Issue 32 - Article 3

Managing private funds maintaining a humanitarian perspective

December 8, 2005
Johan Schaar, IFRC

Our memory is short: we think that the next major humanitarian emergency will be like the last, and prepare accordingly. The Indian Ocean tsunami was, however, atypical. A regional disaster affecting 13 countries, three of them in armed conflict, its shocking force was documented on the digital cameras of hundreds of Western holiday-makers, some of whom became its victims, along with local hotel staff, teachers, nurses and fishermen. Unique too was the scale of the global public reaction. Other recent disasters may have claimed more lives, but none has triggered such a massive international response.

The tsunami was also unusual in that it was followed by other events that enabled us to better understand what had happened. Occurring less than a month before the World Conference on Disaster Reduction (WCDR) in Hyogo, Japan, the tsunami turned a conference which, in its preparatory phase, had attracted at best lukewarm interest from many governments into a world event. Delegations that were to be led by the heads of technical agencies were suddenly led by ministers. The world’s media gathered and debates, resolutions and NGO comments made international headlines. The tsunami gave meaning to the somewhat abstract concept of disaster reduction with immediate and cruel clarity. Seven months later, when Hurricane Katrina hit the southern coast of the US, the world saw the richest country in the world struggling to cope, and failing to protect its most vulnerable citizens. A point of reference for the tsunami had been created.

What lessons are there to learn this time? What can we conclude from the experience of the tsunami response and the early recovery phases? What needs to change? This article looks at two questions. First, what are the implications for humanitarian and recovery action and accountability when, over a very short period of time, very large sums are donated by the public, not by governments, to implementing organisations? Second, how can the international aid community and affected governments manage the transition from emergency aid to recovery? One important lesson from the tsunami response is that overwhelming private funding of relief and recovery responses to a major natural disaster can lead to unbalanced accountability, and can undermine good practice. If that is the result, we will have failed both our donors, and those we seek to assist.

So much money in so many hands

The enormous attention and publicity the tsunami attracted meant that aid organisations had to do very little to raise a great deal – unprecedented sums, in fact. Hundreds of organisations rushed to Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Thailand and the Maldives. Fewer went to India, which declined international assistance, while the response in Myanmar, Somalia, Malaysia, Kenya, Tanzania and the Seychelles was mainly carried out by national and international organisations already active in these countries.

The resulting chaos has been discussed in this year’s World Disasters Report, independently edited and published by the IFRC. There seems to be overall agreement that immediate needs for shelter, water, sanitation, health services and food were met, and there were no outbreaks of disease. The immediate objective of safeguarding the lives of the survivors was met, helped by the fact that there were relatively few severely injured people among them.

But the large amounts of money available to so many organisations seemed to have a strong influence on how they understood accountability, which in turn also affected their willingness to coordinate and cooperate with other actors. There are many stories of organisations ‘competing’ for beneficiaries, providing relief items to people who had already been helped, while distant communities, whether in Aceh or Somalia, were neglected. Some of this is probably due to lack of experience, but there seems to be a stronger underlying cause because even some experienced and well-known organisations reportedly behaved in this way. It seems that, when organisations receive so much money from donors, and when the strong urge to provide immediate help is the sole rationale for their action and that of their donors, the sense of accountability towards the people who donated money takes precedence over the need for accountability to the people that money is helping. The balance inherent in the Red Cross/Red Crescent Code of Conduct principle that states that ‘we hold ourselves accountable to both those we seek to assist and those from whom we accept resources’ seems to have been lost.

This accountability imbalance was confirmed in a study by the UN Development Programme (UNDP), carried out in Aceh in August 2005. This found that there was insufficient ‘systematic effort by those working in tsunami relief to keep communities abreast of what is available to them’. This lack of information was ‘having a huge impact on their ability to make the right choices about their future’. Women in particular were found to be suffering from this lack of information.

Individual organisations seem to understand accountability as requiring them to be the implementing agency, even if this means going into areas where they have little experience, or where other more experienced actors are already working. This leads to a plethora of organisations, rather than pooled funding for fewer specialised actors, or for the local government. The challenge for the many agencies with private funding is to revisit their understanding of accountability, and to find the balance between accountability to their donors and adherence to good professional practice.

