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To: Mort Abramowitz From: Fred Cuny
As we pursue the idea of establishing the International Crisis Action Group, I
thought it might be helpful if I gave our group some of my thoughts on what it
will take to improve humanitarian operations and how we might be able to
evaluate the UN's and other agencies' performance.
How to improve multilateral humanitarian operations:
The first and most important obstacle is the problem of mandates. There will
be no meaningful changes in the way the UN system operates until this issue is
addressed. For example, there is still no agency specifically tasked with the
problem of displaced persons, border crossers fleeing from non-war emergencies
(e.g., famine), expulsions of third country nationals, etc. Until the gaps are
plugged, each operation will be ad hoc, slow to respond, and poorly
coordinated. Therefore, ICAG must address the issue of mandates and the
broader question of the international humanitarian architecture.
The second major problem facing multilateral response is funding. There is
not enough money on standby to permit agencies to respond to early warnings or
to take pre-emptive actions. Furthermore, the way that funds are raised by the
UN (i.e., pledging conferences and combined appeals) means that the lead agency
cannot plan ahead, cannot count on specific projects or activities being
funded, nor can they respond quickly to changing needs. Few decision-makers
are willing to take risks with the money they have at the outset of the
emergency, and that discourages innovation. Worse, the way that DHA runs the
process, it legitimizes every whacko idea that gets into the appeal. ICAG must
work to develop standby funding mechanisms that can funnel large amounts of
cash into operations early in the crisis. This will be a major undertaking and
will require a lot of creative thinking.
Third, there is still a widespread lack of understanding about how to solve
many recurring problems. That is not because the research isn't available; it
is because (1) most humanitarian operations are staffed by young, first timers
and (2) most UN decision-makers don't have the requisite training about how to
solve specific problems. For example, we've known for years that famines are
economic problems and that food aid has very little impact -- yet most relief
agencies are totally unaware of the vast body of research on the topic and
continue to repeat the same mistakes. The role of ICAG should be to promote an
"epidemiological approach to relief operations," i.e., to focus on proven
techniques that prevent death, disease, and malnutrition, as well as improving
overall coordination and management. If we want to make real changes, it will
require a radical departure from existing practices and will require taking
some very controversial stances. In order to be very clear about what we are
trying to accomplish in each situation, we need to develop our own doctrines, a
portfolio of programs and approaches that we want to advocate and make sure
that all the on-site staff are in tune with the approaches being promoted.
Fourth, it is well known that humanitarian agencies are only marginally
accountable for their actions. The problem is that no one holds them to any
standard of performance. However, the standards and norms are there. A major
function of ICAG should be to review these standards, revise them if necessary,
and then promote adherence to them. This will be the only way that we will be
able to measure others performance. To get the agencies to comply with the
standards may require being tough in our evaluations, but we should never
hesitate to point out when an agency is just wasting time and resources. In
some cases, this may require going to the press with the criticism.
Fifth, few relief agencies really have a clue about what they are doing. The
best way we can influence change is to promote training. We should develop
close links to the existing training institutions and help them reach the
relief community. However, we need to recognize that much of what they are
training people to do is not very effective and ICAG should be prepared to help
the trainers improve as well as their clients.
Finally, the media drives many relief operations. We need to develop close
working relations with the major press agencies and offer to help train and
orient news organizations about what issues to look for in crises. The press
is potentially our greatest ally but misguided press have sabotaged many an
innovative program (for example, a creative CRS cash-for-work program in
Ethiopia was killed when the press accused them of selling food to starving
people; CRS was selling the food but they were giving the people a chance to
earn the cash to buy it).
How will we be able to evaluate a humanitarian effort?
Since monitoring and diagnosis are going to be the key elements of the ICAG,
we need to be clear about what it is we expect agencies to be able to do. In
many cases, public expectations may be too high or unrealistic given the
structural obstacles that the UN and other agencies have to overcome. However,
there are both objective and subjective criteria that can be applied.
Objective criteria include the things that can be measured. They include:
1) Mortality (death rates)
2) Morbidity (disease rates)
3) Malnutrition rates
4) Adherence to dietary requirements (quality, quantity, and mix of vitamins
5) Adherence to standards and norms for services
6) Cost effectiveness of approaches, programs
Subjective criteria will be harder to assess. They have to do with quality of
services, timing of actions, results of the various interventions, security
issues, and whether or not the interventions are promoting solutions or simply
increasing the problem. They will also include many esoteric factors such as
quality of life for the people being helped, self sufficiency vs. dependency,
etc. As an advocacy organization, ICAG will need to develop a way to examine
these subjective issues and find ways to measure and realistically report on
FCC: 22 Nov. 93
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