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Aid policy trends to watch in 2021

A staff member holds a thermometer for temperature checks as he requires people to scan a health code at the entrance of the Maple Garden Drive-in Cinema, during Beijing International Film Festival following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Tingshu Wang/REUTERS
A COVID-19 checkpoint at the entrance to the Maple Garden Drive-in Cinema during August's Beijing International Film Festival.

Past mega-crises have spurred reforms, so 2020 could be a historic turning point for the humanitarian sector. So the theory goes. But in practice, there's the likelihood not much will change.

Given the growing numbers of people affected, the disruptions to conventional ways of working, and the prospect of dwindling funding, the pandemic year reignited conversations about aid reform. Sheer necessity made things possible that previously seemed out of reach: Donors showed greater flexibility; international organisations took more of a back seat to local leadership; and COVID-19 drove a super-charged appetite for delivering aid as cash

Whether that momentum will continue as vaccines are rolled out, travel restrictions are lifted, and life moves towards some semblance of normality is uncertain. As we said in last year’s list, reform in the aid sector never comes easily.

Here are four trends we’ll be keeping an eye on in 2021.

1. Social protection meets humanitarian cash

How will state safety nets and humanitarian aid intersect?

COVID-19-related social protection programmes (unemployment pay, child benefits, “stimulus cheques”) have expanded fast. But while they resemble humanitarian cash aid projects – in so much as they provide money to people to cushion the impact of a crisis – the organisations and tools used to deliver them are quite distinct. So how will this rapid growth in state-led social protection change the humanitarian sector and how should the two fit together?

About 18 percent of all humanitarian aid in 2019, $5.6 billion, was spent as cash – the single largest programme being EU-funded allowances to refugees in Turkey. But this is dwarfed by the $800 billion governments paid out globally in 2020 in pandemic-related social protection, according to a December tally by a World Bank researcher. Many of these new schemes are in rich countries, but some – accounting for about $3 billion tracked so far – are in places classified by the UN as needing humanitarian aid, for example Haiti, Pakistan, and Sudan.

Pandemic safety nets in middle-income countries typically run through state institutions and digital ID registration systems, often with a mix of national tax or other revenue, as well as support from the World Bank or other institutions. But big aid organisations do step in and run social protection where states lack the capacity, and UN agencies are jostling to take the lead in this well-funded and rapidly growing area of provision, according to aid officials.

Not so fast... There are reasons for caution: While state-run systems seem good value for money and long-lasting, they may lack the independence and neutrality of humanitarian schemes. They could also be ill-suited for people on the move, refugees, those living on the fringes of society or in conflicts. For example, in Ethiopia, a donor-backed safety net scheme long kept a tranche of vulnerable people from slipping below the poverty line in bad years. But as relations broke down between the northern region of Tigray and the central government, payments in Tigray were reportedly halted for months. Less dramatically, eligibility criteria and digital registration complications can blunt the benefits of social protection too.

While state-run systems seem good value for money and long-lasting, they may lack the independence and neutrality of humanitarian schemes.

There could be other consequences too. For social protection, the World Bank and national governments have been the key players. State-led schemes – plugged into other social services and able to expand and contract as needs change – could end up taking the place of some of the sprawling projects and agencies of the international aid system. Which "humanitarian cash" offerings of the UN, NGO and Red Cross/Red Crescent providers would still be necessary? While humanitarian players continue to battle out their own coordination of modest cash programming, will the better-resourced alternatives bypass them altogether?

2. Solidarity versus selfishness

Will the arc of history bend towards cooperation or division?

Multilateralism – countries working together in their mutual interest – has been in decline for a while. So it should come as no surprise that while the pandemic has proved the world’s interdependence, it has frayed global solidarity even more: When push comes to shove, the race for PPE, vaccines, and monetary aid is more cut-throat than comradely.

In 2021, COVID-19 will continue to test the norms of international relations and the way countries do or don’t help each other. It is likely to lead to greater inequality, rivalry, conflict, and fragmentation. But it could also be the catalyst for reinvigorating international relations, reviving global civil society, and finding new ways to tackle global problems.

