Global Policy Forum

NGOs Can Add to Disasters


By Marwaan Macan-Markar

Inter Press Service
October 5, 2005

Among the estimated 300 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that descended on the shores of Aceh in the wake of the devastating Dec. 26 tsunami was a group that sported the name 'Scientology'. Members of the largely Australian contingent from this NGO were readily identifiable by their bright yellow T-shirts and badges with the legend 'trauma care' they sported, proclaiming their intended mission in tsunami-flattened northern Indonesia. Another ''unknown NGO'' intervened rather more intrusively and began vaccinating children, who had survived the natural disaster, against measles without bothering to maintain records on who among the Acehnese children were vaccinated or where.

These NGOs are but two of the several that caused concern to the leading global humanitarian agency that worked in Aceh in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). The Aceh experience with the activities of some NGOs has led the IFRC to describe humanitarian activity as ''the world's largest unregulated industry''.

It is an unfortunate reality, says Bekele Geleta, head of the IFRC's South-east Asia office. ''(These NGOs) stay in the business because there is no proper regulation and because there are no minimum standards''. Geleta made those comments Wednesday at the launch here of the IFRC's annual 'World Disaster Report', a 250-page document on the international response to the tsunami and other natural disasters during 2004.

That the tsunami disaster has a prominent place in this 13th annual publication is by virtue of its unprecedented scale, flattening the coastlines in 11 countries across the Indian Ocean, killing 224,495 people and displacing millions. Indonesia's Aceh province was the worst hit, with 163,795 deaths, followed by Sri Lanka, with 35,399 deaths, India, with 16,389 deaths, and Thailand, with 8,345 death, among the other affected nations, according to the report.

Agencies did not follow standardised procedures and reports were not made available, according to the publication. ''In Aceh, there was so much competition between agencies over beneficiaries that they even concealed information from each other,'' the report said. Some agencies came on ''shopping expeditions'' to guard their ''niche'', the report added. ''By mid-January, the humanitarian space had become just too small for all these actors''.

One long-standing actor in the humanitarian field, Oxfam, had responded with exasperation at the presence of new and previously unknown NGOs that had mushroomed overnight in the worst- affected areas. It called on governments in the tsunami-hit areas to ''work with the U.N. to introduce immediately a system of accreditation for international agencies to ensure the work they are doing matches their experience,'' according to the report. Behind Oxfam's thinking were the standards it abides by during disasters, as do other established humanitarian agencies like the IFRC, Save the Children Fund and Medecins Sans Frontieres. ''There are minimum standards all agencies that are seriously committed to providing humanitarian assistance have to be aware of and should aspire to follow,'' Ashvin Dayal, regional director for Oxfam's East Asia office, told IPS.

Currently, three documents provide the template to guide humanitarian agencies during relief operations in a disaster. They are the IFRC's 'Code of Conduct', the 'Humanitarian charter and minimum standards of the Sphere Project' and the 'Seven principles of accountability' of the Humanitarian Partnership Accountability International (HAP-I). The oldest of these three, the IFRC's code for humanitarian action, was developed 11 years ago by eight of the world's leading disaster response agencies. It marked ''a huge leap forward in setting standards for disaster response'', states the Geneva-based agency. These codes, which are voluntary, include 10 principles of commitment. Among them are: humanitarian imperatives come first; aid is given regardless of race, creed or nationality; aid will not be used to further particular political or religious standpoint; and ''we hold ourselves accountable to both those we seek to assist and those from whom we accept resources''.

For its part, the Geneva-based HAP-I, launched in 2003, brings together humanitarian agencies that pledge self-regulation and work by ''listening to the intended beneficiaries of humanitarian action so that the quality and the effectiveness of their humanitarian work is improved''. But, such language alone would not translate to a reform of humanitarian activity unless governments see their merits and use them as standards during disasters, says Rajan Gengaje, regional disaster response advisor for Asia and the Pacific at the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), a U.N. agency. ''For better standards during relief efforts, national governments must take the lead to create the right type of mechanism for the NGOs to work,'' he explained during an interview.

One country that maintains a tight control over NGO activity and actively discouraged unsolicited aid, in the aftermath of the tsunami, was India. To give rise to such a new climate, leading members of OCHA and other humanitarian agencies have begun arguing that donor governments ''must stop funding NGOs who refuse to work within the agreed coordination structure'', according to the report. A U.N. aid worker who witnessed the 'Scientologists' in action commented acidly: ''Do you realise that these people are providing psychological support to traumatised children? No one can stop them!''

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