The Lancet is Off-Base About Aid Agencies

The Lancet just published an editorial intensively criticizing international aid agencies. The column states that aid organizations often act in their own self-interest instead of that of their beneficiaries. Their evidence of this? Poor coordination in Haiti. That’s not really useful evidence. The Lancet is entirely correct that coordination is bad in Haiti, and in pretty much every other humanitarian emergency. But they’re all wrong about why that’s the case. I’d wager that whoever wrote this article has never been part of a response to a complex humanitarian emergency. Or, for that matter has ever run a project on the ground in a country where there are a large number of organizations at work. (For what it’s worth, I have backstopped emergency projects from the US and handled stateside coordination. I have also run development projects on the ground.)

NGOs don’t coordinate because coordination is hard. I know, that’s simplistic. But it’s also true. It’s easy to talk about the value of coordination, and it is valuable. I’m not saying it isn’t. However, actual coordination is neither easy nor intuitive.

How exactly do you coordinate a disaster response? Do you split up by sector – one group does health, another does water and sanitation? Does that mean that the watsan people can’t perform first aid if they rescue someone from a pile of rubble? How about coordination by geographic region? One NGO could handle an entire neighborhood or region, but that leaves specialized actors like telecoms sans frontieres (the ones making cell phones work in Haiti) without a place.

Coordination ends up being a messy combination of sector and geographical cooperation, more of an art than a science. It’s hard to fit small NGOs into this structure – they may not be able to handle an entire sector or an entire geographic region. At the same time, dividing assistance into too many sectors leads to fragmented aid, and makes it hard to support holistic community development or rebuilding.

The global funding system for aid doesn’t support coordination. Every major donor has different priorities, reporting systems, and types of projects they like to support. They also provide funding in different cycles. That makes it very difficult to standardize projects in a way that makes coordination functional.

Coordination also takes time. Time spent planning, first of all – it means delaying your emergency response team while you find out who’s doing what. And then time spent on coordination while you’re in the throes of disaster response. Coordination takes meetings, and for the meetings to be effective, senior people with decision-making responsibility need to attend them. These are the same people who are managing immediate disaster response activities. They don’t have a lot of time to spare.

When you call for better coordination, you are saying that you want a committee to handle your earthquake response. There is a reason this makes people nervous. The idea that aid groups avoid coordination so they have more time in the spotlight is ridiculous. They avoid coordination because it’s a bureaucracy-ridden pain hassle.

In conclusion, my feelings on the Lancet’s major points:

1)      “…it is scandalous that it took a seismic shift in tectonic plates for Haiti to earn its place in the international spotlight.” – True, and tragic

2)      “Large aid agencies and humanitarian organisations are often highly competitive with each other.” – Also true – it’s caused by the way that groups receive funding.

3)      “Perhaps worst of all, relief efforts in the field are sometimes competitive with little collaboration between agencies, including smaller, grass-roots charities that may have have (sic) better networks in affected counties and so are well placed to immediately implement emergency relief.” – Confused mess of reasoning. Competition is not the same as lack of collaboration, and competition is not the reason that small charities have trouble finding funding.

It’s true that the international aid industry needs more scrutiny. Anyone who is part of it will tell you that. But the Lancet is focusing on the wrong stuff.


photo credit: US Coast Guard