The Unsung Heroes of Global Humanitarian Assistance

August 19th marked the 12th annual World Humanitarian Day, which celebrates humanitarian assistance in developing countries. World Humanitarian Day began in 2003, dedicated to the twenty-two aid workers who were killed by the bombing at UN headquarters in Baghdad that year. According to the World Health Organization, “82.5 million people in 37 countries need humanitarian assistance.” While foreign aid and international NGOs are play an important role in humanitarian response, the efforts made by local aid workers are just as important. A core part of a functioning civil society, local aid workers are often more sensitive and attuned to the needs of the local population since they share a common culture, environment, and language. Given their unique position, local aid workers are typically the first to respond to a crisis, thereby reducing the number of lives lost and damages incurred from the outset. For example, local aid workers were delivering assistance to those affected by the Ebola outbreak in 2014, six months prior to the World Health Organization’s declaration of a public health emergency.

Unlike their unwieldy international counterparts, local aid workers are better equipped to combat some of humanitarian assistance’s greatest weaknesses, including the timely, low cost, and culturally sensitive distribution of aid. Local aid workers can also access areas, people and knowledge that many foreign parties are unable to tap. In spite of their essential role in crisis management and their capacity to promote sustained philanthropic development, local aid workers often lack the resources marshalled by larger international groups. According to a research study conducted by Oxfam, “Between 2007 and 2013, the resources provided directly to [local aid workers] averaged less than 2 percent of total annual humanitarian assistance.”

People free a man from the rubble of a destroyed building after an earthquake hit Nepal on April 25th 2015. (Source: EPA/Narendra Shrestha)
People free a man from the rubble of a destroyed building after an earthquake hit Nepal on April 25th 2015. (Source: EPA/Narendra Shrestha)

Though mobilizing local aid workers is a more effective solution in most emergency situations, without adequate funding and resources, local aid workers are unable to properly address and respond to a crisis. In response to the Nepal Earthquake that struck in April 2015, the Nepal Flash Appeal distributed $422 million to over 70 organizations, but Nepalese organizations received just 0.8% of those funds. In spite of their limited funding, approximately 1,800 local Nepalese aid workers led relief and recovery efforts to minimize the damage caused by the earthquake, compared to approximately 450 Indian aid workers who responded.

In addition to the paltry funds and resources, local aid workers are also more susceptible to on-the-ground hazards. According to the Overseas Development Institute, “attacks on aid workers have steadily risen over the years, from 90 violent attacks in 2001, to 308 incidents in 2011, with the majority of attacks directed towards local aid workers.” Particularly in those countries racked by civil war and cultural conflict, local aid workers may be caught in crossfire, while international aid workers can depend on the protection of foreign and domestic governments.

Emphasizing the importance of local aid workers may be the first step in realizing World Humanitarian Day’s mission to commemorate those who have risked their lives to help other people. In advance of the upcoming World Humanitarian Summit, scheduled to take place in Turkey in 2016, it is imperative that policy-makers embark on initiatives that recognize, strengthen, and protect the crucial role of local aid workers in global humanitarian assistance. To maximize the efforts of local aid workers, communication with international civil society organizations must be improved, funding must be increased, and the distribution of resources must be better organized. When all of these needs are met, the world will be better equipped to confront future disasters and humanitarian crises.

Beyond ODA: Integrating Philanthropy into the Post-2015 Development Agenda

Last month, representatives at the United Nations Third International Conference on Financing for Development agreed to a number of proposals to fund the upcoming Sustainable Development Goals. Collectively known as the Addis Ababa Action Agenda, these proposals cover a range of financing sources, from domestic tax revenues and official development assistance to private sector financing and philanthropy. The Agenda also included measures to support international trade and capacity building. World leaders now hope that the financing mechanisms laid out in the AAAA will encourage countries to adopt both the SDGs and a climate change accord scheduled for negotiation in Paris this December.

 

Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon congratulates delegates on adopting the Addis Ababa Action Agenda. Source: UN Economic Commission on Africa
Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon congratulates delegates on adopting the Addis Ababa Action Agenda. Source: UN Economic Commission on Africa

 

The SDGs are a proposed set of 17 goals that are meant to provide benchmarks for a variety of development issues over the next 15 years. The goals cover poverty, hunger, health, education, gender equality, energy, the environment, and a host of other global challenges. Each goal is accompanied by a number of targets that serve as tangible metrics of a country’s progress towards the SDGs. These new goals are a follow up to the Millennium Development Goals, a 15-year set of eight benchmarks that world leaders agreed to back in 2000. To improve their drafting process for the new goals, the UN organized the largest consultation program in its history that combined government input with surveys of the general public.

