Issue 8 - Article 5

A 'New' Disasters Emergency Committee in the UK

May 1, 1997
John Borton

On June 10th the UK Disasters Emergency Committee will commence a new phase in its 35 year history by relaunching itself as the ‘New’ DEC. The event, which represents the culmination of a process of review and reform begun in January 1995, will see the number of member agencies increase from 7 to 15, set new standards of transparency and accountability for UK NGOs providing humanitarian assistance and potentially provide a model for the coordination of relief agencies in other countries.

A brief history of the DEC

The DEC was established in 1963 as a mechanism for coordinating public appeals and the relief responses of the principal UK NGOs involved in the provision of disaster relief assistance, through TV, radio and print media, at times of major international disasters. The principal elements of the DEC for its first 35 years were:

  • the agreement by the two main national TV organisations (the BBC and the IBA) to provide free air time to the DEC following the main evening news programmes on the agreed Appeal launch date
  • the undertaking by member agencies to refrain from running competing media advertising during a ‘Period of Joint Action’ which generally ran for 4 weeks after the launch of the Appeal
  • the active participation of the Post Office, British Telecom and the principal High Street banks in receiving and processing donations
  • agreement by the agencies to distribute the ‘pooled’ funds raised during the Period of Joint Action between them – the mechanism being an equal share basis between full members and a half share basis between Associate Members. [Thus, over the period 1986-1992, the 6 full members – Oxfam, the British Red Cross Society, SCF, War on Want, Christian Aid and CAFOD – received a 1/7 share, while the two Associate Members – Action Aid and Help the Aged – received a 1/14 share.]
  • The then ODA supported the DEC by meeting part of the running costs of the small Secretariat and on two occasions by large donations to DEC Appeals

The first DEC Appeal was made in 1966 in response to an earthquake in Turkey. Since then there have been 39 Appeals which have raised and allocated £94 million of ‘pooled’ funds.

Throughout this period the DEC had no legal or charitable status, being simply a joint mechanism of the membership and the supporting organisations – broadcasters, Post Office, British Telecom, and the Banks. Appeals were managed by a small Secretariat (housed in one of the member agencies) and by the ‘Operating Agency’ – a role which was rotated among member agencies for each appeal.

Changing context

These arrangements operated satisfactorily (though with limited transparency) until around the late 1980s when three important trends fundamentally changed the environment in which the DEC operated. First, the nature of emergencies changed from being predominantly those caused by ‘natural’ hazards to those predominantly caused by armed conflicts. Second, the number of NGOs involved in relief operations began to grow dramatically, and the competitive pressures between them increased. Third, at the start of a technological and organisational revolution in the broadcasting field introduced additional channels and increased commercial pressures.

The DEC failed to respond effectively to these changes, with member agencies sometimes perceived as placing their own interests above those of the DEC as a whole. This perception was reinforced by the DEC’s failure to admit new members who were variously perceived as being ‘not sufficiently British’, or whose capacity to provide effective disaster relief was questioned. In addition, some member agencies began to liberally interpret the ‘rules’ relating to the acceptable period for utilising funds from DEC Appeals, with the result that funds were still being used on rehabilitation activities for a prolonged period after an Appeal.

NGOs outside the DEC began to call for it to be made less exclusive – a call heard by the broadcasters and the ODA – and matters came to a head in 1994 with the DEC Appeal for Rwanda. The Appeal raised £10 million of ‘pooled’ funds, for use in an area where few DEC member agencies had an established capacity or particular comparative advantage, in contrast to others who were outside the DEC but who played an important role in the overall relief efforts. Articles critical of the DEC began to appear in the British press.

A process of review and reform commenced in January 1995 and, in December of the same year, radical changes were proposed: membership should be inclusive; a DEC Council should be established to provide independent oversight; different categories of membership should be introduced; and an Executive Committee should be elected by the membership. These changes were supported by the membership, the broadcasters, and the Banks, and resulted in advisers (including the ODI) being commissioned to give substance to the proposed reforms, in a way that would be acceptable to the prospective member agencies as well as to existing members.

The key ‘structural’ changes agreed were:

  • the creation of a DEC Council
  • the adoption of the principle of inclusive membership. This was achieved by setting the admission criteria at a level which would make most UK relief agencies eligible, though being a signatory of the Red Cross/NGO Code of Conduct was made a requirement for eligibility.
  • the ‘New’ DEC should have its own legal status – that of a non-profit company limited by guarantee with full charitable status. The need for such a formal status stemmed from the requirements for transparency and accountability and the need to separate DEC funds from those of its member agencies.

