Ed Stourton calls the humanitarian industry to account

January 11th, 2011

‘Haiti and Truth about NGOs’ was an extraordinary programme on Radio 4 this morning.  If you didn’t catch it first time around, you can catch it again at 2130 tonight on Radio 4 or listen to it again here.

Described as an ‘Insight into the aid industry as it faces challenging times’, reporter/presenter Edward Stourton raises a lot of the issues that will be familiar to aid industry professionals – speed of response (or lack of it) in the face of massive disaster, the relative lack of Disaster Risk Reduction, the lack of any real stockpile of emergency goods, the ability of thousands of NGOs to land on a disaster and sometimes make things worse rather than better despite the best coordination efforts of the Clusters.

His focus was largely on Haiti, hit by a major earthquake a year ago in what is possibly the most complex humanitarian disaster ever to have hit the world.  The effects of the quake were compounded by its strength, the fact that it hit a built-up area where many people were crowded together, the destruction of the airport and of the buildings used by many of the UN organisations and NGOs already operating there.  Above all, the poverty and lack of development of Haiti in the decades prior to the earthquake.

All in all it makes for sobering listening – especially for those of us involved in any way in the humanitarian sector.  After the Tsunami there were promises made that ‘things would be better next time’, that ‘lessons had been learned’.  Stourton’s programme suggests that, whilst some lessons may well have been learned, the system changes needed to fully implement those lessons have still not been adopted.

And the sufferers in all of this are the Haitians, clearly and understandably angry at how little appears to have been done to put their country back together.  Angry at the fact that they are seldom asked what they want by the aid industry.  Angry at the huge quantity of money that has been pledged to Haiti and they still don’t have a roof over their heads or running water that is safe to drink.

Some of the old spectres are raised by Stourton – massive ordering of 4x4s, the growth of formerly small scale NGOs into organisations that can look more like multi-national corporations, the requirements that aid workers have for comfortable accommodation, the fact that the casinos and night clubs were quick to reopen to serve this market.

It is not a comfortable place for any of us to be.  He talks about ‘the business of doing good going bad’, which is, if true, a massive indictment.  On the web page for the programme it says, “More than one million people are marking the anniversary of the quake still living in refugee camps. How can that be when Haiti has attracted billions of dollars in donations and aid pledges?”  And that is a fair question to ask.

Surely it is time again for a re-think of the way that we prepare to deal with emergencies.

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