Help should have a light touch

By Quentin Peel

Financial Times

Published: January 6 2005

The speed and scale of private donations from around the world to the tsunami relief effort in the Indian Ocean has been both extraordinary and heart-warming. Never before have so many individuals been so moved by a global disaster, nor reacted so generously.

The sheer scale of the tragedy, plus its visibility, the coincidence of the Christmas season, and the presence of thousands of western tourists in the region all contributed to the response, especially in Europe and America. There may also have been an element of sheer relief that here was an obviously good cause that could unite the world, not divide it as the war in Iraq has done for the past two years.

Given the private response and the rather slower public reaction, with governments upping their pledges to well over $2bn (1bn), this emergency programme should not fail for lack of funds. A huge effort is already under way in order to prevent epidemics and malnutrition amongst the estimated 5m people displaced by the earthquake and tidal waves off Sumatra.

The first challenge is how to manage such a flood of aid to the region and how to co-ordinate the activities of so many international agencies. Instead of getting relief to those who need it, the wrong supplies may easily end up in the wrong places, while the donors trip over each other in the process.

A more profound danger is that the whole exercise will become neo-colonial, as the aid donors seek to dictate how and where to distribute their supplies, instead of helping the nations of the region to help their own people. Local administrations may be rapidly overwhelmed in their capacity to handle so many demands and set their own priorities.

Finally there must be a fear that the relief effort, so well-intentioned, will become politicised by governments seeking to gain popularity and prestige. That has already been apparent in the bidding auction by governments to make the most generous pledges of funds. The US in particular seems tempted to make more of its contributions: Colin Powell, the US secretary of state, has said he hopes that the Muslim world, so alienated by the war in Iraq, will now be able to see "American generosity, American values, in action".

Lack of co-ordination is the most immediate challenge. The only institution that has the capacity and political status to organise such an international effort is the United Nations. Yet the UN lacks the resources, and relies on the support that it receives from its member states. But the least supportive is also the most important - the US.

When President George W. Bush announced that a "core group" of countries consisting of the US, Japan, India and Australia would be co-ordinating the relief effort, it looked like a deliberate snub to the UN. Fortunately, the idea was abandoned after talks in Jakarta yesterday, when all four made clear that the UN would henceforth do the job.

It was a grudging admission on Washington's part. But the tsunami relief effort should be a perfect opportunity for the UN to prove itself.

It will be an uphill struggle. OCHA, the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, is desperately short of money and trained personnel. It is currently undergoing a review, ordered by Jan Egeland, its Norwegian head, to identify what is wrong with its speed and effectiveness, particularly in the light of the world's disorganised response to the Darfur crisis in Sudan. It is too early for any results.

Last month Hilary Benn, the UK secretary of state for international development, called for OCHA to be strengthened, with more money and much clearer responsibilities to co-ordinate other UN agencies at times of crisis. He proposed a standing disaster relief fund of $1bn a year.

That is all still wishful thinking. It is going to take decisive action by the UN member states - including the US - to strengthen the co-ordination system. Mr Bush must decide if he wants to.

Then there is the problem of the wrong sort of aid being sent to the region. Wherever possible, it is cheaper and better to source supplies locally. Yet the temptation is to send everything by plane from Europe and America. No doubt that is why gallons of bottled water are even now being transported - at an estimated cost of about $4 a kilo - from Britain to Sri Lanka. There will certainly be other examples.

Yet perhaps the greatest dilemma for aid agencies is how to help in such an emergency without undermining the local government and indigenous charities that will always be the first line of defence. Most agencies recognise the need to reinforce local structures, not replace them. But there is often an assumption back home, not least in the media, that local organisations are at best irrelevant, at worst incompetent and corrupt.

If the local institutions are not encouraged and reinforced, there will be no one to take over when the aid workers leave. Carolyn Miller, chief executive of Merlin, the UK medical charity, says aid agencies should be thinking ahead about sustainable systems from the moment they arrive. "You have to start off thinking how you are going to hand things over," she says.

All the Asian countries hit by the tsunamis have well-established institutions, including large armies. India and Thailand have both announced they can manage without international aid. Those most in need are Indonesia, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Yet they do not want to be invaded by an army of aid workers. They just need help to help themselves.