Well said, Clare Short

Overseas aid is a self-perpetuating industry that needs greater public scrutiny.

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IT IS hard to say which is more surprising: that the rather earth- motherish and ostensibly left-wing Clare Short is denouncing people for throwing money at problems; or that her target is the humanitarian industry.

Aid workers are used to being not simply beyond, but above reproach. They take it for granted, and assume everyone else does, that they are "committed"; that they "care". From their moral high ground they are more accustomed to attacking others for their lack of these qualities than they are to being criticised themselves, as their outraged reaction to Ms Short shows.

In recent days the International Development Secretary has accused aid bodies of "unnecessary" fund-raising for southern Sudan, and has been likened in her turn to somebody blaming the emergency services because we have a lot of accidents. She retorted that the aid agencies were like "999 crews rattling boxes to raise funds when they don't need them to run the ambulances".

Who is right and who is wrong? One finds oneself instinctively on Ms Short's side when she is attacked by the Daily Express, which boasted that it had raised more than pounds 220,000 for Sudan, under a headline paraphrasing her as saying "The children of Sudan don't need your money". This was accompanied by a huge photograph of a starving black baby. She had earlier criticised the use of such "unbearable" images in appeals, saying they "make people flinch and turn away", and could lead to "compassion fatigue".

Ms Short's case is that although as many as 2 or 3 million people may be at risk of starvation in southern Sudan, money is not the problem - getting access is. The aid world, which has been struggling to help the people of the region for nigh on a decade, has plenty of supplies stockpiled next door in northern Kenya. What has prevented relief getting through is the never-ending war between the black rebels of the south, most of whom are Christian or animist, and the Muslim Arabs of the government in Khartoum, which has never much cared whether its citizens in the south live or die. It sees no reason to allow assistance to reach them unless it gets something in return.

Since the late 1980s the aid bodies have worked together under an umbrella body called Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS): this, they boast, prevents them getting in each others' way and enables them to deal consistently with both sides. In many other conflicts aid bodies have become too closely identified with one faction or another; often new groups spring up which, while appearing to offer humanitarian assistance, are thinly disguised propaganda or arms-buying outfits. Thanks to OLS, that has not happened in Sudan, say the agencies. They have a unique agreement with both the government and rebels to bring help to whoever needs it.

What that means in practice, however, is that the humanitarians have to go through every kind of contortion to maintain the appearance of neutrality, even when one side in the Sudan conflict is clearly more culpable than the other. Last month a senior aid official complained to me that the media was always going on about the crisis in southern Sudan, and ignored the suffering in the north. "The government is getting very upset about the focus on the south, and it may jeopardise our work there," said the official. "Why doesn't someone get a visa from Khartoum and go and see what is happening up there?"

The answer, when I looked into it, was that there was no story: even if you could find any starvation in the government-controlled parts of Sudan, it would be perverse to concentrate on it at the expense of what the government is allowing to happen in the south. Yet according to the BBC correspondent George Alagiah, aid officials in Nairobi recently proposed barring journalists from visiting their operations in the rebel-controlled south unless they had visas from the government.

Look at what will happen to Express readers' money, which is going to Unicef, one of the main participants in Operation Lifeline Sudan. Unicef will use it to fly more food into the worst-affected parts of southern Sudan. It would be more cost-effective to bring supplies in by truck or train, but the roads and railways are impassable.

And who has to give permission for aid flights? The government, which refused to allow any planes in at all in February and March. That prevented aid bodies bringing in seeds and tools, which might have enabled local people to plant crops in time for the summer rains (assuming they come this year - El Nino has caused drought for the past two years). It was only in May, when international pressure was brought to bear, that Khartoum lifted most of its restrictions on aid flights, but the problem is now much worse. In a few months 2 or or 3 million people may be entirely dependent on hand-outs.

If OLS had spoken out sooner and more loudly, the Sudanese government might have been forced to back down earlier. But, even now, the agencies, dependent on Khartoum's goodwill, are reluctant to criticise the people most responsible for the crisis. Instead they have been drawn into a squabble with Ms Short, and as the news coverage of Sudan cranks up, much of it misleading, they are preparing to milk it. A month ago Britain's Disasters Emergency Committee, which brings together 15 of the largest organisations, decided against an emergency appeal for Sudan. A couple disagreed, and went ahead on their own. More are now breaking ranks, because the opportunity is too good to miss.

In his waspish book Fishing in Africa, Andrew Buckoke comments: "The development of recipients' dependence on aid has been widely discussed: the development of aid workers' dependence on their salaries less so. The aid agency worker's aim should be to do himself out of a job. The fact that this so rarely happens may not be solely due to the incompetence of so many of Africa's governments or the intractable poverty of its people."

The phenomenon of the aid agency careerist is not confined to Africa. During the $2bn UN operation to bring democracy to Cambodia (it has since gone away again), officials from the UN agencies fought for assignments there. I visited any number of them in their air-conditioned offices in Phnom Penh - air-conditioned for the computers, you understand, not for the people - where they were drawing special allowances on top of their already generous salaries. These allowances alone were more than the monthly salary of the terrified Norwegian volunteer I encountered in a village on the edge of Khmer Rouge territory, where she was subject to regular shelling and machine-gun fire.

For the aid bureaucrat, it is often more important to make sure the money is being disbursed than to worry how it is being spent. Some German bodies, funded by the law which allows taxpayers to divert part of their dues to the churches, are notorious in the aid world: the funds keep rolling in, and they have to be got rid of. I saw the result in Bangladesh after a cyclone devastated the country in 1991 - planeloads of blankets which had been flown halfway round the world when they could have been bought locally, cluttering up Dhaka airport and preventing air movement controllers from bringing in more urgently needed supplies.

These crimes are characteristic of official aid organisations rather than the bodies familiar on the British high street, such as Oxfam or Save the Children, which are much leaner and fitter. One Oxfam executive proudly told me that as the organisation had grown, the average size of the projects it manages had got smaller - but such privately-run operations are mainly a British phenomenon. No other country of comparable size has so many charities, many of them highly effective, but many also small, amateurish and confused in their aims.

These so-called NGOs are dwarfed by the governmental and supranational organisations, full of people who know that you don't get on by offending governments. But they can be just as self-righteous, just as prone to what Rakiya Omaar calls "disaster pornography". Ms Omaar, a Somali who runs a London organisation called African Rights, supports Clare Short's stand against shock appeal tactics, which, she says, depend on "ghastly photographs, usually a starving black baby who is being tended by a white angel of mercy, and a simplistic, apolitical message that disguises a political catastrophe as a 'humanitarian' disaster that can be corrected by a short-term injection of outside assistance".

These "degrading and damaging appeals", she adds, "destroy political accountability; the politicians responsible for the misery are off the hook internationally and the domestic pressure for political change is weakened. So the same disasters recur with painful regularity. And of course the Western public, saturated with these images, assumes that Africans cannot manage their own affairs, and that there is little point in investing in long-term development."

Ms Omaar, an African, sees clearly the collusion between Western media looking for a story to fit the stereotypes, Western aid agencies willing to go along with this kind of reporting if it brings in funds - and the Western public, which privatises its conscience by handing over its money to the humanitarians. But as Ms Omaar implies, and the Development Secretary says, only governments can intervene to stop the authorities in countries such as Sudan harming their own people. Our government, after all, has the moral authority of being elected; the aid bureaucracy does not. Clare Short is right, and the aid world ought to listen to her.

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