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How the Start Fund is filling huge gaps in humanitarian response around the world

Three years of the Start Fund

  • 04 Apr 17

Tong Ping, Juba, South Sudan Credit: Anita Kattakuzhy/Oxfam


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On its third anniversary, just as the Start Fund begins its 100th crisis response, Gloria Donate, Head of the Disaster Risk Management Unit at Plan International UK, tells us about the very first Start Fund response.

If you don’t work in disaster response, you may be unaware of the Start Network. One of the many things the organisation does is provide grants to help people in small to medium-scale emergencies that often receive little funding or media attention. It essentially covers the huge gaps in humanitarian response work around the world.

The Start Fund was launched three years ago, in April 2014, when I had just started working at Plan International UK. I was hearing all this noise about this really exciting Network called Start. To be honest, I was not entirely sure how it would work, but the enthusiasm among my team and across the sector was contagious - it was going to revolutionise the way we responded to humanitarian crises, it was going to be fastest instrument and, the most exciting and innovative part of all, it would be member led!

The first alert came in almost immediately – the Start Fund had been in existence for less than a week. We were all keen to see how it would work in practice. Christian Aid was the agency to send that alert and it focused on displacement inside South Sudan, particularly in the northern states. There was no doubt there were huge needs and gaps in the existing crisis response, but we couldn’t help but wonder whether the scale of the crisis meant it was too big for the Start Fund?

There were 19 agencies in the network – less than half the number now – and at that time all took some part in each alert. There was an allocation committee, to decide in principle whether to respond to an alert and agree the amount of funding; a second group responsible for project selection; and a third that worked on learning.

Plan International UK was part of the first group. My colleague Vittorio attended that very first allocation committee, while I waited anxiously along with my South Sudan colleague to see if there would be funding or not. Once Vittorio came back smiling, we knew we were ready to go! Members had decided that the crisis was not too great for the Start Fund, and so the alert was activated.

The next step was to design a proposed intervention with my South Sudanese colleagues, via email and skype, within just 24 hours. This was a real challenge: the internet was not working that well in South Sudan; many of my colleagues were in the field that day and others were in a workshop in Kenya.

The humanitarian needs were huge and spread across a large area of the country, and access to many of those in need of help was severely limited due to the on-going fighting. The funding available was limited, given the scale of the needs, and on top of this we would have to design an operation that could be completed within only 45 days, to meet the rule of the Start Fund.

Three years on, such considerations seem straight forward to all of us Start Network agencies, but that very first alert and response was one of a kind – until then, we had never worked with a humanitarian instrument that was so fast and precise.

I had my reservations about how effective we would be with such a tight turn-around time but we did it! And we continue to do so, month alert after alert, after three years.

Once we heard our own agency’s proposal had been selected, we decided I should support our colleagues in South Sudan with the implementation. It was the first ever  Start intervention and we wanted to do it right. I spent three weeks in Juba and Nimule between the end of April and beginning of May, working with my colleagues.

Working in South Sudan was a real eye opener for me. Seeing with my own eyes the scale of devastation and need that the conflict was causing in the country was hard: only a few times have I witnessed such a level of destruction, of pure need, of despair and of fear as in South Sudan. My colleagues were working flat out to respond to the crisis and the level of despair among the people was overwhelming. I was meeting girls and boys who had only known life as a refugee, life fleeing war and conflict – for 30 years communities in South Sudan had been displaced. These young girls and boys had only known war, conflict and fighting, they had never lived in peace, with normal access to schools or three meals a day.

It is really sad to see three years on, as we celebrate the Start Fund ‘s 100th crisis response this week, that the situation in South Sudan is far from over. It’s actually even worse, with famine being officially declared just over a month ago.

The Start funding not only helped in addressing some very acute humanitarian needs at a micro level, but it also helped us build our rapid response capacity and create ownership and accountability as humanitarian agencies. We often wait for institutional donors to make funding available and tell us what they want, but the Start Fund enables us to take responsibility as humanitarian agencies with strong presence in the field. It’s also pushed us to improve our preparedness capacity: to invest in having on-going need assessment information and situation reports, and to coordinate better with our humanitarian peers to jointly agree on the needs and potential response to complete a response in 45 days, instead of the usual six months.

Within the Start Fund we have often reflected back on our decision to activate our first alert: in hindsight, we now know that while the humanitarian needs in South Sudan and other large-scale crisis like Yemen or Syria are huge and often unmet, the Start Fund is not suited for this type of crisis. They are still underfunded, but not under the radar as many small and medium-scale ones are. But that’s the good thing with Start: we are not afraid of testing new ideas, of taking risks and admitting our mistakes. It is only through these that we have managed to create over the past three years one of the most effective and efficient humanitarian funding instruments in the sector.

The Start Fund has managed to respond in 100 crises, and Start Network more generally to many more – whether caused by conflicts, droughts, cyclones, diseases or heatwaves across Latin America, Africa, the Middle East or Asia. Very often, Start has been the only source of funding for that particular crisis. That’s definitely something to celebrate!

Plan International UK was one of the first agencies to join the network. We’ve been helping children recover and build better futures as soon as disaster strikes for 80 years.

Read more about the Start Fund.

Follow the live blog: read about the 100th Start Fund response as it happens.

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