Relief and Development, Part Two

Adrienne had some great questions in the comments on my last post; I thought they deserved a longer response than another comment would permit.

1) What happens when a relief agency realizes that the emergency isn’t over, but leaves anyway? (And a sub-question – why do they do this? Is it only about the funding?)

It’s almost always about the funding. NGOs that respond to emergency needs are dependent on individual donations and government funding. They do not tend to have endowments or any other financial capacity to fund long-running programs without outside support. Therefore, when UNHCR or OFDA decides to stop supporting their programs in Kashmir or Lira, if they can’t fundraise to keep those programs going, they have no choice but to close up shop and depart. And fundraising for long-running humanitarian emergencies is very difficult – these situations are no longer in the news and they trigger donor fatigue because they begin to seem hopeless.

There are also a few NGOs, such as Doctors without Borders (Medecins sans Frontieres), who have very strict criteria for what constitutes an emergency. They may leave very quickly, because they see their role in the response as over.

I can tell you from the inside that having to close an office where you know there is need is horrible. It’s heartbreaking, and makes you feel like you have failed everyone who depends on you. Closing an office feels like death, and not unreasonably so.

2) How many organizations claim to be in development, but are really just providing relief? (This one in particular bothers me.)

This is a tricky question. Development and relief are not a binary system, or even a continuum. They’re…more of a pie chart. And how much capacity building do you have to do before it counts as development? Also, when you say “Claim to be in development” – do you mean in an analysis of their overall portfolio of programs or the makeup of each individual program? I don’t think anyone is setting out to deceive, but every program is heavily dependent on donor intent.

There are some capacity-building things that every relief program should do. Hire your staff from your target population. Contract out everything locally that you can. Never provide direct services if you can train or support someone in-country to do so instead. Give the communities you partner with a voice in your programs – ask them to evaluate if you are succeeding. Professional organizations do these things, so nearly all provide some level of development assistance.

3) How can relief truly help? If, like you say, relief should “give aid that empowers the communities who receive it,” then shouldn’t relief be kind of like mini-development?

The problem with doing relief as proto-development is the timeframe. In Burma, for example, people need clean drinking water, anti-cholera drugs, emergency food relief, and places to live. We can truck in water, hand out drugs to clinics, and distribute rice and tents very fast (or, we could if there was access) and the faster we do it, the more lives we save. If we train people to build sturdy, sustainable houses and then sell them at an affordable price to people whose houses were destroyed, a lot of people are going to suffer, or die, while they wait for those houses to be built.

In my opinion, there are two powerful cases for pure relief activities, when they truly help. The first is in situations where functional, prosperous communities are damaged by unexpected events. Relief can then sustain life and restore livelihoods so that communities can return to their pre-disaster quality of life. The second is to keep everyone fed, clothed, and housed until the development projects can begin.