Interview with Dan Collison: Why local actors and fast decision making are key to effective humanitarian action
Dan Collison has spent the last six years at War Child and the Start Network has held a prominent place in his professional life throughout that time. On his first day in the office, he attended a meeting at World Vision about setting up the Start Fund, and was then Head of the Start Fund Committee for three years between 2015 and 2018. Prior to working at War Child, Dan spent 11 years with Save the Children International, primarily based in the regional and country offices of South East Asia. He was involved with leading the response to Cyclone Nargis in 2008, where he experienced the first-hand the value of local partners and a multisectoral approach.
Dan’s commitment to working with local actors first started when he worked for Christian Aid back in the nineties, and he has always been keen to see localisation in the Start Network agenda. Dan is now leaving War Child to take up the position of CEO at Farm Africa, but we were able to chat with him one last time about the need for system change in the humanitarian sector and how the Start Network is attempting to do this.
Why does the system need to change?
There are two reasons. First, the humanitarian system needs to change because of the cumbersome and bureaucratic nature of aid decision making and allocation. Second, it is a system that is loaded toward the larger players – whether that is the UN, Save the Children or even War Child. By its very nature, it disadvantages the actors that are the first-line responders. Start Network’s original intention to change the rules around this are still really relevant, and some inroads have been made through better decision making and moving money through the system to local actors. It is quite ironic that Start Network members set out to change the rules of a system in which they are the beneficiaries, but it does demonstrate the thoughtful reflections of people in these agencies that capacity and ownership should be with those on the frontline.
What could the Start Network be doing better?
On localisation, I think we could be better at tracking and presenting how much of the funding flows through the local agencies. It is important that we are more transparent in this information. We should also be consistently asking ourselves whether the alerts raised support and promote local actors. We have basic criteria, such as whether the alert addresses small to medium crises or a neglected need, but I think we could give stronger consideration to the involvement of local actors. The recent reviews we have done on the COVID-19 fund alerts is a good example of this. Alerts were definitely prioritised by whether they had a network of local partners, especially given the issues around accessibility. The COVID-19 fund process also showed the value of the Start Fund model. Not many networks would be able to process and allocate funding to a global emergency such as COVID-19 so fast. Being able to work through 85 alerts to a final list of five in a period of 24 hours demonstrates that transparent peer-led decision making can happen at speed and at scale.
You are now leaving War Child for Farm Africa – what key learning from the Start Network will take with you?
A major learning is about putting trust in quick decision making based on incomplete information, and relying on your peers and experience. It is fantastic that member agency representatives can set aside their own interests and use their experience to make decisions. If you were to put these decisions through a different more bureaucratic process (such as a large donor) it might take weeks to come to the same decision with significant added cost and effort. It is a great lesson that you can use your own experience to make quick and well-grounded decisions.
And what would be a parting message for other member NGOs in the Start Network?
I would say to the other members: keep raising alerts, look out for those small to medium sized crises where the Start Fund is perfectly placed to respond, keep showing donors that rapid and peer-led decision making can lead to a well-informed and transparent process, and keep arguing to donors that the importance of local actors outweighs the risks.