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Collaboration? It’s not as easy as it sounds says Emily Whitehead, as UN prepares for special session on refugees

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Start Network's Emily Whitehead on the latest edition of Humanitarian Exchange, focused on the response to the influx of refugees and vulnerable migrants into Europe.

Next week’s UN summit on refugees and migrants, to be held in New York (Sept 19), has been billed as a “game changer”. It’s the first such summit at which world leaders will address what has become one of the most challenging problems of the 21st century - the large-scale movement of refugees and migrants across many regions of the world.

Its organisers hope it will lead to reaffirmed support for the human rights of refugees and migrants, and to a firm pledge of robust support to those countries most affected by their movement.

How best to turn that support into practice is the subject of a new edition of Humanitarian Exchange,  published this week and dedicated to the response to the influx of refugees and vulnerable migrants into Europe over the past year.

That response has been mired by challenges and criticism. Earlier this week, as part of the its ‘Secret Aid Worker’ series, the Guardian posed the question: with the benefit of so much funding, an established state infrastructure and a stable government, why are we failing refugees in Greece?

Yesterday's event by the ODI (Overseas Development Institute) Refugees and migrants: a new global response was an opportunity to unravel this conundrum further.

Not all would agree with the Guardian’s bleak assessment. The Start Network, with its 39 members on five continents, has been involved in pioneering a collaborative, large-scale response to the European refugee crisis. It has a message to contribute to the debate: humanitarian aid organisations are hungry to create processes that mean resources are used in more effective, collective and collaborative ways… so let’s capitalise on this!

Last October (2015) the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) allocated £16 million to the Start Network to craft a response to the refugee and migration crisis in Europe. Seventeen humanitarian agencies[1] were selected to implement projects, operating in five countries along migration routes from Turkey to Germany or other European destination countries. Start Network’s ‘European Refugee Response’ provided a new model for NGOs to respond collectively. How this evolved, and a summary of the evaluation findings - the lessons learned so far - is captured in an article in this edition of the Humanitarian Exchange.

The approach was innovative and ambitious; however, for all Start Network’s efforts, using the term ‘collaborative response’ raised expectations to a level that proved hard to meet.

What has become clear is that collaboration should be a means to an end - that is, to more efficient aid. And collaboration needs to be facilitated; for all our good intentions, we are not naturally good at it. Early this year I sat in a conference room in Athens with several NGOs to map their activities across the European region; when I asked them if we could frame their independent activities in collaborative objectives they looked at me like it was the most absurd request they had ever heard! 

We now see the approach as moving in stages towards greater collaboration, through increasing communication, cooperation, and coordination. As trust grows between aid agencies and everyone else involved, and as positive examples are shared, greater elements of collaboration emerge and can be built upon.

The evaluation of the Start Network European Refugee Response has clearly highlighted some of the obstacles that still plague these attempts to be more collaborative - obstacles that need to be taken seriously.

However, it has also revealed the appetite for change amongst humanitarian aid organisation. We do not claim to have found a remedy that will revolutionise the humanitarian sector; rather, we seek to open a space for experimentation and learning, building upon good examples of coordination and collaboration and fostering these wherever possible. Start Network will now reflect on both the successes and the challenges thrown up by the European Refugee Response, and will feed the lessons learned into the processes and practices adopted for the network’s next major humanitarian response.

[1] ACAPS/MapAction, Action Aid, CARE, Christian Aid, Catholic Relief Services (CRS), Doctors of the World, Danish Refugee Council (DRC), International Medical Corps (IMC), International Rescue Committee (IRC), Mercy Corps, Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), Oxfam, Samaritan's Purse, Internews, Save the Children, Translator’s Without Borders (TWB) and World Vision.

Keep reading:

European refugee crisis

  • by Startnetwork