Humanitarian Relief: NGOs and the U.S. Government

RANCHO SANTA FE, Ca., April 22, 2012 – The United States is a generous Nation.  It provides nearly $60 billion a year in foreign aid through approximately 20 different Federal agencies.  The question is whether the humanitarian aid elements of this assistance can be delivered more efficiently and effectively through Non-Governmental Organizations (“NGOs”) in the private sector.

According to, the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development (“USAID”) alone have requested about $34 billion for 2013 as follows:

  • $10.68 billion – Peace and Security
  • $8.57 billion – Health
  • $3.90 billion – Economic Development
  • $3.79 billion – Humanitarian Assistance
  • $2.80 billion – Democracy / Human Rights / Governance
  • $2.24 billion – Program Support
  • $1.03 billion – Education and Social Services
  • $0.68 billion – Environment

The first category, “Peace and Security,” is a bit of a misnomer since much of this assistance is provided for the maintenance and/or upgrade of military equipment and goes to countries such as Afghanistan, Egypt, Israel, and Pakistan.  If the United States were to reframe its foreign policy to respect the sovereignty of foreign nations (as was suggested in Foreign Policy: A Rational Approach for the U.S.), this category could be dramatically reduced.

If we also take Economic Development, Environment, and Program Support out of the equation, we are essentially left with elements of humanitarian aid that reflect the domain of the NGO world:  Health, Humanitarian Assistance, Human Rights, and Education and Social Services.

NGOs, by definition, are not government agencies.  They rely upon donations of time, money, products, and services to deliver assistance to those in need.  They reflect the virtue of mankind to overlook physical borders, physical differences, and cultural dissimilarities to display compassion for perfect strangers who share our planet and have suffered misfortune through no cause of their own.

NGOs can be found at the scene of every cataclysmic natural disaster.  They are always among the first responders and often are the last to leave.  While there is a natural tension between NGOs and the United States military because of their necessarily conflicting priorities in some theaters, they work in close cooperation when it comes to issues of logistics concerning the delivery of food, water, and medical supplies to the most austere of environments.

The question becomes:  “Can the burgeoning role of the Federal Government be ceded to NGOs for the benefit of all concerned?”

Let’s consider the role of the United States Government in providing Health, Humanitarian Assistance, Human Rights, Education, and Social Services to countries around the world.

Its economic contribution is significant.  However, history is replete with stories of how those funds find their way into the pockets of the dictatorial elite as opposed to the hands of the people for whom it is intended.  Our country has been complicit in the creation of more than its share of “millionaires and billionaires” in foreign countries, who gain their wealth “on the backs of the working people.”  Although this trite political phrase has become popular in our country to create a natural divide among voters, it is unfortunately more accurate at the international level.

Another fundamental reality is that our Federal Government is woefully inefficient.  To provide these funds to foreign countries, we have:

  • The cost of collecting taxes (including all the infrastructure associated with creating the ever-changing rules, monitoring compliance, and enforcing violations);
  • The cost of developing and administering the programs that span multiple Departments and Agencies;
  • The cost of delivering the products and services; and
  • The cost of monitoring the programs (when this is actually done).

Given the most recent publicity associated with the Government Services Administration (“GSA”), you can imagine how efficient and cost-effective the various Federal Departments and Agencies must be.  As a result, only a modest percentage of the original tax dollar reaches the targeted country and an even smaller fraction of that dollar makes it into the hands of the intended benefactors.

Now, let’s compare that to the performance of NGO’s.

Almost everyone is familiar with the American Red Cross.  According to its website, it invests 91 cents of every dollar in humanitarian services and programs.  While it employs 35,000 people, it supplements that team with 500,000 volunteers who respond to about 70,000 disasters each year.  In addition, it trains more than 9 million people each year in “first aid, water safety and other skills that help save lives.”

World Vision is a Christian humanitarian organization that provides disaster relief and works to reduce poverty throughout the world and alleviate hunger.  The organization serves “close to 100 million people in nearly 100 countries around the world … regardless of religion, race, ethnicity, or gender.”  It has a staff of about 40,000 who predominantly work in their home countries, and 86 cents of every dollar is directed toward programs that benefit children, families, and communities in need. 