So far, despite excellent slogans like “nobody is safe until everybody is safe”, the pandemic has divided us more than it has united us.

For a time, it seemed we were indeed all in this together. Rich countries bore the brunt of the first coronavirus wave, and the World Health Organization, harnessing diplomats and celebrity influencers alike, led calls for a global and fair approach. In March, the most powerful nations, the G20, called for a “spirit of solidarity”. Meanwhile, any suggestion rich countries had it all figured out fast evaporated amidst faltering healthcare systems in Italy, food insecurity in the UK, and skyrocketing unemployment in the United States. The coronavirus (alongside some climatic disasters) has been a reminder that systemic vulnerabilities and hazards affect us all.

The race for PPE, vaccines, and monetary aid is more cut-throat than comradely.

But while we might be in the same storm this time, we aren’t all in the same boat. Nations have turned inwards, tightening borders and slashing aid budgets. A humanitarian response plan for the most critical situations got a sluggish response from donors. While some new grant and loan money has been mobilised for the Global South, part of that was redirected from other pots. In total, international aid funding looks set to drop just when it’s needed most, and private giving is also expected to decline.

By September, given the yawning gaps between provisions made for rich and poor, the UN chief said the world had “essentially failed” a test of international cooperation.

The litmus test... The most glaring case of looking after number one first is “vaccinationalism” – the scramble to buy up supplies and pre-order future shipments. Rich countries have hogged all of Moderna’s doses and 96 percent of Pfizer/BioNTech’s, according to the People’s Vaccine Alliance. Thousands of people could die unvaccinated while rich countries inject all their citizens, regardless of their level of risk.

Taking into account availability, funding, and logistics, some analysts say sufficient vaccine doses won’t reach many countries until 2022. If correct, that would mean a grim toll from the disease itself, lengthy economic, trade, and travel restrictions, and a “moral catastrophe” of international inequality. Among those to lose out could even be countries that were used in drug trials.

Set against the vaccine-fuelled euphoria in stock markets in late 2020, the them-and-us outlook is stark. “The whole call for global solidarity has mostly been lost,” WHO vaccines chief Katherine O’Brien said.

As nations put their own interests first and politicians act on the basis of “the Devil take the hindmost”, multilateral bodies like the UN – and its shared development goals – risk greater irrelevance. But while leaders pull up the drawbridges, public opinion still seems open to international cooperation. In 2021 and beyond, ad hoc and hybrid initiatives – coalitions, alliances, campaigns, and networks – might have more influence than the more ambitious global enterprises, based on nation states and UN processes.

COVAX, tasked with fairer vaccine research and distribution, is a practical example. Despite a struggle for funding, it will be at the front of the queue for some two billion doses of the second wave of vaccines. Its finances are a mix of private and public money from an eclectic group, including corporate donors, foundations, and governments.

Vaccines may be the most vivid example of a deficit of solidarity, but finances in general will be tight too. As tax and export revenues dip in the recession, a number of developing countries face difficulties in keeping up with debt servicing, threatening destabilising defaults. Some payments have been deferred, but no debt has been cancelled, while proposals to conjure a trillion dollars of IMF lending have stalled.

3. Diversity, equity, and inclusion

Will the Black Lives Matter movement make a difference in the aid sector?

In 2020, #BLM threw a spotlight on racism in international aid, and on its underlying assumptions. The UN was criticised for a lack of diversity at the top and how it treats Black officials. NGOs were pushed, often by their own staff, to take a hard look in the mirror.

A minority of NGO figures have been reluctant to accept the cue for change, suggesting the discourse is peripheral to the business of saving lives and the aid world is no worse than society at large. But most people The New Humanitarian heard from in 2020 saw it differently, saying – in so many words – you can’t go around claiming to do good while being racist.

