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Aid policy trends to watch in 2020

(Sylvain Liechti/UN Photo)

It’s a new year, and once again we’re offering not so much a crystal ball as a cracked Land Cruiser windshield: peering into the road ahead, here are five humanitarian policy issues to keep a close eye on in 2020.

They’re not all new – and they are in no particular order – but all the same, they seem to us most likely to drive change, open up opportunity, or demand attention in shaping emergency response.

Greening relief

Better late than never? This year, many aid agencies will reflect like never before on their impact on the environment, attempting to lessen or offset their climate footprint.

The urgency of life-saving relief work may once have provided a convenient get-out clause, but the political climate has heated up, along with the planet. As climate change puts more and more people into new levels of crisis, the aid industry habits of flying prolifically, running dirty diesel generators, and driving those iconic 4x4 vehicles looks more and more inappropriate.

Green issues could be powerful ammunition for those calling for more cash-based aid – why ship that stuff halfway round the world? They could also help promote a greater role for local aid groups – why bring your HQ people in on long-haul flights?

But some things will be harder to budge. International aid by its nature involves cargo and passengers on the move: trucks (and sometimes planes) are irreplaceable when it comes to moving food and other goods.

All the same, look out for aid agencies in 2020 to announce plans and moves to green their operations – and reputations – with offsets, procurement changes, recycling, more renewables, and even more Skype calls.

More nexus spending

Those in charge of international aid money – including the US, the EU, and World Bank – have resolved to change the way they do business. “Silos” of separate spending on long-term development and humanitarian relief are out. Joining them up with efforts to foster peace in a new “triple nexus” approach is in. Aid agencies and governments can now access new pots of money for bigger-picture approaches and new partnerships.

Such changes to at least $60 billion of aid a year, advocates say, should enable life-transforming help for some of the 168 million people in urgent need in 2020. Long-term refugees, displaced people, and those mired in need year after year could benefit the most.

The nexus theory is not so far from the old “teaching a person to fish” aphorism.

Studies are starting to collect examples of “nexus”-style projects, for example social safety nets in Ethiopia or water supplies in Ukraine.

But spending aid money more coherently is easier said than done. Deep-seated problems in difficult (“fragile”) places get that way for a reason: they aren’t easily fixable. Making things less disjointed involves a lot of moving parts. Political and security agendas complicate the picture. Institutional inertia and unwillingness to take risks get in the way, too. A public commitment by major donors in 2019 marks the beginning of wider adoption. Although the wheels of aid bureaucracies turn slowly, more nexus projects should appear in 2020 funding cycles, and the new orthodoxy will be put to the test on a wider scale.

At best, the nexus ought to tackle some thorny root causes of crises, and finance longer-term solutions without costing more. At worst, critics say, the approach could water down the neutrality of emergency aid and stop help from reaching the most needy in a technocratic pursuit of better aid.

Digital threats loom

Aid groups hold more and more data about vulnerable people and contested places. It’s an inherently risky position, taking custody of information that may be strategically valuable to other parties, some of them hostile. Sensitive information in the wrong hands could put lives at risk. The humanitarian sector is beginning to feel the weight of the responsibility that comes with collecting and storing digital information on hundreds of thousands of people. Whether it’s from state-backed spies or extortionists injecting ransomware, the nonprofit sector is already a target and not immune from the breaches and bugs that affect governments and companies.

New efforts are under way to professionalise responsible approaches to data and cyber-security – with the intent of protecting more than the people whose personal details have been turned into bits and bytes. A bad leak from hacking or phishing might severely damage the reputation of an NGO or UN agency. The information could also be used in misinformation, undermining trust in a single institution and the wider humanitarian enterprise.

Yet critical IT systems are rarely up to scratch, and computer security is under-staffed. It’s hard to know where vulnerabilities exist and if successful attacks and breaches have happened at all: disclosure is rare, regulatory oversight weak, and inter-agency cooperation patchy.

We’ll be on the lookout for digital mishaps large and small in 2020, and whether digital security moves up the agenda beyond theoretical policy discussions.

New threats to humanitarian space

Humanitarians have long complained that their room for manoeuvre is limited – whether by cynical donors or ruthless autocrats. So while “the shrinking of humanitarian space” might seem an old worry, the basic tenets of law and long-held principles of engagement now seem to be on trial at a challenging new level.

Humanitarian space is not so much squeezed as under assault.

Aid workers and organisations have become military targets in bitter no-holds-barred wars (Syria, South Sudan) and objects of social media smear campaigns. Some places have become no-go zones due to sprawling counter-terrorist regulation, and related legal threats haunt NGOs. Major donors are making unrealistic “zero-tolerance” demands about aid diversion. Governments fighting insurgents are slapping on the “terrorist” label to justify blocking access despite international law that all civilians ought to receive aid, no matter who happens to be ruling over them. Confidence in that principle is shaky enough that Germany and France started a humanitarian diplomacy initiative to “spread the strategic narrative” that it is in “everyone’s interest” to respect international law and “facilitate principled humanitarian action.”

Some of 2020’s most critical situations, including northeastern Nigeria, Yemen, and northern Syria are bound up in these issues. They pose a growing headache for humanitarian action and in 2020 could cause parts of the system to seize up and be unable to help as it should.

Reforming reforms

Over half a million people work in humanitarian aid. Analysts and practitioners alike say the sprawling ecosystem of overlapping aid agencies, funding streams, and opaque decision-making could do a better job for people in need. Think tanks, donors, the World Economic Forum, as well as managers and insiders continue to look for new thinking on a system that appears resistant to change. Where are the new ideas and will they get implemented?

The Grand Bargain, a flagship package of reforms among major donors and relief groups, will enter its fourth year in 2020. It was meant to sort out some of the inefficiencies of the mainstream emergency aid sector and received a glass-half-full scorecard in 2019. A study found that it’s often politics that stands in the way of change, not technical tweaks. Under a new leader, Dutch Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation Sigrid Kaag, the package of reforms is expected to have another couple of years before being folded.

Some of its initiatives appear stalled, but others, like reducing paperwork, could yet bear fruit. Others, including localisation – enabling local aid groups to play more of a key role in response efforts – have a lot of political endorsement but less to show in terms of hard cash reaching local agencies directly .

Meanwhile another reform effort, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), a top-level policy body chaired by the UN’s humanitarian chief, has also undergone changes, but its membership and relevance remain under more scrutiny in a world of reduced UN clout. The IASC’s priorities – which overlap somewhat with the Grand Bargain’s – include improving the performance of senior management, making relief operations more accountable, tackling sexual abuse and exploitation, and embracing a nexus approach.

Efforts toward reform seem a permanent fixture in the humanitarian sector, but change is slow. We’ll be looking for evidence of change (and innovation) which doesn’t get bogged down and assessing what reform initiatives are making a real difference.

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