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Humanitarian reform: What's on - and off - the table

Kieran Doherty/Oxfam
A water point at the UN base in Juba, South Sudan

As pressure mounts to come up with concrete proposals for the future of humanitarian aid, horse-trading and negotiations have begun in earnest behind the scenes in the lead-up to the first ever World Humanitarian Summit (WHS), to be held in Istanbul in May.

The release this week of the UN secretary-general’s vision for humanitarian reforms marks one of the last stages in a multi-year process that has seen consultations with some 23,000 people around the world on how to improve crisis response. 

See: Editor’s Take: The UN Secretary General’s vision for humanitarian reform

Hundreds of ideas are floating around. Which are now rising to the top? And which are being pushed to the side? Here’s our take on the emerging trends:

What’s In

Bridging the humanitarian-development divideThe vast majority of humanitarian relief today takes place in so-called protracted crises that last for years. Yet they are addressed through short-term approaches that often focus on only the most basic needs. If there’s one thing that might come out of the WHS, it’s a rethink of the humanitarian-development divide. Treating humanitarian and development goals as a single global challenge is the main message of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s report. Ban re-emphasised this at the launch of the report in New York, when he said the WHS would be “the first major occasion to ensure success of the [Sustainable Development Goals]”. This “common approach” is particularly intended to address financing models, but also the collection of data and analysis about risk, the assessment of needs, and the clear, coherent delivery of assistance with agreed collective outcomes over a multi-year horizon (this makes some emergency specialists, who see a need to be independent, very queasy). Ban proposes a dedicated international financing platform for protracted crises, addressing everything from innovation funds to risk insurance. And the final WHS consultation, held in Geneva in October, resulted in a call for “comprehensive crisis management frameworks” bringing together all those working on the different dimensions of a crisis, and recommended a particular focus on local resilience. Multi-year financing is also widely recommended.                                                                         

The grand bargainThis is the main take-away of the recommendations of a high-level panel commissioned by the secretary-general to examine how to bridge the gap between humanitarian needs and available resources. The “grand bargain” is the idea that various parts of the aid system – but particularly UN agencies and donor governments – can each implement changes internally that would, together, make aid delivery much more efficient. “As part of that agreement, donors would not simply give more but give better, by being more flexible, and aid organisations would reciprocate with greater transparency and cost-consciousness,” the panel’s report says. Donors would harmonise their duplicative checklists and reporting requirements in return for similar concessions in straight-forward behavior from the multitude of aid agencies. This is perhaps the one idea that governments have begun rallying around; Norway and the United States, among others, are already looking at how they can start implementing it. European Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management, Christos Stylianides, told IRIN: “As one of the world's leading donors, system-wide reforms to achieve humanitarian effectiveness are the absolute priority. So naturally, issues like joint needs assessments, the prioritization of needs, coordinated appeals, focus on quality and results are of key importance for us.” The high-level panel, led by European Commission Vice-President Kristalina Georgieva, has pledged to try to make the grand bargain a reality in time for the summit. And UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Stephen O’Brien has talked about putting in place a clear timeline for its implementation. As part of the push for improved cost efficiency and transparency, Ban also called on humanitarian actors to subscribe to the International Aid Transparency Initiative’s principles. 

A new deal for refugees (and their hosts): With global displacement at its highest levels since the Second World War, and refugees topping the political agenda in Europe and America, it’s hardly surprising that tackling the buckling support system for refugees is a hot button issue at the WHS. Ideas are coalescing around what the secretary-general’s report describes as “a new cooperation framework on predictable and equitable responsibility-sharing” and a raft of measures, from creating sustainable livelihoods (a bold demand that is not very popular with hosting states) to increasing access to education, focused on ending the years of limbo in which many refugees find themselves. Ban doesn’t go so far as to adopt former High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres’ recommendation that humanitarian response – and specifically funding for refugees – come from assessed contributions (the dues member states of the UN must pay) but the report synthesising the global consultation process does recommend the establishment of a “global finance package” for countries hosting large numbers of refugees. And the World Bank has announced that it will now give grants to middle income countries if they host a large number of refugees. “We have come off the fence in a way,” says Mukesh Kapila, a professor of humanitarian affairs at the University of Manchester. “There is norm-setting progress here.” 

