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Guest editorial

Donors need transparency, not tactics

The global financial crisis has brought hard times for many. Households and governments alike are finding themselves in reduced circumstances. After a decade of growth in aid budgets, some donors have begun making cuts.

The situation hit a significant low point last year, when the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria — one of the most important sources of funding for medical programmes in developing countries — said it would not be able to consider new grant applications due to lack of funds. Political leaders had not fulfilled their pledges; they had in effect broken their promises. Thousands of people in low- and middle-income countries were denied the life-saving treatment they needed.

The Global Fund’s immediate crisis is over, thankfully, but it sounded an alarm for aid programmes of all kinds.

Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) will continue to put pressure on governments to meet their obligations, fulfil their commitments and fund humanitarian programmes. But humanitarian action is a shared responsibility: the new economic powers also have the means to provide more assistance, and those governments that receive aid must step up and shoulder their responsibilities, too.

Needs-driven or funding-driven?
Donations from the general public have seen a decline as well. MSF felt this in 2009, when funding from private donors fell by 3 per cent. This year, too, we are feeling an impact in some countries, such as Greece, Italy and Spain.

Individual donors seem to be responding more readily to particular emergencies. MSF saw significant increases in private donations following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and, in 2011, the malnutrition crisis in Somalia. In an uncertain climate for private donations, where fund-raisers are looking for ways to sustain funding, this has highlighted the contrast between needs-driven and funding-driven approaches to raising money. Should an appeal for a particular emergency accept donations only for activities related to that emergency or for wider activities?

MSF depends heavily on private funding; in 2011, almost 90 per cent of our income came from private donors. This support — from more than 4.5 million people — is first and foremost testimony to the hard work of MSF staff in the field, who are recognized for saving lives and restoring health the world over. But our dependence on private funds is also deliberate; it strengthens MSF as a humanitarian movement in a way that public institutional funding cannot. Each private donation is an expression of solidarity and it helps to guarantee the independence and impartiality of our action.

Given this situation, the need to sustain private funding is particularly resonant at MSF. We have chosen to take the route of needs-driven funding. We prioritize unrestricted funding, so that we can exercise independence, using money where it is most needed and reacting immediately to emergencies. When we accept donations for particular emergencies, we do our best to accept funds commensurate with our estimated needs, which are restricted to activities where we have expertise and can provide greatest assistance.

After the tsunami hit South Asia in 2004, we received more funds than were necessary for our programmes in the region. We stopped accepting contributions to our tsunami response and asked people who had already made donations if we could redirect the funds to our other programmes. The vast majority agreed.

Engaging with donors
Overcoming funding challenges is perhaps less about tactics and markets, and more about donors’ belief in what is being done: how effectively is their money going to be spent?

Most donors are interested in what is being done with their money, how and why. Going beyond simple messages of crisis and emergency is not easy: talking about the difficult choices that have to be made in humanitarian response raises questions and invites even closer scrutiny. But MSF is trying to be more transparent. And where we have succeeded in doing so, we have learned that the vast majority of our donors appreciate our openness.

Transparency improves accountability and demonstrates integrity. And it goes even further. It creates a space for engagement, builds trust and increases understanding.

To sustain funding, we should go beyond simple appeals for money. We need to allow for engagement in an honest dialogue about exactly what humanitarian assistance is all about, what it can and cannot achieve.

By Unni Karunakara
Unni Karunakara is the international president of Médecins sans Frontières.


Unni Karunakara
Photo: Médecins sans Frontières










Transparency improves accountability and demonstrates integrity. It creates a space for engagement, builds trust andincreases understanding.



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