For years aid agencies have been referring to the “CNN effect” as one of the explanations for the delayed response to emergencies. Aid agencies claim that an increased media coverage is required to get the public, governments and others interested in opening their wallets to fund their response. This is the “CNN Effect.” There is nothing new about the “CNN Effect”, this is a theory in political science and Dr. Piers Robinson, among others, has been writing on the topic since 1999. The only novelty in the recent “CNN effect” article by the Guardian, is the utilisation of interactive info-graphics, social media and the internet in general. Instead of targeting the donors, the Guardian article would be really novel if it asked why the aid agencies have to wait for this “CNN Effect”.
Obviously, aid organisations can only respond if they have access to the resources needed. One of the most important and often the most disruptive resource is money. Aid organisations engage in fundraising continuously, not only before, at the onset or during an emergency. For instance, organisations incessantly attempt to raise so-called ‘unearmarked’ (unallocated) private funds from their home societies. But when there is no emergency, where does this money go?
The largest source of money for most aid agencies are government donors. Governments are, or should be, interested foremost in the well-being of their country and its inhabitants. Investing in other countries is therefore mostly done out self-preservation. Provision of aid is often guided by foreign policy, not the need of people in another country. Aid organisations claim to respond to emergencies according to the need of those affected. This begs the question whether aid organisations should depend on governments for the larger part of their income.
The financial dependence of aid organisations seems to ensure that they can only respond according to the “CNN Effect”. If the aid organisations are aware of the behaviour of government donors and the “CNN effect”, it is time to ask them why they still have not addressed their financial dependence? Is there not sufficient unearmarked private funds? Could aid organisations allocate unearmarked private funds to mitigate their financial dependence? It is time the Guardian takes its investigative journalism beyond the analysis of financial data and social media and start asking aid organisations the difficult questions concerning the accumulation and allocation of their resources?
According to a recent report from Global Humanitarian Assistance (GHA) titled Private Funding; An Emerging Trend in Humanitarian Donorship, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) was the second largest humanitarian donor in the world in 2010 having raised 1.1 billion USD. MSF, according to this report, funded more humanitarian aid than the UK government. The GHA asserted that “private funding as a share of the total humanitarian response” increased from 17% in 2006 to 32% in 2010, whereas MSF had the largest share of private funding of any organisation with approximately 90%.
However, the GHA also recognises the limitations of the data available, acknowledging that “only five organisations from our study set were able to provide disaggregated expenditure by source of income”, including MSF. This excludes certain organisations from the analysis and together with widely diverging definitions among actors of what humanitarian aid entails, this potentially introduces inaccuracies. An article on the GHA website expressed concerns about the lack of transparency with private funding streams and asserts that “it remains unclear how much private money is out there” and that “it is critical that we are able to start systematically assessing the effectiveness of private funding.”
The GHA correctly addresses issues of transparency and accountability, which potentially results in unchecked power among the mostly self-regulating humanitarian organisations. In my experience, most people familiar with the humanitarian aid system would agree that private funding enhances the independence of organisations from state donors and has the potential to improve the provision of humanitarian aid. Nevertheless, if money is associated with power and vice versa, we could imagine that MSF is possibly on its way to gain more power within the humanitarian aid system than the UK government. Frequently this kind of power, beyond only financial power, is often left unchecked with humanitarian organisations.
Even if you only partly believe the assertion of John Dalberg-Acton that “[p]ower tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” you must get worried about the amount of possible corruption that could result from the increasing private funding. If power comes with the tendency to corrupt, should we leave the humanitarian aid organisations self-regulating and unchecked? Probably more regulation would not harm, but increasing political control potentially diminishes the independence of humanitarian organisations and their ability to provide aid according to the humanitarian principles. The challenge probably is to find a system of regulation that keeps the power in check without undermining the independence of humanitarian organisation and the quality of the aid they provide to those in need. Let us hope that the humanitarian organisations use their newly gained power wisely in their provision of aid and their quest to regulate themselves.
[This article was written in collaboration with MSF CRASH and first published in French here]