• Inside Development
Exclusive Interview: Alexander Matheou

Is foreign aid helping Africa prepare for disaster?

By Amy Lieberman28 January 2013

Pastoralist communities in Djibouti were among those that suffered from the drought in 20ll. In mid-February, a meeting in Tanzania will tackle how to help African countries like Djibouti prepare for disasters. Photo by: Katherine Bundra Roux / IFRC / CC BY-NC-ND

Recent months have seen a flurry of meetings on disaster risk reduction and ways to increase the resilience of communities against hardship. But is development cooperation truly able to make a difference? Ahead of a highly anticipated meeting of African officials on the issue, a Red Cross official told Devex he’s skeptical.

It’s fair to say the architecture of the aid industry and the way it is funded and the way that is broken up into areas of sectoral expertise is not particularly conducive for some of these long-term challenges around risk reduction,” said Alexander Matheou in a far-ranging interview conducted in preparation of a major disaster risk reduction conference in Tanzania in mid-February.

While the amount of international aid money for DRR is increasing, the “quality” of that money, as Matheou phrased it, is not always such that it addresses humanitarian needs properly.

The money still tends to be quite short-term, even though the challenges are huge,” said the regional representative in southern Africa for the International Federation of the Red Cross. “We need to think in terms of 10, 15, 30 years, but the grants are for 12 months or if you are lucky, 24 months, and impact is expected within that short time.”

The tendency of donors or their implementing partners to earmark money by sector creates further limitations on the use of funds, he added.

Matheou’s conclusion: “The money isn’t particularly suitable for the challenge.”

These aren’t new concerns – in fact, they reflect a growing consensus among humanitarian officials about the international community’s track record and challenges in making a difference. That self-reflection tends to start with the realization that, despite a call within the Hyogo Framework for Action on countries to create national budget lines for DRR, poorest countries are the least able and willing to invest – and thus need help from the international community.

And yet, outside funding for DRR ”is very weak indeed,” as Jan Kellett and Dan Sparks observed when they reviewed money spent in the top 40 humanitarian recipient countries between 2000 and 2009.

Funding for DRR does not appear to be directed logically to those countries that need it most; it is not based on the number of disasters, the risk of mortality or the proportion of people affected each year,” they wrote in a report by the Global Humanitarian Assistance initiative published in March. “Neither does funding for DRR seem to be obviously related to country revenues, with some of the richer countries receiving considerable funding and many of the poorest ones receiving almost nothing over an entire decade.”

Overall, in the 2000s, donor investments in DRR totaled $3.7 billion for the top 40 humanitarian recipients, representing 1 percent of all official development assistance. Four countries received 75 percent of all DRR financing; only one of the top ten countries for DRR financing – Bangladesh – made it into the top 10 for number of people affected, number of disasters and mortality risk. Meanwhile, only two of the top 10 countries ranked by people affected were also among the top recipients of DRR financing. Only five of the top 10 ranked by number of disasters and four of the top 10 ranked by mortality risk were recipients of DRR financing.

Clear international policy and coherence on DRR spending by aid donors will help in terms of setting the direction,” Margareta Wahlström, the U.N. secretary-general’s special representative for disaster risk reduction, wrote in response to the report last year. “But ultimately, ODA spending on DRR will have little sustainable impact unless beneficiary countries are convinced of the value of a risk management and risk reduction approach. The funding criteria of ODA donors are particularly important in countries where there is a high degree of state budgetary dependence on ODA.”

Matheou agrees.

When we talk about the whole issue of why some countries are at a high risk, we will certainly broaden the dialogue away from aid organizations to the governments and to the private sector and focus on the country at large,” he told Devex from Harare, Zimbabwe.

A large portion of DRR funds are now being funneled through multilateral mechanisms like the World Bank’s Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery and the U.N. Central Emergency Response Fund; many donor governments also direct bilateral aid toward risk reduction. Red Cross and Red Crescent societies around the world have long been among the leading implementers.

But in countries like in Rwanda, Kenya, Ethiopia and South Africa, a shift in funding patterns has become evident, Matheou noted.

You are definitely seeing new forms of funding in these parts of Africa, in the way different development and humanitarian challenges are being addressed and who is taking responsibility for them,” he said. “You are definitely seeing growing confidence among these governments, quite rightly, and more sophisticated analysis coming from governments about what needs to be done.”

The will to act tends to go hand in hand with the ability to mobilize more resources domestically through taxes and other means, which can then be invested in long-term projects like the upgrading of dams and roads.

The Red Cross itself decided last year to rely more on local partnerships in Africa and less on international funding. In some of the most vulnerable countries, though, the dependence on foreign assistance remains.

Take a place like Somalia, which is in desperate need of funding and it is very difficult to fund it because you don’t have stable institutions to work with,” Matheou said.

These challenges will be front and center Feb. 13-15 at the Fourth Africa Regional Platform on Disaster Risk Reduction in Arusha, Tanzania. There, IFRC will join government and civil society representatives from more than 50 countries to discuss the extended program of action for the implementation of the Africa Regional Strategy for Disaster Risk Reduction.


Red Cross officials plan to highlight the importance of hygiene and sanitation, the need to improve early warning systems, and best practices for first responders.

But this is one small part of the larger picture, Matheou said. At least as important will be to better align funding with the reality of hard-hitting natural disasters and prolonged, dramatic seasonal changes.

Read more development aid news online, and subscribe to The Development Newswire to receive top international development headlines from the world’s leading donors, news sources and opinion leaders — emailed to you FREE every business day.

About the author

Amy s headshot
Amy Lieberman

Amy Lieberman is a journalist based in New York. She has reported on migration, health and gender from the UN Headquarters, in addition to nine countries, including Cambodia, Colombia, Mexico and Nepal. Her work has appeared in TheAtlantic.com, The Christian Science Monitor and World Policy Journal, among a host of other news outlets. She is a Master of Arts candidate in politics and government journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.


Join the Discussion