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When Disaster Strikes, Aid Groups Often Strike Out. Why?

Thousands of Haitians were promised homes by aid groups like the American Red Cross in the wake of the earthquake in 2010. Instead, many were given temporary shelters without bathrooms, kitchens or running water.
Marie Arago for NPR
Thousands of Haitians were promised homes by aid groups like the American Red Cross in the wake of the earthquake in 2010. Instead, many were given temporary shelters without bathrooms, kitchens or running water.

Poorly managed projects. Questionable spending. Dubious claims of success.

That's how an NPR report last year described recovery efforts in Haiti from international humanitarian groups after the earthquake in 2010. That's why NGOs — nongovernmental organizations — helping out in the wake of Hurricane Matthew know they need to get it right this time.

Sara Pantuliano is the managing director of the Overseas Development Institute.
Darren Ruane / Courtesy of Sara Pantuliano
Courtesy of Sara Pantuliano
Sara Pantuliano is the managing director of the Overseas Development Institute.

But that's easier said than done. Over the past few years, researchers have found that big aid groups haven't been able to meet the needs of people in crisis in places from Haiti to Syria to South Sudan — even though there are more relief groups now than ever before. Some analysts, such as Sara Pantuliano, managing director of the Overseas Development Institute, a global development think tank based in London, have been wondering: Is there a better way?

The answer is yes, Pantuliano says, but aid groups may not like what they hear. Pantuliano, a 20-year veteran of the industry, spoke to NPR during a break from last week's conference hosted by USAID and the U.S. Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance in Washington, D.C. She talks about the findings from the April 2016 report she co-wrote with ODI and Humanitarian Policy Group, Time To Let Go: Remaking Humanitarian Action For The Modern Era.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Interview Highlights

You've spent a lot of time researching the history of aid — from the concept of zakat in the Arab world, a practice of giving to the poor that dates back to pre-Islamic times, to the formation of the Red Cross in 1863. Why go back so far?

If we look back in history, we can see that we've seen these challenges and lived through these dilemmas many times before. We need to build on that experience rather than think every crisis that we've faced is unique.

One thing I've done with my team is ban the word "unprecedented." Every crisis is always defined that way. That means that we never look at what we've learned from similar crises in the past. It justifies that every aid approach needs to be unique, so we're forever reinventing the wheel.

What past conflict does Syria remind you of?

In terms of the length of the crisis, devastation and level of displacement, Palestine comes to mind. The intensity of Syria's urban bombardment reminds me of the Battle of Grozny in Chechnya [in 1999]. The dilemmas are similar, and they're both urban, well-educated, middle-income types of countries.

This is not the type of crisis you have in rural areas of sub-Saharan Africa. Yet we brought the humanitarian toolkit [for example, how to provide resources like health care, Internet coverage and clean water] of traditional crises in Africa to Syria at the beginning of the war. The way we were intervening was wrong because we had the wrong reading of the crisis.

In your report, you found that conflicts last two times longer than they did 25 years ago, and the number of people displaced by conflict today is as high as it was during World War II. Are big NGOs up to the challenge?

The number and magnitude of crises happening in the world puts a strain on the system. But that's because the system is no longer fit for purpose. It was created 70 years ago [after World War II] and hasn't really evolved with the geopolitics.

Yet the aid sector is bigger than it's ever been before, with 4,500 known relief organizations around the world. That might seem like a good thing — but your research has shown the opposite.

The system has never helped save more lives and feed more people. But that's only part of the story. Organizations have become businesses in many ways, held back by interests that are very corporate. Success is not measured in terms of the quality of the aid you provide, or how much you're working in partnership with other NGOs. It's about how many places you're in, how much staff you have, how much is in your budget.

That's where the incentives start to go against what they're trying to achieve [helping those who need aid]. This is a massive issue. The original impetus of a lot of NGOs was to be agile, to be an advocate for civil society.

But instead of being collaborative with local NGOs that could take on crises more efficiently, more appropriately, international organizations are competing with them.

Can you give an example?

When Typhoon Haiyan struck in the Philippines [in 2013], we saw everyone flood into the country where there is [already] an enormous capacity to deal with these kinds of natural hazards. The Philippines gets many typhoons every year and [aid groups there] know how to respond. They've got the structures, they've got the capacity, and they would have done just fine in leading the response to the typhoon.

Instead, everybody and their dog was on the ground. That actually made national efforts harder. It swamped the efforts of the local people to take the lead in planning their recovery.

So what's the answer to the problem?

We need to find a way to address the incentives that hold back so many international organizations. People need to be at the center of their organizational interests, not the growth of their budgets or staff. That takes a lot of courage. Ultimately, this is at the heart of the issue: power.

You've acknowledged that asking aid groups to let go of that power is a radical idea. How have NGOs responded so far?

This report [from April 2016] has generated a hell of a lot of debate in the sector. Lots of mulling over, reflection. Ceding power means staff cuts, it means diminishing the role of your organization. That's counterintuitive for organizations that have come to be judged, in terms of success, on their growth and visibility.

I don't think [big aid organizations] are going to cede power [to other NGOs] so easily. So we're telling them: If you don't change, you're just going to make yourselves redundant. States won't let you in anymore. Organizations on the ground will reject your aid. Reject your role.

And that has already started to happen.

People on the ground have a negative perception of humanitarian aid. We hear that crisis after crisis. People feel that their voices are not being heard in any way.

From surveys of earthquake victims in Nepal, they told us that the aid that they're receiving is not appropriate, not relevant. They're getting food that they're not used to, supplies that they don't need. There are delays and irregularity with receiving aid. In West Africa after Ebola, the surveys were 10 times worse.

What do you think is the public's role in all of this? Do we just stand by?

You have the most powerful government in the world. Put pressure on it. A lot of the problems we have come from the politics of powerful states and the way that they engage.

If the American public is more educated [about what's happening in the world], they can push their congressmen to be more informed about how to help aid organizations do better.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Malaka Gharib is the deputy editor and digital strategist on NPR's global health and development team. She covers topics such as the refugee crisis, gender equality and women's health. Her work as part of NPR's reporting teams has been recognized with two Gracie Awards: in 2019 for How To Raise A Human, a series on global parenting, and in 2015 for #15Girls, a series that profiled teen girls around the world.
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