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Charities Under Fire For Redirecting Aid

International Herald Tribune

January 30, 2006

By Stephanie Strom

Some foreign governments have begun to criticize international aid agencies for the way they raise and spend money, echoing the demands of many U.S. donors that a larger part of their charitable gifts be used for the purposes they were originally intended.

The health minister of Niger fired the opening salvo at the end of the year, charging that some international aid groups had overstated the extent of the hunger crisis in his drought-and locust-ravaged country as part of a strategy to raise money for their own purposes.

''We will not allow any NGO or any other organization to manage funds behind our backs and make publicity, propaganda even, to raise money,'' said Aby Ibrahim, the Niger minister, referring to nongovernmental organizations, Reuters reported.

He said Niger would begin investigating organizations to ascertain how they are using the money, though relief workers there say there is no evidence that his government has carried through on that threat.

Such a posture is risky, since volunteer organizations could simply withdraw and leave Niger to cope with its problems on its own.

But many governments are prickly about seeming unable to handle domestic crises on their own. Officials of relief groups hinted privately that such sensitivity might have motivated Ibrahim's outburst and said they stood by their assessments of Niger's problems.

''Unless the international community renews its commitment to deal with the consequences of the food crisis in Niger, including the prevailing level of malnutrition, the country faces a second year of extreme suffering and hardship,'' said Trevor Rowe, a spokesman for the UN World Food Program.

Since Ibrahim made his statements, other government officials have expressed frustration with the way humanitarian organizations deploy the private money they raise.

An official in Sri Lanka said his government had quietly complained to the French government about Medecins Sans Frontieres after the disaster-relief organization contacted donors following the tsunami in December 2004 and asked if it could use more than three-quarters of the more than $120 million it had raised for that disaster to address other crises.

Indonesia, too, is vexed that aid agencies have scaled back their commitments to build housing in Banda Aceh after raising money to aid tsunami victims.

The countries are asking: ''Are you spending the money you collected for my country, and where are you spending it?'' said Richard Walden, president and chief executive of Operation USA, a Los Angeles-based disaster relief group.

Nonprofit organizations operating in the United States have been struggling for years to balance donors' increasing demands for control over their gifts with their aim to help the neediest.

Some organizations embraced the new vigilance. Richard Stearns, president of the U.S. office of World Vision, a Christian relief and development agency, acknowledged that countries were pressing for more accountability of where their contributions end up, but he said he was not concerned.

''Reputable charities welcome the heightened scrutiny, since it serves to distinguish those organizations that operate with integrity,'' he said.

Other groups are concerned that governments may be looking for a way to steer private donations into their own control.

International charities say they need the flexibility to redirect aid to where it is needed most. For example, charitable organizations received more than $1.3 billion in private donations to assist their work in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and other countries devastated by a wall of water on Dec. 26, 2004. By the end of last year, though, groups had received less than 6 percent of that amount, or roughly $75 million, for Pakistani earthquake victims.

Similarly, groups find it easier to raise money for countries where famine is a product of natural phenomena, like the locusts and drought that pushed Niger and other countries in the Sahel region into a food crisis last year, than for countries where people are starving because of war or government policy.

After contacting donors for permission to use the money they had earmarked for the tsunami for other purposes, Jean-Herve Bradol of Medecins Sans Frontieres said his group was able to pay for operations in Niger, Pakistan, Sudan and Haiti, among other places.

''So I'm not very concerned with the Niger authority's remarks,'' Bradol said. ''We have treated more than 60,000 kids there who otherwise would have died of severe acute malnutrition without launching any specific fund-raising appeal.''

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