Humanitarian Action

How do we create a humanitarian system fit for today - and tomorrow?

Haitian volunteers hold hands in a human chain to form a queue for people to line up during a food distribution by the U.S. forces in Port-au-Prince, January 27, 2010.

Image: REUTERS/Jorge Silva

Sara Pantuliano
Chief Executive, Overseas Development Institute
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Humanitarian Action

Despite a decade of system-wide reforms, the humanitarian sector is still falling short in the world’s most enduring crises.

A multi-billion-dollar industry, the sector has been crippled by uneven power relations, corrosive competition and perverse incentives, which together have held it back from innovating and adapting to meet the needs of some of the world’s most vulnerable people.

But how do we create a humanitarian system that is fit to respond to the crises of both today and tomorrow? The sector must face head-on the twin challenges at the root of almost every problem: money and power.

The international humanitarian sector is dominated by five government donors and the European Union. Together, they control more than two-thirds of the funds channelled through the formal system. This money in turn is given to a similarly tiny pool of recipients. In 2013, government donors channelled nearly half of international humanitarian assistance to just six UN agencies. While funds were given directly to 483 NGOs in 2014, a third (36%) went directly to just 10 international NGOs. That same year, local NGOs received 0.2% of all humanitarian funding, as reported to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Source: Global Humanitarian Assistance

Most engagement with local NGOs is in the form of sub-contracting arrangements, rather than the kind of genuine strategic relationships that could enable local NGOs and other respondents – technically and financially – to drive aid responses. Humanitarian agencies are also generally wary of working more strategically with the private sector, despite the role businesses – local, national and international – have played in many humanitarian responses, both as direct providers of relief goods and expertise, and as channels and facilitators of assistance.

This reluctance to look outside the circle of usual suspects makes aid much less cost-effective. Here’s a typical funding chain: government donors provide large funds to UN agencies or INGOs. After taking a share themselves, agencies pass the money along to local NGO partners and sub-contractors, which themselves apply institutional overheads. More often than not, there are other intermediaries in the middle of the chain, such as auditing firms or other large and medium-sized NGOs.

Opening up the system’s funding structure to others creates obvious threats to its current members, and international aid agencies have little incentive to cede power and hand over responsibility to other organizations that could serve as competitors for funding. UN and NGO fundraising teams and field office managers are at least partly assessed on the basis of how much money they bring in for their organization. Likewise, senior leaders are answerable to their boards for growing or at least maintaining funding and staff numbers. Within most aid organizations, the quest for these resources has become an end in itself.

Contracts are often performance-based, renewable and short-term, encouraging opportunism in a highly turbulent and unpredictable business. High levels of financial uncertainty and competitive pressures have led to opportunism and self-interested action, and discourage NGOs from seeking complementary roles. Quite the opposite, in fact: pressure for institutional growth can lead agencies to pursue funds for programmes they are not best placed to deliver, in crises where they may lack expertise.

The drive for greater institutional growth has also ensured that organizations focus their energies more on donors, winning contracts and maintaining operational bases at the expense of greater accountability to people in humanitarian crises.

Initiatives that have tried to understand what affected people think about humanitarian assistance have found that the humanitarian system is simply not doing a good job in the eyes of the people it aims to help.

In reality, affected people have limited power or influence over the workings of humanitarian aid, which remains largely determined by what goods and services can be supplied, rather than what people need or want.

Later this month, Istanbul will host the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit. Thousands of government officials, aid workers, donors and others involved in humanitarian action will gather to discuss how to address what they’re calling “the greatest humanitarian crisis of our lifetime”.

There will be sessions dedicated to bridging the divide between shorter-term humanitarian action and longer-term development aid, upholding the rules of war and tackling displacement. But if these representatives genuinely want to address the root causes of what ails the humanitarian system, we need an honest discussion about letting go of power and control.

What could this look like? For starters, UN agencies and large INGOs should progressively reorient their activities away from direct implementation, and take on a more enabling role. Humanitarian donors should also reduce barriers to financing local NGOs and other respondents, and reward organizations’ ability to work more effectively and collaboratively with local organizations and businesses. The sector must redefine success so that the needs of people affected by crises trump the organizational drive for resources and visibility.

With system reform off the table at the summit, it’s not clear if we’ll see any big commitments to tackling thorny issues of power and control. But it is clear that, if we avoid them, we’re unlikely to see a new and improved humanitarian system any time soon.

This is part of a series of articles linked to the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit, including:

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