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Reflecting on six years of the Start Fund

Interview with Sean Lowrie, former director of Start Network

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The Start Fund has been the flagship product of the Start Network. It aims to provide rapid financing to underfunded small to medium scale crises, spikes in chronic humanitarian crises, and also to act in anticipation of impending crises. The Start Fund was launched on the 1st of April 2014 and by the end of that year had received 20 alerts, entering 2015 with a pot of 11 million. By the end of 2019, it had disbursed a total of 59 million and reached its 400th alert in January 2020.

In this interview, Sean Lowrie who led the creation and growth of the Start Network between 2010 and 2019 speaks to us on how the Start Fund evolved since its inception. We talk about some of the major challenges and milestones along the way and discuss how we can make this timely and efficient fund even more relevant for the crisis-affected communities.


Can you tell us how the Start Fund came about?

The 2008 banking crash led to a period of austerity with funders such as Department for International Development (DFID) looking to write fewer, bigger cheques in an effort to reduce transaction costs. The result was that these cheques went to the United Nations, with few NGOs being funded directly. The idea for the Start Fund was born out of an opportunity to create an aggregator for NGOs with the similar advantages of low transaction costs for DFID. This would support NGOs delivering better and more efficient humanitarian action and was one of the main drivers for the creation of the Start Network. DFID provided the then-called Consortium of British Humanitarian Agencies (CBHA) with 8 million pounds for a two-year programme supporting an emergency response fund and a capacity building initiative. It was highly successful, providing earlier, faster and cheaper action than other existing pooled funds. However, it took two years of hard work after this pilot finished to secure the necessary funding to support the Start Fund which was launched in 2014 at the ICVA Annual Conference in Geneva. 

Can you speak to some of the major challenges in getting this off the ground?

The major challenge was in convincing DFID that this was a good way to disperse their funding. Traditionally, the British government likes to leverage its influence through the multilateral system, and so we had to prove that working through NGOs in this way was good value for money for the tax-payers. It is always hard to get something new started. Only once we received DFID support for the Start Fund did people believe in the vision for a new global pooled fund for NGO humanitarian action. 

Were there any surprises along the way?

First off it was much harder to raise funds than I thought it would be. The evidence about the Start Fund’s impact is undeniable – an efficient, fast mechanism that had inbuilt processes that ensure the decision-making is objective and local. It is a great product but getting funding has been super hard. Getting funding at the necessary scale has also been an issue. I believe that the Start Fund needs to be at the scale of £100 or £200 million a year before it will make a significant impact in the humanitarian sector.  This is entirely reasonable – many country-based pooled funds are £50 million per year, and the capacity of the Start Network is massive.  If you add together all the members, it is a Network of more than 250,000 people, distributing over US$10 billion in relief and development programmes annually to hundreds of millions of people in 200 countries and territories. The Start Network is a potentially massive strategic resource for the humanitarian system, and yet the Start Fund’s size at around £20 million per year is not commensurate with the ability and capacity of the network.

Secondly, getting the staff of the agencies to embrace impartiality (to take off their member hats) was also more difficult than anticipated. It was and still is hard for them to see the long-term strategic potential of the Start Fund. The current humanitarian system is still limited in its vision for the future of the sector, agencies prioritise their internal interests when securing funding which creates an obstacle to new initiatives like the Start Fund. They should see the Start Fund as an exciting emerging public good and embrace the decision-making that prioritises the collective effort to respond to humanitarian suffering, yet some in-country decisions continue to struggle to be impartial.  

What do you consider to be the major milestones of the Start Fund?

A big achievement was getting support for early action and anticipation. The European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO) was brilliant in providing two years’ support for creating the anticipation window. This was a game-changer because it allowed the Start Network to make ‘no regrets’ funding decisions and enabled the members to learn from the experience. There are now numerous examples where the Start Fund intervened earlier than everyone else and was able to stabilise a humanitarian crisis. Indeed, this belief in anticipation was founded in experience from 2011, when we put two rounds of funding into the Horn of Africa drought response before the full impact of the drought was felt and the official crisis appeals were launched.

Another milestone was the moment the Start Fund started thinking differently about population movements and crossing national boundaries in response to the European migration crisis in 2015. As people from Syria began to move north into Europe, the Start Fund was challenged by the bureaucratic conditions associated with its funding. The Board and Membership were divided in controversy because our funding was intended for developing countries (as defined by the OECD DAC), and although Syrian refugees did come from one of those countries, they had migrated into a European country. It was hard for the Start Network to allow the Start Fund to operate inside an OECD country but eventually, we put the funding in place, using a mechanism for bespoke consortia we designed called ‘Start Response’. Several iterations later the multi-country, population-focused Migration Emergency Response Fund (MERF) was launched.

One take-home message - is there anything more that the Start Fund should be doing?

“The Start Fund peer review committees at the national level should have potential beneficiaries in them.”

Until the affected population can influence the decision-making the Start Network’s claim that it is a driver of localisation will only be partially fulfilled.  Localisation in my view is really important and is about the extent to which the affected population and the local context can influence the humanitarian assistance design decisions. This key insight about influence came from a senior academic and former US government official Dr Ros Lasker.  She helped us realise that across all forms of disaster relief, in all countries including the US, the most important metric is about the extent to which communities can influence the funding and programmes that they receive. We designed a way to do this so any agency can apply for more funding after the completion of their grant, provided they demonstrate that the affected population has influenced the design of their project. As far as I know, it has not yet been tested, so there is a great opportunity for a learning journey for the Start Fund ahead!

Over the 6 years since the inception of the Start Fund the Start Network has been reporting on the alerts we have received, the crises we have responded to and the learnings along the way.

Read more about the Start Fund.

The Start Fund is collectively owned and managed by Start Network’s members, and supported by the governments of the United Kingdom, Ireland, the Netherlands, Germany, Jersey and the IKEA Foundation. 

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  • by Helen Guyatt