In the early days of the crisis I found myself in Skopje the capital of Macedonia. The city had at this point set up several tented camps for the Kosovars who were fleeing the Serbian onslaught.
The media innovation of the moment was 24-hour news shows. So this story was Big! Lots of angles to cover, with action all across the Balkans: Tirana, Skopje, Belgrade, Sarajevo. Feverish reports, which were usually nothing more than the last several ‘live’ links repackaged, flowed in every few minutes.
Tony Blair and Bill Clinton were prominent on the screen. They were spruiking a new concept: Humanitarian warfare. NATO’s bombers were authorized to bomb the shit out of Milosevic’s troops and heavy infrastructure because there were lives to be saved. At the time I didn’t think much about that. A fair call, I though, considering we NGOs were on the side of the Kosovars.
As Bill and Tone talked up their plan in London and Geneva, junior mandarins from their international assistance agencies were living among us in the hotels of Skopje. They had clear marching orders–disperse as much cash as possible as fast as possible to ‘aid’ the refugees. The CNN and BBC cameras needed to balance their war reports with evidence of humanitarian action.
Since I was in fundraising for a large NGO at the time I consulted with my colleagues in the field. ‘What sort of proposal does DFID need? What’s the upper limit of the budget?” And most critically, “Can we include some 4X4s?”
My colleague snickered. “They are throwing money out of the back of the truck! All they want is a piece of paper that says how much we want. We just have to promise to spend it fast! The sky’s the limit.”
A few months later the organization I worked for had a fleet of more than 100 4X4s in Kosovo alone.
The newly elected conservative government of big eared, bow-legged and ‘he’s really a nice guy’ Tony Abbott begins the dramatic dismantling of the Australian international aid program with massive multi-billion dollar cuts. The stand-alone aid agency, AusAID is disbanded. Staff are let go like so much emotional baggage. Diplomats and foreign affairs bureaucrats assume control of one of the largest budgetary entities in the government.
This despite a slowly built, bipartisan consensus that Australia’s ambition to rise above it’s ‘middle power’ status and fulfill its warm and fuzzy desire to be a ‘good global citizen’ required a significant investment in international aid. And despite also that Tony Abbott’s political godfather, John Howard, had started the process of bulking up the aid program.
For us in the sector the ‘good old days’ had arrived at last. Africa was back on the agenda (even if just to buy votes for a seat on the UN Security Council). The Office of Development Effectiveness (ODE) was held up as a model for other donors. Money was flowing all over the joint. Aid effectiveness did finally seem to be more than rhetoric. The stated goal for AusAID’s budget was around $9billion a year by 2015 or .5% Gross National Income (GNI). Almost in the league of some European governments.
Each year of Abbott’s government saw the razors get sharper and the gashes get deeper. Entire programs were shut down. Hundreds of millions of dollars disappeared or were diverted to border control programs. And establishing a virtual off shore Gulag for boat people. By mid-2015, rather than nipping the heels of Sweden and the Netherlands, Australia’ aid budget was at it lowest point since 1954!
And of course, the government’s svelte Minister of Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop, continuously talked up the virtues of such efficiencies with frequent repetitions of mantras like ‘do more with less’ and ‘innovative partnerships with the private sector’.
Australia’s international aid program is the neighborhood joke. Our citizenship certificate is tattered and stained.
London April 2016
The much respected Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) of the venerable and much admired Overseas Development Institute (ODI) issues a report entitled Time to let go: Remaking humanitarian action for the modern era.
It is a good report. It is smart device friendly and well designed for the contemporary reader in a hurry. I scrolled through the ‘lite’ version on my iPhone. In the context of such reports this could be considered a ‘great’ report. Each of its major points is well argued. I found myself muttering, ‘Yes.’ ‘About time.’ ‘Fucking A’ throughout the document.
The issues it raises are not new. Indeed, many people have been putting them forward for years: power imbalances that favor OECD governments; funding arrangements that favor OECD governments; gaps between policy and practice that implicate OECD governments; a ridiculously unsustainable NGO humanitarian system; a massive inequity in terms of access to funding within the NGO sector; the haughty attitude and culture of some powerful organizations that repel debate and fresh ideas; the continued marginalization and belittling of ‘southern NGOs’.
As the title of the report indicates, the overall Call of the writers is for the humanitarian control freaks (OECD governments, International NGOs–especially the big 10 or so humanitarian corporations–the UN system) to ‘let go’ and change their wicked ways.
The report is already being debated within the sector. Many insiders are sighing with relief. ‘Thank heavens someone is telling it like it is!’ The report has been shared hundreds of times across social media. I have been one of those who have shared it.
But in truth, my honest opinion is that this is a useless report. For the nearly 30 years I was a member of the humanitarian/development jetset the issues addressed in the report have been debated. In fact, it wouldn’t take too much research to dig out stacks of other reports by ODI and other think tanks and NGOs and the UN and DAC that have identified the same flaws and the same ways forward. This report, I’m sure, will suffer the same Fate as its ancestors. It will be buried. Not out of embarrassment or shame but out of boredom.
The Aid system is largely a bored eco-system. Boredom arises when every day is the same. The music is always the same. The books are all well read and memorized. North Korea is boring and Somalia is boring for the same reasons. They are in the iron grip of maniacs.
The aid system is overcome by an incredible apathy and resistance to reform. Largely for the very reasons the HPG report identifies. The governments of the West have the sector and the agenda and the architecture by the short and curlies.
They like it that way.
The only thing they are going to let go of is:
- cash when there’s a need to be seen to be doing something to support a major humanitarian disaster such as in Kosovo
- principles and integrity, as in the case of the Australian government.
The arguments of well meaning think tanks and hardened field operatives mean not a whit to aid bureaucrats. Because aid is NOT about helping people or being equitable or being fair or necessarily about efficient and effective aid delivery.
Aid is (maybe its’ always been) about domestic political agendas, grandstanding for ulterior motives and advancing national policies, most of which run exactly counter to humanitarian action and effective development.
What is needed, I’m afraid, is not more ‘hard hitting and honest’ reports from think tanks run by veterans of the very system they are critiquing, but Revolution.
No more reform agendas please.
Man the barricades!