There's No Business Like Aid Business
To reach the needy, some groups make a devils
by Milan G. Vesely
Toward Freedom magazine, Winter 1998/99
We've all seen them-those big-eyed waifs with distended bellies
_ in some hell-hole in Africa, South America, or the Far East.
TV is filled with such images. "Give money, save a child!"
implores the earnest celebrity as our senses are battered by a
stream of horrific visuals that often ends with a female aid worker
desperately holding a famine-stricken, fly-covered skeletal child
to her bosom. Timed to coincide with our Sunday dinner, late night
insomnia, or early morning "good-to-be-alive" breakfast,
these infomercials massage our conscience to the point of "enough."
Or, as intended, to the point of reaching for our wallets.
But how much good is accomplished with our hard-earned dollars?
Do they alleviate the misery? Do they help children in an Africa
so devastated by the effects of El Nino that crop fields are nothing
but a dust bowl? And how much of the millions raised actually
reach the poor? The last question is easy: 30 or 40 percent at
most, experts agree. The $5.6 distributed to Oxfam and Medecins
Sans Frontieres (MSF), out of $13 million raised by Britain's
Disaster Emergency Committee Famine Appeal for the Sudan in May
1998, is typical.
Humanitarian aid organizations, or non-governmental organizations
(NGOs) as they're called, are big business. In 1997,443 NGOs were
registered under the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) umbrella.
With a budget of $1.1 billion, $500 million from private donations,
and a thousand refugee projects in 131 countries, the UN estimates
there are some 22.4 million refugees, seven million in Africa
alone. But suffering is a commodity that raises money, and everyone
wants a slice of the pie.
As with any growth enterprise operated by naive, principled
people of goodwill, the opportunists and the flimflam artists
take advantage of the chance to cash in.
A PERFECT DISASTER
The largest humanitarian aid operation in history is Operation
Lifeline Sudan (OLS) a multi-layered logistics business. Operating
under the aegis of the UNHCR in the Bahrel-Ghazal province of
the southern Sudan, its TV promotions, newspaper ads, and direct
mailings brought in over $3 billion between 1989 and 1998. In
one three-week period last May, it raised close to $20 million
from a barrage of TV commercials. Pleading for funds to increase
feeding capacity from 2700 to 5000 starving children a week proved
highly effective. Even commercial enterprises marketing desirable
consumer products would be hard pressed to match the response
that campaign received.
Media conglomerates in North America and Europe are in the
forefront of the "raising money for disasters" business.
They alone have the expertise to mount effective media campaigns.
Skimming off high percentage fees for their Madison Avenue and
Fleet Street services, they've developed a profile of the ideal
emergency. Modifying their normally stringent up-front payment
policies and instead keeping up to 40 percent of the donations,
they've developed a surefire approach to marketing what they call
a "complex" emergency.
"To mount an effective campaign for charitable donations,"
reveals Andrew Edwards, a Las Vegas infomercial producer, "one
needs a given set of criteria. First, the organization must have
a recognizable name. Oxfam, Save the Children, Medecins Sans Frontieres,
or any one of a dozen will do. Secondly, the exotic location must
be reasonably safe for relief workers as a ground presence is
necessary. Third, access for TV crews must be relatively easy,
the scenery spectacular, the weather hot and sunny for good lighting
effects, and, finally, the victims must be photogenic. Mud huts,
scrawny cattle, and torn, dirt-encrusted rags as props also help.
Swarms of flies don't do any harm, either."
The Sudanese Bahr-el-Ghazal famine emergency fulfills all
those conditions ... and more. With the addition of propellers
whirring, white planes raising dust clouds on hard-packed runways,
skeletal children sucking on their gaunt mother's wizened breasts,
a frenzied mob fighting for grain dropped from the skies, and
the de rigueur blond, female aid worker sans makeup clutching
a rag-covered child, the Sudanese famine is perfect Madison Avenue
Totally unmentioned, however, is the fact that this tragedy
is caused by an on-going war stoked by the US and Uganda on one
hand, and fundamentalist Islamic Iran and northern Sudan on the
other. That the Sudanese tragedy is as much a war between religions
as a consequence of nature's ravages is never mentioned. Human
cruelty doesn't generate as much money. But this raises the question
of whether more of the donated proceeds should be used to pressure
rebel movements and despotic governments to cease and desist,
and less to pay high-powered advertising companies and NGOs with
staff in air-conditioned offices from New York and Geneva to Nairobi.
Aid organizations have two inherent problems: They operate
in a war zone where power comes from the barrel of a Kalashnikov,
and they suffer from the corrupting influences of the big business
syndrome. To Band-Aid both, they've made a pact with the devil.
Actually more than one.
The primary cause of the Sudanese famine is war, not drought.
But stressing that leads to howls from outraged aid agencies and
their supporters. Those doing it anyway -like Claire Short, the
British International Development Secretary who called a high-powered
British TV appeal misleading and unnecessary-are labeled cruel
and hardhearted. Who could question that helping starving refugees
is so undeniably right?
