Even in these times of economic uncertainty, the public of the rich West will still dig into their pockets to donate funds to charities and NGOs working to alleviate suffering in the most desperate and war-ravaged areas of the planet. Indeed, whilst Greece burns and threatens livelihoods, many still understand that great swathes of Africa and Asia equally burn, threatening lives. People still give generously to help those in need. And NGOs will gladly take this money and pour it into numerous brave and noble development and humanitarian programmes. Equally these NGOs will ensure that those giving are not only made aware of the needs of those suffering but also of their own tireless and challenging work to relieve that suffering. And it seems like a fair deal – we’ll show you the bad stuff, you give us money, we’ll try and sort out the bad stuff and show you what we’re doing.
However, taking a realist perspective, when the developed world floods a war-ravaged country with funding, the vast majority of it ends up not with those most deserving of it but in the hands of whichever corrupt elites happen to be fighting for control, and thereby inadvertently financing the conflict’s continuation. Even when money is provided directly to those in need, circumventing corrupt middlemen and warlords, via direct provision of necessary equipment, food, aid etc, local environmental economics kick in. Sheer poverty gives items such as medecines, medical instruments, shelter material, wheelchairs and the like their own special market value – fetching sums of money which will be more valuable than the actual item themselves. Such items end up back in the economy, providing for those with less need of them.
This reality will come as no surprise to anyone who has been involved in international aid at the business end, especially working with NGOs in the field. However, of those millions of donors who regularly fund these NGOs, the sheer brutal truth of what happens to their money is mostly hidden. To a degree a conspiracy of silence is maintained lest these donors learn of the ultimate destination of their charitable donations and henceforth refrain from giving.
From a utopian perspective, all aid would be orchestrated by those beyond reproach, guided by their best instincts in implementing programs for those most in need. Each and every one of us would take seriously our accountability to local communities and to the donors providing the wherewithal to get the job done. However, experience reveals that humanitarian programmes, with large amounts of cash flying around in a frantic maelstrom, often encourage fast and loose approaches to inflowing funds. Given the haste with which aid programmes are often thrown together, controls on the use of funds are often a bit less rigorous than in development programming, which can demand more rigour and transparency.
The sad fact is that many conflicts in which huge amounts of donor aid is forthcoming, via a huge and growing number of charitable NGOs, are often fuelled by, if not engineered to encourage, that very aid and the environment within which this aid is opertating merely provides oxygen for corrupt or lackadaisical accounting. This moral dilemma becomes a major issue for NGOs who have genuine desire to assist those in need and also for governments, who can hardly remain on the sidelines when the media are handily driving their publics to demand that something be done.
Thus ensues a vicious circle of humanitarian assistance and conflict – one familiar to aid agencies and NGOs. It provides particular challenges to those working in the field, not least those involved in campaigning and communication. Ethical questions abound. Knowing the potential attrition rate of aid funding as it approaches its final destination, as vast amounts are hived off by various players, is it morally right to deny this harsh truth to those willing to contribute? Knowing that $300 is just as likely to end up purchasing thousands of rounds of 7.62mm ammunition as it is supplying stocks of antibiotics, is it morally right to conceal such possibilities from those donating? Knowing that host nation ‘partners’ often have accounting practices which leave much to be desired, and allow for a lot of creative accounting with donated sums, is it morally right to maintain a façade of successful and efficient partnerships?
But then again, morality may have to be tempered with pragmatism. Undoubtedly, when it comes down to it, NGOs and aid agencies can only really survive through such pragmatism – a pragmatism that demands that not only do they communicate the need for aid but market themselves as the provider of choice, sell their idea of charity and brand themselves as angels amidst a hell. All against a backdrop of ethical conundrums.
In truth, communication within the field of international aid is as tough and challenging as it gets – rife with moral dilemmas. Marketing the iPad, selling the latest BMW 5 series or even campaigning for a political party – all are ethical child’s play in comparison.