Camp seen behind wire
Heba Aly/IRIN
On average, refugees remain displaced for 17 years

Security Council reform (kind of): While there has been little credible discussion of changing the make-up of the Security Council, Ban’s report does recommend that allegations of serious violations of international humanitarian or human rights law lead to standing agenda items at the Security Council. In addition, he calls on the Council’s permanent members to commit to withholding their veto power against resolutions aimed at ending or preventing mass atrocities – a longstanding recommendation but not often advocated for at such a high level. Ban doesn’t actually explain how this would be enforced, and, as one senior humanitarian official put it: “It’s all well and good to say: ‘Bad Security Council members!’ But where is the change?” 

Respecting the rules of war: Recent high-profile bombings of hospitals in Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen have given a media profile to violations of international humanitarian law by warring parties, and to the lack of accountability for those responsible. How to ensure greater respect for the rules of war, seen as core to the ability of aid agencies to operate in conflict environments as well as a crucial framework for limiting suffering, has come up over and over in the consultations and various reports linked to the WHS process. In his report, Ban calls on states to provide more political and financial support for the International Criminal Court and even suggests a “dedicated watchdog” to systematically track, collect data, and report on trends of violations of IHL, gaps in compliance, and accountability. But don’t get too excited: At a December conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement, states failed to agree to a voluntary IHL reporting mechanism. That said, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Swiss government, who were spearheading the initiative, have vowed to continue lobbying states about it. 

"We cannot run around having agencies competing with each other and basically operating in a fundraising logic rather than in a logic based on the real needs assessed neutrally of the beneficiary populations."

Funding to local organisations: The widely recognised calls to “localise” disaster response has boiled down to a few key recommendations, most notably funding. The lack of cash currently provided directly to local organisations is one of the most glaringly obvious inequalities of the humanitarian system, and one almost everyone agrees needs to be addressed. The Nairobi-based NGO ADESO and the signatories of the Charter4Change have called for 20 percent of humanitarian funding to go directly to local NGOs. Recommendations emerging from the final WHS consultation held in Geneva called for full implementation of the Charter4Charge. While making no mention of the charter, Ban calls for 15 percent of funding for UN-led humanitarian appeals to be channelled through country-based pooled funds, the largest source of direct funding for national NGOs.* In particular, he says local organisations must be prioritised when it comes to preparedness funding. That said, there are concerns that Ban is more focused on national governments than on local civil society organisations and communities that are often on the frontlines of responses. “[The trend has] moved from the international to the national, but it doesn’t go down deeper enough into a more democratic humanitarian system, particularly at the grassroots,” says Kapila. “But the direction is a good one.” In any case, donor governments have less administrative capacity to provide small grants to a larger number of partners and control over eventual pooled funds is already disputed, so it is not yet clear how local financing will actually work.   

Internally displaced people: Globally, twice as many people have been displaced within their own country (38.2 million) than have been forced to cross a border (19.5 million). IDPs are often in more difficulty than refugees: they are not protected by globally binding international humanitarian law, and the extent to which outside relief is able to reach them is usually dependent on their government’s willingness to allow international assistance. The WHS consultations' synthesis report – which summarised the formal consultation process – reflects the calls during the consultations for regional agreements along the lines of the African Union’s Kampala Convention on IDPs. Several of the consultations in Africa went further, emphasising that ratifying such conventions would not be enough: national level legal policy instruments would also be essential.  The report from the final global consultation carries forward the idea of regional replications of the Kampala Convention, and the secretary-general’s report goes further, calling on states to commit to set targets for the reduction of internal displacement by at least 50 percent by 2030 (though he proposes no framework through which this would happen) – and to end statelessness altogether within the next decade. 

