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December 22, 2005

Sorting Out the Aid Business.

Differing views on the validity of using the UN to sort out the obvious problems in the disaster aid business.

The new fund, which is being negotiated at the UN and is due to become operational in February, has been supported by Britain, which became the largest single donor to the fund with a pledge of £40 million a year.

"When a crisis comes, it is to the United Nations that we look," said Hilary Benn, the International Development Secretary.

"The United Nations presses the fire alarm but to get the engine out of the station it has to pass round the hat to put petrol in the tank and water in the hoses."

Not everyone is as convinced as Mr Benn, however. Pledges have barely topped £100 million, a little more than a third of the target, as several leading nations, including America, Canada and France, have yet to contribute.

There is also disagreement among international aid organisations. Oxfam is convinced that the scheme will save lives but Save the Children has "serious concerns" that ploughing more money into the United Nations bureaucracy may make disaster response times slower not faster.

A Save the Children paper said that the emergency fund risked "duplicating the current inadequacies of the [UN] appeal process" and leaving any aid effort bogged down in "internal UN politicking".

One of those unfortunate truths. While it may be clear and obvious that hundreds of different organisations rushing to provide aid  causes problems, waste and duplication, it’s not necessarily so that having one central and overarching authority is better. That could cause even more and other problems.

Despite my well known insistence that markets are always better than bureaucracies the truth is a little more nuanced.  There are times when the centralized authority is indeed the best solution (a legal system, armed forces as two obvious examples) and times when it obviously is not (planning an economy for example).

Your view of disaster aid will probably depend on your view of the UN.  Mine is coloured by the time they asked me if I’d like to work for them, giving speeches at conferences. No pay, just expenses. It would take their bureaucracy 14 months to get me onto the approved list. I’m just not quite capable of believing that such an organisation will provide a better solution than the current admittedly not very good one.

December 22, 2005 in United Nations | Permalink

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