Discussions over #BLM centred on the discrimination that people of colour experience in the sector – staff and aid recipients. But 2020 also saw renewed debate over the aid system’s role as a successor to colonialism: paternalistic, othering, and reinforcing prejudices and privileges. “Localisation” – redirecting more funding to local actors – is beginning to look like a failure to decolonise. And if aid behemoths can’t reform, defund them, suggested commentators.

Plus ça change... Challenged on their treatment of people of colour – but also on their whole raison d'être – aid agencies made pledges to do better. Some familiar organisational levers have already been pulled: new policies, new job titles (“Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Advisor”), workshops, and training sessions

Despite all the talk, it’s hard to tell if attitudes are really changing. If you didn’t know it before, a new-ish acronym will be seen more and more: DEI, for Diversity Equity and Inclusion. But race is only one dimension of DEI. Other groups – the disabled, for example – face systematic exclusion too, and the aid sector has a lot more work still to do for equal treatment of LGBTQI+ people.

You can’t go around claiming to do good while being racist.

The aid “establishment” has proven adept at co-opting new trends before, while staying resistant to change. So, this time, will there be a real difference or just a few tweaks and some window dressing?

In 2021, we’ll be looking out for evidence of change, particularly in how agencies perform – and report – on race, gender, other types of inequity, and the composition of boards and leadership.

The way international organisations exercise their power – in particular how they deal with local humanitarian actors – may also show if pressure to #ShiftThePower is working. The Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic dominance of the sector excludes many and is well-embedded. If the reception to attempts at reaching gender parity is any indicator, expect to see continued resistance.

4. The mega-crises of tomorrow

What if COVID-19 is just a taste of the future?

However cogent the warnings, preparing for uncertain future crises can seem abstract – lacking urgency and eminently skippable to individuals and institutions.

COVID-19 has given the humanitarian system a glimpse into the overlapping and cascading crises of tomorrow, where the initial stressor – a climate event, a new disease, or even a cybersecurity incident – might cause domino effects in economies and critical systems relied upon by billions.

As a trial run for future crises, the pandemic carries both warnings and lessons.

Without reform, analysts argue that the international system will remain ill-equipped to respond to the scale and complexity of future crises. As 2020 came to a close, the WHO called for better readiness for next time, warning that even in the arena of emerging diseases, COVID-19 was “not necessarily the big one”, noting its relatively low fatality rate.

“Surprise is the new normal”

If responding more effectively is one lesson, mitigating the risks beforehand is another. Often a hard sell, preparedness and risk reduction have long been the Cinderella of disaster response. But if the message of “a stitch in time saves nine” was ever to cut through, surely it could – or should – be in 2021. That said, how much cash and political will is left to prepare for the next one?

Once bitten… The WHO and others warned of the prospect of a new Disease X in 2018; years of pandemic preparedness initiatives had made limited impact. The UN’s flagship report on risk reduction in 2019 pointed out that governments don’t easily budget for “what-if”, and highlighted the likelihood of climate-related compounded risks: “Surprise is the new normal”.

Anticipation, prediction, and forecasting of risk, climatic disasters, and future crisis scenarios may see a further upsurge of interest in the wake of the pandemic. Financial mechanisms that can release money promptly and avert worse impacts will continue to be a focus of innovation and experimentation in preparedness. However, data-driven modelling (including AI) has limits and pitfalls, and proved a disappointing basis for the World Bank’s pandemic insurance scheme.

Global health governance is likely to get a lot of new attention in 2021, but the pandemic shows how one type of crisis – health – can spill over into almost every other sector of society, and so crisis response needs to tap a broader constituency.

Similarly, the institutions and players involved in the pandemic go way beyond mainstream humanitarian responders. Those will now need to face up to their limitations and figure out where they fit amongst much larger, better-resourced players in the future. That may mean new roles, both for individual humanitarian agencies and for the sector as a whole.

States, especially in the Asia-Pacific region, have had some success in recent years in stepping up their risk reduction and preparedness. Humanitarian organisations have also made some shifts to preventive action. Overall, however, the funding, organisational capacity, leadership, and policy planning needed to mitigate risks and be ready to respond to the crises of tomorrow still looks inadequate.


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