In addition, mechanisms were required to decide which of the member agencies should be allowed to participate in an Appeal and the criteria to be employed in allocating ‘pooled’ funds among the participating agencies.

Reaching a consensus on mechanisms

Reaching consensus on these mechanisms proved difficult and led to the development of novel approaches. Early in the process a distinction between so-called ‘front-loading’ and ‘back-loading’ models was drawn: A ‘front-loading’ model would require DEC assessment missions to visit crisis-affected regions to gather information to determine the capacity of DEC agencies in the area and thus their eligibility for funding and the level of funds they should receive. This approach was not favoured by the researchers as it implied delays in the process of allocating funds, the duplication of assessment procedures undertaken by DHA and other organisations, and the likelihood of disputes between agencies.

The principal feature of the ‘back-loading’ model, ultimately adopted by the majority of existing and prospective agencies, was to impose minimal barriers to the initial ‘opt-in’ to an Appeal but require that the programmes of all agencies participating in an Appeal would be independently evaluated and, once finalised, the evaluation placed in the public domain. Using this system, the onus would be on the agencies to make an assessment of need and of their ability to respond effectively, in the knowledge that their programmes would be the subject of a future independent evaluation. All ‘pooled’ funds would have to be spent within six months of the Appeal or returned for reallocation among agencies able to make more effective use of the funds.

The evaluation process would then commence 8-11 months after the launch of the Appeal, the broadcasters undertaking to inform the public of the existence and availability of the evaluation reports. The use and type of sanctions to be deployed in the event of poor or unacceptable performance by a member agency would be determined by the Executive Committee. Thus, independent evaluation constitutes an integral part of the ‘New’ DEC, an innovation which is expected to have a significant impact upon the transparency and accountability of UK relief NGOs, not only to the UK donor public but also to the beneficiaries of the assistance provided – evaluators will be required to interview a sample of the beneficiaries of each member agency participating in an Appeal.

To maintain the ‘back-loading’ model and keep initial barriers and judgements about an agency’s ‘capacity’ to a minimum, a pre-agreed, mechanistic formula was required to determine an agency’s ‘capacity’ and thus its share of ‘pooled’ funds. In the absence of a consistent definition of ‘relief expenditure’ and comparable expenditure data by all agencies, the following second-best system came to be accepted:

  • use of the terms ‘relief’, ‘rehabilitation’ and ‘development’, defined differently not only between agencies but also within agencies, would be avoided
  • geographical area and type of target group should be used as alternative ways of classifying expenditure rather than searching for perfect definitions which proved elusive
  • a weighting system would be introduced giving greater weight to those activities which were closer to the objectives of the DEC and less weight to those activities which were relevant but less significant from the DEC’s perspective.

Thus, all agencies wishing to join the ‘New’ DEC are now required to classify all their expenditures (from UK sources) over the previous three years into two categories. Category 1 includes all expenditures in countries experiencing complex political emergencies and on refugee and IDP populations. Category 2 is a residual of all those expenditures which do not conform to the Category 1 criteria.

In calculating the share of ‘pooled’ funds to which a member agency is entitled, the total of Category 1 is accorded a weighting of 1.0 whereas the total of Category 2 is accorded a weighting of 0.2. In this way the estimation of response capacity within the ‘New’ DEC is weighted towards those agencies with substantial programmes in countries experiencing complex emergencies and working with displaced populations. However, it is also recognised that agencies with substantial ‘development’ activities in other countries have a capacity to respond effectively in emergencies as a result of the knowledge and networks that accompany such an involvement, though such ‘capacity’ is accorded a lower weighting.

A ‘typical’ appeal involving 9 agencies ranging from the largest to the smallest would result in the largest receiving 29% of the total ‘pooled’ funds and the smallest receiving 1%. This spread compares with the previous equal shares basis which resulted in 6 member agencies receiving 14.2% and two 7.1%.

The package of measures comprising the ‘New’ DEC is proving acceptable to UK NGOs: in addition to the original 7 members (British Red Cross Society, Oxfam, SCF, Christian Aid, CAFOD, Help the Aged and ActionAid) there are 8 new member agencies (CARE, Concern Worldwide, Merlin, World Vision, MSF-UK, Tear Fund, Children’s Aid Direct, and the Christian Children’s Fund).

For further information, please contact:
DEC Secretariat
17 Grove Lane
Tel: +44 171 703 5400
Fax: +44 171 252 4805


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