[Excerpts from an interview with Sara Pantuliano, managing director of the Overseas Development Institute, a global development think tank based in London:]
Q: The aid sector is bigger than it’s ever been before, with 4,500 known relief organizations around the world. That might seem like a good thing — but your research has shown the opposite.
A: The system is no longer fit for purpose. It was created 70 years ago [after World War II] and hasn’t really evolved with the geopolitics. Organizations have become businesses in many ways, held back by interests that are very corporate. Success is not measured in terms of the quality of the aid you provide, or how much you’re working in partnership with other NGOs. It’s about how many places you’re in, how much staff you have, how much is in your budget. That’s where the incentives start to go against what they’re trying to achieve [helping those who need aid].
Instead of being collaborative with local NGOs that could take on crises more efficiently, more appropriately, international organizations are competing with them. For example, when Typhoon Haiyan struck in the Philippines [in 2013], we saw everyone flood into the country where there is [already] an enormous capacity to deal with these kinds of natural hazards. The Philippines gets many typhoons every year and [aid groups there] know how to respond. They’ve got the structures, they’ve got the capacity, and they would have done just fine in leading the response to the typhoon. Instead, everybody and their dog was on the ground. That actually made national efforts harder. It swamped the efforts of the local people to take the lead in planning their recovery.
We need to find a way to address the incentives that hold back so many international organizations. People need to be at the center of their organizational interests, not the growth of their budgets or staff. That takes a lot of courage. Ultimately, this is at the heart of the issue: power.
I don’t think [big aid organizations] are going to cede power [to other NGOs] so easily. So we’re telling them: if you don’t change, you’re just going to make yourselves redundant. States won’t let you in anymore. Organizations on the ground will reject your aid and reject your role.
People on the ground have a negative perception of humanitarian aid. We hear that crisis after crisis. For example, from surveys of earthquake victims in Nepal, they told us that the aid that they’re receiving is not appropriate, not relevant. They’re getting food that they’re not used to, supplies that they don’t need.