NEWS IN FOCUS: NGOs put under spotlight for 'chasing' guns of war

Annie Kelly

The War on Terror is posing ethical dilemmas which threaten the legitimacy of humanitarian agencies. Annie Kelly reports.

The International Federation of the Red Cross has identified some worrying trends in the relationship between NGOs and government in its latest World Disasters Report.

The document states aid agencies are increasingly focusing their emergency appeals on lucrative, high-profile crises such as Iraq rather than more pressing humanitarian disasters in some of the world's "forgotten emergencies".

Abbas Gullet, director of disaster management at the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, is concerned. "Increasingly, humanitarian aid is being guided by political agendas at the expense of more invisible suffering far from the media spotlight," he says.

Gullet highlights the scale of the problem by contrasting the $1.7 billion (£1.06 billion) raised by the US Department of Defence to help rebuild Iraq with the $1 billion funding shortfall the UN has to contend with this year to provide aid for 40 million people in Africa facing starvation.

He suggests NGOs are guilty of following the dollars. "Currently, the scale of humanitarian appeals by aid agencies is often slanted towards what the market will bear - high-profile crises will attract higher appeals for aid even if other disasters are more deserving," says Gullet.

"This trend must stop if aid agencies are committed to providing humanitarian aid based on the principles of neutrality," he adds.

The report comes a decade after the federation launched its code of conduct for humanitarian aid agencies. Jonathan Walter, who edited the report, compared the conduct of international agencies to the principles of the code and reached some worrying conclusions.

"Humanitarian aid is in danger of following the agenda of the West's War on Terror rather than focusing on distributing relief to those people who need it most," he says.

"We are calling for more money and time to be spent on measuring the level of humanitarian requirements across the world to build up an accurate picture of need on which to determine the allocation and distribution of aid."

Jean-Michel Piedagnel, director of Medecins Sans Frontieres UK, says in such a volatile global environment, aid agencies must be increasingly aware of the need to remain divorced from the political sphere.

"As we've seen in recent conflicts, such as in Afghanistan and Iraq, the levels of aid and humanitarian relief poured into high-profile events often far outweighs the comparative need when measured against other less media-friendly conflicts," he says.

"We must be aware of that more than ever before we run the risk of becoming instruments of western foreign policy delivering aid where it suits others.

"It's crucial that we continue to communicate to donors the need to stay outside political operations in order to retain access to those people in need," he adds.

Jacqui Tonge, programmes officer at MSF UK, agrees that aid agencies must resist the temptation to "chase the guns".

She describes the massive influx of international NGOs to Kosovo following the NATO campaign of 1999 as a "humanitarian circus".

"In Kosovo, there were hundreds of international agencies scrapping for turf and donors," she says.

"Many were more worried about what projects (governmental) donors would approve, and so their actions were compromised by the money they accepted. It's difficult to see how some of those agencies could even get away with calling themselves NGOs."

However, Roger Yates, head of emergencies at ActionAid, believes demanding that aid agencies steer clear of government funding is simply unrealistic.

"We can't expect governments to be impartial and we can't expect aid agencies to function without government money. There's no way round this," he says. "But you don't need to become a pawn in a political game. It's all about handling the money in the right way."

As humanitarian aid programmes become part of western government foreign policy, many fear the gradual blurring of the lines between civilian and military relief.

"The present danger is that we are becoming indistinguishable from the military's distribution of aid," says Dominic Nutt, emergencies officer at Christian Aid.

"It's important, if not vital, that we percolate aid down through local groups to try and assert our independence and make sure our aid is actually having a positive effect."

But, ultimately, funds need to reach those most in need. The report urges the aid sector to work together to combat poor data gathering, information sharing and collaboration between agencies. Failure to do so has meant that the true scale of suffering in many crises has been ignored.

It is also encouraging more NGOs to put pressure on agencies such as host governments and UN organisations, as well as civil and military units, to sign up to its code of conduct to ensure their budgets are not founded on political agendas.

Recent campaigns in Africa by agencies such as Oxfam and Amnesty International will help draw the public's attention to other real areas of need.

But Piedagnel warns the only way to ensure that aid agencies fulfil their "moral responsibility" is by a better focus on marrying action and advocacy.

"There is still a feeling that at present the basic foundations of humanitarian aid - neutrality, impartiality and independence are still mere rhetoric for many international NGOs."

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