Mercy Corps


Mercy Corps CEO says focus on emergencies neglects chronic disasters | 

Mercy Corps DonateHigh-profile disasters like the devastation caused by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines serve as a powerful reminder of the need for the many humanitarian organizations out there – and also as a great marketing opportunity.

Go to the websites of CARE, Oxfam, World Vision, Mercy Corps or just about any of the thousands of such groups and chances are at the top you’ll see (as shown at right) a plea for donations in support of what the organization is doing for the disaster du jour.

“It’s wonderful to see the outpouring of support for this disaster, which is massive,” said Neal Keny-Guyer, CEO of Mercy Corps.

But the disaster donation pitch differs from another pitch frequently made by Keny-Guyer, who recently spoke in Seattle at the annual Global Washington gathering. He talked about the need for the humanitarian sector to move away from an emphasis on reactive and feel-good efforts toward a more sustainable and effective approach to reducing poverty and suffering.

Neal Keny-Guyer, CEO Mercy Corps
Neal Keny-Guyer, CEO Mercy Corps

“In the non-profit sector, if you can tell a good story that raises money you can continue to keep doing what you’ve always done even if it really isn’t having much of an impact,” Keny-Guyer said.

Even the U.S. military – to which all American taxpayers are required to donate – often regards these international disaster relief efforts as great for improving its image in regions where our bases are not always the most popular. As the New York Times noted, the US military has been having a hard sell seeking a bigger presence in the Philippines.

As this AP story notes, military strategists are well aware that relief efforts make them look good. Fox News is even more blunt in noting that part of the big relief effort in the Philippines is aimed at competing with China, for hearts and minds, and for demonstrating our technical superiority.

The world is now legitimately focused on the immediate needs of the Philippines, Keny-Guyer said, but the biggest humanitarian crisis out there is receding from the headlines even as it grows worse. Continue reading

A post-mortem for a dead international NGO | 

DRC: A Merlin health worker attends to two new mothers under mosquito nets.

Merlin/Frederic Courbet

DRC: A Merlin health worker attends to two new mothers under mosquito nets.

Earlier this month the UK-based Medical Emergency Relief International (Merlin) announced a merger with Save the Children. The two NGOs said that the decision was to achieve a better reach of critical humanitarian services to the world’s most vulnerable.

“By combining Merlin’s expertise and flexibility with the heritage and reach of Save the Children, we will create a unique proposition: a global humanitarian force that can provide faster and more cost effective support in a humanitarian crisis,” said Carolyn Miller CBE, Chief Executive of Merlin at the time of the announcement.

An investigation into the past few years of Merlin’s operations reveals that the charity was financially stressed. John Alliage Morales at Devex dug into Merlin’s financials and asked other NGO workers to find out what happened. He learned that narrow funding streams and overspending in 2011 led to £1.9 million in losses.

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Three years later: Was the massive humanitarian response in Haiti a success? | 

Co-authored by Tom Murphy


Immediately after the 2010 quake, many Haitians were given tents as 'temporary' shelters. Three years later, nearly 400,000 still live in them.              UNDP
Immediately after the 2010 quake, many Haitians were given tents as ‘temporary’ shelters. Three years later, nearly 400,000 still live in them. UNDP


The international community’s response to the catastrophic 2010 earthquake in Haiti was one of the largest disaster relief responses ever carried out involving many governments, agencies, hundreds of humanitarian organizations and about $9 billion in private donations and foreign government assistance.

So it may be a bit disconcerting that, three years on, the aid and development community still can’t seem to agree on whether the effort should be regarded as largely a success or a failure.

“There are still something like 360,000 people living in tents,” said Nicole Phillips, a human rights attorney with the Institute for Justice and Democracy and Haiti. Philips is speaking today at the University of Washington along with documentary filmmaker Michele Mitchell who is screening her film Haiti: Where Did the Money Go? – a critical analysis of the lack of accountability within the humanitarian community.

Vijaya Ramachandran
Vijaya Ramachandran

Other aid experts, like Vijaya Ramachandran at the prestigious DC-based think tank the Center for Global Development, have asked the same question. As Ramachandran wrote last spring:

The Government of Haiti has received just 1 percent of humanitarian aid and somewhere between 15 and 21 percent of longer-term relief aid. As a result, NGOs and private contractors in Haiti have built an extensive infrastructure for the provision of social services. Yet, these entities appear to have limited accountability….

But many of those who actually do the work there say this alleged lack of adequate financial accountability doesn’t necessarily mean Haitians did not benefit, that lives were not saved and that many millions of people’s lives have been improved.

JeffWright2“There’s a reason it’s called a disaster,” said Jeff Wright, emergency operations manager for World Vision and a disaster relief worker with lots of experience in Haiti. These situations are always chaotic and hardly ideal for precise bookkeeping, Wright said, adding that Haiti was chaotic and difficult before the quake.