NetHope is an NGO that serves in a slightly different capacity.  In its own words, it acts “as a catalyst for collaboration, bringing together the knowledge and power of 34 leading international humanitarian organizations so that the best information communication technology and practices can be used to serve people in the developing world.”  It focuses on educating its members, solving common technical problems, and building strong relationships with for-profit companies in the private sector that are willing to donate products, services, and money for the benefit of mankind (something that is often ignored by the political community).  This approach creates economies of scale and leverages each organization’s resources.

Using these three organizations as examples, you can immediately see that their operating efficiencies are dramatically better than running the maze of cost and complexity associated with trying to convert a tax dollar into genuine assistance.  The NGOs are also singularly committed to their task and they do not have to distribute political favors to gain votes for funding.  Their funding comes from the goodwill of people and businesses that care, and it comes from the discretionary funds and resources those entities have available.

Our Government has either forgotten or doesn’t believe that individuals and corporate citizens will demonstrate philanthropic intent absent Government intervention.  Perhaps it is because too many of our elected officials have become jaded by the quid pro quo political environment within which they reside.  I prefer to put my faith in humanity.

As our National Debt approaches $16 trillion (with no end in sight absent a serious change in direction), we need to explore every alternative when it comes to operating costs and efficiencies.  I am tired of the argument that $30-$60 billion dollars is a round-off error when compared to the deficit.  Everything is a round-off error when compared to the deficit because we continue to permit our Government to operate in a fiscally irresponsible way.

I like to use the transference of humanitarian responsibility from the Government to the NGO world for two reasons:  (1) the math is fairly obvious, and (2) it emphasizes the positive contributions that individuals and corporations make to our global society.  The first point is pragmatic (NGOs are far more cost-effective and efficient), and the second point is critical.

Our current political oligopoly has maintained and expanded its power by using the negative emotion of fear.  Political sound bites are carefully crafted to separate people into groups, play to a set of fears within that group, and then suggest that only one Party “feels your pain” while the other Party is inherently evil.

The Parties routinely announce political “Wars” to breed fear (i.e., the War on Religion; the War on Women; the War on Stay-at-Home Moms; etc.).  The practice is disgraceful.  If we are going to endorse one of these self-serving mantras, I suggest it be a war-to-end-all-war:  a War on the Fear-Mongering, Political Practice of Intentional Misrepresentation.

I think that we would be far better served to reintroduce a concept that NGOs seem to clearly understand:  that there is a large body of people and corporations who are willing to lend a hand to others.  If we create a greater awareness of this fact and showcase the positive side of our society, we are likely to see it “trend.”

This also demonstrates a difference between what the Office of President of the United States has become when its occupant is beholden to a Party rather than the People.  If I should be blessed with the opportunity to serve our country in this capacity, I would allow the political debate to remain within the bi-cameral chambers of Congress where Article I of the Constitution says it belongs.  Under my leadership, the Office of President of the United States would work in an expanded liaison capacity with the private sector.

For example:  while the NGO community is vastly more efficient and effective than its public sector associates, it has room for improvement as well.

There is a hint of politicization within the NGO community that currently impacts its operating efficiency.  In the area of humanitarian relief, NGOs are prone to spend as much money as possible on food, water, medical supplies, etc.  If they receive $1 million for such purposes, they try to spend $1 million on such provisions.  Unfortunately, while these materials and necessities are procured and delivered “in country,” a regrettable amount never reaches its intended recipients (perhaps as much as 20-40 percent).  The reason is twofold:  (1) many of these operating theaters are particularly severe (i.e., disaster zones that lack power, communication systems, etc. with collateral civil unrest); and (2) the logistics systems are fairly antiquated.

Little can be done to address the root cause associated with the physical environment.  However, the logistics element can be readily addressed, and in that regard, it is worth noting that logistics represents the second largest expense (other than labor) in providing humanitarian relief.

The United States military has the finest logistics capabilities of any entity in the world.  Those solutions should be shared with the NGO community, and the NGO community should embrace them regardless of any tension that might otherwise exist between the two groups.

