Thursday, November 29, 2007

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Another exercise in ranking generosity

One of pieces of accepted wisdom among policy cognoscenti is that while the United States is not terribly generous in terms of foreign aid, it does excel in niche areas, like providing providing relief for humanitarian disasters.

The Financial Times' Quentin Peel reports on a new ranking exercise that suggests this perception might not match.... other people's perception:

Sweden, Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands have been ranked as the top four aid donors in providing relief for humanitarian disasters, according to a new index published on Thursday.

The study, launched by Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary-general, ranks 23 aid donors from the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development according to the effectiveness and impartiality of their relief efforts in eight crisis-hit countries.

In contrast to the Scandinavian nations, major donors such as the US, Japan and France rank in the bottom half of the index, with low scores for tests such as impartiality and implementing international humanitarian laws. France is criticised for its failure to work effectively with other aid agencies.

The humanitarian response index, drawn up by Dara International, a Madrid-based evaluation agency, ranks the European Commission in fifth place, in spite of frequent criticism of its bureaucratic procedures. The UK ranks ninth, Germany 13th, and the US 16th out of the 23. The bottom two countries are Italy and Greece.

The purpose of the index, based on the responses of more than 800 aid agencies in the eight disaster zones [Democratic Republic of Congo, Colombia, East Timor, Haiti, Lebanon, Niger, Pakistan and Sudan--DD.], is not to be “a name-and-shame exercise”, according to Silvia Hidalgo, director-general of Dara, but rather to be “a improve the quality of humanitarian aid”.

Mr Annan, who launched the report in London, said it would serve as “a crucial tool to help ensure that no disaster is ignored, and that every dollar spent helps those most in need”.

I tried to access the actual report, but Dara's web site, while quite fancy, is also maddeningly short on detail or methodology.

Still, two quick thoughts:

1) Are the evaluations of aid agencies really the only metric being used here? Surely some of these agencies were on the losing end of various funding decisions by major power donors. Might that not affect their responses?

2) Is impartiality always a good thing during humanitarian crises? I'm not saying it's necessarily a bad thing, but as a "guiding principle" I'm not sure it's a great idea for every aid donor to act according to these principles either.

posted by Dan on 11.29.07 at 09:14 AM


AP newswire

Today, in response to a tsumani, the Danish 7th Fleet, consisting of one rusting destroyer, two fishing boats and several inflatable rafts, deliver 3 tons of relief supplies to devastated islands.

The Danes were very polite and insisted on an impartial distribution of the supplies.

The supplies did almost no good, but the Danes were so polite and impartial that the mission felt really good.

Kofi Annan, fresh from a mission to find genocide to ignore, praised the Danes for being so impartial and for the immense generosity.

At the end everyone held hands and sang Kum-bah-yah, while the victims starved and died of typhoid. Death, however, was very impartial.

US President Tom Tancredo, when told that US aid had been refused because the US is not impartial, suggested the Kofi Annan do something unnatural to himself.

posted by: save_the_rustbelt on 11.29.07 at 09:14 AM [permalink]

Dan's "Question Number 2" confuses the value of impartiality with the appropriate providers of impartial assessments.

My two bits: Impartiality is a principle best implemented by humanitarian agencies, not governments. If donors would stop earmarking funds and commit a standard percentage of GDP for humanitarian assistance yearly, establish a coherent global architecture for allocating it, and then actually cough up the dough, then that organization would be in the right position to determine who needs it most, and donor governments wouldn't have to.

Interesting case of a non-regime there.

posted by: Charli Carpenter on 11.29.07 at 09:14 AM [permalink]

I sure hope we get to see who doesn't like us. because there is nothing to be gained by continuing to insult them. Just give the money to the ones who do appreciate it and let the rest get their funds where they prefer to get them. Works for me.

posted by: Randy on 11.29.07 at 09:14 AM [permalink]


I can't imagine a worse scenario than turning over assistance to 'impartial agencies.' We have that with the various UN agencies and it is usually a formula for ensuring corruption, waste and ineptitude. At least bi-lateral assistance is held accountable to elected governments.

As for Scandinavia, I would contend that their generosity is largely motivated by a desire to punch above their weight in international affairs.

The problem the US faces is that our own agencies are a mess. Bush has run USAID into the ground and his experiment with MCC has failed to live up to expectations.

posted by: SteveinVT on 11.29.07 at 09:14 AM [permalink]

Hi Dan, great blog. I wanted to steer a bit away from your direct questions, and be briefly contrarian on the prevailing wisdom on U.S.-led foreign assistance generally (that it's meager) and its effectiveness (that it generally isn't).

I spent 11 years as a foreign correspondent for The New York Times and then The Wall Street Journal in the Caucasus and Central Asia. As you know, among the assistance agencies that piled in after the Soviet collapse were the IMF and the World Bank, two of the most derided agencies of them all, both of which receive most of their funding from the U.S.

However, today almost without exception these eight former Soviet republics have rock-hard currencies, and are fairly solid fiscally. This achievement is no small thing.

Steve LeVine, author
The Oil and the Glory (Random House)

posted by: Steve LeVine on 11.29.07 at 09:14 AM [permalink]

1) Yes, and Yes. But I still suspect there's something to it.
2)Well, humanitarian aid kind of implicitly demands impartiality. I see what you're saying (or, rather, I could contruct an argument for partiality), but humanitarianism is aid without precondition for the sole purpose of the betterment of the aggregate human lot. Whether some other form of aid might be more effective mitigating suffering, none could be so egalitarian. What would happen if a hurricane hit the island of Isolatistan? It has no trading partners or diplomatic relations, so no one cares, except the humanitarians. What truly humanitarian aid would do is decouple disaster relief from all other concerns, and I think current disaster relief programs have done a surprisingly good job of this.

posted by: foolishmortal on 11.29.07 at 09:14 AM [permalink]


>I can't imagine a worse scenario than turning >over assistance to 'impartial agencies'...a >formula for ensuring corruption, waste and >ineptitude.

This is a critique of bureaucracies in general not IGOs per se. Why trust the USG any more than the UN? Dan's question was about the value of impartiality as a humanitarian norm, and whether governments could/should implement it. My answer is yes and no.

>At least bi-lateral assistance is held >accountable to elected governments.

The humanitarian agencies surveyed by Dara were probably thinking of accountability to recipients of aid, not to donors. The Humanitarian Practice Network at ODI publishes some good papers on this topic:

posted by: Charli Carpenter on 11.29.07 at 09:14 AM [permalink]

For the record, I do believe that a lot of good can be done by relatively self interested parties. For the purposes of a metric such as this(generosity), controlling for partiality is a good thing, in that the quality of mercy is not strained and all that, but in measuring actual effectiveness it has no place. Either you're helping or you're not, and motivation is a silly thing to worry about. I somehow doubt that the beneficiaries of the Marshall plan considered its geopolitical implications.

posted by: foolishmortal on 11.29.07 at 09:14 AM [permalink]

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