14 comments on “Why Aid Agencies Fail to Stop Famine

  1. I’m wondering if it’s an aid agency’s place to be thinking long-term, especially in emergencies like a famine. Shouldn’t the responsibility really lie with the governments where the famine exists for long-term strategies? (Of course, famines occur where governments are weak.) Because the funding of these agencies is mostly focused on short-term solutions, shouldn’t someone else be looking at the bigger picture, not aid workers working for their next contract?

    • Hi Jay,

      You’re partly right, in that it is definitely the primary responsibility of governments to assure the wellbeing of their people- morally and under some aspects of international law as well. But when you get to a situation when governments either can’t or are unwilling to do this, that’s when you run into a gap.

      Most aid agencies which respond to emergencies and crises also have teams that deal with long-term development, that is, trying to tackle the fundamental reasons why poverty and insecurity exist. So from that perspective, yes, absolutely it is the responsibility of aid agencies to be thinking about the long-term, and not just the immediate. This should never compromise the need for an appropriate and timely response, but needs to be a part of it. Aid agencies’ actions, even in the short term, can have both positive and negative impacts on the long-term context in which they are working, and it’s essential that agencies consider this risk and assess the work they’re doing accordingly- the principle of Do No Harm, which we learnt to terrible cost through Rwanda post-1994. Finally, aid agencies are the players who bring resources and potential into a situation in need of those resources. Where they’re the only ones with the potential to change the situation, they absolutely have a responsibility to look at how they can impact it positively- both immediately, and into the long term.

      Yes, other players too need to look at the long-term solutions. The UN, donor governments, institutions, corporations, national governments, administrators and so forth. But aid agencies are one of a horde of players who can affect this outcome, and given that many or most have long-term as well as short-term programs, they have a moral responsibility to be reflecting on this.

      Thanks for your comment,


  2. But what happens to all the ” flexible funding” for humanitarian assistance that is given to the agencies? Perhaps it is used for less media -sensitive crises, as we all know that the only real “additional resources” are freed up when the images hit the news. Other allocations are just a transfer within the budget for humanitarian assistance, e.g. less money for Niger, more to Somalia.

    • A totally fair question Sam. A few things.

      1. It’s this ‘flexible funding’ that has allowed most agencies to be responding to the Horn of Africa drought since early 2011, on a small scale. But it’s still the same thing- imposing an externally-funded response on top of existing long-term development programs, rather than actually building the sustainable funding model of the long term development programs around the cyclical, predictable humanitarian needs- so therefore really just an extension of the same criticism I’ve made in the post.

      2. This ‘flexible funding’ has to go a long way. You’re right- it goes into those forgotten emergencies like DRC, or the ones that were in the front pages in the past but have now dropped out, but still have massive needs, like the Pakistan floods of last year, the conflict in Afghanistan, and so-forth. And they’re also being used to develop new practices in the humanitarian field- pilot activities that might help agencies do their job better. In short, it’s in high, high demand, so there’s not lots of it to go around.

      3. There’s a lot less ‘flexible funding’ in NGOs than many skeptics believe. I’ve worked for the donor-side of the NGO community and can speak to how seriously NGOs take their legal promise to donors about where funding goes. It’s very common to have funding that was raised for one emergency unable to be transfered to another for legal reasons or, and this has nearly equal weight in some conservative decision-making, the desire to appear to be doing the right thing by the donor. As a field-facing practicioner I can assure you this has been an extremely frustrating experience.

      In fact, usually the most ‘flexible’ funding is the sort that comes in precisely for the long-term development programs, through whatever is the main development model being touted- namely because the fundraising efforts usually focus on helping a person or community [generically, and generally] out of poverty without necessarily defining precisely how this process will take place. This should give agencies all the freedom they need to take this funding (which makes up the bulk of their income) and tailor it around the humanitarian context, not just plop another generic development project into place.

      Thanks for your thoughts & question mate.


  3. Great article describing a complex problem, and a nice rant 🙂 I think you might be interested in Everything Is Obvious (Once You Know the Answer) by Duncan Watts. It explores the paradox of common sense – while it helps us make sense of the world it can undermine our ability to understand it. Here’s a snippet from New Scientist (16 July):

    “…why does rocket science seem hard, while problems to do with people – which is some respects are clearly much harder – seem like they ought to be just a matter of common sense? As it turns out, the key is common sense itself. Common sense is exquisitely adapted to handling the kind of complexity that arises in everyday situations such as how to behave at work versus in front of your children versus in the pub with your mates. And because it works so well in these situations, we’re inclined to trust it.

