Worldwide humanitarian aid contributions in 2013 were at their highest level for five years, putting the sector’s aims and practices under the spotlight.
According to analysts Global Humanitarian Assistance, donations from government and private bodies totalled $22bn (about £13bn) – up nearly a third on the previous year.
With such large amounts of money involved, there is obviously a pressure for humanitarian and development NGOs to show transparency and accountability in their aid flows. This means demonstrating value for money in their procurement policies and, ideally, strengthening the communities involved.
“Any attempt to procure goods and services locally promotes self-reliance,” says Jason Baldaro, global procurement and facilities manager at Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO). “Even if the goods are unavailable, it can highlight an opportunity and challenge local businesses. It could be argued that this is one of many tools in developing an economy – basic supply and demand,” he adds.
However, sourcing from local providers is not without its challenges. As Clea Kahn and Elena Lucchi from the Médecins Sans Frontières operational centre in Amsterdam have argued in Humanitarian Exchange Magazine, local procurement can risk neutrality, especially in conflict zones where opposing sides control vital goods and services.
Clare Battle, a policy analyst at Water Aid, believes the responsibility for getting it right lies with the NGOs involved. “When the quality of local procurement systems is poor, donors and NGOs should help strengthen these systems, rather than employing other practices that may even undermine attempts to move towards country-led processes,” she says.
However, many donors have policies that dictate the circumstances under which procurement can take place. Four years after the Haiti earthquake, for instance, a substantial proportion of US development funding in the country still goes via American, rather than Haiti-owned companies.
Rose Longhurst, funding policy adviser at NGO development membership agencyBond, acknowledges that this can be an issue. “Sometimes donors have specific procurement stipulations, saying that you may have to source certain goods or services from certain areas or organisations,” she says.
Clearly, there is a need for NGOs to balance ethical intervention with consistent funding. Conventional wisdom in this area suggests that the relationship between donors and NGOs creates a self-regulating mechanism against bad practice. An NGO’s spending is accountable to its donors through audits, which are presumed to be a sufficient safeguard against misspending and corruption.
Developments such as the International Aid Transparency Initiative also demonstrate a move toward a greater openness about how aid flows work.
That said, there are few legal frameworks to challenge malpractice, and the closeness of donors and NGOs remains unchallenged. In the case of Haiti, this has led to local aid organisations being largely ignored.
Longhurst, however, maintains that because many charities conform to ISO 9000, their procurement practices are externally audited to prevent unethical behaviour.
Volunteers and ‘voluntourism’
One way in which NGOs may attempt to engage with aid-receiving communities is “voluntourism” – a controversial practice that can range from volunteers paying their own costs to luxury holidays in development sites. That way, NGOs can both maximize their income, and steer their hard-won funds away from expensive staffing costs where this is not essential.
But is this always ethical and effective? Not everyone is convinced that current NGO practices in this area are working as well as they should. Kelly Brooker, chair of the International Ecotourism Society, believes that there is a correlation between the sustainability of aid and the types of volunteer it uses.
“If volunteer aid matches the aims of the project, then it can be of enormous help, even if it’s unskilled,” she says. “When it does not match and when the local community has not been engaged, then no one benefits. Of course there are instances where short-term unskilled aid is useful, particularly in crises. However, the aim should be to use volunteers to finish projects and empower local communities through training.”
In theory, receiving vital manpower or cash from visitors assists NGOs and the communities they help. In practice, Katie Turner, a VSO adviser, believes the process itself sometimes undermines benefits.
“The clue is in the word, ‘voluntourism’,” she says. “The outcome is focused on what the volunteer gets out of the experience. It’s unfair to say that all projects that use voluntourism are unsustainable, but with VSO, our departure point is the needs of the community.”
Moreover, since the selection criteria for such projects are dependent on the financial ability of the volunteer, background checks such as criminal records checks are often omitted. Some organisations even offer volunteer teaching positions to people without qualifications. Brooker feels NGOs should be more stringent.
“Volunteers need to be screened to make sure they are appropriate,” she says. “Their experiences should also be documented so that NGOs can learn from the experience – something they are currently not very good at doing.”
Without a legal framework to hold NGOs and their donors to account, not only will unethical procurement policies and uses of volunteers continue, but so will biased investment decisions that pay no attention to the communities they profess to serve.
Source: The Guardian