Humanitarian aid organizations are bloated, unaccountable beasts that must be hunted down for their voluminous and valuable fat

That’s not exactly what Michael Barnett and Peter Walker say in the latest Foreign Affairs, but it is a reasonable or at least tempting extrapolation. They are two of my favorite humanitarian scholars, and their essay argues we need a regime change for more accountability.

There are many good points, among them: the oligarchs of conflict and disaster hold better intentions than, say Russian oligarchs, but oligarchs they are:

Western governments also have a controlling influence over the core pillar of the global humanitarian network: the UN and its specialized agencies, such as the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the World Food Program, which lead the charge in crisis zones. Orbiting this system are a dozen or so NGOs that receive most of the funds distributed by the major Western donors and dominate disaster response, among them CARE International, Catholic Relief Services, Oxfam International, and World Vision International.

One shameful yet predictable consequence is the bloated cost-ineffectiveness of most aid in most crises:

…During ongoing crises in five countries in 2012—in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, South Sudan, and Sudan—national NGOs saw a mere 14 percent of the resources channeled through the UN’s common humanitarian funds. And in post-earthquake Haiti, nearly 90 percent of U.S. contributions went into the pockets of international agencies and organizations, as documented by the Center for Global Development; only one dollar in ten actually reached the victims.

This is not actually overhead, at least as the organizations themselves define it. It is local salaries and land cruisers and other expenses from organization and delivery of help. Some of this is necessary of course but most is questionable at best. But unaccountable oligarchs have little incentive to trim fat, let alone cut into muscle.

And if you think that is bad, remember than half of the money people do receive is probably mediocre quality programming, since there’s no accountability there either.

In fairness, aid in humanitarian crises is probably far more effective than regular foreign aid, where I’d be surprised if a dollar in twenty reaches a poor person’s pocket. Humanitarian aid is better probably because people die in front of the front line workers when they fail. This focuses the heart and mind.

But apparently not so much that more than a dollar in ten reaches victims.

Fortunately, disruptive forces abound:

For one thing, new sources of humanitarian aid are shaking up the sector. In 2013, donors outside the club—including Brazil, China, Turkey, and the Gulf states—contributed 14 percent of government-derived humanitarian funding,

…Abandoning outmoded “truck and dump” methods of providing aid to the vulnerable, agencies are now experimenting with direct cash transfers and voucher programs

…Diaspora groups, too, are coming to the fore. In fact, global remittance flows exceed the total volume of foreign aid (of which humanitarian assistance is a small part) by a factor of three, and some of these funds are spawning local relief agencies.

But Barnett and Walker’s recommendations on how to be more accountable are more lackluster. It does not sound a lot like regime change. Some examples:

The first step would be for the club to make good on its promises to help vulnerable communities build up their resilience to crises and prepare for disasters ahead of time.

…Donor countries should continue to encourage and reward evidence-based results.

…Improving accountability, however, will not be possible without building true partnerships with local actors—before, during, and after an emergency.

To become as accountable to local populations as they are to the donors who sign their checks, humanitarians should learn to listen to those they aspire to serve.

The economist in me says: “Show me the incentives.” I see no shift here.

The oligarchy are not going to seriously listen more, cut costs, build evidence, or let alone act on the evidence unless they are threatened with the pain of extinction or irrelevance. Thus I have more hope for more disruptive forces.

For instance, in the aid realm, maybe the best thing that happened to USAID was George W. founding two competitors: MCC and PEPFAR. That seemed to have awoken the bureaucratic beast from its slumber, at least a little.

So, I have some hope that the cash and remittance revolution will shake some of the humanitarian oligarchy from their bloat, and shine a spotlight on their bloated costs. But only some hope.

I suspect that Barnett and Walker have a more grisly fantasy about what they would like to do (Release the hounds!), but it probably only comes out after several beers rather than via a Foreign Affairs editor.