"In the past, we have acted on a simple sense of moral
outrage, as if that was the only reality you had to operate in,"
explains Roy Williams, head of the foreign disasters office in
the multi-billion dollar USAID. "But, as in Rwanda and Bosnia,
we found that there were too many others all too willing to take
Raising money for "complex" humanitarian emergencies
requires a well-rounded campaign. TV, print media, and direct
mail are all required to generate the maximum income. Thirty-second
TV spots, detailed 30-minute infomercials, and free talk show
discussions all play a part in raising financing, while full page
"hit you in the eye" newspaper ads, preferably in Saturday
or Sunday editions, catch their demographic target- people with
Monday-Friday jobs and money in their pockets. Stragglers are
hooked with the direct mailing, which serves both as a reminder
for those already committed and as a final appeal to those who
have slipped through the net.
Most ''complex'' emergencies scattered throughout 131 countries
are in areas wracked by civil wars. To gain unfettered access
to refugees, aid organizations sign "agreements" with
the warring parties. The precedent for this tragic decision was
set in 1994, when the UNHCR agreed that the genocidal Hutu Interahamwe
be allowed to run the refugee camps in the then-Zaire. In exchange
for such access-and to ensure the safety of staff-donated grain,
medical supplies, transport, and communications equipment is bartered
with rebel and government forces. Additional side agreements for
"security" services are concluded with combatants on
the ground. In the Bahr-el-Ghazal, Sudan Peoples Liberation Army
(SPLA) soldiers are even used as policemen to keep the starving
refugees from overwhelming the NGO staff distributing the grain
and high-protein biscuits.
Lurking in every "agreement" is the unspoken fact
that some grain is resold, with the proceeds used to purchase
the very weapons of war that prolong the conflicts. How else do
rebel movements in countries with no natural resources raise the
necessary hard currency to purchase the millions of rounds of
7.62mm AK47 firepower? At the very least, donated grain is used
to feed soldiers, releasing finances for weapons purchases. One
has only to tour the besieged Sudanese Military garrisons in Juba
or SPLA rebel forces in Torit to see bags of donated grain stored
in their Quonset-shaped warehouses. Visiting mess halls where
donated high-protein biscuits are dunked into mugs of tea by the
AK47-toting forces on both sides only reinforces the truth. Aid
is clearly a double-edged sword.
Systematic diversion of aid has been unquestioned to date.
Now, however, the NGOs' motives and operational philosophy are
coming under scrutiny. To many, it's like turning over a rock.
Something slimy is sure to jump out.
"Are we not just prolonging the wars?" asks Rakiya
Omar of African Rights, an agency critical of the work of charity
organizations in the Sudan. "Are NGOs giving a hand to one
or both of the combatants because it is a matter of institutional
survival? They need a presence on the ground to raise money and
to justify their existence and are not willing to ask themselves
whether they are just making the situation worse."
COUNTING ON COMPASSION
Humanitarian organizations can and do make a difference. In
1989, a quarter of a million refugees died in the Bahr-el-Ghazal.
"If it hadn't been for the Operation Lifeline Sudan,"
says Carl Tinsman, OLS coordinator and Chief of Operations UNICEF
Nairobi, Kenya, "it would be much larger. In 1998, it fell
to only 100,000 deaths from starvation."
Statistics quoted in OLS literature indicate how huge their
15-year Sudanese operation has become. Under its umbrella, 35
separate aid agencies, including the World Food Program and UNICEF,
deliver 500 tons of food a day to 80 government and rebel-held
locations in the southern Sudan. On average, 18 cargo aircraft
fly daily flights out of Lokichogio in northern Kenya to feed
1.8 million people. And this doesn't include the food aid delivered
separately by the NGOs that are part of the OLS consortium.
A humanitarian desire to alleviate suffering is ingrained
in history. The Bible records Jesus as saying: "Even so it
is not the will of your Father which is in heaven, that one of
these little ones should perish." (Matthew 19:14) Islam also
exhorts man s humanity to man. And Minister Louis Farrakhan's
Nation of Islam uses the slogan, "In the name of Allah the
most merciful and beneficent"-beneficent defined by Webster's
dictionary as "marked by or performing kind or charitable
As the world approaches the new millennium, men and women
of goodwill hope that the eruption of ''complex'' emergencies
will subside. On the other hand, they're gradually becoming immune
to the pictures of malnourished children so frequently flashed
before their eyes. The well of giving that has proven such a boon
to the advertising media, various combatants, and humanitarian
organizations is gradually drying up. Making a "pact with
the devil" for a little kindness is becoming a heavy burden
The question is how long it will be before the donating public
says, ''Enough is enough!" Destitute refugees worldwide can
only hope that compassion will prevail.
Milan G. Vesely is a regular TF contributor
and death in Third World