Following the Money in the Humanitarian Industrial Complex Following the Money in the Humanitarian Industrial Complex

Following the Money in the Humanitarian Industrial Complex

by Rosie Spinks

November 13, 2012



“This whole thing is a business,” said a representative of a major NGO, who preferred not to be named. “But donors don’t want to see it that way. They would be burdened by knowing what we know.”

Carsten Voelz, humanitarian director of Oxfam International, said in an interview with GOOD that while the cozy relationship of non-profits and for-profits may seem counter-intuitive, in reality it’s mutually beneficial. 

“We are turning every cent three times before we spend it so [an event like this] is an opportunity for suppliers to convince us that they have something better, something newer than we are currently using,” Voelz said. “But engagement with the private sector is also for us to influence their practices. We need to be realists about how much change [Oxfam] can trigger in the world from our services alone. We need to be influencers.”

Barry Coleman, executive director of healthcare transit non-profit Riders for Health, says that the relationship between NGOs and commercial contractors is indeed complicated and misunderstood by donors, but it is necessary nonetheless. 

“We as an organization are not interested in property acquisition, but it makes more sense for us to buy the vehicles we use and lease them to [the Gambian] Ministry of Health, who pay us per each kilometer they use," he said. "That system only works based on the trust that comes from us being a non-profit.”

Coleman said that in the packaging of aid for donors, elements crucial to doing effective work can become stigmatized.

“We’ve created somewhat of a monster in this sector,” Coleman said. “You end up with this question from donors: ‘If I donate £1 for a blanket, how much of it goes to admin and how much to a blanket, because I don’t want to pay for admin.’ But in reality what we do is mostly administration.”

Even in light of this wariness from donors, the amount of money funneling into aid by both private citizens and governments is robust. In 2011, the US government donated more than $20 billion overseas, a sum that Mitt Romney says he will slash. British Prime Minister David Cameron recently earned praise from humanitarians for agreeing to adopt the UN’s call for developed nations to donate 0.7 percent of GDP to foreign aid. In 2010, the US donated just 0.19 percent of GDP.

Donors keep giving, but simultaneously, the need keeps growing. That the industry of humanitarian aid has become so vast indicates the scope of need in the developing world. But Oxfam’s Voelz says that even with an increase in funding, the goal is for NGOs like Oxfam to get less involved in the nations they serve. 

“The effective response [to disaster] is national level response led by national authorities and civil society,” Voelz said. “There’s still enough work to be done anyway—we will reinvent ourselves—but our wish is that we don’t have to play fire brigade so much because it’s not effective.”

To further this end, Voelz says that macro trends of the industry are shifting towards more ground-up, market driven methodologies—largely aided by the proliferation of mobile phones—rather than the top-down approaches of the past.

“If you bring free food into a place, you undermine food production,” Voelz said. “But if you actually stimulate the demand by getting the cash in quickly to the people using [cash transfers to] commercial mobile phones, people can then access the market and then the market accesses the producers. You’re stimulating rather than undercutting.”

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Following the Money in the Humanitarian Industrial Complex