03/07/2012 11:58 EST | Updated 05/07/2012 05:12 EDT

When Media Show Starving Children, Aid is Too Late


Today DARA launched the Humanitarian Response Index (HRI) 2011 , a report that assesses how well the world's main donor governments support the response to disasters and conflicts. It's the fifth year we've done this, and the results are somewhat sobering. While there has been some progress in improving the timeliness, quality and effectiveness of humanitarian aid efforts, the sad fact is that neither donor governments nor international humanitarian organisations have been able to do much to anticipate or prevent the suffering of millions of people affected by crises each year.

Many of the crises we visited as part of the HRI's research over the past five years, like Haiti, Colombia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Pakistan, Somalia, or Sudan, were chronic crises with predictable needs. It's an issue of value for money, using limited aid resources more effectively to meet increasing needs. But more importantly, it´s an issue of being accountable to the people most vulnerable to and affected by crises, and ensuring aid has lasting results and impact in meeting their needs and that builds their resilience and capacity to confront situations of crisis.

The famine in the Horn of Africa is a case in point. In the months leading up to the famine, there was clear, undeniable evidence that a major crisis was on the horizon, and humanitarian organisations made urgent calls to donor governments to support preventive measures in order to avert the crisis.

Yet most governments failed to scale up their funding until images of starving people reached the media. By some estimates, over 100,000 lives were lost as a result of this inaction.

Similarly, estimates from the World Bank suggest over US$ 280 billion in economic losses from disasters - losses felt in some of the world's poorest countries like Haiti -- could have been avoided if the world had invested US$40 billion in preventive measures. To put this figure in perspective, since 2004, the international community spent over US$6.7 billion on peacekeeping operations alone in the Democratic Republic of the Congo alone. Globally, only 62 cents of every US$100 of humanitarian assistance was spent of disaster prevention and preparedness in the top 20 recipient countries for humanitarian aid.

According our report, some of the world's most powerful and influential humanitarian donors, including the U.S., the UK, European Commission, and Canada, contribute over 50 per cent of all the funding for international aid efforts. We call this group of donors "Learning Leaders," in part because they have the capacity, resources and expertise to be at the forefront of global response efforts, and because as donors, they have a genuine commitment to learning and improving the quality and effectiveness of the humanitarian system to respond.

But one area where they consistently fare poorly in our assessment is in the area of prevention, preparedness, and disaster risk reduction. As a group, they also tend to mix humanitarian objectives with political, economic and security interests, at times to the detriment of meeting the needs of crisis-affected populations. One of the problems is that each of these donors pursue individual agendas, rather than a shared vision and commitment on how to best address the many challenges posed by humanitarian crises.

If this group were to collectively exercise their leadership role to embark on an ambitious reform agenda to move from a humanitarian system based on reactive, response-driven approaches to one built around proactively anticipating, preventing, and minimising the losses from crises and building the capacity and resilience of vulnerable people, the resulting benefits would be enormous. This would require a radical shift in their approaches as humanitarian donors, giving more priority to addressing vulnerability and reducing risks as the centrepiece of all aid efforts, including development aid.

There is some hope that this transformative agenda may actually happen. The recent overhaul of the UK's humanitarian aid framework, with its focus on anticipation, resilience, and adaptation, is an excellent start. But it will take more than a policy paper to shift the UK's aid at the field level; it will require sustained political commitment and conviction to drive the changes. And the UK alone cannot hope to transform the international humanitarian aid system.

Many more donor governments, in particular, the other "Learning Leaders," need to engage and commit to a common vision, putting the emphasis where it belongs: preventing rather than temporarily alleviating human suffering.

Our fundamental challenge, indeed, our collective responsibility, is to ensure that all aid efforts, whether development or humanitarian, are driven by an unwavering focus on meeting the needs of the world's most vulnerable, wherever they are, and whatever the causes of that vulnerability.