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New challenges to the humanitarian project: a discussion starter

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We are caught in a race between the growing size of the humanitarian challenge, and our ability to cope; between humanity and catastrophe. And, at present, this is not a race we are winning”. (The Humanitarian Emergency Response Review, July 2011[i])

The humanitarian system is creaking. The international community is once again dealing with multiple crises at scale. The international community appears increasingly unable to deal with these challenges and the challenges of the future which for sure will include more demand, more surprise, more complexity and the increasing political significance of humanitarian crises set against the back drop of funding limitations in western economies. (For example, despite an overall increase in humanitarian funding to $22bn in 2013, over a third of funding requirements went unmet in UN-coordinated humanitarian appeals alone[ii].

According to Start Network estimates, 70% of initial emergency response is carried out by local actors and yet in 2012 only 2.3% ($51m) of the overall funding went direct to national and local NGOs / CSOs.[iii])

There is also the growing global population and increasing urbanisation; the threat of climate change and its effects on food production and traditional livelihoods; the increasing politicisation of aid; the increased involvement of new and non-traditional humanitarian actors, some with new skills and competencies, some with new resources and some with different principles and values that challenge the Western humanitarian hegemony and the values system that underpins it[iv].

There is no way that any single one organisation can address these issues on its own, and it is clear that the only way that these 21st Century humanitarian issues can be addressed is through collaborative efforts. And yet INGOs have, over the decades, traditionally competed for resources, staff and space. Some of these challenges are out of our control, but there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that we are getting a lot of the things in our control wrong too; things that we should be better at. DFID and other donors have committed to strengthening local actors through the Good Humanitarian Donorship principles[v] (Principle 8).

DFID’s Humanitarian Policy[vi] also commits to strengthening local actors (Goal 1) and USAID has committed to channel 30% of its budget to local actors by 2015, including an anticipated 6% to NNGOs[vii]. Our literature and learning tells us that quick and appropriate response is built on strong partners on the ground. And yet we still struggle to invest, either well or appropriately, in our partners or civil society. And the statistics tell us that our humanitarian financing system is not geared towards the local at all, despite what decades of good development practice tells us. The review of the Asian tsunami (2007)[viii],

Disaster Response Dialogue initiative (2011)[ix], ALNAP State of the Humanitarian System Report (2012)[x] and Business Case for DFIDs Disaster Emergency Preparedness Programme (2014)[xi] all emphasize the need for greater engagement with local civil society organizations and national governments if we are to close the widening humanitarian capacity gap and improve resilience and response.

The Tsunami Evaluation Report called for a fundamental re-orientation of practice, a change in the organisational culture of humanitarian aid providers so that local and affected populations have greater influence over humanitarian aid providers and their agendas. And yet still the international community bypasses local capacity. The humanitarian paradigm is still viewing the affected population too much as what economist Julie Le Grand has called ‘pawns’ (passive individuals) and the international community as ‘knights’ (extreme altruists). And where we do engage with local partners, our preoccupation with management approaches to development have largely led us down a path of quick fixes and bureaucratically engineered solutions to humanitarian challenges.

The logical framework, payment by results, value for money – these are all symptoms of a system that worships linear logic and fears risk. And our aid system is built on peddling the attractive notion that we can manage another’s development. Our projects and PR promise to deliver changes that are actually way outside our control. We justify our organizational existence (and personal contribution) by making big claims about the value we add and the difference we will make.

To deliver on these ambitious promises, and in response to increased pressure by donors who are facing increased pressure to deliver more with less, agencies are setting up more and more procedures to manage risk and ensure consistency of delivery. And what we end up with are top-down bureaucratic processes that are a world away from the grassroots development principles we used to espouse. Far from supporting change, the heavy procedures distract, disrupt and paralyze. Our attention is on ensuring the aid delivery system is working smoothly when our focus SHOULD be on transforming lives[xii].

We are unaware that what we are currently stuck in is an orbit where we are focusing on doing the “wrong thing righter”[xiii] And recent research[xiv] highlights four key negative outcomes as a result of a mechanistic interpretation of a results-based approach to work with civil society. The paper highlights that the pressure on civil society organisations to choose interventions more likely to produce measurable, short-term results may discourage them from focusing on wider development outcomes; and that CSOs may focus their monitoring and reporting on documenting results to satisfy the donor rather than to learn lessons or inform strategic planning.

The research also found that greater time, energy and resources are invested in “upward” accountability to donors than in improving “downward” accountability to communities and other national stakeholders (which is vital for strengthening CSO legitimacy). An over-emphasis on results is shown to discourage donors supporting civil society actors such as grass roots organisations, traditional and faith-based groups and social movements. Donor funding arrangements and reporting requirements may place too high a barrier for such groups to access funding. This is a travesty when the figures show that it is funding that they have very little of in the first place.

New research[xv] is showing that instead of focussing on management approaches, to make real inroads on local capacity, INGOs need to start thinking about themselves as part of a delicate and finely balanced ecosystem. The research showed that when INGOs set up operations they quickly become the target of preferential attachment for other actors in the ecosystem. Over time the hegemony of INGOs and their influence on local capacity development and collaboration becomes almost impossible to disrupt. This leads to resource domination and the formation of an inner circle of a group of usual suspects, which then leads to insularity which complicates efforts to spread new knowledge and ideas.

