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.

What’s the difference between relief and development programs?

The simplest breakdown goes like this:

Humanitarian relief programs are focused on rapid start-up, and rapid impact. Implementers of humanitarian programs need to gear up as fast as possible, and start providing necessary assistance as fast as possible. Their primary focus is not building local capacity, sustainability, or monitoring and evaluation. Their primary focus is getting help to people in need. They end when the emergency ends. Relief can come from the outside, and it is a response to some kind of breakdown or disaster.

Development programs are focused on achieving long-term change of some kind, with the intent of improving people’s lives and the lives of their descendants. They involve rigorous planning and ongoing operational research. They are rooted in local capacity building, because they are aimed at change which continues after the project ends. Even if it has outside support, development in the end has to come from inside.

In practice, however, it’s not that simple. (It never is, is it?) Sometimes the emergency doesn’t end. Situations that look like short-term humanitarian emergencies can go on for years, or even decades. Somalia, for example, Afghanistan, or Sudan. Programs designed to provide immediate assistance become a way of life for people in crisis. It would be nice if those programs could be converted into development programs, but it’s very hard to turn a relief program into a development program. The skill sets for the staff are different, for one thing. Building latrines and building community capacity can be a long, long way apart. You can hire new staff, though, or retrain your people. The other hurdle – usually the big one – is that relief programs and development programs have different donors.

Relief programs are generally funded by private donations and specific government donors. The US government, for example, funds emergency relief through the USAID Office of Foreign Disaster Relief. Development programs are far less popular with private donors, and they’re funded by a different set of government agencies. If you want to change the focus of your program, you have to get different different donors. Which mostly you can’t do. Donors don’t like to take over each other’s programs, you won’t be familiar with the new donor’s procedures and evaluation requirements, and development donors plan their financial priorities a long time in advance. They often won’t have money to pick up your newly transformed relief project.

Everyone’s perfect ideal for relief is to give aid that empowers the communities who receive it. Immediate assistance that also builds skills and improves quality of life for the long term. You could, for example, truck in water to a community struck by drought. Then you could dig wells and turn the wells over to local management. You could train a local engineering association or the Ministry of Water on well-digging and irrigation management and safe drinking water. We just need a funding structure that makes it happen.

Jargon – Emergency acronyms

ECHO – ECHO is an acronym that doesn’t seem to stand for anything. It’s the European Union humanitarian aid department. ECHO actually gives grants to NGOs for humanitarian response, but everyone hates taking their money because they only provide 7% overhead.

GBV – Gender based violence, which means exactly what you think it does. Also referred to as SGBV, sex or gender based violence. A major problem in emergency situations, and may be perpetrated by the aid workers who are there to help.

HDR – Humanitarian daily ration. Produced (or purchased, anyway) by the military, each HDR will feed one person or one day. They are designed to feed large populations such as refugees or displaced people.

MUAC – Mid Upper Arm Circumference. A measure which can indicate malnutrition. Very frequently used by aid agencies to determine eligibility for feeding programs.

NEHK – New Emergency Health Kit. The old name for the Interagency Emergency Health Kit. Assembled by Mission pharma and sold to NGOs and other emergency responders, the NEHK has all the medicines necessary to care for 5000 people in an emergency situation. The drugs contained are all far from their expiration dates and the cartons are clearly marked, which makes them very efficient for emergency use. WHO often provides NEHKs to governments and NGOs during emergency situations.

OCHA – United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. OCHA is supposed to coordinate all donors in emergency situations. Since they don’t have any enforcement power, that rarely actually happens, even though everyone agrees that donor coordination is a good thing. OCHA’s annual budget for 2007 was $159,079,639.

OFDA – Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance. An office within USAID that functions essentially autonomously. It is responsible for US government-funded emergency response overseas, including war, natural disasters, and other emergencies. Most emergency-response NGOs based in the United States receive all or some of their funding for their work from OFDA. OFDA is known for its ability to quickly identify an emergency and make funding available. OFDA support is especially valued because it has 100% line-item flexibility – organizations can make changes to their budgets as needed in rapidly changing emergency situations, as long as they stick to the correct total amount. OFDA focuses on immediate disaster response; therefore sustainability is not a priority and money comes from OFDA in a 6 or 12-month funding cycle.