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The Department for International Development responds quickly and, in general, effectively when intervening in humanitarian emergencies, especially sudden-onset disasters, and has helped to save lives. However, according to a report to Parliament by the National Audit Office, DFID should do more to measure and evaluate the success of its humanitarian work in order to learn lessons for the future. The Department should also further integrate its relief work with its longer-term development assistance.

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Humanitarian disasters are becoming more common with the annual total rising from 300 to 400 in the early 1990s to between 700 and 800 since 1999. In 2001-2002, DFID provided £279 million in aid, making the UK the second largest donor of humanitarian aid after the United States. Today’s report by head of the National Audit Office Sir John Bourn points out that the Department has been generally effective when intervening in humanitarian emergencies, meeting in most cases the short-term objectives of providing food, water and shelter; and its partners, such as NGOs and multilateral organisations, consider that the Department’s speed of response to sudden-onset disasters like earthquakes is impressive compared with that of other donors.

Nevertheless, because there is no comprehensive and systematic way of assessing and measuring humanitarian need around the world, DFID cannot determine whether its level of response to particular emergencies is appropriate and whether it is targeting its assistance at those most in need. The Department’s own analysis reveals that, since 1997, the per capita level of humanitarian assistance it has provided in European emergencies, such as Kosovo, has been five times higher than for emergencies in Africa. At times, this may reflect a bias of resource distribution to emergencies where media, public and parliamentary interest is highest – an issue faced by other donor agencies.

According to today’s report, DFID’s evaluation of its performance in dealing with emergencies is limited. Its strategy papers for some emergencies give little insight into why proposed interventions would be effective or cost-effective, thereby reducing the basis for good subsequent monitoring and evaluation.

The Department recognises the importance of linking humanitarian emergency assistance to longer-term assistance aimed at promoting the economic development and welfare of a developing country. Some DFID teams have moved towards providing ‘longer term humanitarian assistance’: for example, in Zimbabwe where traditional humanitarian responses such as feeding programmes are supplemented by developmental assistance in the form of provision of seeds and fertilizers. But the Department requires effective strategies, which are understood by its NGO partners, for integrating relief and development. Where appropriate, the Department should consider extending the use of funding spread over a number of years to allow its partners to plan transition work more effectively.

DFID also works to reduce the vulnerability of populations to disasters, an example being the £50 million to fund work to halve extreme poverty in the Chars region of Bangladesh. DFID does not yet have a formal strategy for this kind of work and it has not been vigorously promoted at a policy level. However, DFID is now in the process of developing a strategy which will set out how the Department plans to give greater emphasis to disaster reduction. The National Audit Office recommends that the Department should ensure that strategies, particularly for disaster prone countries and regions, have explicitly considered the risks posed by humanitarian emergencies and how prevention and reduction work might minimise those risks.

Promoting the security of aid agencies and of victims can be a vital part of successfully providing relief and reconstruction assistance, particularly where humanitarian emergencies result from conflict. For example, in Sierra Leone DFID has been providing support in numerous ways to reduce the risk of a return to conflict. Increasingly DFID is being required to provide humanitarian assistance associated with military interventions involving United Kingdom forces, as seen in Iraq. Today’s report highlights the scope for improved communication and coordination in joint operations involving the Ministry of Defence and DFID.

"Disasters, both natural and man-made, are occurring much more frequently around the world. The Department for International Development is a leading player in the response to such emergencies and its provision of help in the aftermath of suddenly occurring disasters is widely recognised by other donors and organisations. The Department should, however, take steps to improve the targeting, monitoring and evaluation of the assistance it provides."

Sir John Bourn


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