Action Aid pans Iran 'gesture' aid

Action Aid has criticised parts of the relief effort in Iran after the Bam earthquake, and says international NGOs must involve local agencies in the top-level logistics of disaster relief if they are to have any lasting effect.

Roger Yates, head of emergencies at Action Aid UK, said that a lot of the relief work following the earthquake, which killed up to 40,000 people and left a further 100,000 homeless, was "well-intentioned but ineffective".

"In Iran we talked to one agency that was bringing in 150 containers of second-hand ski-wear from the US - which is a nice goodwill gesture, but not appropriate. This kind of approach undermines rather than contributes to long-term community renewal."

Yates said disaster relief charities need to get past the "white aid plane" image that is popular with donors, but does nothing to help build the capacity of local groups to deal with the long-term implications of large-scale emergencies.

Action Aid is doubling its own disaster relief programmes, citing the growing scale and impact of natural and conflict-driven emergencies, but has pledged to make local agencies the "bedrock" of its response work.

Its head of international humanitarian action programmes in Asia, Dr Unnikrishnan, said that Action Aid was determined to break the mould of existing NGO disaster relief programmes.

"There is a need to get away from seeing the aftermath of a disaster merely in terms of relief," he said.

"While it is always essential to provide shelter, food and sanitation, survivors have to be helped to rebuild their lives in the long term. The key is engaging local organisations, yet these organisations are still missing."

He said the current approach, as demonstrated by the distribution of aid in Iran, often means that the most needy are still left without vital support.

"Relief goods may be plentiful but relief workers, who have no real connections to the local area, are often too busy to explain their plans to those they should be helping," said Unnikrishnan. "Consequently, survivors who shout the loudest, have cars, or have good connections, get the most help."

But the British Red Cross maintains that the Iranian Red Crescent was at the heart of the relief work in Bam, and says NGOs should not be responsible for long-term community renewal.

Marie-Louise Weighill, humanitarian policy adviser at the British Red Cross, said: "The Iranian Red Crescent has a plan in place to assist the survivors and homeless for the next six to 12 months, but we believe the major responsibility for reconstruction lies with government."

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