Much of the developing world is facing crises of biblical
proportions - floods, droughts, even locusts. But in the post-9/11
era, these disasters pose new problems. Many fail to capture the
attention of a West preoccupied with terrorism. Others are
complicated by the nexus of humanitarianism and politics. As a
result, aid agencies are struggling to respond.
A group of the world's leading nongovernmental organizations
(NGOs), including CARE, OXFAM, Save the Children, and World Vision,
have called on the experts to tell them how to cope. The result is a
new report, entitled "Ambiguity and Change: Humanitarian NGOs
Prepare for the Future." Its advice is brisk.
"It's time to realize: You can't sit in the United States and
send fire-fighting missions [to the world's disaster zones] any
more," says Peter Walker, a disaster-relief expert at Tufts
University's Feinstein International Famine Center in Medford,
Mass., who led a team that compiled the report. "You have to get
local, become embedded in each country. You have to be there before
disaster strikes and stay there when the emergency's over."
According to Mr. Walker, a former director of disaster and
refugee policy for the International Federation of the Red Cross,
Western-run aid agencies are facing a "crisis of legitimacy" as they
struggle to be neutral in countries where their Western faces make
them appear to be part of the enemy.
Aid groups have traditionally relied on the principle that their
work is free from military or political influence to keep them safe
in war zones. While maintaining that principle has always been
difficult, aid groups say it's especially challenging now.
The United Nations confronted this reality last year when
terrorists attacked the UN's Baghdad headquarters killing, among
others, the UN's special envoy to Iraq, Sergio Viera de Mello.
At the same time, senior aid figures say that, because of their
direct contact with local people, they are being forced, in
countries like Afghanistan, to be the "public relations" branch of
the US-led military operation, leading a "hearts and minds" campaign
to win the support of the local population.
"We need the partners in the war on terrorism and particularly
the US to start respecting humanitarian principles. We want them to
separate their political and military activity from the operations
of humanitarian agencies," says Phil Bloomer, Oxfam's head of
advocacy. "Otherwise there is a danger that all humanitarians are
perceived as nothing more than an extension of...the military
Oxfam has recently decided to stop accepting funds from the
British government, formerly one of its biggest sources of funds.
And in July, after five of its workers were fatally ambushed,
Doctors Without Borders pulled out of Afghanistan. …