All you need to know about aid and the international effort

By Paul Vallely
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Q. Should I give money to the appeal for Haiti?

Huge numbers of your fellow citizens think so. Britons donated more than £2m to help the earthquake-stricken people of Haiti within 36 hours of the disaster. Even before the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) of 13 leading charities launched its official appeal large numbers of people were on its website. They were making donations to try to help the tens of thousands of people whose lives have been ripped apart by the tremor. Even the Queen made a donation.

How do I know if my money will get to the right people?

The DEC is made up of 13 British aid agencies – ActionAid, the Red Cross, CAFOD, Care International Christian Aid, Concern , Help the Aged, Islamic Relief, Merlin, Oxfam, Save the Children, Tearfund and World Vision. They all have a track record of effective delivery of emergency humanitarian aid. Their performance is audited annually and their membership of the DEC is reviewed every two years. When critics complain about aid not working they are not generally talking about emergency aid. With any of these NGOs you can be pretty sure that your money will reach the ordinary person on the ground.

Why does it take so long for aid to get there?

Because there has been a massive earthquake and it is a very poor country. In any natural disaster the most effective immediate response comes from the national government; the help of the international community always takes longer to get there than do light-on-their-feet journalists who don’t have to take with them large amounts of food, tents, tarpaulins and heavy equipment with them. To send something like a hospital ship, even just from the US, takes days.

The capacity of the Haitian government was low in the first place because Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world. More than that, the epicentre was near the capital where the institutions of state and meagre administrative infrastructure of the country are centred. The control tower and radar are down at its small international airport. So even the US military has struggled to cope, after taking over air traffic control. The main port is too damaged to use. And roads are blocked by debris.

Shouldn’t there be a standing UN body to step in with emergency aid during disasters?

There is. At the Gleneagles summit it was agreed to launch a UN Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF). It has provided more than $1 billion to over 67 countries since 2006.

It has two aims. The first is quick disbursal of aid before appeals kick in, using existing emergency agencies rather than setting up duplicate structures. The second is to assist in disasters which are not so photogenic as earthquakes and which therefore do not grab the attention of the international media and the general public. Its money enabled the World Food Programme to feed 750,000 people for three months in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis. And it has boosted the nutrition or more than a million people in Sudan.

But experience has shown that multilateral UN agencies are not nimble enough to be the best option in the vital 72 hours after disaster strikes. National governments are best placed for that, though their capacity needs boosting in emergencies. Disaster specialists from individual rich nations are best placed to do that most swiftly, as are NGOs with their specialist skills – water for Oxfam, nutrition for Save the Children and medical aid for Merlin.

If Haiti had so many aid workers before the earthquake how come it was not better placed to respond?

Because of the low base it starts from. Remember this is the poorest country in the western hemisphere. The agencies which were already present helping with long-term development will be better placed to assist with recovery than was the case, for example, in Aceh after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami where they had to start from scratch. But at present those agencies have had key personnel killed; their vehicles, phonelines, computers and buildings are destroyed or not functioning; and they are cut off from their warehouses, some of which have been looted by desperate people.

The baseline poverty causes other problems. When a quake of similar force hits a developed country in a place like California far fewer people die because the buildings are better constructed. In Haiti buildings are made of masonry, which performs badly in an earthquake. Builders skimp on cement to cut costs, creating structures that are innately weaker. Shoddy construction of public buildings like schools – several of which had more than 1,000 pupils inside when they collapsed – causes extra casualties.

The deforestation of the hillsides by poor people in search of firewood has added the destructive power of landslides to those of tremors.

If a country is poor then loss of life from earthquakes is typically 10 times higher than in the rich world. And damage can be up to 100 times worse.

Wasn’t there too much money given after the tsunami?

That disaster was so shocking it provoked a response of unprecedented generosity. Agencies, like Médecins Sans Frontières, which deal only with emergencies, got too much – and had to give some back. But most agencies work on reconstruction and then on longer-term development, rebuilding jobs, homes and communities. The overwhelming bulk of the money given was well-spent, international evaluation exercises showed. It took five years to spend it properly, but that was better than it all being blown unsustainably in the early stages just so agencies could be seen to have spent all the money quickly.

But isn’t a lot of aid wasted, creating aid dependency or being siphoned off to the private accounts of corrupt officials and dictators?

Those are tired old myths. It’s true that during the Cold War a lot of aid was given, not to help the poor, but to prop up ghastly dictators because they supported the West against the Soviets, and vice versa.

But over the past 20 years aid has been targeted differently, and many lessons have been learned about what works and what doesn’t. Donors are far more canny about the conditions they attach, which inhibits corruption. Even the behemoth UN agencies are more efficient than before. And independent agencies like Oxfam do a brilliant job, targeting the poorest and helping them stand on their own feet.

There are still major problems with food aid, especially where cereals grown by subsidised US and EU farmers are dumped in places like Africa, destroying the market for local farmers. But that’s not the kind of aid we’re talking about here.

Isn’t it all about salving the conscience of affluent people in the rich world?

Aren’t arguments against giving aid just mean-spirited affluent people desperately seeking intellectual justification for their hard-heartedness?

So, should I give money to the appeal for Haiti?

That’s up to you. I have.

How you can help

The Disasters Emergency Committee – the umbrella organisation for 13 aid agencies including the British Red Cross and Oxfam – has launched an emergency appeal to help the victims of the Haiti earthquake. If you would like to make a donation, please call 0370 60 60 900 or visit