 

The Addis Ababa Action Agenda, a vital part of the new development goal drafting process, is a step towards recognizing the role of international philanthropy and the private sector in supporting global development. The agreement makes several references to the importance of the private sector in economic growth, particularly the role of the financial sector in enabling small businesses. Furthermore, Article 10 of the agreement explicitly lists philanthropies and foundations as vital members of the “global partnerships” that are required to meet the SDGs. This is a substantial improvement over the funding section of the MDGs, which overwhelmingly relied on official development assistance and did not reference to international philanthropy.

 

However, there is still a lot more that the Addis Ababa Action Agenda and the SDGs could do to support philanthropy’s vital role in development. In June, the CGP cohosted the Conference on Policy Coherence for Mobilizing Private Financial Flows for Sustainable Development with the OECD Development Center. The purpose of this conference was to discuss how to best utilize private funding for the SDGs in the lead up to the Third International Conference on Financing for Development. Dr. Carol Adelman, director of the CGP, provided a number of recommendations, summarized below:

 

  • Efforts to measure private financial flows and to publicize philanthropic best practices should be increased
  • Private and philanthropic actors should be included in drafting the SDGs
  • Innovation should be the primary criteria for creating public-private partnerships as part of the SDG targets for global partnerships
  • Philanthropy should be recognized as a unique source of development practices rather just an additional funding source for official development goals
  • Countries should strive to improve their legal environments for investing in both for-profits and not-for-profits
  • Intergovernmental organizations should facilitate the distribution of private resources to developing countries by evaluating best practices and identifying successful ventures

 

Though these suggestions were not explicitly included in the Addis Ababa Action Agenda, countries looking for ways to finance their SDG efforts should still consider them. Many of these suggestions simply entail engaging with the private and philanthropic sectors, and collecting new data. However, some countries may balk at evaluating their legal environments. A major finding of the CGP’s new Index of Philanthropic Freedom is that laws created to serve the legitimate interests of the state, such as capital controls and illicit financial flows legislation, often hinder philanthropic efforts as well. Examining their legal requirements will require states to evaluate the benefits of combating illicit finance or managing volatile financial flows against the benefits that come from international philanthropy.

 

As Dr. Adelman noted in her comments, 80% of the developed world’s economic engagement with the developing world comes from the private sector, philanthropy, and remittances. The Addis Ababa Action Agenda is an important first step in acknowledging these essential flows and how they can help meet the SDGs. But the international community needs to go further in developing a more holistic funding plan for the SDGs, and the recommendations made at the Conference on Policy Coherence are an excellent place to start.

April is the Cruelest Month: the Coming Austerity Measures and Elections in Ukraine

Photo Credit: REUTERS/Anatolii Stepanov
Photo Credit: REUTERS/Anatolii Stepanov

The International Monetary Fund has offered Ukraine a two-year bailout package of $18 billion in return for steep economic reforms. The long-term goal of the bailout package is to stabilize a Ukrainian economy that is running up expenses and moving toward a debt default. It is hoped that economic stability in Ukraine will lead to the political stability that can then ease Ukraine’s transition to democracy, and more importantly, away from Russia. By opening up to the IMF deal, Ukraine will signal to nations like the US and Japan that they are committed to restructuring their economy and are open to investment. For example, the United States Congress is working on a bill for $1 billion in aid to Ukraine as well as economic sanctions against Russia. The European Union has put $15 billion on the table. It total, Ukraine is in position to receive around $27 billion in aid.

The downside to these deals is that the enforced austerity measures will likely hurt the average Ukrainian citizen by increasing gas prices by 50% and inflating the currency, the hryvnia, by somewhere between 12% and 14%. Therefore, we may see the cost of living rise while the purchasing power of the hryvnia plummets. Ukraine’s interim Prime Minster Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk explained that there would be a minimum-wage freeze and an increase in taxes for Ukraine’s largest companies. All of this spells out hard times for Ukraine in the coming years. But consider the result if Ukraine were not to accept the austerity measures. As The New York Times reported, Yatsenyuk “told the Parliament on Thursday that the country was ‘on the brink of economic and financial bankruptcy’ and that gross domestic product could drop 10 percent this year unless urgent steps were taken in conjunction with the fund.” With such instability, Ukraine’s interim government would not have the time or the legitimacy to set up the proper institutions before the planned election in May.

