Humanitarian action

British system is a better way to raise disaster aid

The outpouring of donations for victims of the Asian tsunami may well become the most generous response of all time to a natural disaster. The Red Cross, dozens of international relief organizations and UN agencies have been surprised by the tens of millions of dollars they have received for the arduous task they face. In fact, however, the response differs from others only in the level of giving.

tsunami survivor

A tsunami survivor sits amid debris in a fishing village outside Nagapattinam, India. World response to the disaster has been overwhelming—but also raises concerns about the way aid is collected and distributed, according to humanitarian experts at Tufts. © AFP/Getty Images

Other aspects, including the scramble of advertising, the confusing plethora of agencies asking for help and the uncertainty of donors about how much of their gifts will ever reach those in need, have characterized earlier mobilizations for Liberia, Haiti, Hurricane Mitch, Darfur and other recent emergencies.

This may seem an inappropriate moment to question the world’s response mechanism for international emergencies, but it is, in fact, one of the few times when ordinary citizens have an opportunity to consider the bigger picture and to make personal decisions about how they might assist. There is so much competition for funds that many people simply turn off and make no donation at all. An overwhelming proportion of potential givers think that too much is spent on administration and advertising.

A frail creature
Relief organizations have an additional problem. When the tsunami struck, most were already stretched to the financial limit by other emergencies. They began their response to the Asian tsunami with few cash reserves, and although many have ongoing development programs in the region, the money for those is usually not transferable. The current fund-raising scramble thus illuminates the broader weakness of the world’s humanitarian apparatus: a frail creature with limited capacity and reach.

In the 1990s, almost two billion people were affected by disasters, 90 percent of which occurred in developing countries. The humanitarian response to each one was similar: an international alarm, sudden appeals, pictures of relief supplies being loaded onto aircraft, and then, a few weeks later, silence. In fact, the international response mechanism is like operating a volunteer fire brigade—except that the volunteers have to acquire the fire trucks, the pumps and the water before they can leave for the fire.

In Britain there is a much better system. The 12 major British charities are members of a Disasters Emergency Committee. When a major emergency arises, they go into collaborative mode. The BBC and ITV organize a broadcast appeal that is made available to local as well as national radio and television stations. The national and local press provide free advertising. The British Bankers Association coordinates the establishment of dedicated bank accounts. The post office sets up a single post office box number for mail-in donations, and British Telecom sets up a national telephone system with a single toll-free number.

Good management
The British disasters committee, which retains an emergency reserve of 200,000 pounds, gears up fast and keeps fund-raising costs low. It is also concerned about how money is spent. Funds are allocated among member organizations on the basis of their track record in countries where a particular emergency has occurred. An organization with no experience in the tsunami areas, for example, is unlikely to receive much funding. Instead of a bewildering plethora of agencies and appeals, British donors can take reasonable assurance that their money will be well managed. Last year, the committee raised 35 million pounds from the British public for the crisis in Sudan, and by January 4 of this year, had raised an unprecedented 76 million pounds for victims of the tsunami.

The disasters committee was not formed out of the goodness of the hearts of charitable organizations. It was born in 1963, when the BBC told emergency organizations it was tired of competitive fund-raising and myriad appeals from organizations whose bona fides it could not verify. Relief groups were ordered to create a coordination mechanism. It worked—to the benefit of the organizations and their contributors, but more important, to the benefit of disaster victims.

The time has come for a disasters emergency committee in the United States.

Ian Smillie and Larry Minear are with the Friedman School’s Feinstein International Famine Center, where Minear directs the Humanitarianism and War Project. They are the authors of The Charity of Nations: Humanitarian Action in a Calculating World (Kumarian Press, 2004). This piece appeared in the January 17 edition of The Boston Globe.