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Environment

Concern over politicization of top donor governments’ aid

An international organization, which evaluates the effectiveness of donor governments’ aid for people suffering from conflicts, disasters and climate change, has released its 2010 Humanitarian Response Index.

Philip Tamminga

Philip Tamminga

The DARA index (HRI) assesses responses to crises by the world's top donor governments – members of the Disaster Action Committee of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Now in its fourth year, the HRI examines performance under five “pillars” of donor practice: response to needs; prevention, risk reduction and recovery; working with partners; protection and international humanitarian law; and learning and accountability.

Denmark tops the HRI ranking list followed by Ireland, New Zealand, Norway, and Sweden, while the European Commission comes in sixth.

The head of the HRI team, Philip Tamminga, talked with Deutsche Welle about the latest index and how political priorities have impeded the delivery of humanitarian aid to millions.

Deutsche Welle: Germany doesn't appear to have done too well in your assessment. Why is that?

Philip Tamminga: Germany is ranked 14th [out of 20] in the index this year, just after Canada and Australia, but before Japan and France. Germany spends a lot less on humanitarian assistance than other countries, and the percentage of its aid dedicated to humanitarian crises is about half of the average of other donors. So it lags somewhat behind other countries. Other factors that explain Germany's position in the ranking is that it has too many restrictive conditions on its aid funding. This sometimes makes it difficult for the humanitarian organizations it funds to have enough flexibility to direct aid where it is needed or to adapt programmes if the situation changes on the ground - which happens quite often in a disaster or conflict. Germany could also do better at funding UN and Red Cross appeals, and make better use of regular evaluations to improve the quality and effectiveness of the assistance it provides.

Germany does have many strengths, though. For instance, it tends to provide funding rapidly in cases of disasters, and it's a strong supporter of NGOs. It is also one of the better donor governments in terms of its commitment towards accountability to people affected by crises - making sure aid is effective and responds to their needs.

Could you explain briefly how exactly the assessment is done – what are the key tools and methodology employed?

People sitting under a makeshift shelter in the heat

Aid is much-needed in many corners of the globe

We assess donors by looking at 35 different indicators of how well they support humanitarian action and apply good practices. The indicators are based on the core concepts contained in the declaration of Good Humanitarian Donorship, which was developed and signed by the world's main donor governments - including Germany - in 2003. What we want to see is if governments are respecting the commitments they made, so we send teams to different humanitarian crises and we talk to the different humanitarian organizations about how well the governments that fund their work are applying good practice. We combine this with publicly available information from published sources on government aid funding, respect of international humanitarian law, and other elements of good donor practice.

This year, our teams visited 14 humanitarian crises areas like Haiti, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan and Pakistan, and we spoke to over 500 senior officials working in these crises from the United Nations, the Red Cross and the Red Crescent, NGOs, donor governments and others. We also collected nearly 2,000 survey responses. This gives us a good basis to measure and compare donor governments each year on whether their policies and practices facilitate or impede an effective response to crises.

The report says that there's ample evidence of politicization of aid. Exactly what evidence do you have to show that political interests have overtaken the commitment to Good Humanitarian Donorship?

In 10 of the 14 crises we visited, we saw and heard of evidence that donor governments were placing political interests above humanitarian objectives. In some cases, like Afghanistan, the use of western military forces to provide humanitarian assistance is compromising the neutrality, impartiality and independence of humanitarian organizations, and putting humanitarian workers and civilians at risk. We also saw in some places like Somalia, the occupied Palestinian territories or Yemen, some donor governments are putting restrictions on humanitarian organizations that prevents them from working in areas controlled by certain groups like Hamas, as part of the "War on Terror." This means the people in need are not getting the aid they deserve. In other crises, there are debates about how foreign aid can help win "hearts and minds" or achieve other foreign policy objectives.

One of the most basic humanitarian principles – which donor governments committed themselves to when they signed the good donorship declaration – is that humanitarian assistance should be given without discrimination, and based on needs alone – and not because it may or may not help a government achieve other objectives.

A woman holds her hand over her mouth, behind her a landscape of destruction

The devastation left behind by the 2005 tsunami

The HRI report claims that there are gaps in the protection of civilians and that the lack of safe humanitarian access has put vulnerable groups at risk of harm. Basically, this refers to the promotion of international humanitarian law and goes beyond programming issues – is the report referring to diplomacy efforts in this direction?