Photo Credit: Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images
Photo Credit: Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images

The top candidates for the election include former Prime Minister Yulia V. Tymoshenko, billionaire businessman Petro Poroshenko, and Parliamentary leader as well as former professional boxer Vitali V. Klitscho. Tymoshenko, who was born in the industrial and Russian-leaning eastern Ukraine, has support from the western and central provinces. However, it is Poroshenko and Klitscho who lead in the polls. No matter the result in May, the next president of Ukraine is set to face a difficult transition in all aspects of society. Somehow, he or she must ease the pains of economic liberalization, consolidate political factions, and reign in nationalist as well as pro-Russian sentiments. International aid may help, but the real battle for Ukrainian independence must be fought from within. It is a fight to defeat the legacy of authoritarianism; a fight that Ukraine desperately needs to win.

Money For Nothing: Overstating Official Development Assistance

Aid projects can help young children in Africa obtain access to fresh drinking water.
Aid projects can help young children in Africa obtain access to fresh drinking water.

Recently a report by The Guardian exposed the troubling reality that some nations overvalue their ODA. By exploiting the antiquated formula for calculating ODA, which calls for interest rates on foreign aid loans to be less than 10% (grants are held to a 25% rate), countries like Germany, France and Japan, are taking credit for more aid than they actually give. Just how much more? David Roodman, the author of the Guardian article, estimated that billions of dollars in ODA is tacked on each year by manipulating one simple calculation. Last April, former chairman of the DAC Richard Manning warned in a letter to the Financial Times that fewer and fewer loans given by OECD countries are “concessional in character.”

The 2008 Financial Crisis upset the ODA equilibrium.
The 2008 Financial Crisis upset the ODA equilibrium.

After the 2008 Financial Crisis, interest rates fell but the 10% discount benchmark rate for ODA loans stayed the same, causing the imbalance that upset the equilibrium of ODA calculations. Roodman writes, “Today, rich nations can borrow at 2% or 3%, lend at 4% or 5%, and make a profit while calling the loan aid.” Further compounding the problem, the profits made on these loans go back into the financial system of the lending country.  These interest repayments, as they are called, are not subtracted from net ODA like capital repayments, skewing the final figures. In the case of Japan, who in 2011 took in $2.6 billion in interest repayments, a nation can actually receive more money from developing countries than it gives to them in ODA.

But which nations are receiving these loans? Manning explains in his letter that “France, Germany and the European Investment Bank” give loans to the middle-incomes countries of Latin America and Asia. These loans count as concessional ODA, but in reality they do not reflect the “real cost of capital” and rake in huge profits for the lending countries. As more countries have discovered this type of loan practice, Manning writes, we have seen a recent surge in ODA to middle-income countries and a slight drop-off in ODA to sub-Saharan Africa. In their defense, some lending countries argue that the rates also must reflect default risk. And to be fair, default risk is always a factor when lending to countries in dire straits.

Thankfully, Roodman reports, nearly all of the DAC countries employ a more effective calculation method in their handling of export credit arrangements. This method uses calculated differentiated discount rates based on currency values and the rate at which each country pays to borrow money. Unlike the 10% benchmark, which has held steady since 1972, differentiated discount rates are updated yearly to reflect current market forces.  In applied, this could be an effected method of calculating rates for ODA as well. But no matter the ultimate solution, the fact remains that our fifty-year-old method of ODA calculation is in desperate need of an update.

A Not So Indecent Proposal

Last week the White House Administration released the budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2015 (FY15). The proposal included a $700 million (1.4%) overall decrease in foreign assistance compared to the FY14 levels. Some assert this is the manifestation of the American public’s disapproval and disregard for foreign assistance and international development. In reality, however, the new budget demonstrates a continued commitment to foreign assistance and the Obama Administration’s reprioritizing of development goals.

imgresThe overall decrease in aid is largely due to America’s reduced presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan, whose operations formerly made up large parts of the US foreign aid budget. The new budget would not entirely remove aid to these countries, but would remove several on the ground operations focused on post-conflict reconstruction. The country would not necessarily lose its direct monetary assistance from the US, but would lose its technical assistance in infrastructure rebuilding. The decrease in US technical assistance equates to a high monetary loss for each country and makes it appear as though the US is scaling back its overall foreign assistance program. Rather, the US is maintaining its overall monetary assistance but decreasing its capital assistance in certain countries.

