Battle of logos and T-shirts rages in refugee camps: Aid agencies scramble for cash

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The Independent Online
THE STREETS of Goma are plastered with stickers - every vehicle seems to proclaim its allegiance to some organisation. To the newly arrived, Goma looks as if it is hosting some sort of competition or election. Oxfam, Goal, Care, World Vision, WFP, UNHCR blare out their names and logos like soft drink manufacturers.

The casual observer might conclude from the way in which each organisation ensures that its name is on everything from water pumps to T-shirts, that this is an aid agency supermarket rather than the world's biggest refugee camp.

The consumers, however, have no choice, and most are illiterate. The marketing is aimed not at them but at the sponsors and donors - the people sitting at home wondering whom to give money to for saving Rwandans. The medium is television, and for an aid agency to have its name or logo on News at Ten or, even better, its director interviewed by CNN, is worth a lot of money. Competition is fierce: about 70 aid agencies are working here now compared with two in February. The relief operation has so far cost an estimated dollars 500m ( pounds 325m).

Now most of the journalists and all the television crews have departed. The daily press briefing, once attended by more than 300 journalists and addressed by several representatives of the main agencies, has dwindled to a five-minute briefing. This is the moment when the Rwandan relief operation will be tested.

The immediate emergency is over, and so is the unseemly, if inevitable, scramble for publicity. The next few months will sort out which agencies can turn an emergency relief exercise into a long-term sustaining operation. It will also test the will of the donors to keep funding the needs of some 800,000 refugees long after their plight has stopped being shown on television.

As the aid workers who are staying on settle into a routine, many are amused and embarrassed at the way their organisations employed skilled public- relations people to fight for publicity. Journalists who are used to struggling for interviews suddenly found themselves fought over by representatives trying to sell sound-bites and quotes. At the height of the emergency it created a sort of fact inflation. Ray Wilkinson, spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, complained that figures and information he gave out were frequently capped by unscrupulous aid agencies trying to grab the headlines by giving higher figures or more dramatic assessments.

Organisations such as Christian Aid and Cafod, which send money but have no personnel on the ground, are at a grave disadvantage, for there is no doubt that to be seen to be doing something in the front line is the best possible way of fund-raising. Goal, the Irish aid agency, has more than 60 expatriates on the ground in the camps. It arrived early and took on the horrible task of collecting and burying the bodies of thousands of cholera victims. Now it is running orphanages. And as a diligent distributor of T-shirts and stickers, it is reaping the rewards of its presence. It has raised nearly pounds 2m from the Irish public and a further pounds 3.7m in grants from UN agencies and governments.

Most of the short-term funds for the non-governmental aid agencies are actually provided by governments, not the public. Britain's Overseas Development Administration has so far distributed money to organisations such as Save The Children, Care and Oxfam for their activities in Rwanda.

But governments, too, are being sucked into the battle for visibility - not to raise funds but to justify the spending of them to the taxpayers at home. A representative of the fledgling European Community Humanitarian Office has been asking the recipient organisations to plug the EU donations at press briefings, and a crop of Echo stickers has appeared on lamp-posts all over Goma.

The British government does not insist on its recipients publicising 'a gift of the British government', but it is widely recognised that the British aid agencies funded by the ODA are among the most effective and efficient operating in Rwanda. It is ironic that although there are more British aid workers on the ground here than of any other nationality - with the possible exception of the Irish - the British government's aid budget is one of the lowest among rich countries.

The newly discovered talent for running relief operations has led the ODA to set up its own emergency operation in Rwanda with an ODA coordination team based in Kigali. It has also brought five water tankers and a team of drivers from Bosnia to supply the refugee camps from the water-purification plant on Lake Kivu.

Despite neither being young nor aid workers, the drivers work with an almost missionary zeal, and even now, after several weeks' hard work, they are still visibly moved by the sight of the hundreds of thousands of destitute people. Jim Lindsay, 49, was a refuelling technician at Heathrow airport before being made redundant and spending a year on the dole. 'I've never worked harder, but it's the most rewarding work I've ever done in my life,' he said. 'I was just a number before, a robot. Here you can see the effect of what you do.'

They much prefer Africa to Bosnia, even though the living conditions here are spartan, there are no recreation facilities and they are constantly confronted with appalling scenes. In Bosnia they said they were ignored or sometimes even stoned by local people, but they find the Rwandans, especially the children, easy to like and relate to.

Another driver, John Carvel, said: 'We are much busier here than in Zagreb. It's seven days a week here, but it's far more satisfying. You can see a direct cause and effect.'

(Photograph omitted)