International disaster response today is big business. Global figures from 1994 show developed nations giving 4.2 million tonnes of food aid and $3.4 billion for disasters, six times the cash of a decade ago when the world reacted to Ethiopia’s famine.

The numbers hit by disasters have risen, too. According to the World Disasters Report 1996, last year 30 wars killed 55,000 people on the battle field and led to many more civilian deaths. Over 160 million people were affected by disasters triggered by floods, earthquakes or drought, and the trend is for numbers affected to rise 10 million a year.

Crisis and conflict forced some 37 million people to flee within their own countries or across international borders in 1995, and 70% of the world’s humanitarian spending now goes on people on the move.

Afghanistan, then the Caucasus, Somalia, former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and, of course, Liberia – all countries of exodus in the millions – have meant that at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the world’s largest humanitarian network, 23% of the 1990 relief budget was spent on population movements, rising to 69% by 1995.

Fifteen years ago big relief operations meant assisting thousands of people, today it is hundreds of thousands. Methods and mechanisms I used in the early 1980s cannot handle today’s problems. We need new standards, new partnerships, new ways of working.

Never more so than in massive population flows. Providing for millions camped on volcanic hillsides or scattered in back rooms, schools and public buildings across former Yugoslavia requires a scale and commitment of response normally only seen in military and major infrastructure projects.

Here are some predictions. First, disaster response resources – cash and food – will not grow. Indeed, 1995’s figures suggest funds available may even have shrunk. Federation spending is down – cutting beneficiary numbers from 1994’s 19 million to last year’s 13 million – and the UN and major NGOs report a similar trend.

Donor agencies, such as the European Community Humanitarian Office, UK Overseas Development Administration and the US Agency for International Development, expanded their spending in the first half of the decade, often at the expense of development spending.

Global official development assistance has not increased significantly in this decade. Within that, relief spending rose from 2% to 6%. but now relief budgets seem set to stagnate in real terms and as a percentage of total aid.

Availability of the other major relief resource, food aid, is also in question. Today, 40% of World Food Programme supplies go on emergencies; up from 27% in the early 1980s. In the past 10 years, 12-14 million tonnes of food aid a year were regularly available.

In 1996, under 10 million tonnes of food aid will be available, and even more of it will go on emergencies. The US Department of Agriculture forecasts this figure rising only slowly over the next decade, against chronic and emergency needs reaching perhaps as high as 48 million tonnes, leaving an annual food gap of up to 37 million tonnes.

Wars, at least major wars, may not be up, but the number of internally displaced people (IDP) – 22 million today – is heading for 35 million by 2000 while refugee figures have fallen slightly. Governments no longer accept large scale refugee populations indefinitely. The pressure to stay inside one’s country or go home is growing. Today’s refugees will tomorrow have to remain as IDPs. No borders crossed but the same people, same fears, same needs.

What will shrinking resources and rising demand mean for aid agencies? Part of the answer is to see this like any other booming new market at or near saturation. In the shake out, some agencies – old established and new entrepreneurs – will lose ground, leave the market or simply fail, leaving international disaster response dominated by perhaps 20 US and 20 European agencies.

Donors will increasingly want new ways of working with agencies. Contractual relationships will take over from the old no-strings funding of agency proposals. Donors will invite agencies to bid for contracts and be more demanding about how funds are spent.

The market will not be left to agencies alone as companies move in on food trucking and more. It is underway: oil field supply firms and transport companies are grabbing a rising slice of disaster response.

For agencies the implications are clear: it is time to be more pro-active. Many in agencies dislike discussing humanitarian response as if it were a market, despite the competition for resources and the successful agencies that thrive and the unsuccessful that fade or fail.

It is true that beneficiaries have little consumer purchasing power and agency services are bought by the public and big donors. But that is not much different from a drug company whose products are bought by a health system and given free to patients.

There are clear challenges for disaster response agencies. One is to define and promote how they add value beyond any commercial alternative or the military. Are aid agencies just the cheap option? I hope not.

What an NGO or a National Red Cross or Red Crescent Society brings to disaster response that is unique is a value set based on a concern for basic human rights and the quality of people’s lives, rather than a concern for profit, profile or political correctness.

A growing “contract culture” may be drawing agencies away from those values, as they compete for funds like just another service provider. Agencies must promote their beliefs and how they do business, making it clear to donors what they are paying for.

On a larger scale, agencies have to be far more assertive about what exactly is their business. Humanitarian assistance has been a label stuck on too many things, from military operations to human rights investigations.

Agencies rarely ask themselves the question, “what quality of assistance have disaster survivors the right to expect from us?”, going beyond rations delivered, where most present standards concentrate.

Defending themselves as a means to an end, agencies must develop universal standards for quality of work. Standards in needs assessment and distribution systems, management, relations with local authorities, and standards in accountability to donors and victims.

Rapid and radical shifts in the nature of international disaster response have left agencies reeling, yet the next few years will consolidate those changes. If agencies do not define their business and standards, others – those with the money – will do it for them. Then agencies and their work really will be donor driven instead of responsive to the real needs of vulnerable people.

Dr Peter Walker is Director, Disaster and Refugee Policy, The Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent (IFRC)


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