There's No Business Like Aid Business

To reach the needy, some groups make a devils bargain

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.


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 fodder.

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 advantage."

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."


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 acts."

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 to bear.

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

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