Charity Begins at Home

Self-serving relief agencies are doing nothing to build up developing countries’ own capacity to respond

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian.

No one listening to the Today programme yesterday morning could have been left in any doubt that the Iranian government is as cruel and arrogant as we’ve always been led to believe, placing human welfare way below national pride. The International Rescue Corps (IRC), a British charity, had been preparing to send a special search and rescue team to eastern Iran to hunt for people buried by Saturday’s devastating earthquake. Just as it was about to set off, the embassy informed the Corps that its services would not be required, and its visas had been stopped. An IRC spokesman told the programme of his intense frustration, as he and his colleagues kicked their heels while people slowly died.

So why is Iran turning its rescuers away? Is it, like North Korea, refusing to accept that it can’t cope, that it has no option but to beg its sworn enemies for assistance? Or does it know something that the Today programme doesn’t? I can’t help wondering whether it might not be experience, rather than arrogance, which leads the government to believe that there’s no such thing as a free lunch, even when it is handed out by charities.

Almost every recent disaster in the developing world has been followed by a second plague: a swarm of under-qualified relief agencies propelled into action by their fund-raising departments. As donations shrink and competition between our myriad charities intensifies, more and more feel driven to attend the high-profile calamaties, even when they know that there is little they can do to help.

This response may bring the money rolling in, but it does nothing for the reputation of relief workers. In Rwanda, three years after the first emergency, there is still deep resentment towards the young and inexperienced Westerners who rode to the rescue in their new 4x4s, tried out a host of untested theories, then departed as soon as the film crews left. Conversely, some of the workers who were sent to Somalia still mutter bitterly about risking their lives to rescue their PR departments. The charities which ARE capable of responding properly can only watch aghast as their credibility is wrecked by people who haven’t the faintest idea what they’re doing.

None of this is to suggest, of course, that the International Rescue Corps is a cynical or incompetent ambulance chaser – on the contrary, its staff are both dedicated and highly skilled. But it is significant that its offer of help was not, according to our government’s Department for International Development, “part of a coordinated response.” Coordination is what makes the difference between effective and merely spectacular disaster relief.

After the 1990 earthquake, the IRC was, with the help of some international pressure, allowed into Iran. After seven days, during which it found no survivors, it returned home. Since then it has never been back, nor has it once approached the Iranian authorities. If, as it claims, the Iranians do not have the expertise to cope with the new disaster, then this surely reflects upon itself. Why should it expect to be allowed to move in when it pleases, when it has done nothing to help secure Iran’s own capacity to respond?

In fact, Iran’s search and rescue efforts seem to be working rather well. The government knows what it needs and who to ask. Foreign miracle workers might make the odd remarkable discovery – a child still living after a fortnight underground, for example – but the forty thousand without homes, food, blankets and water need not miracles but more mundane, less newsworthy assistance. Oxfam’s approach is salutary: instead of rolling into the country in its own name, it is quietly channelling its assistance through the Iranian Red Crescent, which is known and trusted by both the authorities and local people. Discretion, after all, is surely what giving is all about.

Iran has other reasons to be suspicious of international assistance. Every disaster in the Third World attracts a fleet of Trojan trucks. American famine relief arrives in sacks printed with the stars and stripes and “USA Wheat” writ so large that even the dying are left in no doubt that
God is an American. In Rwanda, Protestant evangelists offered food relief only to those who agreed to be baptised, and gave away a Bible with every sack of grain. Many First World nations see disaster relief as a cheap and easy means of gaining diplomatic credit, which swiftly translates into lucrative re-development contracts when the crisis has passed.

We call for humility from governments whose countries are gripped by disaster, but they surely have just as much right to call for humility from us. We will never meet their people’s needs until we disregard our own. The surest test of an agency’s effectiveness is not that it sustains itself, but that it makes itself redundant.