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Have I Got Old News for you? The 'leaked' DEC evaluation of the tsunami response

Written by John Mitchell

The recent special report on the 'leaked' DEC (Disasters Emergency Committee: http://www.dec.org.uk/) evaluation report that appeared on the BBC television's Newsnight (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/newsnight/default.stm), was not good news for public confidence in humanitarian agencies. Anyone who saw the programme was probably left with three main impressions. First, agencies had been greedy and had accepted much more money than they could spend properly. Second, in spite of the extra cash the job had not been done well and thousands of needy people were still living in temporary shelters. And third, and perhaps of most concern, agencies were not open to admitting their mistakes. Presenter Martha Kearney was in a particularly adversarial mood and Sir Nicholas Young, Chief Executive of the British Red Cross, found himself in a defensive mode which, at times, could have been perceived as evasive. All in all, not good profile for humanitarians.

So, what went wrong? By all accounts the evaluation report simply says what one would expect, painting as it does, a mixed picture of what went well and what did not go so well. It is no surprise to learn that replacing housing after a major natural disaster is difficult and that land rights are a particularly tricky issue. Equally it is common knowledge that the so-called 'flag flying' and 'competition' between agencies in the really big disasters does take place. We can find countless examples in similar evaluation reports in the ALNAP (Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action - http://www.alnap.org/) database. The focus of any constructive discussion around these issues should be how to deal with them more effectively, not about whether they happen or not.

So, why has old news suddenly become a mini-scandal? One of the reasons is to do with changing attitudes of the media to humanitarian agencies. Until relatively recently humanitarians could do no wrong in the eyes of the media. Stories from the 1980s of famines in Ethiopia and Sudan were about 'angels of mercy' feeding the hungry and generally saving the world. The Evening Standard even ran a front page piece on me as a 26 year old with a nutrition background going out to 'sort out Ethiopia's foods supplies' in 1984. We were all saints or saviours in those days. It was hard not to be.

Of course, the media had it wrong. All of us then were a lot less accountable than we are today. Evaluations were rare. We all made mistakes and we were not encouraged to learn from them. Gradually, the climate has changed and we now work in a culture of accountability where evaluation and learning is engrained in the system. And rightly so. The media has also changed in their attitudes and role. Whilst they do help instigate quick, effective responses to emergencies and provide valuable publicity and information, they also appear to find it hard to resist the temptation to drum up a bit of scandal. The John Vidal Guardian article about the Southern Africa crisis (UK charities exaggerated Africa crisis, 16 January, 2004: http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk_news/story/0,3604,1124355,00.html) may have been well received by his editor but I suspect the DEC trustees were less pleased to see selective quotes from their evaluations used as a big stick to bash the system.

Up until September 2004, all DEC reports were automatically published in full. This served to improve the quality of programmes and indeed DEC evaluations have always scored very highly in the ALNAP meta-evaluation and are cited as examples of evaluative best practice. It may be no coincidence that, after the Vidal incident, the DEC modified their policy and are now reluctant to put the full evaluation report in the public domain. Instead, the conclusions of the evaluation (and the formal response to them by the members) are published - but not the full report. There is nothing wrong with this except that if anyone gets hold of the unpublished material it becomes 'leaked' and as we saw on Wednesday evening leaked materials = scandal = good ratings = good TV.

Better accountability does require elements of trust between different stakeholders and it is worrying to see a hardening of the media attitude to humanitarian agencies. The consequence is that agencies are much more reluctant to 'wash their dirty linen' in public. Neither trend is welcome and not conducive to improving the system.