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The "New Way of Working": Bridging aid's funding divide

Ashley Hamer/IRIN
Children in Timbuktu

A new UN-led reform policy aims to bridge the gap between humanitarian and development actors. Heard this tune before? Perhaps. But the so-called New Way of Working (NWOW) has, according to its champions, the potential to radically improve how emergency relief programmes are designed and delivered.

Proponents see it as a way to unlock new sources of funding for humanitarian response from multilateral sources who have previously stayed out of crisis settings, for example the World Bank. It is also being tied to new ways of supporting Syrian refugees and host countries, such as the “compacts” designed for Lebanon and Jordan.

Early pilots are underway or planned in several countries, including Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen.

But even as the policy is being rolled out, many questions remain.

There are concerns a shotgun marriage between emergency and development aid could lead to the blurring of institutional mandates, misplaced priorities, and the violation of humanitarian principles. Others question whether risk-averse donors will be prepared to change how and with whom they fund aid.

What is the New Way of Working?

In his “One Humanity, Shared Responsibility” report, published in the run-up to the World Humanitarian Summit last year, then-UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon urged the international aid system “to commit to working in a new paradigm”. 

Building on the holistic Leave no-one behind” approach of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, Ban called for the setting aside of artificial institutional labels such as “development” and “humanitarian”, and urged agencies to “move beyond the comfort of traditional silos, mandates and institutional boundaries.”

The heads of the leading UN agencies responded by signing the “Commitment to Action”, in which they undertook to “implement a new way of working that meets people’s immediate humanitarian needs while at the same time reducing risk and vulnerability”.

Signatories of the Grand Bargain, the landmark agreement to reform emergency aid, likewise committed to “enhanced engagement between humanitarian and development actors”. Izumi Nakamitsu, then head of the Crisis Response Unit at the United Nations Development Programme, told IRIN in an interview in March: “We are trying to have a paradigm shift in looking at the phenomenon of crises, both humanitarian but also protracted crises, which therefore become a development challenge as well.”

“It’s not just about tweaking or changing here and there a little bit, with business as usual. It is going to be a huge change, both for humanitarians and development people and also the donor governments.”

Erm, sounds great, but what is the New Way of Working?

Policy chiefs have been keen to avoid fixed definitions because they say it has to be “context-specific”.

According to Nakamitsu, “there is no one-size-fits-all [approach]… It’s all very contextualised and we are learning as we go,” she said, while stressing an emphasis on field-led initiatives rather than top-down policy directives.

Essentially though, the NWOW is about closer collaboration between humanitarian and development response through the pillars of: “collective outcomes”, “comparative advantage”, and “multi-year timeframes”.

In March, more than 100 delegates from a range of UN agencies, NGOs, donor countries, and multilateral institutions gathered in Copenhagen for a high-level workshop to discuss the policy. They agreed:

-- Instead of just delivering aid to meet need, set collective targets around reducing that need, such as cutting food insecurity rates or cholera infections in a specific geography over a set period of time

-- Decide who is best placed to respond to the crisis, in terms of skills, funding, and capacity, rather than who applies to help out first or who did it last time

-- Secure funding and capacity to support response over a longer timeframe to enable agencies to deliver meaningful change (shaped around targets identified by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)) rather than short-lived quick fixes

So what will it all look like in the field?

A practical example of a collective outcome would be a target to reduce cholera infections in a specific geography over a certain period of time, or to cut levels of food insecurity or cases of malnutrition in children.

These targets would be set for multiple agencies to work towards together.

In Ethiopia, for example, aid agencies have been leveraging established developmental projects and funding to meet humanitarian needs arising from the current drought.

Instead of setting up a separate emergency response programme to treat Severe Acute Malnutrition, for example, the existing national health system has been bolstered to respond with training and resources.

Mohammed Hamoud/IRIN
“We saw the opportunity for both emergency and development activities to occur in tandem to reduce a humanitarian need,” said Ahunna Eziakonwa-Onochie, the UN’s resident and humanitarian coordinator in Ethiopia, speaking during a recent webinar about the NWOW.

