FEATURE Aid workers face puzzle of keeping funds flowing when donor support
The cameras move on from relaying searing footage of the starving masses, the dying and the homeless, they fly off to the next crisis du jour, and donor attention takes flight with them; funding ebbs, but the masses still starve, still die, are still homeless. “It’s an intractable issue, that’s for sure,” Catherine Bragg, Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator, tells the UN News Centre as the international community prepared to mark the first World Humanitarian Day on 19 August. One of the tools the UN uses to counter so-called forgotten or under-funded crises which have slipped off or under the humanitarian radar is the four-year-old Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF), a third of whose targeted annual total of $450 million is committed for just such emergencies where lives are at stake. “But the amount is obviously not adequate to deal with the size of the problem,” Ms. Bragg notes. Some two dozen countries have benefited from CERF’s funding for forgotten crises so far this year, including such little noted emergencies as Algeria, where Western Saharan refugees from the conflict with Morocco have been living in camps in the Tindouf area for decades, or drought-afflicted Djibouti and Guinea, which suffer from severe food shortages. In many cases the grants are relatively small, like $1.5 million for Algeria or $2 million for Burkina Faso . In others they are more substantial and a country may receive more than one allocation a year, like the Democratic Republic of Korea (DPRK) or Zimbabwe , both suffering from severe food shortages, with $19 million and $20 million respectively. In all cases the allocations are meant to be life-saving and time-sensitive. Ms. Bragg cites five reasons for a crisis being under-funded. The first is the relatively small number of beneficiaries, perhaps tens of thousands or 100,000, “compared to next door, where you’ve got 2.5 million,” she says. “People tend to pay attention to the bigger one; people forget about the one that is a small caseload. I think that’s the case of places like Algeria or Guinea .” In the second case, donors do not have sufficient confidence that humanitarian agencies can actually get the aid to the beneficiaries because of either security reasons as in Somalia or Government constraints as in DPRK. “They want to be able to tell their electorates and the taxpayers that the money is actually getting to the beneficiaries,” she notes. The third reason arises when aid gets tangled up in politics, as in the DPRK or Zimbabwe , and donors have difficulty separating out what they should be doing with a country. In the fourth case the sense of urgency has subsided, as happened in Kenya . “When we had the post-election violence after Christmas 2007 and in 2008 we were all getting excited about it,” Ms. Bragg says. “But once the sense of urgency has subsided, then attention drifted even though there still remain needs.” Finally there are the cases where chronic abject poverty masks exacerbated conditions caused by natural disasters or conflicts, as in Niger or Haiti . In all cases the solution lies in continually beating the drum, raising the alarm publicly, and redirecting world awareness, as Ms. Bragg did with her recent visit to Central African Republic, where 1 million people, or a quarter of the total population, are in need of aid, 125,000 of the living in the bush without access to water, shelter, medical services or education. “It is a smaller caseload compared with next-door Darfur which is 4 million people in need, or Congo , or even south Sudan ,” she says. “What I was trying to do was… bringing to people’s attention and continuing to remind them that it’s not just the big ones out there, there are also the small ones. We also need to reassure donors that we can get the aid to the people in need.” As to “the tangling of humanitarian with political issues… we have to keep saying, in DPRK for example, there’s a humanitarian situation regardless of what you think of the political moves of the current Government. There are people who are in need of food. There are people who are severely undernourished.” When the sense of urgency subsides, “we need to continue to communicate… so that people don’t get a sense of complacency, don’t get a sense of ‘well, it’s passed us by, things are back to normal again,’ ” she adds, applying the same lesson for countries with chronic abject poverty. “We need to keep bringing it up so that it is understood in donor capitals that there are still humanitarian issues,” she stresses. 17 August 2009It is one of the most difficult problems the United Nations faces in tackling humanitarian crises – how to maintain momentum when the media klieg lights have gone elsewhere, or generate it when they were never there in the first place.