Aid agencies rethink strategy

A new report urges top humanitarian groups to create a more-local presence in disaster-prone areas - a change from the current firefighting mentality.

Much of the developing world is facing crises of biblical proportions - floods, droughts, even locusts. But in the post-9/11 era, these disasters pose new problems. Many fail to capture the attention of a West preoccupied with terrorism. Others are complicated by the nexus of humanitarianism and politics. As a result, aid agencies are struggling to respond.

A group of the world's leading nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including CARE, OXFAM, Save the Children, and World Vision, have called on the experts to tell them how to cope. The result is a new report, entitled "Ambiguity and Change: Humanitarian NGOs Prepare for the Future." Its advice is brisk.

"It's time to realize: You can't sit in the United States and send fire-fighting missions [to the world's disaster zones] any more," says Peter Walker, a disaster-relief expert at Tufts University's Feinstein International Famine Center in Medford, Mass., who led a team that compiled the report. "You have to get local, become embedded in each country. You have to be there before disaster strikes and stay there when the emergency's over."

According to Mr. Walker, a former director of disaster and refugee policy for the International Federation of the Red Cross, Western-run aid agencies are facing a "crisis of legitimacy" as they struggle to be neutral in countries where their Western faces make them appear to be part of the enemy.

Aid groups have traditionally relied on the principle that their work is free from military or political influence to keep them safe in war zones. While maintaining that principle has always been difficult, aid groups say it's especially challenging now.

The United Nations confronted this reality last year when terrorists attacked the UN's Baghdad headquarters killing, among others, the UN's special envoy to Iraq, Sergio Viera de Mello.

At the same time, senior aid figures say that, because of their direct contact with local people, they are being forced, in countries like Afghanistan, to be the "public relations" branch of the US-led military operation, leading a "hearts and minds" campaign to win the support of the local population.

"We need the partners in the war on terrorism and particularly the US to start respecting humanitarian principles. We want them to separate their political and military activity from the operations of humanitarian agencies," says Phil Bloomer, Oxfam's head of advocacy. "Otherwise there is a danger that all humanitarians are perceived as nothing more than an extension of...the military operation."

Oxfam has recently decided to stop accepting funds from the British government, formerly one of its biggest sources of funds. And in July, after five of its workers were fatally ambushed, Doctors Without Borders pulled out of Afghanistan. In its press release, the group complained that US military efforts jeopardized its neutrality and endangered its members: "...The United States-backed coalition consistently sought to use humanitarian aid to build support for its military and political ambitions."

While aid agencies battle to be neutral, there are some countries that the war on terrorism has now made almost impossible to help.

NGOs have faced a particularly dire situation in North Korea - a country President Bush said was part of the "axis of evil" in 2001. By July, the World Food Program (WFP), the chief provider of food rations for the famine-stricken Marxist state, had raised only 20 percent of the funds it needs for next year's effort in North Korea. Program leaders have felt compelled to stop feeding some people. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the year for which the WFP was seeking to raise funds.]

"We have had to stop giving food rations to the elderly. It's an excruciating decision to have to make," says the deputy director of the Rome-based WFP.

North Korea is an extreme case. Aid agencies and government donors say donations and budgets have actually increased since Sept. 11, and a large proportion of aid is going to Muslim populations.

But people are thinking more carefully about who will best spend their donations. UN agencies are seen as too bureaucratic and tied to the politics of member nations. Instead, donors are slowly shifting toward the big, reliable, specialized agencies. NGOs are finding it difficult to call attention to a crisis that lacks an "evildoer."

"These days, because there are so many disasters, there have to be millions facing death before the West is going to notice," says Brenda Barton, the WFP's chief spokeswoman at its Rome headquarters. "We have noticed that the media and the public imagination can respond massively when there is a 'villain' in the picture. But when the villain is Mother Nature, people find it harder to react."

Bangladesh's floods have made headlines, but the response is not proportionate to the 20 million Bangladeshis whose homes are under water.

"The people of Bangladesh are not the only ones whose plight has gone largely unnoticed," says John Powell, the deputy executive director at the World Food Program.

Powell cites a swarm of locusts in West Africa, droughts in Kenya, Cuba, and Afghanistan, and freak weather conditions in Nicaragua and Peru as other problem areas being ignored. WFP officials say there are so many disasters now that disasters are fighting with each other for media attention.

"On top of that it is hard for us to tell people about hunger when they are obsessed with obesity and trying to lose weight," he adds from his office in Rome.

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