Five ways Start Network proposes to change the humanitarian sector
We have recently embarked on a process called Start Evolves, which aims to design the future of the humanitarian sector and Start Network’s place within it. We are inviting organisations around the world to join us in co-designing the structure needed to realise our vision of a more effective humanitarian system.
As part of this process, based on our seven years of learning, we have proposed a number of solutions to address the key problems we see in the humanitarian sector. The current system is:
- More reactive to media attention and political will than to humanitarian needs. It struggles to raise sufficient funding, particularly for small and medium-size emergencies, slow onset or protracted crises, thus leaving many people vulnerable and forgotten.
- Risk-averse. It manages risk through opaque bureaucracy that increases transaction costs, limiting the diversity of actors that can access the system and centralising control and decision making.
- Structured to react to humanitarian crises rather than anticipate and prepare for them. This results in greater loss of life, livelihoods and resources, which could otherwise be avoided with the right systems and technologies in place.
As a result, organisations are encouraged to be bigger, more competitive, and focus on being accountable to donors more than aid recipients. Poor incentives guiding decision making, and the lack of a coherent alternative vision, prevent the sector from evolving rapidly enough to meet the needs of people in crisis effectively.
So what solutions do we propose?
1. Devolving power to locally-led, autonomous networks
Right now the humanitarian architecture is inflexible to change. Power and decision making are highly centralised and humanitarian responses are not defined by those closest to crises. We need to move to a model that enables more locally appropriate solutions, which are governed independently and connected globally to share learning and expertise.
In order to achieve this, Start is beginning to experiment by allowing national and regional affiliation with the network. Instead of one centralised network and a single Start Fund, we propose instead a family of funds (see below) and a ‘network of networks’ structure.
This structure will consist of new hubs as well as existing networks that affiliate with Start. They would be autonomously governed, could licence use of Start’s brand, and have the right to build their own financial products and run programmes. In return they would uphold certain agreed principles and contribute to network systems and learning.
We have already begun to test this model through a national Start Fund (the first was piloted in Bangladesh this year), but we would seek to take this a step further by investing in pooled risk financing products, such as the Drought Financing Facility prototyped in Pakistan and Zimbabwe, and new replica insurance products that will be launched next year in Senegal, Mali and Mauritania.
2. Shifting to a risk financing approach to enable predictable and early response
In addition to the network of networks, we also propose a global ‘family’ of funds, which will have two main design features:
Firstly, its ‘family’ structure means funds would be created locally but connected globally. This would enable efficiency and predictability in the set-up of new funds. It would allow donors around the world to fund one or many national funds. It would also have an in-built surge capacity, so if one country has a high number of crises and its national fund is depleted, it can be supported by neighbouring funds or the global fund when needed.
The second design feature is a disaster risk financing approach, which we believe can tackle the problem of untimely and uncoordinated responses. This approach has three main elements:
- It uses science and data to model and quantify the risks in different areas and regions
- It encourages the pre-planning and costing of different crisis response activities
- It allows for pre-positioning of funds according to pre-agreed triggers, so when those triggers are met the funding is released more rapidly.
3. Unlocking barriers to enable greater diversity in the system
New financing products would be great, but how can we enable more organisations to have direct access to those products? One of the inhibitors to bringing in a greater diversity of actors to the system is the high transaction costs of grant making. Grant making currently goes through tens of thousands of actors and cannot take on the risk of funding smaller actors, many of whom cannot pass the onerous vetting systems (due diligence). What the sector is lacking are solutions that can enable resources to flow freely through the system.
What we propose as a solution to this is a common, global due diligence platform that can provide:
- A standardised due diligence process that is tiered (not simply pass or fail) that can be tailored by context
- Verification and public validation of organisations
- Capacity building and training to enable actors to move up the scale
The Start Network does not have the capacity to take on such a large-scale, sector-wide solution alone. We want to partner with others to build trust across the sector. We will begin testing this function in Bangladesh and in the next round of membership.
4. Harnessing new ideas to enable innovation
To enact change globally and to streamline experimentation and new ways of working across the network, there needs to be a platform which holds our guiding vision. Currently this is done by the secretariat, which brokers partnerships, aligns members, and generates resources for innovations to scale (see our anticipation mechanisms and blockchain as examples). This requires a core team that can provide these aggregated services for the membership and enable innovations to be scaled across national boundaries.
This global platform can also open up the network to new actors. Rather than being an exclusive “club” of NGOs, it could allow various types of members to affiliate with the network in different ways. Members could include front-line crisis responders, second-line service providers, commercial and social enterprises. Non-traditional actors can bring new skills, ideas and opportunities into the sector.
5. Creating an open culture of shared learning and collaboration
Another feature of the new Start Network would be a global knowledge platform to facilitate the connections and learning across the network. It would focus on introducing solutions, not delivering programmes, and it would enable all parts of the network to share with and learn from each other.
The network platform will hold the standards and principles that connect the network. In our 7-year experience, we have learned that shared values and a network culture are critical in achieving our greater goals. NGOs have limited power to change the system if they act alone, but can be game changers if they align around a common purpose. A network culture, with clear obligations and expectations of its members, enables all parts of the network to collaborate effectively.
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