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Aid workers mixed in reaction to critical report on emergency aid industry

A sharp tongued report from Doctors Without Borders (MSF) this week has riled up the humanitarian industry. The medical relief organization uses examples from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan and Jordan to illustrate the failures of emergency response. A provocative title pointedly asks Where is Everyone? 

The hope is that the report will lurch organizations out of their foot holdings and improve the overall impact of emergency response efforts.

Staff with Doctors Without Borders respond to the Haitian cholera outbreak, in December 2010.

Staff with Doctors Without Borders respond to the Haitian cholera outbreak, in December 2010.

The report has accomplished its main goal in using shame to spur on a much needed discussion about the state of emergency response. Journalist and aid critic Ian Birrell used the report to further chastise a broken industry. He concluded in his piece for the Guardian that “too many aid groups have evolved into self-serving corporations dressed in the clothing of compassion.” MSF’s findings show that Birrell’s claims are not entirely unwarranted.

Aid workers who specialize in emergency relief have pointed out the things that MSF gets right, especially on the UN.

“There are very few activities undertaken by UN agencies, including those with mandates,” said one emergency aid worker speaking on the condition of anonymity to Humanosphere.

“Much of what they do/funding they have is passed through to operational agencies, once they’ve taken their cut for overhead. Worst part about it is that the UN wont pay for the services they require from agencies in order to account for the funds they’ve provided.”

Others have tried to temper the report by agreeing while saying that criticism of the aid industry as a whole should not go too far. Research Tobias Denskus says it is wrong of Birrell to compare the aid industry to that of corporations. There are many ways in which aid agencies and actors do things wrong, but the scale is just not the same. He hopes that such claims do not distract from the more salient parts of the MSF’s report.

“As always, MSF provides valuable food for thought, discussion and action-and the bureaucratic crisis of the UN remains one of the key issue of this report-but as sustained aspirations are necessary, we should not unduly criticize the aid industry or lose sight of the bigger dynamics that enable many crises in the first place,” he blogs.

While the United Nations is criticized the most harshly in the report, fellow NGOs come under scrutiny in a more broad sense. The chief criticisms are that some organizations are ill-prepared to switch from long term development work to short term emergency relief during an acute crisis. As a result, some are standing on the sidelines while a crisis is taking place, to wait it out before resuming previous work.

They are not taking the report sitting down. A rejoinder from Bob Kitchen, director of the emergency preparedness and response unit at the International Rescue Committee (IRC), pointedly says that they are standing right next to MSF. He makes the point that the IRC is still working in Somalia, a country that MSF left due to security concerns.

“At the IRC we’re willing to juggle concurrent emergency responses, as well as a meaningful engagement in that debate, and we will do so,” wrote Kitchen in the IRC blog. “In the meantime I really hope my colleagues at MSF are willing to open their eyes, look around and acknowledge that we’re standing right next to them and wanting to achieve the exact same humanitarian goal.”

One of the issues raised by the report is that work is being done through local NGOs. MSF says that this can be problematic when a disaster strikes and the NGOs on the ground include people directly affected. This is the result of aid agencies pushing towards more locals implementing aid work, something that is broadly seen as a good thing in development circles. Which means that the very thing which may be good for the long term is problematic during an emergency, leaving NGOs at a difficult catch 22. In the case of the Philippines typhoon response, local NGOs were crucial to the relief effort.

It also gets at some of the ways that development and emergency relief can work against each other. In the report, MSF is critical of organizations that are slow to mobilize or stand on the sidelines when there is an emergency. Some have pointed out that this is a problem, but is the result of having resources geared towards long term development as opposed to dealing with a short term crisis. One finding that comes from the report, which confirms previous case studies, is that effective field managers can overcome some obstacles and lead an impactful response during an emergency.

Then there is the issue of funding. Few agencies can quickly mobilize the money needed to fund an emergency response. The big players with name recognition, like MSF and the Red Cross, are often on the front lines of receiving donations at the onset of an emergency. That is not the case for others.

“Six months into the Central Africa Republic crisis in Cameroon, I attended a country director meeting on the emergency response. Of those present, only half actual had started operations, the rest were looking to fund in advance of setting up their programs,” said  the anonymous aid worker.

Humanitarian aid researcher Bertrand Taithe welcomed much of what was said in the report. His blog post on it concluded that the report ultimately does not help move the humanitarian sector forward. He said that the chief problems raised by MSF are the very same ones oft-discussed in informal conversations both in the field and headquarters of NGOs. The timing of the report is also concerning to Taithe as it may do harm to aid budgets at a time when they are coming under fire in the UK.

“There is an irony, therefore, when the entire report claims to present evaluative assessments which rely so little on political and historical context. That humanitarians should be better at what they do is undeniably true – it is a kind of truth we all share when facing our mirrors – that they should practice self-flagellation using the whips of those who would happily end humanitarian aid does not follow,” writes Taithe.

There is little disagreement that change is needed in the way that emergency relief is done. The fact that there is broad agreement on the main point and the conversation that has followed the release of the MSF report can be considered a victory for them. There is mention of upcoming public and private conversations on this issue. What comes of those meetings will ultimately determine whether or not the report had a meaningful impact on the industry.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]