New donors chip away at aid industry status quo

by Alex Whiting | @AlexWhi | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 26 January 2012 10:00 GMT

From Turkey to Brazil to Saudi Arabia, a growing number of non-Western donors are changing global humanitarian aid scene

LONDON (AlertNet) - Where most expat aid workers fear to tread in Mogadishu, recently arrived Turkish aid workers have been driving in the streets, swimming in the sea and praying in local mosques.   

In August, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan became the first head of a non-African state to visit Somalia for nearly 20 years. The Turks have since opened an embassy, started work on the international airport, offered Somalis university places in Turkey, and made plans to build a new hospital.   

"Turkey is an animating force in Somalia ... The people honestly love them," said Mustakim Waid, who worked in Mogadishu for the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) - the second-largest intergovernmental organisation after the United Nations.   

From Turkey to Brazil, India to Saudi Arabia and China, a growing number of non-Western donors are bringing fresh funds, a different mindset and their own experience of managing natural disasters to the global humanitarian aid scene.  

Until recently most emerging donors focused their aid on their own regions. Some like India, China and Brazil were also major recipients of international humanitarian aid.   

But as their economies and political clout have grown, so too has their influence on the humanitarian aid system, which has traditionally been dominated by the mostly Western members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's (OECD) Development Assistance Committee (DAC).   

For example, when the 57-member OIC opened an office in Mogadishu in March 2011, it began coordinating the work of aid agencies there -- a role that for years has been carried out by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).   

Initially it was greeted with some suspicion, said Waid, who acted as a liaison officer between the OIC and OCHA, but soon the two institutions began to share information.   

Over a decade, the volume of humanitarian aid reported by emerging powers has increased by almost twenty-fold -- from $34.7 million in 2000 to $622.5 million in 2010.   

Increasingly they are being courted by U.N. agencies and some large aid organisations for funding. 

"We are in a risky time ... because we are at a point where the capacity of the system - both response capacity and financial capacity - isn't quite sufficing to meet current needs," said Robert Smith, who heads the unit which deals with appeals for funding at OCHA.   

"And those needs are probably going to get deeper and broader, so we need to be able to scale up," he added.       


Saudi Arabia has been the top non-DAC donor for most of the past decade. However, like many emerging donors, a lot of its aid goes unreported for a variety of reasons, ranging from unfamiliarity with international norms to a lack of organisations to track such data.   

Most non-DAC donors do not have separate budgets or guidelines to distinguish between humanitarian and development aid, and lack officials who know about the United Nations’ international reporting system.   

In 2008, Saudi gave the United Nations World Food Programme $500 million - WFP's largest ever donation.   

The Gulf state has strongly criticised U.N. agencies’ overheads and their capacity to channel funds to the NGOs that distribute aid on the ground, says Andrea Binder, associate director of Berlin-based Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi).   

Unlike most donors, Saudi Arabia usually gives a small first instalment, and will only disburse the rest if the U.N. agency proves it can process the money within an agreed time.   

"It's a different way of holding U.N. agencies accountable," Binder said.   

John Holmes, director of the Ditchley Foundation and former U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator, said there is a big imbalance between what rich Western countries and the rest of the world are prepared to give.    

China and India should be bigger donors but they have massive poverty and disaster problems of their own which they deal with themselves, he said.    

“It’s more Brazil, Mexico, Argentina and so on who need to get more into the system,” Holmes said.  


The factors that drive non-DAC countries to give humanitarian aid -- a sense of solidarity and a desire to further national interests -- are the same as for DAC countries, but there are differences.   

"One of the most striking differences between them is the engagement with the affected state," said Ellen Martin, researcher at the London-based Overseas Development Institute (ODI).   

So when disaster strikes, non-DAC donors want the affected state to take the lead role in managing the aid response. This means they deliver more aid bilaterally than DAC donors, who have different national interests as well as concerns about corruption and human rights abuses.   

When India offered aid to its arch-rival Pakistan after the country’s 2005 earthquake and 2010 floods, it respected Pakistan’s requests for how that aid was disbursed.   

And some non-DAC government officials have said Western humanitarian aid can be too political.    

“The United States may try to export certain cultural values such as a market economy, democracy etc, saying ‘We’re the good guys, we’re the liberal world’,” GPPi’s Binder said. By contrast, the Chinese just want to show they will help, but won’t necessarily try to export the Chinese system, she added.   

Some experts are concerned that non-DAC donors are repeating mistakes that DAC donors have mostly learnt from, such as sending inappropriate aid.   

Not all countries have a single government body responsible for humanitarian aid and some do little to evaluate how effective their responses have been to needs on the ground.   

“There is a lot of work that we have done in the West to try and improve our standards, accountability practices and so on, things which also need to be improved in other parts of the world,” Abdurahman Sharif, operations manager of the London-based Muslim Charities Forum, whose members work in many parts of the world, said.       


At the same time, some experts say that in many countries, from Afghanistan and Iraq to Somalia and Sudan, humanitarian aid is seen as akin to a kind of Western imperialism -- and this is where the entrance of new donors could benefit everyone.

“When I try to impose a model that is perceived to be Western on a situation that doesn’t identify itself with the West, you have a clash,” Sharif said.   

“The question we have to ask ourselves is if our Western model is the best. And, if it’s not, are we trying to impose this model on others?” he added.   

Defenders of the Western model say it is based on cherished principles developed over many decades, such as the idea that aid should be given on the basis of need alone, irrespective of the political or economic interests of donors. 

International fora – including the DAC and the Good Humanitarian Donorship group – are opening their meetings to more donors. And for the past five years OCHA has been working to improve dialogue with non-DAC donors.   

“It’s a gradual process of … mutual confidence-building in each other’s systems and capacities but it’s already producing results,” Smith said. “More and more non-DAC countries are advancing on the table of top donors.”    


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