Barney Mayhew is an expert in conflict and humanitarian aid. He served in the armed forces for four years in Cyprus, Germany, Namibia and Northern Ireland, and has worked on conflicts as a civilian ever since. He has worked for the EU, the UN, and Christian Aid in Bosnia/Croatia, Rwanda and Congo respectively, as well on various crises for the British Government. So, in light of the recent tragedies in Turkey and Syria, as well as the Conservative government’s dogmatic commitment to cutting our international aid budget, it was fascinating to speak to him about the current crises, aid in general, and the real effects of spending less.
Oliver Hall: What would you say is the most important guiding principle when providing international aid and support across all different areas? Could you find one unifier?
Barney Mayhew: When you’re facing large-scale, urgent need, the first thing is to assess what the need is. And some of what I say will seem completely obvious, but the obvious thing quite often does not happen. Assessment is not easy, because you can see what the media and other sources are saying so you will have some knowledge about what the needs are, but that will just be the information that is reaching you. What you want to do is assess the complete picture throughout the area or the population affected, including all the places to which no one has got access. It is all about the hidden need. I’ve had examples where large numbers of people have been killed, and no one knew for a long, long time.
OH: And is that especially a problem where you’ve got regimes that have restricted media access? If we are to bring the current crisis in Syria and Turkey into it, obviously there’s a lot of media focus on Turkey in the immediate aftermath because agencies can get journalists on the ground, but less in Syria because access is harder for journalists to gain.
BM: Obviously it is more difficult with restrictive governments. But what I just said applies even if you don’t have a restrictive government. It is easier to go and assess an easily accessible city or main road leading up from a city, or villages near that main road. It’s much harder to get into the less accessible areas where the need may be greater because it takes longer. As a result, there can be an understandable media and aid agency bias towards large towns and cities. That is helped by data, crowdsourcing, and artificial intelligence which will have an increasing role. But then you have to watch out for other biases, towards data-enabled sections of the population for example.
I balance that by saying you will never have perfect information, you will never have even a reasonably complete picture, especially in an emergency. You must become comfortable making decisions based on very incomplete information, you’ve got to just do the best you can.
Next, you have to plan. What are you going to prioritise? Then, you’ve got to do it. And the planning and acting is iterative. You plan, you act, you then discover new information, you have to adjust your plan, and you carry on doing. Assessment carries on, right the way through, because you’re continuing to find out new information on situations changing before your eyes. So, it’s assess, plan, and act in an iterative cycle.
The fourth pillar is evaluate. Assess, plan, act, evaluate. How did you do? What can you learn? How well did you spend the money you were entrusted with?
OH: What is one factor that is the most important?
BM: The top priority is to have a strong team, or build a strong team. Because from that, everything else flows. If you haven’t got a strong team, you’re not going to achieve anything like as much as you could.
There’s been, in my view, an excessive fear of public opinion, which might object if X per cent of an aid agency’s budget has been spent on training instead of on food for a child who needs it. But if you spend five per cent on training, you will probably double the impact of the remaining 95 per cent because it’ll be spent twice as well by well-trained people.
In the short term, that is a lesson that has to be learned by the aid agencies. There is some training but far less than there should be. They should be brave in educating public opinion that spending more on training will bring greater benefit to the poorest and those in need, and will – perhaps counterintuitively – mean greater value for money.
OH: Local organisations are obviously incredibly important, so how does the interaction work on a practical level between governments committing funding and it reaching those in need?
BM: Every donor country has a different preference but to generalise, nations move quickly to announce money fast. They will then seek out which organisations are best placed in that particular crisis, to use those funds to provide effective help. Donor nations spend most of their money through the United Nations agencies, NGOs, or local organisations. The Turkish Red Crescent, for example, has something like 10,000 volunteers even in normal times. It is extraordinary. They know the local area, they speak the language. They’ve got the logistics, they’ve got vehicles, and they’re ready to go. They’re on the spot before the crisis even happens – fantastically powerful. It’s an order of magnitude or several orders of magnitude more capable of reacting quickly and appropriately than most international agencies.
Faith-based agencies can also have broad reach, with an existing presence in every village or town. And international agencies can sometimes have deep local knowledge. In Afghanistan for example, a few international agencies had been present and working there for 40 years before the US and its allies launched their military intervention.
The British government also supplies some aid directly, because it holds stocks and capabilities of its own, and contractors on standby. That includes Search and Rescue, earthquake rescue teams who are highly skilled.
OH: Are the search and rescue teams able to do anything significant, given the huge scale of the earthquake?
BM: Yes, they are hugely valued by nations that have suffered an earthquake. The numbers of lives they can save may be small, but every life saved is profoundly important, not only in the obvious sense – to the individuals and their families – but also in a political sense. The affected communities and nation see it as a strong signal of support.
Sending search and rescue teams costs quite a lot of money… if you were to do the calculation of pounds spent per life saved, it is much more expensive than in a refugee camp for example, where economies of scale mean that the cost per life saved is much lower. But for human reasons that are hard to articulate it feels, and is in my view, the right thing to do.
OH: I do want to ask you about the cutting of the aid budget and that 0.7% figure. Just how dangerous is that cut on the ground, because it seems to me to be catastrophic.
BM: Let’s cut straight to the chase. It is inevitable that if you reduce the aid budget from 0.7% to 0.5% of gross national income, many people will die because of that cut. One could do estimates of how many, but that’s a decision that has an immediate, direct cost in lives lost.
In fairness, one has to say that the same argument would apply the other way. If we added several billion we would save many more lives. So it’s a political judgement: a judgement call about where to draw the line. Will it cost lives? Yes, it will. And so the Chancellor, by doing that, is signing the death warrant of lots of people.
OH: But by actively making a cut, isn’t it also a question of the signal you are sending?
BM: Yes, it sends a strong signal right around the world, because Britain is seen as one of the leaders in this area. It has a massive effect globally if we are not meeting the UN target of 0.7% of GNI. Other nations are then more likely to follow suit.
OH: The striking thing for me is that there seemed to be no clamour of public opinion for this to be changed. Why do you think that it happened?
BM: I think you’ll find that the right wing of the Tory party has complained about 0.7% for a long time.
Well, that was a truly fascinating conversation. A few things definitely stood out for me. Among them is just how complex the system behind the scenes is. On the surface, governments announce big figures but it was fantastic to hear just how that money gets to the people in need. Aside from that, the views and warnings on cutting the aid budget were stark. There is no doubt people are suffering for the sake of appeasing the right wing of the Conservative Party. Post-Brexit promises of a global Britain are quickly fading and if the government wants to hold onto any of its international reputation, this seems a sensible place to start…
Image courtesy of GK Church