A woman and her baby take shelter at Don Bosco Orphanage in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo
Kate Holt/IRIN
Some 2.7 million are displaced internally within the Democratic Republic of Congo due to conflict

Increased spending on preparedness: Despite years of recognition, the lack of serious investment in building resilience and preparing for crises has long been noted as a major problem. In 2014, just 0.4 percent of Overseas Development Assistance was spent on preparedness, according to the secretary-general. His report sees preparedness as including a fundamental shift away from a supply-driven approach to one that asks the question: “What can we do to add value to what people and communities are already doing?” He sets a benchmark for one percent of ODA to be spent on disaster risk reduction and preparedness by 2020 (seen by some to be too humble a target). Investing in risk management and monitoring of deteriorating situations, funding national response capacity, and putting more resources – including partnerships with the private sector – into risk profiling are also mentioned in various WHS-linked reports.

What’s Out

UN Reform: If wholesale reform of the humanitarian system is the mandate of the WHS, many people have been asking: where is the examination of the complex and often overlapping UN agency system? At a June meeting organised by ALNAP, a forum focused on improving humanitarian action, the most popular recommendation among 200 top humanitarians by far was for the secretary-general to “reform UN agency mandates and roles to better meet the basic humanitarian needs of affected people”: 72 percent of the participants strongly supported this suggestion, while only five percent strongly opposed it. But in an interview with IRIN in October, O’Brien said unpicking mandates would be an “irresponsible distraction” (a view that many states share; some of them fear the result would be even worse) and in November, he told member states that the UN would need to “play its part in embracing change”, but within “existing mandates”. He also said the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, would be undertaking an internal review of its work, but not much has been heard from other UN agencies. As Ambassador Hesham Youssef, assistant secretary-general for humanitarian affairs at the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, pointed out in a lecture last year, the word “reform” does not appear in any of the WHS statements of the UN agencies. Ban does not directly tackle questions of UN structural reforms in his report, referring less specifically and in a "light-weight” fashion to the fact that mandates cannot come first, but without explaining how the alternative should work in detail.  He does give one hint when he points to “empowered leadership” in the field – a reference to UN-appointed humanitarian coordinators who have historically had the mandate to coordinate all agencies in a crisis, but no power to actually do so. Part of the way to change that, he suggests, is giving them command over resources with the ability to steer them towards common goals. 

For more on WHS: 

UN Sec-Gen’s vision for humanitarian reform

"The UN doesn't have to change"

What hope for reform? 

Bright ideas for better aid 

What refugees really think

A desert called reform

New Year's resolutions for aid

IASC reform: The Inter-Agency Standing Committee is the supreme body for coordination of humanitarian assistance, bringing together key UN agencies, consortia representing largely Western NGOs and the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement. It is the foundation of the humanitarian architecture, but neither donors, nor non-Western NGOs are represented on it. “We cannot just have three organisations representing the richest international NGOs,” one civil society representative from the Middle East said in one of the WHS consultations, calling for more local representation on the body. In a letter to O’Brien and members of the IASC, signed in December by many of the world’s most important governmental humanitarian aid departments and seen by IRIN, donors called for a “reformed and reinvigorated IASC”. They argued that the IASC needs to be more proactive in setting the agenda, more responsive to evolving situations, better able to reach out to different stakeholders, and more holistic in its policy-making. They called for “an inclusive high-level dialogue forum that complements agency executive boards by focusing on inter-agency and system-wide strategies, needs and challenges. This should provide greater oversight for Member States to hold the system at large to account.” This is Kremlinology for any normal reader: donors want a super body on which they are represented, as they are in the executive boards of UN agencies. Donor exclusion from the IASC has come up before, and they appear to be putting the ball in O’Brien’s court with the implicit threat of more muscular interference if they don't get what they want. The IASC is not once mentioned in the secretary-general’s report.

Independent needs assessments: In most sectors, needs assessments, responses to those needs, and quality assurance of the responses would not be conducted by the same body. Yet in the humanitarian sector, it happens all the time. Independent or impartial assessments of needs would ensure that UN agencies do not make determinations in their own corporate interests. “We cannot run around having agencies competing with each other and basically operating in a fundraising logic rather than in a logic based on the real needs assessed neutrally of the beneficiary populations,” Claus Sorensen, who used to head the European Commission’s humanitarian aid arm ECHO, told IRIN. In the letter to the IASC, donors said needs should be “identified objectively… and in a transparent manner” and that “assessments should be systematically validated with communities”. As part of the “common approach”, the secretary-general’s report calls for “open and transparent joint needs assessments” involving national and local authorities, the  humanitarian, development, environmental, and peace and  security communities (which will surely come up against resistance from the humanitarian “purists”), but says nothing about a separation between those who assess the needs and those who respond to them. 

