How Effective is Disaster Relief?

When disaster strikes, non-governmental organizations are among the first on the scene. But recent interventions by NGO's, notably in Rwanda after the 1994 genocide and Indonesia following the 2004 tsunami, have called attention to the need for long-term monitoring of their impact on those they claim to be helping.

When disaster strikes, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are among the first on the scene. The United Nations estimates that there are now more than 37,000 international NGOs, with major donors relying on them more and more.

Inevitably, there are problems. Both the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami saw chaotic competition among NGOs. Yet there have also been landmark successes. More than 1,400 NGOs operating in 90 countries helped to get 123 countries to ratify the treaty banning landmines. But the sheer scale of the disaster relief “industry” – plus the longer-term development efforts of NGOs – is raising serious concerns about how to measure their performance.

Flexibility allows NGOs to be innovative in ways that organizations like the UN often cannot. But there are few international rules on what an NGO actually is, and the lack of control can lead to unpredictable consequences. In Chad recently, the French NGO L’Arche de Zoé tried to smuggle children out of the country without obtaining permission from either parents or the government.

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