“Rather than set up a parallel response mechanism for the emergency response, the national system was reinforced through training and resourcing,” explained Eziakonwa-Onochie. “So they were the first responders and that actually meant the response was effective.”

Where do actors like the World Bank come in?

In Yemen, the World Bank is funding a series of programmes administered by UN agencies and local organisations to pay health workers’ salaries as well as provide fuel supplies for hospitals and emergency nutrition support.

To date, the country has been allocated a $500-million grant from the bank’s International Development Association (IDA), which offers financing for development challenges in the world’s poorest countries.

A second phase – due to be signed off this year – is worth an additional $250 million and will include a cash transfer scheme to help vulnerable households, and agricultural grants to support local food production.

It is the first time the bank has allocated IDA money to an ongoing conflict situation, and the cash is particularly welcome in Yemen, where the 2017 humanitarian appeal is barely 20 percent funded despite a recent donors’ conference in Geneva.

Jamie McGoldrick, the UN’s resident coordinator in Yemen, described the World Bank-funded programmes as “humanitarian-plus”.

“We are investing in communities and structures so they don’t completely shatter and fall apart,” he explained. “A hospital that closes is very difficult to [re]open, but a hospital that is still functioning, even minimally, can be built up quite quickly.”

Fouzia Shafique, chief of health and nutrition for UNICEF in Yemen, noted that World Bank funding is being used, not only to keep health facilities functioning, but also to strengthen them with an expanded network of healthcare workers.

“Humanitarian response would not train up new healthcare workers or set up a network of community health workers,” she said.

So it’s getting development actors to pitch in with crisis response?

In essence, yes, although policy chiefs insist it’s not simply about “development actors doing humanitarian work”, but rather about protecting development gains and supporting systems that can continue to deliver services.

This was already happening even before the NWOW became formal policy.

For instance, the UNDP, traditionally a development organisation focused first on the Millennium Development Goals and now the SDGs, is joining the World Bank and coming into crisis settings much earlier than in the past.

An example of this new type of intervention is the UN agency’s Funding Facility for Stabilization in Iraq. During 2016, the programme bankrolled more than 350 projects, valued in total at over $300 million.

Their scope included repairing infrastructure, rebuilding public services, and stimulating the local economy, all with a view to enabling displaced Iraqis to return home.

In northeastern Nigeria, the agency credits the “New Way of Working” for its ability to scale up humanitarian response for those displaced and destitute due to the Boko Haram insurgency.

Nigerian nternally displaced children waiting for ready-to-use therapeutic food
UNICEF/Andrew Esiebo

These interventions, like the World Bank’s engagement in Yemen, bring important new funding and capacity to humanitarian crises. But they can also carry significant risk due to the perilous nature of the security situations in the countries in question.

“There is a risk that premature development intervention can be undone quite quickly,” cautioned Nadine Walicki, a senior strategic advisor at the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre in Geneva. “There have been cases of new housing provided for returnees, for instance, literally being burnt to the ground.”

Is there also a risk that these development-style interventions, which involve government engagement, could inflame a crisis setting?


That is the worry. In order to deliver aid within Yemen, for instance, aid agencies must liaise with both the authorities in the largely Houthi-held north (including the capital, Sana’a) and the coalition force, which is led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates from Aden in the south.

Humanitarians, guided by their core principles of humanity, independence, neutrality, and impartiality, are used to these sorts of negotiations. But when money is coming from an entity like the World Bank, the rules of engagement naturally change, as the Yemen example illustrates.

“There are concerns on both sides (the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition) about World Bank aid and perceptions about what it means,” admitted Shafique from UNICEF. “But there is also a recognition from both sides that in the circumstances (it was) the only way that aid could come to the country, given that one side is not considered legitimate, and the other side controls a limited geographic area.”

And what about the risk of violating humanitarian principles?

NWOW advocates insist all programmes are carefully shaped to avoid this.

