The UK's Disaster Emergencies Committee (DEC), founded more than 45 years ago to persuade aid agencies to collaborate rather than compete in their fund-raising for emergencies, has so far raised more than US$60 million for the Pakistan flood appeal (unrelated to official UK aid).
This is the second time this year, after the Haiti earthquake, that the well-oiled machine in London has swung into action. It is a model increasingly being adopted in other countries.
The committee's chief executive, Brendan Gormley, says its appeals are aimed at the general public, including those who are not regular donors to charities. "When people have seen something dreadful on their televisions or heard about it on the radio, when they have seen that something can be done about it, we then make it easy for them to respond. It's a one-stop shop. We have one telephone number, one website, the banks take the money free of charge and we have a PO Box 999, which is the emergency number here in the UK," he told IRIN.
During an emergency, member agencies, including Oxfam, the British Red Cross, Concern and World Vision, can continue to take in money from their own supporters, but are not expected to advertise for donations in competition with the DEC appeal.
Jeremie Bodin, head of emergency fund-raising at Save the Children UK, says the agencies benefit from an advertising campaign on a scale they could never individually afford. "The television appeal is free, done by the broadcasters. We can really see the difference in the amount of money raised and the amount we have to spend to raise that money. In recent appeals we have seen that we normally get between twice and five times our normal income."
The downside for the agencies is loss of public profile. "When people donate, you can't get back to them, so in terms of reaching new supporters, we are missing that opportunity," Bodin said.
Not surprisingly, there is considerable resentment directed against any agency thought to be "piggy-backing" on their campaigns. The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), for instance, is also running a Pakistan appeal in Britain. "We lose profile to other agencies which are not part of the DEC," Bodin told IRIN. "UNICEF is not part of the group and it is advertising now. It obviously benefits a lot, while we [individual agencies] are invisible during the period of the DEC appeal."
|If the BBC agrees that it warrants an appeal on the network, then I would like to think that is a huge endorsement.|
By contrast, Islamic Relief's Ramadan appeal is not resented in the same way; agencies recognize that the campaign was planned and paid for long before the floods hit Pakistan. According to Gormley, the campaign can help, not hinder, the joint appeal. "Islamic Relief are members of the DEC and we have encouraged them to work together with other Muslim charities - Muslim Aid, Muslim Hands - to make sure that the message about Pakistan gets out as widely as possible. Ramadan is a favoured period for giving within the Muslim faith."
Given the rivalries within the humanitarian community, there is plenty of what Gormley diplomatically calls "robust dialogue" within the group. Some of that debate is about how the money raised should be shared between the agencies: "Probably," he says, "one of the more delicate elements within the DEC family." This is done according to a fixed formula, based on what each agency spent on humanitarian work over the previous three years, ranging from 20 percent for the biggest members to a floor of 3 percent.
The other difficult subject is what causes should be targeted. The Haiti earthquake and Pakistan floods triggered DEC appeals, the drought in Niger has not. Some member agencies have lobbied hard that it should, but Gormley says although Niger fulfils two of the three DEC criteria - there is substantial need, and member agencies are in a position to help effectively - they felt that, despite some good coverage by the BBC and other broadcasters, it was not "resonating" with the British public.
The television broadcasters are central to these appeals, as is their credibility. The BBC's adviser on charity appeals, Paul McCauley, says: "If the BBC agrees that it warrants an appeal on the network, then I would like to think that is a huge endorsement. You are obviously in the lap of the gods with these kinds of tragedies, but they normally only happen about twice a year. When we run an appeal on behalf of the DEC, it should be absolutely clear to the audience that we don't do this lightly. It really is a major thing that needs immediate assistance."
But television appeals need pictures, and pictures that touch viewers' hearts. It is Niger's misfortune that the worst hunger there happens - inevitably - after the last grain from the previous harvest has been used for seed, and the new crop, though far from ready, is growing green and lush. And this kind of "green famine" is a story particularly hard to tell in pictorial terms.
Meanwhile, television pictures from Pakistan are now showing the full devastation left behind as the flood water retreats, and the British public continues to give.