The ecosystem suffers from a lack of diversity and becomes stale. We need to become critical friends with our donors. We need to push them out of this disruptive orbit we find ourselves in and help them find new ways of managing risk and resources for emergencies that are pro-national and pro-civil society. We need to help donors give important resilience building principles such as community participation equal footing to results and value for money. We need to help donors work out a way of making a public minimum commitment to a percentage funding of national response through civil society, and then encourage them to increase it and publicise it.

We need to help donors advertise funding opportunities in local languages, with requirements that embrace and encourage local capacity rather than exclude and alienate. We need to use our experience to help donors embrace complexity theory, adaptive programming and organisational network analysis so our programming is no longer based on linear logframe fictions. We need to find a way of moving from a reactive business model, to a business model based on anticipation and proactive action – investigating new directions such as parametric risk insurance and the growing body of evidence that links financial disaster risk management to financial inclusiveness, climate change adaptation, and economic development[xvi]. And we need to work with donors to find a way to re-orient the humanitarian system so that the local level is resourced and empowered to lead, and the international is acting as a subsidiary.

This all requires change, in the system and in ourselves. In this vein the Start Network is seeking to promote a way of working that enables the international and local to coexist in a dynamic and responsive ecosystem. The existing system contains much that is good, but it is too top-heavy, directed, bureaucratic and technocratic. Our vision is an innovative, flexible, responsive system that is connected to crisis-affected people. We seek to anticipate and meet current, emerging and future humanitarian needs. To accelerate crisis response effectively, the humanitarian system must radically change. We must build on what we have learned from experience about humanitarian action, without binding ourselves to an outdated system that cannot meet the needs of the future.

The DFID Disaster Emergency Preparedness Programme (DEPP) business case[xvii] states “while the international community will always have an important role in directly responding to disasters, the contribution of international NGOs will increasingly be to complement the capacities of crisis-affected communities. It is consistently local and national organisations that are particularly critical to people’s survival in the aftermath of disasters”

This discussion starter concludes with a recommendation from an Oxfam International report released in 2012[xviii] where the argument is made similarly that the UN and INGOs will remain vital actors going forward, but their contribution will increasingly be measured by how well they complement and support the efforts of others, and encourage every humanitarian actor, traditional and upcoming, new and old, to uphold humanitarian principles. In some countries, INGOs’ operations will be needed for years, and the ability of the international community to maintain surge capacity for when national capacity is breached by natural disaster, or destroyed by conflict will be imperative.

But in others, the impact of INGOs will rest on becoming ‘humanitarian brokers’: facilitating, supporting, and bringing together local civil society; the local level leading and the international level acting as a subsidiary. And INGOs will be important in their role to perpetuate hard won principles as new players join the humanitarian endeavour. The people we serve deserve our best. But to change the system we first need to change ourselves. Whether that is adopting bold new organisational business models, embracing new partnerships or working in new innovative areas, as Lord Ashdown said “….Merely improving upon what we have done in the past – enhancing the status quo – will not be sufficient. We must devise new ways to meet the new challenges”.

The system needs more capacity. The system needs better capacity. And the system is going to need different capacities to meet the challenges of the future. The Start Network believes that the way to do this is to support the development of a diverse and decentralised humanitarian ecosystem, pursuing collaboration as the vehicle through which we can take multiple gains to scale in order to address the humanitarian challenges of the 21st Century.  

[i] “The Humanitarian Emergency Response Review” – The Humanitarian Emergency Response Review, March 2011
[ii] Humanitarian Funding, 2013; Swithern, S, Global Humanitarian Assistance, September 2014
[iii] Global Humanitarian Assistance Report, 2014, Development Initiatives
[iv] “The Future of NGOs in the Humanitarian Sector” – Humanitarian Futures Programme, December 2013
[v] Principles and Good Practice of Humanitarian Donorship, Government of Sweden, June 2003.
[vi] Saving lives, preventing suffering and building resilience, DFID, June 2011
[vii] Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, US Department of State, October 2011 (NB The 30% target includes funds channelled to national governments, and includes development as well as humanitarian assistance)
[viii] Joint evaluation of the international response to the Indian Ocean tsunami: Synthesis Report - The Tsunami Evaluation Coalition, January 2007
[ix] The Disaster Response Dialogue ( is a joint initiative of IFRC, OCHA, ICVA and SDC to strengthen NDMA preparedness and response capacity, October 2011
[x] The State of the humanitarian system report – ALNAP, July 2012
[xi] Disaster Emergency Preparedness Programme (DEPP) Business case and intervention summary – Department for International Development, March 2014
[xii] See series of INTRAC blog posts on capacity building and leadership James, R, INTRAC
[xiii] “Aid on the edge of Chaos”, Ramalingam, B, Oxford University Press, 2013
[xiv] Support to civil society; Emerging evaluation lessons - Evaluation Insights, OECD-DAC, Number 8, September 2013
[xv] “New Directions in Local Capacity Development” Root Change / USAID, November 2013
[xvi] See GlobalAgRisk’s Extreme El Nino Insurance Product pilot in Peru
[xvii] Disaster Emergency Preparedness Programme (DEPP) Business case and intervention summary – Department for International Development, March 2014
[xviii] Crisis in a New World Order; challenging the humanitarian project, Cairns, E, Oxfam International, February 2012

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