Yes, the report is clear that as a result of politicization, safe access by humanitarian organizations to people affected by crisis is being compromised. Because of that, humanitarian workers are at risk, and civilian populations are not getting the protection and assistance they need. A recent example of this lack of protection was seen in the mass rapes that took place in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And the safety of humanitarian workers is also at stake: last year over 260 humanitarians were killed, kidnapped or injured while trying to carry out their work.

You have also accused donors of failing to improve transparency and accountability towards affected people. Which countries have fared well under this pillar and which poorly?

Donor governments are not doing enough to promote better accountability towards people affected by disasters and crises. There are lots of requirements on humanitarian organizations to report on how they have spent the money they get, and what kind of results, but very few donor governments have in place requirements to monitor and ensure that aid money is being used to meet the needs and priorities of the actual people affected by the crisis. Most professional humanitarian organizations already do this to some extent, but donor governments are not monitoring and following up adequately, and supporting these efforts.

Another concern is that donor governments are not being transparent or accountable on the aid that they promise. For example, many governments have still not disbursed all the funds that they promised after the earthquake in Haiti. And while the promises are made in the media or in international conferences, most of the time, the people affected don't receive any information about this, and don't have any way to participate directly on how that aid will be prioritized or spent. This is why we call on governments to improve their transparency and accountability. Germany tends to do better than other donors in this area, and could perhaps take the lead in building more commitment amongst donor governments.

What's been donor governments' response to this ranking system – surely some aren't happy with the whole exercise?

Some governments have told us that they think a ranking system is counterproductive, and doesn't encourage or motivate donor governments to do better. But in fact, some of the lowest ranked donors have told us they appreciate having a tool like the Humanitarian Response Index to benchmark their performance and to know where they stand compared to their peers. The ranking is only a minor part of the exercise, though. We collect a lot of valuable information about how donors are performing, and we have always offered this information to governments, donor agencies and other stakeholders to use it to understand where a government may need to improve, and where they are doing well. By visiting 14 crises areas – the biggest evaluation exercise of its kind in the humanitarian sector – we are able to identify trends that affect the quality and impact of aid. So we have lots of valuable analysis to share with the international community, such as our increasing concerns about politicization of aid.

Men piling sacks of food

Food for those who need it most

You must have confronted questions relating to legitimacy, though – what gives DARA the authority to rank donor performance?

First of all, DARA has a great multi-disciplinary team with extensive experience in the field of evaluating humanitarian action. We were part of the huge tsunami joint evaluation exercise on how the entire humanitarian system responded. DARA looked specifically at the area of donor funding, which gave us insights on how they took decisions, and why good practice was so difficult for them to apply. That was the basis for us creating the Humanitarian Response Index – to systematically measure donor practice and provide solid, empirical evidence on where donor governments need to improve further. Since then, we have carried out HRI evaluations in over 35 crises, along with our extensive evaluation experience in other areas.

We also felt it was absolutely critical for an independent, objective evaluation of donor governments. Until the HRI was created, there was no way to monitor if donor governments were complying with their commitments. Most of the tools and processes used by donors to assess their own performance are not transparent enough, and don't look at issues around the quality of their aid, or the relationship with the humanitarian organizations they fund. We think the HRI can be used to stimulate changes and improvements.

Has the HRI, since its inception in 2007, had a measurable impact on donors? If so, could you give some examples?

Yes. The index has helped to raise many issues and concerns facing the humanitarian sector in general, and several donor governments have now taken this up as an issue for discussion at the international level. For example, our findings in the 2008 report called for improvements in the way that humanitarian needs are identified so that aid could be distributed more effectively and fairly. Now, many governments are working with humanitarian organizations to address this gap. Some governments have used our findings as part of their overall evaluation of their aid programs and policies. And DARA has also begun working with some donor governments to provide a more detailed assessment on how they are doing, with recommendations on where to change and improve. Next year we hope to carry out an evaluation of the impact of the HRI after its first five years, where we can show how and where it has had an influence. In the meantime, we will continue to offer our support and analysis to governments and other stakeholders who are interested in making sure that aid efforts help people affected by crisis.

Interview: Ranjitha Balasubramanyam
Editor: Anke Rasper

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