“Are things in Haiti good today? No. Are they better than they would have been had we not responded? Absolutely.” Continue reading

Guest post: Welcome to Seattle President Obama. Now, about those foreign aid cuts … | 

President Barack Obama is scheduled to be in the Seattle area tomorrow, as part of a West Coast campaign fund-raising push.

Given this city’s largely liberal and Democratic bent, Obama is likely to be warmly welcomed and celebrated. But our local humanitarian and aid community may not be so welcoming and friendly — given Obama’s proposed budget cutbacks to U.S. foreign aid, disaster relief and global health.

Here’s one such perspective from Joy Portella of Mercy Corps in Seattle:


Mercy Corps

Joy Portella

This week, President Obama submitted his 2013 budget request to Congress. This request included the international affairs budget, which among other things, provides aid for impoverished families around the world.

Foreign assistance amounts to less than 1 percent of the total budget. That may shock many Americans who think we spend 5 or 10 percent – or even more – on aid.

President Obama’s request for foreign assistance is a mixed bag. Overall, the President would like to increase the aid budget by 2 percent over what he proposed last year. On one level, that looks like a strong commitment to the world’s poor, but a closer look at the numbers reveals something different.

If the President’s proposed budget is accepted, the United States’ ability to help families grappling with poverty, famine or natural disaster would be seriously undermined – at the same time that needs are growing around the globe. Continue reading

Update: Humanitarian rankers don’t like getting ranked on | 

In case you haven’t been following the comment thread on my earlier post regarding the Top 100 NGOs as identified by Global Journal, I wanted to post here a critical look at the rankings by development professional Dave Algoso.

Dave Algoso

Algoso is an expert on aid and development issues. Here is his post Lies, Damned Lies and Ranking Lists: The Top 100 Best NGOs written in response to my earlier post about Global Journal:

Ranking lists are great publicity for both the rankers and the ranked but they usually involve bad analysis and mislead the readers…. Most of these NGOs are, to the best of my knowledge, quite good. My big disagreement is with GJ‘s ranking methodology. And the fact that they created this list at all.

Meanwhile, the equally well-intentioned folks at Geneva-based Global Journal have expressed, to me by email and in various comment threads, their disappointment at being ‘ranked on’ for publishing their list of the top non-governmental organizations working at making the world a better place.

The editor, Jean-Christophe Nothias, takes special umbrage at being criticized by lowly bloggers and even contends this may involve ‘libel.’ Says Nothias of their rankings:

It is a journalistic approach, not an academic, not a mathematical, one approach that understands a simple fact. Profit has a metric, money. How do you measure solidarity? How do you measure healing, suffering? Do you believe such a ranking has anything to do with the S&P, the NYSE and other financials index?

Right, so how did they do it? How did Global Journal arrive at placing Seattle-based PATH as 6th best NGO in the world — along with ranking a few other local organizations like Mercy Corps and Landesa — and inexplicably exclude other top NGOs like World Vision and the Gates Foundation?

The folks at Global Journal don’t want to go into the details. They appear to be arguing that they didn’t depend solely upon a quantitative methodology that can be checked by others for reliability. They also relied on their journalistic methodology, their own expert judgment, as Nothias says:

Do bloggers have a methodology? Do they make a difference between being a reporter and a rapporteur? Or is journalism, in their eyes, at the cemetery? We have an ethic and a strong belief in the fact that journalism is already part of the methodology.

As a journalist who is also apparently a blogger, I can say with great confidence that the ‘methodology’ and reliability of journalism is highly variable. Ranking, by its very nature, implies some kind of quantitative assessment that should be independent of even the best journalistic judgments.

As far as Algoso is concerned, Global Journal’s list is so arbitrary and subjective it is meaningless:

Ultimately, it sounds like the methodology was: we browsed the web, talked to a couple people, then sat around the conference table arguing among ourselves. Here’s the result. Sorry, guys, but that just doesn’t cut it. That’s not a methodology.

Well, so what? The folks at Global Journal are basically arguing that an imperfect listing is better than no listing.

Algoso disagrees. He notes that many organizations are already using the magazine’s ranking for promotional reasons — for fund-raising, that is. So there’s one obvious downside to Global Journal’s rankings. Should donors not give to World Vision because they aren’t on the list? Says Algoso:

As a development professional, I want to see a more efficient market for funding social causes. That’s an economics-y way of saying that I want funds to flow to those NGOs that can best convert them into positive social impact.

There is a great need to improving the evaluation of impact and effectiveness within the humanitarian, or NGO, community. It’s actually quite difficult to find consensus on the best metrics in this field. Many experts are struggling to come up with the most reliable measures of effectiveness.

