Transparent relief

Published: July 27 2008 18:17 | Last updated: July 27 2008 18:17

Never in the field of humanitarian relief has so much been given to so many with so little scrutiny. In recent years, the UK’s Disasters Emergency Committee has co-ordinated the fund-raising and disbursement of hundreds of millions of pounds in donations to handle the consequences of crises around the world. Accountability at home needs to catch up.

The committee has proved a useful umbrella organisation for more than 40 years, raising money at low cost with support from celebrities and the media and distributing it for spending between its dozen or so members – the UK’s most important relief agencies such as Oxfam, Save the Children and Christian Aid.

How well the agencies deliver can only be judged by rigorous evaluation. Yet the committee has stopped commissioning detailed assessments after each disaster appeal; refused to publish the full, undoctored version of one critical report (on the east Asian tsunami); and has since made others difficult to obtain. It has launched a new approach, flagging briefly in its annual report issues of concern from each appeal for members to address and placing the onus on them to conduct individual evaluations. There is no common standard for how these will be conducted or whether they will be made public. It is unclear how far those charities that disappoint will be penalised.

The committee looks too much like a cosy club, in which the majority of trustees are chief executives of member charities. There is little incentive to change. A concern raised in its latest annual report about Chad is that the nine-month duration of appeals is too short, focusing on short-term relief rather than longer-term rehabilitation. This issue has been raised many times in the old-style evaluations, without any change in policy. But it clashes with rapid fund-raising in crises. More transparency and external scrutiny of the committee’s governance would be no bad thing.


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