Never mind Oxfam, DHL can deliver

Water from Evian, banking from Amex. If private companies can handle aid for the poor better than the charities, let them do it

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How far can pity be privatised and how far can or should the market dominate disaster relief? These are questions that increasingly vex the international aid community.

They have just been examined in detail at an extraordinary conference in the city that touts itself as "the world's humanitarian capital" - Geneva. At "WorldAid 96" commerce and charity jostled somewhat nervously together.

WorldAid 96 was a controversial, bizarre, slightly macabre and poignant meeting of hard-headed businessmen, supposedly altruistic do-gooders from charities and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as Oxfam, Medecins Sans Frontieres, government officials, soldiers and journalists.

The scourge of land mines was an important focus. Outside the exhibition stood a vast white tank-like machine that was designed to flail land mines into exploding, underneath posters of a semi-naked stripper advertising a Geneva nightclub.

Inside, one-legged models demonstrated how hundreds of thousands of poor people in Afghanistan, Angola and Cambodia who have had their legs blown off can strap on and take off the latest plastic substitutes. Other stands were filled with hi-tech water purifiers, cars, communications equipment, high-protein biscuits, and vastly complicated mobile kitchens from Sweden.

The theme of the meeting (troubling to the humanitarians) was embodied in the question: "Could DHL deliver food more cheaply than the United Nations or Save The Children?" If so, how long can the charities survive?

Since the end of the Cold War there have been literally scores of vicious little and not so little conflicts around the world. At least 50 are raging today. About 300 million people in the world are hit by war and disaster each year. These victims are the consumers for whom the participants of WorldAid compete.

In 1971, emergency aid amounted to $200m worldwide. In 1994, Rwanda alone cost more than $1bn. Last year some $8bn was spent on disaster relief and peacekeeping.

Privatisation and the markets are now the only games in town - in any town around the world - says Nick Cater, an editor of Crosslines Global Report, a journal that takes a sceptical look at the humanitarian business. He argues that it is the aid industry's job to take the rough edges off capitalism.

He says that "'old aid' depended on colonialism, left-wing solidarity, guilt and optimism. Now the end of the Cold War, galloping investment in emerging markets and a new world that is private and Pacific-based spells the end of all that."

Good motives are not enough these days.

WorldAid 96 was like any other trade show - except that this one dealt with combating the weapons of war and foiling the tools of death and deprivation. The exhibition was pushed by the Nordic governments and aid agencies apparently anxious to expand their share of the international market.

It was arranged by the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA); and attracted 274 companies, 45 aid journalists who make their livings reporting the pity of modern disasters.

Some humanitarian officials were nervous at the open display of the marriage of business and charity, and refused to attend or to have their names used. They think of themselves as dealing in life, death and ethics - areas in which they feel the profit motive should have no place. Others are more robust, acknowledging that aid is business, and always will be.

Moreover, the total aid money available is now falling from the high point of the early Nineties. That fall has introduced a note of urgency, if not panic, for all the WorldAid 96 participants.

Aid agencies must be much more efficient. That means not only that they have to cut costs, but must deliver a better product to their consumers, the 300 million affected by disaster.

Not many agencies have yet understood enough of this. But the companies have. That is why they were at WorldAid 96 and are lobbying donor governments, armies, the UN, trying to sell their wares and their systems. In this privatised and privatising world, says Cater, the real question is why America's biggest discount chain, Wal Mart, cannot supply the food, Evian the water and American Express the banking for refugees.

This sort of talk fills the old aid agencies with horror. But if all the boring transport and delivery services were privatised, the NGOs could then concentrate on triage, on healing and protecting their "customers" and the other more obviously "moral" decisions they think they are best at.

And, in fact, the gulf between business and aid officials is not nearly as wide as the latter like to think. NGOs have at least three different roles - they must provide assistance, act as witnesses to awful events and they also have to raise money and their own profiles.

And so they compete with each other, just as the commercial suppliers at the exhibition compete with each other, too. Like any car company, they have their own designer-logos, flags, T-shirts, watches, flak jackets and other branded apparel of the television age.

About 200 different NGOs flocked to Rwanda after the genocide of 1994. Some of them did marvellous work but others were absolutely hopeless, had no experience of the area and sent people with zero training. They were there only to be able to be seen on television back home and thus to raise money.

At the higher end of the scale, during the war in Bosnia, the French aid group Equilibre had both a profit and a non-profit arm: it delivered food to Bosnia and then filled the trucks with goods produced in former Yugoslavia for sale in France. That seemed a good mix of the profit motive and altruism.

In a thoughtful discussion of all these issues, Michael Taylor of Christian Aid suggested that, "the morals of ought spring out of our philosophic understanding of what is". Tasks should be given to whoever can carry them out most effectively on behalf of the victims.

What seems certain is that by the time of WorldAid 98 the concept of "Relief Inc" will be far more widely accepted than today. By then, everything in camps will be bar-coded and refugees will probably have credit cards. There will be no other way.

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