The role of the ‘new aid’ providers

18 Apr 2011 Voices

Andrew Chaggar says commentators continue to under-value the complementary role smaller aid organisations can play in international crises.

Andrew Chaggar says commentators continue to under-value the complementary role smaller aid organisations can play in international crises.

Last December I wrote a blog post which responded to a Guardian article by Rory Carroll calling for an end to “aid tourism in Haiti”.  In that blog I stated that the work of larger, established NGOs and smaller, newer groups should be viewed as complementary rather than competitive.

However, it seems that many people still view newly-emerging approaches to humanitarian aid as mutually-exclusive to traditional ones.  For example, this week I came across another article, again in the Guardian, which reflects this ‘either-or’ perspective rather than one which considers the benefits of plurality.

This more recent article, by Joel Charny of InterAction, discusses the inability of the ‘new aid’ providers to respond to more ‘complex’ emergencies in places like Libya and the Ivory Coast.  Mr Charny uses these points to highlight why traditional, established NGOs are still vital.

This is a point I whole-heartedly agree with.  As I stated in last December’s blog large, established NGOs are essential in saving lives and leveraging resources.  Their work around the world, particularly in conflict zones, is invaluable and the challenges they face are unlikely to be tackled by others anytime soon.

However, Mr Charny does make some points that I don’t agree with.  For example he argues that newer groups tend to operate only in highly visible disaster zones, such as in Haiti and after the 2004 tsunami.  He also claims that those affected in lower profile emergencies will “never be more than an afterthought to the new aid providers”.

Having worked with several volunteer-driven disaster response organisations, and now having founded the first such charity registered in the UK, Mr Charny’s views here don’t correspond to either my experiences or my understanding of the potential power of volunteers.

For example, in 2007 I spent nine months managing volunteers in the Peruvian city of Pisco which was devastated by an 8.0 earthquake.  This disaster attracted very little media attention and as a result relatively little support in the way of public donations.  Consequently I witnessed very little work being undertaken by traditional NGOs.

In contrast, groups who mobilised volunteers, and through their social networks also financial support, were able to effectively provide assistance where other, larger groups struggled.  So, while us ‘new aid’ providers will not replace traditional NGO’s in more complex environments, I would argue that in certain cases we actually have a better ability to mobilise support in less visible disaster zones.

As our charity, and others like us, grow and attract more and more volunteers, this ability will only increase.  I would argue that this could become a great compliment to the work of traditional NGOs, particularly as they become increasingly stretched by more emergencies, including rising weather-related disasters stemming from climate change.

Further, as well as the impact that volunteers can make while in the field, I also believe that there is an additional, perhaps even greater value in what they take home with them in terms of experience and understanding.

For example, since the mid-1970s Oxfam has channelled some of its resources to providing development education to the UK public.  Such efforts have been credited with creating support for African famine aid in the 1980s and for more recent campaigns such as “Make Poverty History” by providing a fundamental understanding of poverty overseas and its knock-on effects, including vulnerability to disasters.

In my mind, providing opportunities for more people to participate in disaster recovery through volunteering is a natural, and again complimentary, extension to this work by a traditional NGO.  The main difference is that instead of using a media campaign to communicate the message, some ‘new aid’ providers are giving people first-hand awareness and exposure to these issues.

My point through all of this is that we really need to stop making over-simplified comparisons between ‘professional’ NGOs and newly emerging approaches. More importantly we also need to stop this ‘us and them’ mentality.

As I’ve stated before there are good and bad examples of all types of organisation and all of them also have different strengths and weaknesses.  Surely the most important thing is that we recognise this and together do all we can to complement each other’s work.
Andrew Chaggar is executive director of European Disaster Volunteers which he co-founded in 2008, and is a 2010 Vodafone World of Difference International winner  

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