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Call to account

Joanna Macrae’s article on NGOs in Issue 3-1996 was a constructive contribution to the current debate on where humanitarian aid is headed. I would add, however, that the fear of agencies’ independence being compromised by the increasing amounts of government funding is less of an issue than the following: how ac-countable are agencies anyway? The long-term effects of aid, local inputs, the importance of local structures, sustainability, are all too often ignored as agencies seek visibility. The Dutch media – and some politicians – have been less than complimentary about what has been labelled the Rwanda Road Show, for example. NGOs have been accused of crass public relations, crying wolf in pursuit of funds, and political naivety. Some of this was deserved, some was not. But the demand for demonstrable efficiency and effectiveness is on the increase. A third of the agencies present in the first Great Lakes emergency could not be found anywhere on the face of the Earth by an international assessment team a year later. It is time humanitarians woke up to the fact that it is no longer sufficient to be accountable. We must be seen to be accountable.

The ethical Code of Conduct brought into being by the Federation, the ICRC and leading agencies, was much needed. Now a set of practical universal standards is being sought, and those behind this effort should be applauded. But if I may play the Devil’s advocate, will they be standards or merely statements of intent? Who will enforce them? Will the donor community be prepared and able to judge agencies on their behaviour?

The self-regulation that Macrae refers to isn’t enough for a growing body of outside opinion. The call for an international ombudsman to oversee the “aid industry”, or some other institution to which donors, agencies and beneficiaries can turn with complaints, or when they consider standards are slipping, deserves full support as an initial answer.

Cries of horror may emerge from the moral high ground, but the agencies who occupy it can no longer do so without question. I suspect that before very long if we do not find an enforceable form of regulation for humanitarians, someone else will. This will be the real fight for independence and impartiality. To misuse your headline, it will be a struggle in which the N of non-governmental organisation will be at stake.

Jaap Timmer
Head of International Activities, Netherlands Red Cross


In focus

Last month I had to stop at our local Red Cross centre in Antigua to pick up crutches for a friend. While I was there I saw your magazine Red Cross, Red Crescent. I’m an artist and I am always looking for photos that move me. I took home several back issues to go through. While glancing at Issue 3/1995 I was emotionally moved when I reached page 15. Having looked at “Gabre-mariam’s wife”, the photo by Mike Goldwater, I knew I had to paint this lady (see above) – my feelings were aroused so strongly.

Yolanda Woodberry
St John’s, Antigua, Leeward Islands


In the last issue of Red Cross, Red Crescent there was a particularly unsettling article on page 29. The box identifying the Red Cross and Red Crescent workers who died this year was quite painful to read. In addition, we just received a fax from our National Headquarters informing us of the murder of our six colleagues in Chechnya.

These 18 people I did not know, but I feel as if 18 members of my family have died.

Why are the principles of our Movement not remembered and respected by those we are trying to help?

Duncan A. Hutchinson
American Red Cross,
Greensboro Chapter


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