Transition – with a gap

The Indonesian government declared the emergency over by 26 March 2005. Yet more than six months later, on 7 October, the head of Aceh’s reconstruction agency, Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, appealed for continued emergency food aid, warning that the province could otherwise face a ‘humanitarian disaster of immense proportions’. ‘There is a perception that the emergency conditions have passed because we’re now in the reconstruction phase. This is wrong. The problems are so great, the humanitarian needs are so immense, that the emergency continues.’

The eagerness of organisations to engage quickly and deliver recovery and reconstruction results seems to have distracted attention away from continued humanitarian needs, leading to a ‘transition gap’. In addition to Kuntoro’s plea for food aid, no consistent action was taken to meet the need for transitional shelter in Aceh. The lesson that it’s a long road from early emergency shelters to permanent homes has not been learned. In October, almost all of those displaced by the tsunami were still living with host families, in rapidly deteriorating tents, makeshift shelters or barracks built by the government. In Sri Lanka and India there have also been reports of inadequate shelter. In addition to the quality of shelter, poor water and sanitation standards where IDPs live are a serious problem.

In Aceh, the UN Office of the Recovery Coordinator (UNORC) replaced the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in August. Although a humanitarian coordination mechanism was established in the shape of the Humanitarian Action Forum, UNORC found it difficult to get organisations to commit to meeting humanitarian needs. Many seemed reluctant to provide transitional shelter, as this was seen as giving the impression that efforts were being directed away from the construction of permanent homes. There were also rumours among IDPs that receiving better transitional shelter would make them ineligible for a permanent home. In September, UNORC and the IFRC jointly developed an action plan, with IFRC accepting the lead role in providing transitional shelter. Other organisations were asked to assist in implementation.

Before the tsunami hit in 2004, the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR), UNDP and other agencies launched the International Recovery Platform, supported by the Japanese government and endorsed by the World Conference on Disaster Reduction. The paucity of recovery lessons learned, of policy and guidelines and of dedicated coordination structures was identified as a key weakness in post-disaster response. As illustrated in Aceh, there is also a lack of leadership in the shelter sector, a gap that the Emergency Relief Coordinator and the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) have invited IFRC to fill. The creation of recovery coordination mechanisms, such as UNORC in Aceh and, at the global level, the Global Consortium for Tsunami-affected Countries, led by former US President Bill Clinton in his capacity as UN Special Envoy, both warrant study and follow-up. The Consortium includes UN agencies, the international finance institutions, IFRC, NGOs and tsunami-affected governments.

How has the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement fared?

The Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement (the national societies, the Federation and the ICRC) received over $2 billion, most of it collected by individual societies in their own countries. This means that the Movement faced exactly the same challenges as those described above. Its solution was to develop a Regional Strategy and Operational Framework (RSOF) for the emergency and recovery phases, followed by an IFRC five-year plan. The large funding volumes have enabled the Movement to take a long view in fostering partnerships between its member societies and their governments in the affected region, working closely with UNDP, ISDR and the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC), in order to do its part in strengthening national disaster reduction, including multi-hazard early warning.

The basic elements of the RSOF are its accountability framework, including monitoring and evaluation, reporting, audits and an external advisory group, its communication strategy and its coordination framework. The latter, established in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and, with a lighter structure, in the Maldives, includes a body for policy decisions, a task force to review projects and ensure coordination and technical working groups to develop and monitor standards in the different sectors. A number of national society teams are working with host societies within the coordination framework. The Federation also implements projects together with the host society on behalf of those societies that have contributed multilateral funding.

With this broad but coordinated approach, the Movement has the potential to mobilise a range of skills and capacities among its members, from livelihoods to construction to psychosocial support, thereby providing a multifaceted approach to recovery. It also makes it possible to address lingering humanitarian needs. The challenge is to avoid building an overly heavy and bureaucratic structure: investing too heavily in internal coordination risks neglecting the critical task of coordinating and collaborating with other actors – particularly in areas where the Movement has less experience.

Johan Schaar is Special Representative for the Tsunami Operation, IFRC. His email address is


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