Impact of counter-terrorism: No less than four of the WHS regional consultations made particular note of the impact of counter-terrorism measures on humanitarian work. Such legislation makes moving money around harder, adds complexity to negotiations (both for conflict resolution and for access) and puts humanitarians working with groups designated as “terrorist” at serious risk of criminality for just doing their jobs. Indeed, ALNAP’s meeting last summer identified counter-terrorism legislation as one of the three top obstacles for crisis response. Somalia, where more than 40 percent of people rely on remittances to meet daily needs, has been commonly cited as a case study of the devastating impact when banks are forced to withdraw services in order to comply with such legislation and working directly with local civil society organisations becomes harder. The WHS synthesis report suggests an international dialogue on ensuring the transfer of funds for humanitarian purposes and explicit exemptions in national legislations. But the issue isn’t mentioned at all in O’Brien’s November address to member states and only scores a passing reference in the context of financial reform in the final report from the final global consultation in October. The secretary-general’s report does call for exemptions to allow humanitarian organisations to engage in dialogue and coordinate with all parties to armed conflict. But for some, the issue remains “in the margins of the summit’s debates”. 

Role of diaspora: Diaspora networks have been much discussed in recent years. The very proactive role of the Filipino and Nepalese diasporas in responding to Typhoon Haiyan and the 2015 Kathmandu earthquake respectively underlined their growing financial and organisational clout, notably recognised by the UK Department for International Development through its proactive engagement of Sierra Leonean groups during the Ebola response. Early WHS consultations threw up ideas such as working with diasporas in conflict reduction and leveraging the diaspora’s role in de-radicalisation, and placed a strong emphasis on the importance of relationships and partnership. But the final global consultation paper put forward only a recommendation concerning remittances and advocacy with banks. At the final global consultation in Geneva, Ade Daramy, a member of the Sierra Leonean diaspora, said he felt the diaspora’s voice had not been heard in the summit process and reminded the audience that “we are not just a wallet."

International aid workers take pictures as volunteers help arriving refugees from the boat
Marienna Pope-Weidemann/IRIN
Volunteers were quicker to respond to the refugee crisis in Europe than traditional aid agencies

Emerging humanitarian actors: The role of volunteers and ad hoc civil society organisations in crisis response has come to the fore over the last year due to the Europe-wide grassroots response to the influx of refugees. While individuals have always mobilised in disasters, information technology tools are dramatically increasing their capacity to organise, network and fundraise. And it’s not just Europe: as recent research by the Overseas Development Institute has demonstrated, much of the aid reaching the ground in Syria is coming through groups and networks that just didn’t exist a few years ago. Yet the question of how to work with such groups, often made up of those with no humanitarian background or training, and little understanding of the “do no harm” concept, seems to have passed the WHS by. States did pass a resolution to better protect volunteers at the Red Cross Red Crescent conference in December, but recommendations like “develop legislation and policies to support volunteer and community networks” (made during the consultation in eastern and southern Africa), or the idea of mechanisms to allow volunteers to share information with professional humanitarians, seem to have fallen by the wayside as the sector concentrates on those already within the fold. 

Clusters: If the secretary-general has his way, the famous cluster coordination system, introduced in 2005 as part of the humanitarian reform process, will be replaced by “collective outcomes”. The cluster system allows for lead agencies for each cluster – UNICEF for water and sanitation; UNHCR for IDPs, etc – to be ultimately responsible and accountable. The move away from the cluster approach was met with alarm by many observers. One diplomat saw it as a move by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) to gain more centralised power, while another observer felt it was “dangerous to throw something away before you really understand what comes in its place”.  


*This article was amended on 21 February. The earlier version incorrectly stated that Ban called for 15 percent of UN pooled funds to be earmarked for local NGOs, a target which is in fact already exceeded. 

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