Tuesday, October 31, 2006

NGOs - a disaster for disasters?

I have AlertNet (www.alertnet.org) to thank for this provocative headline - it's not mine! I went to meet the team in Reuters spanking new HQ at Canary Wharf yesterday to talk about humanitarian coverage in the media, as AlertNet bridge the gap between aid workers and the media a lot of the time. When I was looking through their site I came across a very interesting debate with this title that had been held at the LSE earlier in the month (http://www.alertnet.org/thefacts/reliefresources/116013999244.htm).
One of the speakers, a senior MSF official said that massive public appeals by aid agencies in the wake of disasters were wrong and should stop. The reason? They were often too late to be any use and led to inept interventions. "The real relief work during the first week of a disaster is already prepared, pre-planned and pre-paid," said Gorik Ooms of MSF Belgium. "You buy tents months or years before you need them."
The media - who often run their own appeals - wouldn't be best pleased to hear this I'm guessing.
Of course MSF were - controversially - the NGO who asked the public to stop giving them money a week after the tsunami in 2004. This led to criticism, which Ooms acknowledged in the debate.
A common response to MSF's tsunami announcement [from the public], he said, was: "You have ruined our way of showing solidarity with these people. Shut up now and tell us one month later that you are going to spend the money elsewhere."
And it wasn't only aid agencies affected by MSF's pronouncement - or potentially riled. Many media outlets' appeals at the time of the tsunami raised thousands if not in some cases six figure sums from ordinary people.
In fact it wasn't just money that people gave at the time of the tsunami. I remember in the Sunday Times we ran a story about DIY aid workers who went out to help with the relief effort. I wonder what happened to those who went out? Did they help - or as many NGOs feared - hinder? Did they feel they made a difference - or did they return disillusioned? I'd love to know.

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