“Humanitarian principles… must of course be protected,” Nakamitsu said. “We do not want to interfere with the delivery of aid or be misunderstood to be partial to one side in a conflict.”

Similarly, OCHA noted in its March 2017 report, “New Way of Working”: “nothing should undermine the commitment to principled humanitarian action, especially in situations of armed conflict.”

But it goes on to say: “There is, at the same time, a shared moral imperative of preventing crises and sustainably reducing people’s levels of humanitarian need, a task that requires the pursuit of collective outcomes across silos.”

Marc DuBois, an independent aid consultant and former executive director of Médecins Sans Frontières in the UK, told IRIN he supports calls to break down “calcified institutional and funding divides” and end the turf battles between humanitarian and development actors.

But he expressed concerns about the potential for further politicisation of aid under the NWOW.

“Making humanitarian aid coherent with the broader goals of development, peacebuilding, and security, sounds like a great idea to politicians, but it carries a high risk of undermining humanitarian principles,” he said.

Hugo Slim, head of policy at the International Committee of the Red Cross, welcomed the NWOW’s efforts to bridge the divide between the humanitarian and development sectors, of the UN in particular.

But he said: “There is a risk that the NWOW could under-emphasise the importance of principled humanitarian action in armed conflict.

“For instance, state-centric development models could risk over-investment in government-controlled areas or might over-emphasise the role of governments and local actors in order to deliver development goals.”

DuBois, likewise, did not support the emphasis on linking humanitarian aid delivery to the SDGs.

“There is a picture emerging of humanitarian action becoming a subsidiary for the sustainable development goals and to be at the service of development, and this is unsettling,” he told IRIN. “We need to find a middle ground.”

Jamie Munn, head of humanitarian policy at the Norwegian Refugee Council, agreed that SDGs should not become a focus for humanitarians, who were there to serve immediate need.

Giving the example of Colombia, he said: “development actors were supporting government structures towards achieving SDGs, to the neglect of the humanitarian needs of a large part of the population”.

Policy wrangles aside, what about getting funding for the NWOW?

On the one hand, the growing roles of development actors like the World Bank and the UNDP in crisis situations will mean more money is available to be spent in emergency settings.

However, it remains to be seen whether donor governments will make good on their commitments in the Grand Bargain to provide more flexible funding, which will be required to fund the NWOW approach.

“Until financing, along with planning and risk tolerance, changes, we are going to be stuck in a system where mandates will remain rigid and competition continues to dominate,” Munn told IRIN.

Lesley Bourns, chief of policy analysis and innovation at UN OCHA in New York, also acknowledged the challenges. “It’s not a matter of flipping a switch to make that change. It will be complicated. The resource flows are entrenched for a lot of good reasons,” she said.

“There has been a lot of talk about interest in doing this from donors. Denmark for instance is already trying to align its humanitarian and development financing in fragile settings”. But she said while many donors were talking about new funding models, “more concrete action” was needed.

What are the next steps?

At the Copenhagen meeting in March, delegates committed to a series of follow-up workshops to discuss how to apply the NWOW in crisis settings.

The UN in Burkina Faso, for example, announced the formation of collective outcome targets towards achieving SDG 2 (end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture), and said it would examine capacities to deliver the strategy.

Several donors also said they would look at their funding and response structures: the UK’s Department for International Development said it was planning a review of its response to protracted crises; Germany pledged to explore how it could contribute to the NWOW through its support for refugees; and Norway announced a white paper looking at a new strategy for engagement in fragile settings.

In his address to the Copenhagen meeting, Stephen O’Brien, the outgoing UN emergency relief coordinator, referred to the NWOW as the “accepted norm” and said it was time to “transform our systems and processes to operationalise it”.

Despite receiving far less attention than the now infamous 25 percent localisation pledge, insiders suggest the New Way of Working may be one of the most influential and lasting outcomes of the World Humanitarian Summit. But the reality is: it’s too soon to say if it is, well, working.


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