    But situations involving corporations, cultures, markets, nations and global institutions exhibit a very different kind of complexity. Large social-scale problems necessarilly involve anticipating or managing the behaviours of many individuals in diverse contexts over extended periods of time. Under these circumstances, the ability…of common sense to rationalise equally one behaviour and also its opposite causes us to commit all manner of predictive errors.

    Yet because of the way we learn from experiences – even ones that are never repeated – the failings of common sense reasoning are really apparent to us. Rather they manifest simply as ‘things we didn’t know at the time; but which seem obvious in hindsight.”

    Seems to me some of this might be at play in aid organisations and the media.

    Cheers, Viv

  4. Just discovered your blog. Nice job on this Somalia analysis. Blood-pressure-popping how many commenters there are in the world who suggest long-term solutions, as if making a discovery, or (worse still?) argue against relief aid because it won’t deliver a long-term solution. I blogged myself about the irony of large multi-mandate (aid + development in your lexicon) agencies hyping the “perfect storm” of factors causing this food crisis in parts of Somalia, yet forgetting to mention their own decades of failed development efforts.

    On this point, I don’t share your optimism about the potential to improve the emergency response of large development organizations. I just find that each lives in a different reality, and can’t see the other. The Haiti cholera and Pakistan flood responses are only the most recent examples that lead me to believe separate agencies fighting each other in a turf war would be less inefficient than that same battle going on within the same agency.

    Finally, as much as NGOs self-servingly point the finger at donors for not being flexible with funding or not being willing to pony up the cash until a full-blown crisis is in our Western living rooms, what of their own responsibility? If development is all you do, fine. But if you call yourself a humanitarian agency and you sell yourself as an emergency responder then you have to take the consequent strategic decisions to ensure internal funding is available immediately, and in substantial measure. For humanitarian NGOs to be dependent solely on donor contracts (or public appeals) in order to mount a significant response in a crisis like Somalia today is an internal failure. Where is their emergency fund?

  5. Excellent points. I wonder why NGO’s have not implemented them yet. The major untalked about issue with the Kenya and Somalia drought is also equal access to water. In Kenya, Lake Turkana is the main source of water in the northern part of the country, and as such is often disputed by Ethiopia and other countries bordering the lake. Countries understand that water is power, and as such, they are often focused too much on controlling what they have then developing water catchments and dams and focusing on watershed management.

  6. MA, another great post and very enjoyable rant.

    However, for me anyway, it raises a few questions… questions about how aid agencies communicate (a big interest of mine).

    First, I can’t help but wonder where “the media” got the idea that long term solutions were sorely lacking. I doubt that this is their own personal analysis. My guess is that it comes from communications staff from different aid and development agencies involved with the present situation in the Horn of Africa. And if all articles sound the same, it’s because the sources of the stories are the same (or at least very similar).

    I wonder if part of the problem stems from sub-optimal messaging from within an agency rather than from poor reporting.

    I wonder if the gap that needs to be bridged isn’t greater between aid workers/researchers and communication professionals than between aid agencies and the press.

    You wrote:

    “Want to be part of the solution? Get to grips with the complexity of long-term crises and find ways to engage your audience so that donor funding is more forthcoming, understanding more sympathetic, targeting both more flexible and more intelligent.”

    I think that this in particular is the job of a given agency’s communication staff… give journalists a better story and they will print it (she writes as if this wasn’t a challenging endeavour).

    If aid workers want messaging to be less diluted, they need to speak to those who create it (communication departments). And without criticizing (because communicators are professionals too and reaching people is harder than it looks), offer different points of entry through which more complex issues can be discussed.

    Like everything, I think this is a process. Communication staff need to better know their “product”. Public awareness needs to increase from “poverty and famine are problems and there are agencies that are working to make things better” to “this is the why and how of an agency’s response”. Of course, this requires time, interest and will…

    Unfortunately, given that aid is a profession to be respected, you can’t expect everyone to understand its complexities overnight (or in the span of a single news cycle). And articles that deal with higher discourse require readership that can keep up.



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