In the meantime, people like Algoso think subjective short-cuts to rigorous evaluations may do more harm than good — if only by shifting funding away from those who actually are doing a better job toward organizations that happen to have won a media-sponsored lottery.

Mercy Corps battling famine in Horn of Africa | 

Erin Gray/Mercy Corps photo

Eighteen-year-old Saadia Farah and her one-year-old daughter Amina

Last week I wrote about IREX, an international, nonprofit agency working in the famine-struck Horn of Africa on long-term projects like education, media and community building. Today I’m focusing on another group that is hard at work providing immediate aid to the region – Mercy Corps.

Tom Paulson recently posted a couple of reports on the work Mercy Corps Communications Director Joy Portella, and others, have been doing in getting out the news on issues in Africa and how they are, basically filling in for news organizations that have dropped the ball on international coverage. But today’s post is not about Mercy Corps’ communications role. It’s about Mercy Corps’ ongoing direct effort to head off starvation for more than 1 million people.

Yesterday, Seattle-based Portella and a colleague, Erin Gray, a communications officer for Mercy Corps’ European headquarters in Edinburgh, Scotland, gave me a rundown of the aid agency’s work in the areas facing famine.

Joy Portella/Mercy Corps photo

A traditional herder stands on the withered landscape outside the drought-stricken town of Hadado, Kenya

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News update: Aid organizations continue to do media’s job | 

As I noted earlier, members of humanitarian organizations are often doing the media’s job overseas — of being there (when the media organization isn’t) and “reporting” on what’s happening.

Joy Portella of Mercy Corps (the subject of my earlier post) is back in Seattle after traveling in East Africa and sharing her observations for her organization’s blog — as well as doing stories for other media. Portella was in the world’s newest nation South Sudan for its first independence day celebration and after that traveled to do reports on drought-stricken east Africa.

Portella worked with many media and wrote a number or articles, including these compelling stories for CNN. Here she is on CNN being interviewed for further perspective:

The reports all feature photos credited to Mercy Corps and the latest CNN interview with Portella ends with a suggestion that people donate funds to Mercy Corps and other such organizations.

Portella also wrote this op-ed today for the Christian Science Monitor contending, correctly I think, that the famine now killing thousands in the Horn of Africa is at least as deserving of American aid as was Japan after it was hit by a devastating quake and tsunami:

The people of the Horn of Africa are suffering in numbers bigger than those that inspired the Live Aid anti-famine movement of the 1980s. Things won’t get better in the coming months leading up to the hoped-for fall rains. If we – American donors, the U.S. government, and other donor countries, together with the governments of the affected region – don’t act now, the vice will keep tightening, and families will get squeezed dry.

I think Portella’s stories and op-eds are great. But I also think it’s important to note that she has been serving as a proxy for media organizations who are not on the scene and not really doing the reporting. The fund-raising pitch at the end of the CNN video is a little disturbing, as another indication that the line between those doing aid and those reporting on it is getting blurred.

I would be interested in seeing a comparative analysis of both the humanitarian response and the media’s response to the tragedies in Japan and East Africa.

I think I’m on solid ground saying that the media devoted much more attention and resources to the tragedy in Japan than it has, so far, to the much more severe and devastating catastrophe unfolding in East Africa. What about the humanitarian response? Did we actually give more money to Japan?

Is the lack of investment by the media in telling the story of the crisis in East Africa part of the problem here? Is the increasing practice of asking members of aid organizations, people like Portella, to act as proxies for the absent media a stop-gap solution, or also a potential problem?

Joy in Africa: Are humanitarian groups doing the media’s job overseas? | 

There was a flurry of stories within the last week or so about the world’s newest nation, South Sudan, a nation with a tortured past and a future full of promise, uncertainty and plenty of lhumanitarian needs.

Mercy Corps

Mercy Corps' Joy Portella at South Sudan Independence Day

Joy Portella with Mercy Corps‘ Seattle office was there in the new South Sudanese capitol city of Juba, sent by the Northwest-based humanitarian group to witness and report on the new nation’s declaration of independence.

Portella travels a lot and reported out of the new South Sudan capitol city of Juba, including doing this article for the Seattle Times. Portella says pretty much the same thing on one of her earlier blog posts for Mercy Corps, ending with this concluding paragraph:

South Sudan will soon start the hard work of building a nation from the ground up in the face of challenges such as extreme poverty and lack of access to almost everything – roads, education, medical care, electricity – the list goes on. But today was a day to put those concerns aside to celebrate and imagine the possible. After decades of war and sacrifice, the South Sudanese have certainly earned their celebration.

Chris Sheach of World Concern, also from Seattle (okay, well Shoreline) was also in Juba reporting on this historic event for organization. One post from Sheach focused on Sudan’s educational needs and mentions some of the work World Concern is doing on this front: Continue reading