of aid agency behaviour in major emergencies, such as competition and jostling for media profile. In Albania, for example, as new sites were developed for refugees from Kosovo, the competition between NGOs to be allocated a camp or sector to work in often seemed every bit as frantic and cut-throat as a commercial tender competition.

High-profile emergencies can also create unaccustomed dilemmas for more established and professional aid agencies. Even the largest and most experienced organisations have had well-publicised difficulties in scaling up their implementation capacity to match the increase in available funds. This glut of funding essentially makes the need to spend money within a specified period the primary driver in programme design, overshadowing a participatory or needs-based appraisal process, and therefore running contrary to efforts to improve the reputation and performance of the humanitarian sector as a whole.

In the UK, the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC)’s Kosovo appeal raised more than £50 million from the British public, easily the most generous public response of recent years. But before any of this money had been disbursed, the majority of DEC member agencies already had large contracts signed with institutional donors, often covering the running costs of their emergency programmes for several months. As a result, it was difficult or impossible for them to spend the money quickly, a problem further exacerbated by the sudden and unexpected return of the refugees to Kosovo following the end of the conflict.

Nor was this dilemma a one-off, solely attributable to the well-known excesses of that particular aid operation. In fact, the same problems have been associated with the two major DEC appeals since then, in Mozambique and Gujarat. In their study Mozambique and the Great Flood of 2000, Frances Christie and Joseph Hanlon note that ‘British NGOs came under huge pressure to spend the money being donated through the Disasters Emergency Committee … one agency representative told us, “Headquarters said to the Maputo Office, you have 48 hours to put together a proposal to spend £3 million”’.

The evaluation of the DEC response to the Gujarat earthquake states that ‘DEC members did not all strike a proper balance between the availability of funds, their strategic role and their local capacities. Unable to match funds with capacity, the response of many of the DEC members became “fund-driven” rather than “need-driven”. Taking funds from many sources before proper plans had been drawn up, they became victims of their organisations’ fundraising success. Managers on the ground began to see their task as spending money within the DEC time-scale rather than planning good programmes’.

Towards a principled response

The beneficiaries of high-profile emergencies receive substantial humanitarian assistance, which their situation undoubtedly demands, but much of the aid effort is duplicated and wasted. Global aid budgets are finite and there never seems enough to go around, so money wasted in high-profile crises could and should have been better spent elsewhere. Yet those NGOs berating donors most loudly over forgotten emergencies are often those who most readily accept high volumes of funding in the high-profile situations, and have been criticised by independent evaluators for not being able to spend it. Much NGO advocacy around forgotten emergencies tends to talk about inequalities in donor funding patterns entirely in the abstract, as if the NGO sector was somehow not involved. The reality is, of course, that the bulk of this excessive donor funding in ‘loud’ emergencies is channelled through the NGO sector. To engage in principled advocacy around forgotten crises, two things need to happen. Firstly, the NGO sector has to greatly improve its performance in high-profile emergencies. And, as part of that process, some NGOs need to become as adept at turning funds down as they are at raising them. Until then, our sector protests too much.

Toby Porter worked for Oxfam GB between 1995 and 2002, spending time in all of the major emergencies mentioned in this article. He is now an independent consultant. Between February and April 2002, he carried out an External Review of the CAP for OCHA, which explores many of the points raised here. The report, published in April 2002, is available on ReliefWeb.

References and further reading

On ‘silent’ emergencies, see the set of articles published in Humanitarian Exchange 20, March 2002, available at

Frances Christie and Joseph Hanlon, Mozambique and the Great Flood of 2000 (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2001).

Nick Leader, ‘Proliferating Principles or How to Sup with Devil Without Being Eaten’, paper delivered at the ECHO/ODI conference ‘Principled Aid in an Unprincipled World: Relief, War, and Humanitarian Assistance’, London, April 1998.

Thomas Nagel, Equality and Partiality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991).

An End to Forgotten Emergencies? (Oxford: Oxfam International, 2000).

John Borton (ed.), The Joint Evaluation of Emergency Assistance to Rwanda: Study III, RRN Network Paper 16 (London: ODI, 1996).

Hugo Slim, ‘Positioning Humanitarianism in War: Principles of Neutrality, Impartiality and Solidarity’, Development in Practice, vol. 7, no. 4, 1997.

Tony Vaux et al., Independent Evaluation: The DEC Response to Earthquake in Gujarat (London: DEC, 2001).

Michael Walzer, Spheres of Justice: A Defence of Pluralism and Equality (Oxford: Blackwell, 1983).