During major emergencies, like the current violence in Syria or the earthquake that hit Haiti in January 2010, the Disasters Emergency Committee gets active. Who forms this little-known group? What does it do, and why? This briefing for teachers explains.
What is the Disasters Emergency Committee?
It is a way of coordinating the fundraising and awareness effort during a major overseas disaster appeal. The DEC comprises 14 of the leading aid agencies – including the British Red Cross, Oxfam, Save the Children and Christian Aid – which work together to appeal to the public for help. That way, they can avoid duplication and save money on advertising and other administrative costs. Banks, broadcasters and other media, the Post Office and BT also join in, offering free services and facilities, as do a number of other companies.
It means that members of the public and company donors who want to help save lives and relieve suffering can give money easily. They have a guarantee that the money will go to charities which are in a good position to help quickly and effectively.
A DEC appeal gives a significant publicity boost and cost savings brought by the free services and time provided by partners – prime television slots with support of major celebrities, donations at banks and post offices, free telephone hotlines and so on.
Does it operate during all disasters?
No. Strict conditions must be satisfied before the DEC launches an appeal. These are designed to make sure that the money is collected efficiently and can be well spent. Before launching an appeal the DEC will check many things – the nature and scale of humanitarian need, that money is really needed and will make a difference, that it is not available from other sources such as the government or relief agencies of the country, that the majority of member organisations are actually working in the region and are in a position to bring emergency relief and that there is, or is likely to be, genuine public and media interest.
For example, many charities launched appeals to aid those affected by the May 2006 earthquake in Indonesia, which killed around 5,700 people and made 1.5 million homeless. The DEC decided not to because the relief effort within the country was not being hampered by a lack of funds. The DEC’s board of trustees, which includes representatives from each of the member charities, agreed that a nationwide DEC appeal would not be in the public interest.
What happens when an appeal is launched?
When a humanitarian disaster – natural or because of a conflict – happens somewhere in the world, the government of the affected area will often call for international help.
On the ground, aid agencies and non-governmental organisations move quickly to help those affected and monitor the impact of the disaster and the amount of public interest in it. This information is then used to decide whether or not a DEC appeal would be successful.
If the DEC board of trustees decides to launch an appeal, and broadcasters agree to support the appeal, it puts together a television broadcast and contacts the “rapid response network” – the media and businesses who agree to help.
Then the charities have a fortnight of “joint action” when they fundraise under the DEC umbrella. The DEC generates publicity and income for the appeal and keeps the public informed about what is happening to their donations.
How much do appeals raise?
It varies, but the quick answer is a lot. £372 million was raised in the most successful appeal in the DEC’s history following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Other recent appeals have raised £79 million for the east Africa food crisis in 2011, £106 million for the victims of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, and £71 million for those affected by flooding in Pakistan in 2010.
The money raised is split between the member agencies and is used by them to bring aid to the most badly-affected people through their existing network and disaster relief programmes. The amount of money received by each charity differs according to the size of the organisation and its capacity on the ground.
Are there safeguards to ensure the money is well spent?
Yes. All the agencies involved must be UK registered charities, independent non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and signatories to the Red Cross, Red Crescent and NGO Code of Conduct. This states that aid priorities are calculated on need alone, without adverse discrimination of any kind, and are never used to further a political or religious standpoint.
Disaster responses are built, where possible, on local initiatives. The agencies hold themselves accountable to both the donors and those they are helping. Basically, these are serious organisations, well used to spending large amounts of money, who know their business.
The money raised should be spent within six months of the appeal. This helps ensure it is spent on disaster relief, not on reconstruction or development programmes. The time can be extended, as it has been in the case of the tsunami – where the sheer amount money raised meant that it wasn’t sensible, or even possible, to spend it all quickly.
After the emergency, the DEC will organise an independent evaluation, including seeing how and where the money was spent by each of the agencies, and work out any lessons for the future. The results of these evaluations are available to the public.
How often is there a DEC appeal?
There is no pattern. It all depends on the need – and on all the necessary elements being in place. A year can go by with no appeals – as in 2012. There were two appeals in 2010 – for people affected by flooding in Pakistan, and the Haiti earthquake appeal.
So, is the DEC only interested in fundraising?
Fundraising is the main function of the DEC and the bulk of its energies go towards raising money. Between appeals the DEC, itself a registered charity with very small overheads and administration costs, will arrange discussions about humanitarian relief and standards of best practice between member agencies. By encouraging the charities to share knowledge and meet regularly, the DEC hopes to make the response to future emergencies more efficient.
What is the full list of DEC members?
The current members of the DEC are, Action Aid, Age International, British Red Cross, CAFOD, Care International UK, Christian Aid, Concern Worldwide, Islamic Relief, Merlin, Oxfam, Save the Children, Tearfund, World Vision and Plan UK. Any agency which is not operational in the area of a particular disaster does not take part in the appeal for it.
Activities and discussion
- Compare the £59 million raised by the DEC for the Asia Quake Appeal in 2005, with the amount raised by the 2004 Tsunami Appeal, also run by the DEC. When that appeal closed it had raised nearly £400 million. Talk about the reasons for the different amounts of money raised. How big a part did the media play? There were many video pictures and first-hand accounts broadcast of the tsunami survivors. But there were far fewer of the plight of those living in the mountains of South Asia. Do students think we respond most to what we see on television? What other reasons for the disparity might there be?
- The Disasters Emergency Committee says it prefers not to make comparisons between amounts raised by different appeals. It also points out that the amount given was so extraordinarily high in the Tsunami Appeal that there is not much value in comparing it with any other fundraising appeal. Ask for students' reaction. Do they think it is fair or useful to make comparisons?
- Ask students to think of major disasters that have happened in the past two years. Which ones involved a DEC appeal? Which ones did not? Ask them why they think the DEC got involved in some, but not in others. Why do they think public interest is a factor in deciding whether to launch an appeal? Do students think all humanitarian disasters should get the DEC treatment? Discuss difficulties that might arise and invite students to think about what businesses and the media will have agreed to and why.
- What do students think about giving free air time to charities for the appeals? Do they think it is fair and right? Are there other groups that students think should be allowed free advertising?
This briefing was written by PJ White and produced in May 2007. It was updated in March 2013.
This resource and other free educational materials are available at redcross.org.uk/education