Fred Cuny is a maverick in the much-glorified world of amateur volunteer relief workers -- the tough professional who unashamedly makes a healthy living out of disasters.
With disaster experience going back to the famine in Biafra during the Nigerian civil war in the late 1960s, Cuny is convinced that much misery and money could be saved if more professionals were in charge of relief operations such as the antifamine campaigns now under way in Ethiopia, Sudan and many of the Sahel states of Africa.
For this rangy, 40-year-old Texan from Houston believes that disasters are too serious to be left to the inexperienced, if well-meaning, volunteers who so often staff multimillion-dollar relief operations.
"Disaster relief is the last great reserve of the professional amateur," Cuny said in an interview, "and that's the problem. Anyone can call himself a disaster expert, and no one will challenge him or hold him accountable if things go wrong. It's all on-the-job training here, and that means waste and errors. No one wants to see that the management capacity is missing."
His criticism includes the United Nations' specialized agencies and private voluntary organizations that administer much of the international aid, as well as the United States government and the government efforts of other western aid donors.
"No one learns; no one wants to learn," said Cuny, who runs his own firm, called Intertect. "But the lessons are all codified" in a rich literature compiled after past disaster operations, he said. Among his pet peeves are private, voluntary organizations that prefer short-term, often novice contract workers to professionals.
Nor is he much kinder about the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, an organization he criticizes for keeping many of its relative handful of professionals in desk jobs in its Geneva headquarters rather than in the field where their past experience could be more useful.
As for the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID), Cuny claims that its red tape is so complicated that many professional disaster relief specialists refuse to work with it.
Instead, he works for the Sudanese government's Commission of Refugees as an UNHCR adviser whose contract is paid by the U.S. government.
With consistent backing from the head office in Khartoum, Cuny is free to roam around a 200-mile front, checking almost daily on camps, housing and foreign refugees, and solving problems before they get out of hand.
Like many other relief professionals, Cuny faults AID and other donors for not insisting that the Sudanese government set up a strong, unified, coordinated organization like Ethiopia's Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, which has served as a model for many African states in dealing with foreign governments.
He is convinced that failure to set up such an organization is a major factor in the collapse of AID's ambitious plans to deliver more than $300 million in American sorghum to feed Sudanese in the four western provinces of Darfur and Kordofan. Relief workers fear that as many as 500,000 to 1 million Sudanese may die of hunger.
Instead, AID basically sought to keep the daunting logistics operations outside the reach of a Sudanese government judged either unwilling or unable to handle such a challenge, Cuny said.
The breakdown was further complicated because of what Cuny called "AID's basic philosophy that it should not be a management agency."
Traditionally, the U.S. government has preferred to turn management over to private, often volunteer-based, relief agencies or the frequently cumbersome U.N. bureaucracy, he said.
When the government-owned Sudan Railways failed to honor contracts to transport enough grain to Darfur, the system fell to pieces, and AID was reduced to a series of ad hoc operations, according to Cuny.
AID's deputy assistant administrator for Africa, Alexander Love, said in Washington that he did not think a central relief organization could have done much to help relief efforts in Sudan.
"The problems had to do with a long history of poor functioning of the railroads," he said. "It's a very old system that's been neglected for years, and moving goods is a very difficult job."
A central organization similar to Ethiopia's would have been "helpful," he said, "but it's inaccurate to say you can't run a relief operation without one. In Zimbabwe, there was no central committee, and yet our food distribution went like clockwork."
[The new Sudanese government of Abdel Rahman Sawar-Dhahab has set up a steering committee to improve efficiency and the transportation of food by railroad, Love said, and AID's relationship with the new government is "excellent."]
Cuny's thesis received support from an American official in Sudan who privately acknowledged that "Once the operation got under way, we found ourselves moving in and preempting the sovereignty of an independent state.
"We organized Port Sudan, the hoppers, the machines to bag and staple the grain. Dutch logistics experts were brought in. We took the operation out of Sudanese hands. Then we got into the trucking business, then into fuel management.
"But then the crisis moved west, and when the railroad failed, Yankee ingenuity ran into trouble."
Cuny contrasted his own experience in dealing with the Sudanese staff at the refugee commission with that of an American diplomat who complained that dealing with the commission was "like trying to paint the Titanic."
Cuny faulted too many relief operations for an instinctive western reluctance to involve local people in helping themselves.
"We do everything," he said of many western relief operations. "That is assuming an awesome responsibility, because that means people are not involved in the process but sit around waiting, without motivation or incentive."
Cuny also pointed out that "if you just give food out, next year you'll have twice as many people asking for it. The farmers then will have no market or incentive to grow food.
"Too many relief people keep forgetting that the way you provide food is often more important than the food you are providing."