Aid projects need more critical media coverage

Opinion: A specialized reporting entity could expose the weaknesses in the international aid business and encourage reform.

The forced resignation of former World Bank director Paul Wolfowitz for nepotism was largely the result of intense pressure by an irate staff who saw his actions as lacking in dignity and concern for the well-being of the organization. The willingness of the press to pursue the issue was another contributing factor.

Wrongdoing, of course, is nothing new to the international aid industry. But in most cases there is no dogged media reporting or public will to bring the culprits to task. The fact that Mr. Wolfowitz was appointed in the first place by the Bush administration only underlines the practice of member states (who consider it their right) to dump political appointees – regardless of competence – on the United Nations and other international agencies. This does little for the credibility of these organizations.

The UN's 53-member Commission on Sustainable Development recently named Zimbabwe (led by the notorious president Robert Mugabe) to head the key UN body. This is another example of the disdain that countries often harbor for the mandates of institutions that are supposed to serve humanity and not dictatorial regimes. Another is the systematic failure of governments to hold their peacekeeping soldiers accountable for rape or trafficking.

International aid is in desperate need of more critical reporting. This is crucial if committed aid professionals are to do their jobs properly. Many feel frustrated by their inability to thwart the inherent nepotism, corruption, and power abuses that pervade much of the system.

Aid organizations regularly cover up managerial dysfunction, including sexual harassment, by ignoring the actions of those responsible. This includes a UN agency director in Geneva lying about his age to stay in power longer, the misappropriation of US funds by private contractors in the Middle East, and the placement of inappropriate personnel in well-paid UN positions by in-house "mafiosi" to the detriment of more qualified individuals.

In certain instances, this has led to an environment of impunity with few employees daring to speak out. One UN department head who consistently intimidated fellow colleagues was not only reassigned to another agency, but at a higher salary and position. Another working in Somalia was removed for blatant conflict of interest only to reemerge later with the same organization in Europe.

The UN system, however, will only prove as good as its member states allow it to be. All too many organizations are burdened by incompetent individuals who stifle the initiatives of others, sometimes with resounding consequences for the victims of war, HIV-AIDS, or drought. Nor is there any real pressure to "out" officials who abuse their trust.

The UN's country representative in Harare, Zimbabwe, a Mozambican known to be close to Mr. Mugabe, has been accused by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) of refusing to treat Zimbabwe's economic collapse as a humanitarian crisis for fear of embarrassing the regime.

Every year, the UN and NGOs, and also the military, spend hundreds of millions or, as some suggest, billions of dollars on humanitarian, reconstruction, or peacekeeping programs of dubious impact.

Among these are costly but ineffective initiatives, such as opium-eradication pro grams in Afghanistan or desperate face-saving development operations in Iraq.

Many disasters, whether Somalia's civil wars or Zim babwe's economic collapse, are instigated by corrupt regimes, power-hungry factions, or criminal elements. Simply pouring in more aid or imposing inappropriate peacekeeping operations are not going to resolve such crises. They may even make them worse.

Numerous projects, too, are poorly coordinated as a result of interagency UN rivalries or inappropriate expertise among contracted consultancy firms, and sometimes such initiatives are implemented for the wrong reasons.

While NGOs, which rely heavily on donor funding, can cite innumerable examples of aid that makes little sense, they are cautious about criticizing their benefactors. One aid administrator in London pointed out that even when known to be part of a questionable political agenda, "it's still your bottom line."

Many NGOs, including highly respectable organizations, have become obsessed by image as a means of promoting fundraising to maintain costly administrative overheads. They now seek to focus on initiatives that make them look good but do not necessarily respond to on-the-ground needs. "For me, this is a form of moral corruption," confided one US agency representative. "Particularly when you know that the organization is not doing what it claims to be doing."

Much of the emergency response to the Indian Ocean tsunami in late 2004 was not required, but hundreds of organizations still insisted on being seen, often at the cost of rechanneling humanitarian resources from vital operations elsewhere in the world, bringing some to virtual collapse, notably in Africa.

What this amounts to is a blatant abuse of public confidence. As one International Committee of the Red Cross representative admitted, if the donating public knew how often personal egos or vested interests call the shots, they might prove less forthcoming in their support.

Efforts are being made to introduce desperately needed change. Last November, the High Panel for UN Reform co-chaired by Norway, Pakistan, and Mozambique presented a list of recommendations to make the system, including the Bretton Woods institutions, more accountable. Organizations such as the Geneva-based Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP) are also promoting greater transparency among NGOs.

Many member states, however, have too much to lose from a truly open UN.

During its six-month deliberations, the High Panel discussed the need for improved monitoring but also an annual "state of the world" humanitarian report as a means of keeping tabs on situations, such as those in Darfur or Sri Lanka.

Humanitarianism, however, should not "belong" to any one group. What the international aid industry urgently needs is more hard-nosed and independent reporting.

Current initiatives such as IRIN, the UN's humanitarian news service, and the World Disaster Report of the International Red Cross are excellent in many ways but widely perceived as beholden to their organizations.

Another question is whether one can expect real criticism of the international aid industry if such ventures are themselves cofunded by governments.

The best solution would be the creation of a viable media watchdog capable of reporting the real causes behind humanitarian predicaments, including how the international community responds.

Most mainstream news organizations are unlikely to cover the global aid business on a consistent basis.

On the other hand, a pooling of media, corporate, and foundation support for a specialized reporting entity could prove to be the answer. Any other approach that does not guarantee complete independence would be a waste of time and money.

Edward Girardet is a writer and journalist specializing in media, humanitarian aid, and conflict.

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