The dire picture many paint of the FY15 budget ignores the many strategic aid increases the Obama Administration proposes. The FY15 budget proposal would increase funding for the US Trade and Development Agency (USTDA) by 22%. This agency’s purpose in foreign assistance is to connect American companies with infrastructure investment opportunities in developing nations. By increasing funding for USTDA, the Obama Administration seems to be encouraging the development of public-private partnerships between US private companies and developing countries. This demonstrates not only a shift in America’s approach to foreign aid but also demonstrates the government’s recognition of the large role private corporations could play in the future of development.

imagesThe proposal would also increase funding for the US Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), which focuses on aid for countries prioritized by the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDG). While overall funding may fall, the increased funding for the MCC demonstrates a stronger commitment to UN development initiatives. The proposal suggests that the US is beginning to prioritize not only its own development interests but global development issues as well.

What does Obama’s budget proposal indicate about his views for the future of US foreign aid? The budget demonstrates a shift in foreign aid priorities. Previously, US foreign aid focused heavily on infrastructure improvements and post-conflict rebuilding. America was especially involved in rebuilding war torn countries in the Middle East. Just look at Afghanistan or Pakistan or Syria as examples. But with a decrease in technical aid towards those countries and an increase in funding to the USTDA, Obama seems to be outsourcing infrastructure reconstruction to private companies. The administration would instead have the US government prioritize economic development. This becomes especially apparent when also considering the increased funding for the MCC. The MCC and the UN’s MDGs focus more on economic and community development in addition to overall capacity building.

This is an interesting approach to foreign aid because Obama appears to be taking advantage of the growing role of private companies in development. Development is no longer just for DAC donors or federal governments. Public-private partnerships have the potential to transform and improve foreign assistance. Using Obama’s strategy, if the private sector focuses on infrastructure development that leaves the US government free to prioritize economic development.

Distress Call From an Ancient City

The recent uptick in violence in Syria had made it nearly impossible for aid organizations to deliver supplies to Syrian citizens caught in the crossfire of a civil war. Civilians trapped in the Syrian city of Homs because of bombings, sniper fire and roadblocks are low on food and medicine. Fortunately, aid organizations brought supplies to around 700 people and transferred them to a safer section of the city that was once a beacon of culture and civilization. Scenes like this are happening all across Syria, with pro-Assad forces and opposition fighters exchanging gunfire while women, children, and the elderly attempt to flee or seek shelter from the fighting.

A destroyed neighborhood in Homs, Syria.
A destroyed neighborhood in Homs, Syria.

Recently, negotiations between Syrian pro-government and opposition leaders have fallen apart. Mediated by the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, the first round of talks that began in late January failed to accomplish much aside from hurt feelings on both sides of the negotiating table.  Ten days later, in a second attempt at a dialogue, UN officials looked to ease the chaos breaking out in the Syrian city of Homs by coming to a transfer of power agreement with the Assad government. Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN mediator who took the lead in talks with the Assad government, apologized to the Syrian people after negotiations for a transitional government fell through.

On February 10 a cease-fire facilitated the evacuation of citizens and allowed supply trucks and aid workers to give care to the remaining civilians trapped within the crumbling city walls. The cease-fire was, unfortunately, the only positive progress made since talks began in January. Meanwhile, what little is left of Homs continues to be a battleground for opposition and government forces, an estimated 2,500 Syrians caught in their wake.  Photos of the devastation have triggered media outlets to post “before and after” pictures of some of the most treasured monuments in Homs and across Syria.

The UN Security Council came to an agreement on Feb 22 that gives the Assad government and the opposition forces 30 days to comply with a set of humanitarian goals. Russia and China, who are part of the five permanent Security Council members, came out in support of the resolution. All 15 members of the Security Council voted in support of the resolution.  Among other humanitarian goals, the resolution calls for:

  • The cessation of all forms of violence, some of which will be considered war crimes when the conflict is over.
  • The protection of civilians from indiscriminate aerial attacks, including the use of barrel bombs.
  • The expansion of humanitarian relief operations and the movement of medical supplies across the Syrian border.
  • The safe evacuation of all citizens who wish to leave the besieged cities.
  • The end of arbitrary capture and torture of civilians.

