Aid Agencies Rethink Strategy ; A New Report Urges Top Humanitarian Groups to Create a More-Local Presence in Disaster-Prone Areas - a Change from the Current Firefighting Mentality

By Sophie Arie Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, August 17, 2004 | Go to article overview

Aid Agencies Rethink Strategy ; A New Report Urges Top Humanitarian Groups to Create a More-Local Presence in Disaster-Prone Areas - a Change from the Current Firefighting Mentality


Sophie Arie Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


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 operation."

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. …

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