EXCLUSIVE: One of America’s largest non-profit relief organizations is warning that the practice of shoveling mountains of money at major humanitarian emergencies like Syria is being overwhelmed by the scale of disasters the world faces, and that rich countries need to try something drastically new—starting with less reliance on bureaucracy-bound United Nations relief agencies.
“Our humanitarian communities are maxed out,” warns Andrea Koppel, vice-president of global engagement and strategy for Mercy Corps, a Portland, Oregon-based disaster relief agency that operates in more than 40 countries, often alongside such agencies as UNICEF and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. “There has to be recognition from all donor governments that the status quo is not working. We are using humanitarian assistance as a band aid.”
Her warning came two days after the Obama Administration announced it would sent $419 million more in aid for Syria, which has been engulfed in civil war for nearly five years.
“We are really at a crossroads with the traditional aid system,” Koppel added. The relatively small group of countries that put up the bulk of relief funding “are now waking up to the fact that the status quo is not cutting it.”
Instead, Mercy Corps is calling for a “new normal” in international disaster relief that bypasses U.N. agencies as necessary, especially as international relief coordinators, and puts more authority in the hands of private relief agencies.
“The existing humanitarian system is too centralized, top down and U.N. focused,” Mercy says in a 58-page analysis that takes stock of the current global crisis environment. “In fragile states in particular, the existing system is unsustainable—both overstretched and underfunded.”
“We need a system that is more cost-effective, less bureaucratic and more nimble if the challenges of the new normal are to be met.”
If not, the mega-disasters that now are sending refugees across Europe’s borders are only likely to multiply and grow.
Mercy Corps’ analysis underlines a grim reality that wealthier nations acknowledge but have not fully confronted. Some of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters, such as civil wars, now last for years if not decades, often involve local governments as aggressors or passive actors—which adds to U.N. ineffectiveness--are made worse by other natural disasters like drought, and collectively involve human displacement on a scale not seen since World War II.
They also are often centered in some of the world’s poorest countries, where “fragile state” status is increasingly endemic, internal and external refugee movements are massive, and the black hole of under-funding looms largest.
The under-funding and over-stretching are getting harder and harder to ignore. Last week’s State Department announcement of $419 million in aid for Syria and surrounding countries came only three months after a previous $360 million aid bump—and brought the U.S. total to some $1.6 billion just in fiscal 2016.
All told, the U.S. has given more than $4.5 billion in relief to Syria and surrounding countries since the start of the Assad onslaught against Syrian rebels began in late 2010, making the U.S. far and away the largest single aid donor to the Syrian emergency.
Yet despite that largesse, the overall $8.4 billion United Nations appeal for the regional crisis this year—the U.N. remains the overall aid coordinator—is only 40 percent funded. As millions of refugees have spilled over into neighboring Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq—and now Europe itself—Koppel noted “the human needs have been growing exponentially. There are not enough dollars to meet them.”
“We have never had to operate on so many fronts before,” said a senior official of an international relief organization, who requested anonymity. “The disasters are more complex, more numerous, and place extreme stress on human resources.” And “they are definitely not going to get better.”
The problem is not only the magnitude of challenges in Syria, the surrounding Middle East, and long-festering disasters like the Democratic Republic of Congo, , the Mercy report says. The difficult also lies with the origins of “international aid architecture” in the development of the U.N. itself.
The analysis cites among other things a numbing array of U.N. bureaucratic institutions—“the humanitarian coordinator system, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee, interagency needs assessments, the consolidated appeals process”-- that were created in 1991 and have only updated slightly since. These were “not designed for the challenges of the modern 21st-Century world,” the report says. Subsequent U.N. attempts to jerry-rig improvements “remain unrealized.”
The better idea, Mercy argues, would be to sweep away the old institutions where they are not likely to be effective and place greater reliance on new combinations of private-sector organizations, civil society groups and different levels of government. This, the report says, would allow humanitarian organizations to take bigger risks to support local victims regardless of government response, and work faster and more easily with local communities when national governments are virtually non-existent.
It would also help move relief efforts more quickly toward blending longer-term—and cheaper—solutions with short term aid that can merely leave refugees as a dependent community in place, and reduce some of the underlying accelerators of violence, or at least make it easier for refugees to return when violence or other calamities abate.
Not surprisingly, Mercy’s argument is based on some of its own achievements—which the relief organization, founded in 1979, also feels deserve more attention.
In Syria, for example, Mercy, along with other private-sector organizations, has for several years been doing what U.N. agencies were unable to do—operate in areas outside Assad government control to bring food, medical supplies and emergency relief to millions of Syrians under assault by their Russian-backed government.
The decision to go where the vast majority of Syrians were suffering first involved creation of a separate relief organization on Syria’s borders while Mercy still operated another relief arm under Assad supervision, then a decision to break with the Assad government entirely. Funding continued to come from USAID, British government agencies and the European Commission.
With the cooperation of thousands of Syrian volunteers, community organizations and aid workers Mercy is still bringing those supplies across neighboring borders to some 500,000 Syrians per month, in one of the most dangerous civil war zones in the world, including besieged communities under ferocious assault by Assad with chlorine bombs and other weapons of mass devastation.
That situation has been further compounded by the aggressive savagery of the Islamic Front, which has pushed even more Syrians and neighboring Iraqis into flight. There, the risks are so great, Koppel says, that “we made a decision a year or two ago not to operate in areas where the Islamic State is also operating.”
U.N. agencies, on the other hand, were largely constrained for years by their ties with the Assad regime and were largely blocked from sending aid to areas not under Assad’s control, even after a 2014 U.N. Security Council resolution—nearly four years after the ugly conflict began—finally allowed the U.N. to start up similar cross-border relief.
“When it came to the massive needs in the rest of the country,” says a senior official with an international relief agency, “ the international side”—the U.N.—“was completely paralyzed.”
In the vacuum, however, non-government organizations such as Mercy learned that they too could provide relief services at U.N.-scale.
The question is whether major donor nations will agree.
For its part, the U.S. government says it is not tilting one way or the other, even though more than half of its latest $419 million infusion of Syria aid--$236.5 million—goes to unspecified NGOs, with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees getting less than a third of that amount.
A senior State Department official told Fox News that the disparity had more to do with State Department funding cycles than with a tilt toward non-government relief agencies.
“That’s why we have so many different organizations to support,” the official said. “they each have different strengths.”
The issue of how best to rebuild the world humanitarian order will get a U.N.-sponsored look in May 2016, at a first-ever World Humanitarian Summit slated to take place in Istanbul.
In customary U.N. fashion, a year-long series of regional U.N. summit meetings on the humanitarian topic began in June 2014 and ground on through July 2015. They will be followed by an Internet-based “Global Consultation” in Geneva in October.
One thing the U.N. has already made clear, however, is that the “fundamental principles” enshrined in its 1991 reworking of the ungainly international relief system, will “guide our work,” even as the U.N. explores “how to create a more global, inclusive and effective humanitarian system.”
George Russell is editor-at-large of Fox News and can be found on Twitter: @GeorgeRussell or on Facebook.com/GeorgeRussell