Are relief groups underperforming on emergency response?

A view of the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, where many Syrian refugees are staying. A new report by the Médecins Sans Frontières highlights areas where emergency response need improvement. Photo by: Mohamed Azakir / World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

International aid organizations are not responding to humanitarian emergencies as well as they should because they put more emphasis on reporting results and fundraising than actual development work, according to French medical group Médecins Sans Frontières.

MSF  — with a long history of criticizing the U.N. for its role in such situations —  said in a new report published on Monday that humanitarian work on the ground “has been undervalued and under-prioritized” in favor of avoiding risks and securing funding for current and future programs in countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan and Syria.

That’s why the humanitarian response to the crises in these conflict-ridden nations lacks the technical capacity that well-funded top international NGOs in theory should be able to deploy, the survey adds. The report also accused organizations of leaning heavily toward “easier projects” when faced with logistical or access difficulties.

And — as expected — the French medical group singled out the United Nations.

"The current U.N. system inhibits good decision-making, in particular in displacement crises where a number of UN agencies have a responsibility to respond," Joanne Liu, MSF's outspoken international president, noted in the report, while co-author Sandrine Tiller defined the way the world body works in these countries as “just a chain of subcontracts" that passes on the responsibility from U.N. agencies to an implementing iNGO, then a local NGO, “and at the end, there's no one in the field.”

It’s not uncommon for such grave humanitarian emergencies as those in the DRC, South Sudan or Syria to brew sentiments of frustration between and among aid organizations — and MSF in particular has always been quite vocal about how they view the current status quo in emergency work.

Just in the past year, the organization first claimed that U.N. agencies were not delivering on their pledges to prepare adequately for the rainy season in South Sudan, and then accused them of an “appalling performance” in their response to the crisis in the Central African Republic.

Do you agree with MSF? If you are an aid worker responding to a humanitarian emergency, please share your thoughts by leaving us a comment below, joining our LinkedIn discussion or emailing us at news@devex.com. If you wish to remain anonymous, you may contact the author directly at carlos.santamaria@devex.com.

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About the author

  • Carlos Santamaria

    Carlos is a former associate editor for breaking news in Devex's Manila-based news team. He joined Devex after a decade working for international wire services Reuters, AP, Xinhua, EFE ,and Philippine social news network Rappler in Madrid, Beijing, Manila, New York, and Bangkok. During that time, he also covered natural disasters on the ground in Myanmar and Japan.