EDITORIAL: NGOs and public left to foot bill for relief work in Iraq

Lucy Maggs

Anyone watching the news over the past few days will have been struck by the images of sandblasted aid workers struggling to build refugee camps surrounded by nothing but miles of desert.

An Oxfam representative was quoted recently as saying that engineers working for the agency have found these the most difficult conditions they have ever worked in.

But NGOs are also dealing with the problem of the unknown. Nobody knows how many refugees there will be (estimates range from 600,000 to 1.5 million), where they will go and how long they will stay. This leaves agencies desperately trying to predict how much they should invest in setting up camps, not knowing if they will have to cope with thousands of people for a long period of time. Or, if military action is as successful as Bush and Blair hope, the flood of refugees will head back to Iraq within a few days.

On top of this, agencies may have to deal with the effects of chemical and biological weapons.

For such a predictable humanitarian disaster (war has been on the agenda for some time), the UK and US governments have done comparatively little to help agencies prepare for the humanitarian crisis that will follow.

NGOs battled to get additional money from the Government which eventually stumped up a paltry £3 million only two weeks before war was declared.

The lack of government funding means that UK agencies and the public are going to have to foot a large part of the bill for picking up the pieces despite the fact that many NGOs, and a large proportion of the public, do not even support military action.

With acres of column inches and hours of film dedicated to the war, appeals are likely to be a success. But when the initial attacks are over, it will become harder as the effects of the war will far outlast public and media interest.

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