Still, the resolution saw opposition from Syria’s UN Representative Bashar al-Jaafari, who claimed that the humanitarian aid has a political agenda. United States Secretary of State John Kerry recently spoke out against the violence in Syria, putting greater pressure on Russia to tone down their support for the Assad regime. The United States continues to meet with world leaders, but a clear solution to the crisis in Syria has evaded them. Some feel that Assad is using these attempts at diplomacy as a buffer until his military can win the civil war against the government opposition fighters. Others remain hopeful that the dialogue at the UN brought forth the demands of both sides, even though no agreement could be reached.

Picking up the Pieces

Typhoon Haiyan On November 8, 2013 the whole world watched as the most powerful storm in recorded history smashed into the Philippines.  Typhoon Haiyan, known locally as Yolanda, struck the central region of Philippines with sustained winds of 195 mph and wind gusts of up to 235 mph.  Since its landfall, Haiyan is believed to have affected around 12 to 16 million people – with millions displaced, more than 6,000 dead, and nearly 1,800 still missing.

Countries and organizations around the world quickly scrambled to deliver aid to the devastated area.  The relief effort has come in various forms; military aid, hospital ships, and millions of dollars from both organizations and countries.  While countries have been quick to respond to the catastrophe, the Philippines is not in the clear yet.  Three months later bodies are still being found, people are still missing, and aid is difficult to deliver to the islands that are only reachable via boat or helicopter.

Lack of electricity remains a huge problem in the Philippines.  Not only did the storm knock down power lines, but looters looking to make money have broken into transformers to take out the copper cores and sell them on the black market.  Additionally, looters have also cut open the downed power lines and have taken the copper inside.  With many people still missing, the lack of electricity poses a serious communication issue.  People are having a difficult time contacting their loved ones who live in different parts of the country, or even around the world, to let them know that they’re alive.

Corruption continues to be a constant fear in the rebuilding efforts.  There have been reports of local officials selling aid supplies for profit.  This type of post-disaster corruption is not new to the Philippines; $20 million in government funds meant for rebuilding towns in northern Luzon Island after a 2009 storm were allegedly stolen by local officials using fake non-government agencies.  Haiyan has revealed to the world the extent of Filipino corruption; money to maintain and build roads were diverted, hospitals have not received resources they needed, and many buildings have not been built to code – which is evident by the fact that cities like Tacloban, the city hit hardest, are flattened.

US Marines were among the many that aided in the relief efforts.
US Marines were among the many that aided in the relief efforts.

Filipino political officials are well aware that the Philippines is known for corruption, and many citizens have been demanding improvement for years.  President of the Philippines, Benigno Aquino III, has made it his mission to eliminate corruption, and has begun to deliver by establishing a new website called the Foreign Aid Transparency Hub.  FAiTH, as the website is called, is open to the public and allows people to track funds given to the Philippines by foreign donors.  On the website people can see how much a foreign country has donated and what kind of assistance was provided.  This website has helped the Philippine government and President Aquino gain some credibility in the battle against corruption, but many Filipinos remain skeptical.

In addition to foreign assistance, Filipinos are helping each other out.  Organizations like the Philippine Disaster Recovery Foundation (PDRF) and Philippine Business for Social Progress (PBSP) aim to help out communities ravaged by the typhoon.  PDRF has been able to deliver relief supplies such as food, water, clothes, satellite phones, mobile ATMs, solar-powered lamps, and tents to Haiyan survivors.  PBSP has been able to rally Philippine businesses to donate hygiene kits, blankets, clothes, food, and other forms of relief aid to those affected by the storm.

Even after the typhoon, Filipino resilience is strong.  Shops and markets in areas destroyed by Haiyan have begun to reopen.  Aid organizations, knowing that they need to make money, pay displaced Filipinos to clear debris and make repairs on buildings.  Tacloban even celebrated Christmas by illuminating a church and erecting a Christmas tree in front of city hall.  While it is apparent that Filipinos want to return to normalcy, it is clear that relief efforts will continue in the Philippines for the foreseeable future.  For now, many Filipinos are just happy to be alive.