If you are the civilian victim of a natural disaster or a military casualty, there are two fundamental truths:  (1) you are a human being, and (2) you don’t care who provides the care you need.  The primary mission is to help people in need.

Under my leadership, the Executive Branch of our Government will take the first step.  It will work to bridge the gap between NGOs and the military (as well as other governmental Departments and Agencies such as FEMA, etc.) by creating a technology transfer initiative with respect to logistics.

To the degree that declassified logistic solutions can be provided to the NGO world, they will be made available.  This will not require a fresh expenditure of taxpayer dollars but rather will leverage those tax dollars that have already been spent.  It will simply share the technology so that the impact of those tax dollars, as well as the NGOs’ donations can be multiplied.

Then, the NGOs and Government entities will need to learn to work together and with thought leaders in the private sector.  There are large corporations, such as Walmart, that have an enormous amount of experience in the world of logistics.  Then, there are small, innovative technology companies, such as VerdaSee Solutions, Inc. (“VerdaSee”), that have developed state-of-the-art first response and supply chain solutions that are designed for rapid deployment in austere environments.

For example, VerdaSee has developed a hardened system that can establish a mesh communication network in minutes rather than days to allow triage to begin almost instantaneously in emergency environments; thereby dramatically reducing morbidity and mortality rates related to the incident.  It also has developed “fenceless” warehouse operations that utilize RFID and GPS technologies, etc. that can be quickly established in a field to identify:

  • What has been received?
  • From whom it was shipped?
  • From where it came?
  • What may have occurred during transport?
  • Where it is currently located?
  • When and to whom it will be distributed or dispensed (thereby maximizing the utilization of such supplies, materials, and equipment)?

These solutions have also been designed to be backward and forward-compatible and completely scalable to eliminate obsolescence and maximize return on investment.

To the NGO community’s credit, it seems to have recognized the need for these types of solutions, and new entities such as Sustain Global Partnership (“Sustain”) are beginning to evolve.

Sustain is looking to create a collaborative approach that will aggregate demand among its members, address such demand through strategic sourcing, and leverage interoperable systems (such as VerdaSee’s) to drive operating efficiencies into NGO logistics.  Its success will mean that each donated dollar will have a far greater intended impact in the future, which is exactly what the Government should be challenged to accomplish with respect to our tax dollars.

If we are able to combine the best ideas of the NGO community with those of Government entities and private sector companies (such as VerdaSee), we will have changed the economics of first response and humanitarian assistance.  The NGO community will be able to serve more people in need, our Government will be allowed to reduce the world’s dependence on its generosity, and small companies like VerdaSee will be able to become larger companies that create jobs and expand the economy.

There isn’t any reason that this logistics model cannot be expanded into other cooperative initiatives within the public and private sectors.  Similar technology transfer initiatives could be utilized with respect to declassified technologies, and cooperative initiatives could be launched to standardize design, accelerate development, and reduce costs (because of economies of scale).

In the long-term, this will yield a significantly higher return on tax dollar investment, reduce the overall cost of Government, and foster a positive relationship between the private and public sector environment.  It will also similarly benefit the NGO community and any other private sector that participates.  Additionally, it is based upon building a more positive, constructive relationship between the public and private sectors; something that hasn’t been seen in quite some time as the Parties prefer to use the sectors as political pawns to separate the electorate into competing camps.

Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution is clear.  It is not the People’s responsibility to provide the capital that the Government decides it would like to spend.  Rather, it is the Government’s responsibility to learn how “to provide for the common Defence (sic) and general Welfare of the United States” as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible. As President of the United States, I will strive to bring the public and private sectors together in every area in which value can be created.  In that way, we can share ideas as well as the solutions they yield.  We will no longer be a slave to the practice of solving problems separately and spending twice as much time and money as is necessary.  Instead, we will work in a unified manner to achieve goals that benefit our Nation and the world.  “United We Stand; Divided We Fall,” will once again have meaning.


T.J. O’Hara is an internationally recognized author, speaker, and strategic consultant in the private and public sectors. In 2012, he emerged as the leading independent candidate for the Office of President of the United States and the first nominee of the Whig Party in over 150 years.

This article first appeared in T.J. O’Hara’s recurring column, A President for the People, in the Communities section of The Washington Times.