Letter: Aid is the business of charities

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The Independent Online
Sir: William Shawcross's provocative argument ("Never mind Oxfam, DHL can deliver", 10 October), that humanitarian aid could be entirely contracted to private companies, doing away with charities, starts from a false assumption: that aid is simply a matter of getting things to people. It is not.

First, there is the question of what is needed. In emergencies which involve a wholesale breakdown of society, this requires careful judgement. The wrong commodity, or the right one wrongly applied, can kill. The process of assessment of what is needed, and of ordering, distributing and monitoring those goods, must be under the control of experienced agencies with staff proficient in administering social care in the local context. That is what aid agencies are for.

Second, aid is not delivered in a vacuum. The need arises from complex political, military, economic and social crises. Aid is an intervention in a distorted political economy. If that context is not analysed and understood by agencies with experience, aid will have all kinds of unintended effects. It can fuel war economies, destroy local production and contribute to the asset-stripping of the poor by people with power and influence.

Third, even in emergencies aid should be used with a development perspective. In south Sudan, for instance, instead of flooding the war zone with food aid every dry season, Oxfam and others have supported communities to build up their own food security, distributing seeds and tools and fishing equipment which will reduce their long-term vulnerability. And when we do make use of private contractors - to dig a well, improve a road, provide textiles to make clothing - we usually support the local economy by sourcing the contract in the region.

Agencies working with the victims of conflict have a responsibility to advocate on their behalf among the governments and multilateral institutions who can affect their fate - something one can hardly imagine Evian or American Express doing.

Certainly the aid sector must become more efficient and effective, and there is plenty of room for self-criticism. The more responsible British agencies are at the forefront of this critical thinking. Oxfam, Save the Children, the International Federation of the Red Cross, the World Council of Churches and others have established an international code of conduct. The same group is now leading a follow-up effort to establish recognised standards for the delivery of humanitarian aid.