NEWS IN FOCUS: Famine crisis feeds spirit of unity - The leading aid agencies have once again joined forces to avert a major humanitarian disaster. John Plummer finds out why these appeals are so successful

JOHN PLUMMER

About once a year, acute human suffering prompts Britain's leading aid agencies to stop competing and work together under the banner of the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC).

The Southern Africa Food Crisis Appeal, launched a fortnight ago, is the 48th such instance since the DEC was formed in 1963.

The DEC is perhaps the most powerful charity in the land. After launching an appeal, it has the ability to secure cross-channel TV coverage and mobilise the support of banks, the Post Office and BT. Not surprising, therefore, that within 24 hours of actress Claire Sweeney's televised plea two weeks ago, the latest appeal had raised £3 million.

DEC membership hinges on fulfiling 10 criteria, such as being registered as a charity for at least three years and signing up to the code of conduct of the International Red Cross. The 14 current members are ActionAid, the British Red Cross, Cafod, Care International, Children's Aid Direct, Christian Aid, The Christian Children's Fund of Great Britain, Concern, Help the Aged, Merlin, Oxfam, Save the Children, Tearfund and World Vision.

The DEC is governed by a board of trustees consisting of the chair, member trustees, up to four independent trustees and the honorary treasurer.

Brendan Gormley, who was Oxfam's African director during the 1990s, is chief executive.

Gormley says the main advantage of working together is the united face it presents. "The British public want to see less competition among charities,

he says. "They are keen on having a one-stop shop for charities and knowing the money will be given to the appropriate people.

"By operating together we drive down fundraising costs. DEC core costs are paid by members and we levy just 2 per cent on the costs of the appeal and up to 1 per cent on evaluation."

Tearfund's Keith Ewing agrees it is sensible for charities to call a truce during a disaster of huge magnitude. "It avoids confusion,

he says.

"It can get to the stage where you open a newspaper and see ads from three agencies."

Donald Mavunduse, emergencies programme adviser at ActionAid, agrees.

"It becomes cumbersome if we have 14 agencies going to the British public. Plus there is no unnecessary confusion because we are bound by the same principles. By coming together, we are able to raise more funds than we can individually."

An appeal is launched on the basis of overwhelming need, an ability to respond quickly and effectively and demonstrable public concern.

There is no rule on how many agencies must call for an appeal for it to happen. If there is no consensus, a teleconference is held to reach a decision. Neither is there a rule on how much each appeal must raise, although £5 million is regarded as a minimum guideline. The Goma appeal, which closed at the end of July, stood at £4.5 million in May. Every other appeal since 1994 has surpassed £5 million, but Gormley winces at talk of success and failure.

"We don't set targets or consider a small appeal a less successful appeal,

he says. "The complexity of each one is different."

The latest breaks from tradition in trying to ward off a humanitarian crisis rather than respond to one. Political instability and three years of drought and flooding have left Zambia, Zimbabwe, Angola, Mozambique, Lesotho, Swaziland and Mozambique facing near-certain starvation unless action is taken. The appeal is due to run until March, when the harvest will hopefully have alleviated suffering.

Gormley acknowledges teasing money from the public isn't as easy as it would be for a current disaster that is accompanied by emotive TV pictures.

He talks of a "slow burn

campaign but is heartened by the positive response of broadcasters to the preventative theme. "We could not sit on our hands and wait for Christmas and horror pictures. We had to try and run a successful appeal on the basis of prevention,

he says.

The broadcaster relationship is of fundamental importance. When an appeal is pending the DEC issues an amber alert, followed by a red alert when both BBC and ITV agree to run free, celebrity-fronted primetime footage, which is made available to Channel 4, Channel 5 and Sky TV. High-street banks offer over-the-counter donation facilities and BT gives free phone lines for pledges as part of the same Rapid Response Network.

The DEC has only five full-time staff but during appeals some staff, particularly media officers, are seconded from member agencies. Each appeal begins with a minimum two-week period of joint action to maximise the initial wave of giving.

The end of the period of joint action doesn't mark the end of co-operation but the day-to-day lives of most agency staff are hardly affected. The united front is more symbolic for the public's benefit than indicative of any change in how the staff operate.

Each agency submits funding proposals to the DEC. Often the money goes to existing programmes; sometimes schemes involve partner organisations such as smaller charities with specialist knowledge. No programme is awarded more than 25 per cent or under 3 per cent of funds.

For small charities operating in the shadow of the DEC, could this be a threat to funding? Not according to Juliet England, a spokeswoman for Y Care International. "If anything it helps by bringing the issue into people's living rooms,

she says.

The DEC does not co-ordinate how each agency spends its money but its evaluation process looks for "evidence of an appropriate degree of disaster response co-ordination".

Most DEC procedures were put in place when it relaunched in 2000. Since then Afghanistan has been the thorniest issue. "We negotiated at length,

says Gormley. "In the end the timing of the appeal could not be agreed. The complexity of getting aid to those in need was also a factor."

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