Disasters Emergency Committee relief agencies in tsunami-hit countries have competed with each other to impress the media instead of dealing with intractable issues, according to an independent evaluation.
The report by Valid International, which was commissioned by the DEC board, says managers on the ground have felt under pressure to produce "showpiece projects" rather than tackle poor conditions in temporary shelters.
But it also commends the member agencies for responding to the disaster rapidly and playing a major role in relief and recovery.
The report is critical of the fact that thousands of people affected by the south Asian tsunami are still in tents, while others live in unsafe conditions in temporary shelters. It suggests that a high media profile has led agencies to "distance themselves from intractable issues, such as basic needs in temporary shelters, and compete for what can be done rather than what should be done".
It also criticised the fact that Indonesia suffered 60 per cent of the damage from the tsunami but has received only 31 per cent of the DEC relief budget.
In a statement, the DEC board said: "This is the biggest and most destructive disaster that the aid community has ever faced. Clearly not everything is going to run smoothly, and there is always room for improvement."
But the DEC criticised the evaluation for not distinguishing between the work of member agencies and that of government or other humanitarian bodies, and for overstating the role of the DEC, "which is a UK fundraising charity and not an operational organisation in disaster zones".
Alex Jacobs, chief executive of development charity Mango, who wrote the evaluation of the 2002 DEC southern Africa appeal, said the relief effort was "a major achievement given the complexities of the different operating environments. The difficulties that the US government faced in responding to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans show how hard it is to deliver this scale of emergency relief."
He added that the sector as a whole would benefit from greater accountability and more public debate about its work.