How Effective is Disaster Relief?

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.

Among the questions being asked by NGOs, the UN, and national donors is how to prevent the recurrence of past mistakes. The wake-up call for most NGOs came after the Rwandan genocide, when hundreds of small organizations tried to set up ad hoc operations in refugee camps in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Tanzania. Some camps turned into staging posts for armed factions. In the ensuing chaos, more than 50,000 refugees died from cholera.