The price of aid: Who is watching whom?

No man’s land: People gather behind a barbed wire fence in a temporary settlement on the Myanmar border. When governments fail, aid organisations step in. But who should they report to? (Ye Aung Thu, AFP)
No man’s land: People gather behind a barbed wire fence in a temporary settlement on the Myanmar border. When governments fail, aid organisations step in. But who should they report to? (Ye Aung Thu, AFP)

When governments fail and health systems falter, aid agencies take over. But who holds them accountable?


After years of teaching in Ethiopia, Somalia and Sierra Leone, and travelling the continent, I decided to join the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) in 2016. I had two reasons: a desire for a better income and an urge to understand the humanitarian sector and the dynamics of modern conflict better.

With a starting salary of almost R85 000 and training sessions in luxurious hotels and resorts, the job seemed ideal — at least in the beginning.

My first mission was in Northern Myanmar. I arrived energised and was tasked with collecting information regarding violations of international humanitarian law perpetrated by the state military and/or the Kachin Independence Army.

We ran up and down in our comfortable Land Cruiser, talking with the victims of the conflict between the state and ethnic minorities in the country’s north. But six months into my mission, I started wondering what we were there for.

We had documented several, serious violations of international humanitarian law from civilian victims but armed groups refused to speak to us — and, I found, we were not so keen on trying to reach them. We seemed content with the idea that since the army wasn’t willing to talk, the consequent lack of action wasn’t our fault. We kept on documenting humanitarian violations despite knowing we couldn’t do anything about them.

In two cases, we spoke to families whose children had been abducted by the Kachin Independence Army. We pretended that would bring them back in order to get information, but my supervisor refused to discuss either case with the armed group.

We’d go from village to village week after week asking the same questions yet we weren’t in a position to suggest anything to improve people’s situations.

In my opinion, the humanitarian aid sector must be held accountable not only to those who fund it but also to the people it serves. Parliaments of recipient and donor countries should conduct beneficiary evaluations by themselves and not depend on the ones conducted by humanitarian agencies.

One Myanmar community affected by armed conflict asked me and my ICRC colleagues for only one thing: a stretcher for their ambulance. A year passed and we hadn’t managed to deliver it. We were supposed to construct several water pumps in the camps for internally displaced people. In one year, not one of those pumps was installed. Even then when we worked in the camps, we worked alongside tens of similar international nongovernmental organisations (NGOs).

But we kept writing reports and sending emails. No one inquired about our failures; no one held us accountable.

This became increasingly difficult for me to do.

International organisations can be exceedingly powerful in that they often control the information we get. They facilitate access for journalists and they sometimes exaggerate a crisis (especially if the media gets interested) in order to attract the donations that keep them going.

In 2018, the international NGO Oxfam released a report detailing its investigation into claims that seven male staff sexually exploited women in Haiti in the aftermath of the coun- try’s devastating 2010 earthquake.

The vulnerability of the populations we work with is not new. In 2016, 103 allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse were reported in United Nations field mission — almost half of these took place in the Central African Republic, the body reported.

Since 2015, the UN has required countries that contribute to peacekeeping forces to vet the people it sends to conflict-torn countries but, according to the UN, this simply means they haven’t violated international human rights or humanitarian law, or been sent home from a UN mission. It’s done little to curb allegations of sexual exploitation or abuse, UN statistics show.

In 2000, the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) conducted a pilot project among Sierra Leonean and Liberian refugees who had fled civil war and were now living in camps in neighbouring Guinea. A 2004 study published in the Journal of Refugee Studies noted internal resistance to the programme as field staff clashed with those from headquarters tasked with carrying out the programme.

But it did unearth serious discrepancies between what UN agencies and governments reported and the reality on the ground.

“Why were so many refugees still dependent on food aid up to nine years after their arrival in Guinea?” researchers asked. “While UNHCR and government officials talked confidently of refugee self-sufficiency, ‘old caseload’ refugees rejected the claim that they should by now be self-sufficient.”

They wrote: “They insisted that the conditions [land, seeds, jobs] still did not exist for them to manage without external support.”

We should stop supporting an industry that is accountable to no one and should demand evaluations from the people that it is meant to help, who remain silenced and reduced to advertising material for a next humanitarian campaign. 

Menelaos Agaloglou was a protection delegate of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Kachin State in Northern Myanmar and in Kasai State in the Democratic Republic of Congo between 2016 and 2018. Previously he was the head of geography and economics department in the international division of the Greek Community School in Addis Ababa.