Is Humanitarianism in Decline Among Large NGOs?

Posted on 23 January 2010

By Peter D. Bell

Following on the heels of the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti, the editorial in The Lancet of January 23 is headlined “Growth of aid and the decline of humanitarianism”.  It acknowledges that aid agencies and humanitarian organizations “do exceptional work in difficult circumstances”.  But the editorial also asserts that the aid sector, now “an industry in its own right”, has “largely escaped public scrutiny”. 

The Lancet goes on to state that large aid organizations, in particular, have taken on the “unsavory characteristics” of many big corporations.  They can be “polluted” with internal power politics, “obsessed” with raising money, and pursue media coverage as an “end in itself”.  Worst of all, the editorial claims that relief efforts in the field are “sometimes competitive” to the detriment of collaboration that could better serve people in need.

While The Lancet offers no specific evidence for any of these allegations, I suspect that one could find instances in which all organizations of any appreciable size lose their way and need to be exposed and reprimanded.  Humanitarian NGOs should be scrutinized by outsiders, who have a right to expect them to be driven first and foremost to save lives and relieve suffering and to pursue those purposes in accord with such humanitarian principles as independence and impartiality. 

Like The Lancet, I find the competitiveness among some NGOs for the media limelight and donor contributions in the midst of humanitarian crises to be unsavory.  But The Lancet and other watch dogs need to understand that NGOs must raise money to pay for their life-saving services.  And media access has helped NGOs to transmit messages about the importance of donors giving cash rather than used clothes and other supplies that clog airports.  Media access has also helped NGOs to inform the public about the special vulnerability of poor people to so-called “natural” disasters and the need ultimately to reduce poverty if the human toll of earthquakes, hurricanes, and tsunamis is to be reduced.

Whether or not the allegations in The Lancet are well founded, I would be delighted if the response to the Haitian disaster prompted some soul-searching among NGOs that leads to serious exploration in the U.S. of a joint inter-agency appeal for private fundraising for major emergencies (in the spirit of the Disasters Emergency Committee, better known as the DEC, in the U.K.).  When a major emergency strikes, it should be easier for people who are not already donors to a particular NGO to give with confidence, without having to sort through a multitude of organizations with shared missions. 

Even more crucial, it is past time for NGOs with overlapping missions to engage in more collaborative programming in vulnerable countries not only to respond to humanitarian emergencies, as they often do, but also to prevent them. 

Peter D. Bell is a Senior Research Fellow at the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations at Harvard University.

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