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What’s the ‘Flagship Initiative’, and how might it transform emergency aid?

‘Once in a while, we need to shake it up, we need to break through bureaucracy, because it loses touch with what it was meant to achieve.’

A visual of a hand with a hammer breaking trough a pile of papers and folders that represent bureaucracy. Sofía Kuan/TNH
The UN's new reform plan – currently being piloted in Niger, Colombia, the Philippines, and South Sudan – aims to end laborious processes by giving more autonomy to country managers to make aid responses more accountable to affected communities.

You may not have heard of it yet, but many in the humanitarian aid sector are abuzz with anticipation about what is being referred to – in typically functional aidspeak – as the “Emergency Relief Coordinator’s Flagship Initiative”.


Initiated by Emergency Relief Coordinator (ERC) Martin Griffiths, the UN’s top humanitarian official, it aims to transform an aid delivery system currently run as a supply-driven model – with decision-making dominated by those with the most funding and power – to one that is less bureaucratic and able to respond more nimbly to needs as articulated by affected people.


This sounds all well and good. However, the major players in the aid sector – UN agencies, international NGOs, and the main donor countries – have struggled with meaningful reform in the past, most notably the Grand Bargain process launched in 2016 that sought to devolve more power and funding to the local aid groups that do much of the frontline response.


Given past frustrations, some aid insiders remain apprehensive about the Flagship Initiative and are hedging their bets a little, but the majority interviewed over several months for this article told The New Humanitarian they were hopeful it could bring the kind of change the sector has long needed.


Concrete details are scarce – as plans are still being ironed out at the country level – but after a bit of digging here’s what we’ve been able to glean. 


What is the Flagship Initiative? 

The so-called “flagship” is a three-year initiative that is slowly getting off the ground in four pilot countries – Niger, Colombia, the Philippines, and one region of South Sudan – with the rollout in various stages of planning, discussion, and implementation in each of those settings.


According to an eight-page document describing the initiative – entitled “Key Messages” and obtained by The New Humanitarian in late January – top UN officials in each country will have the freedom to scrap the old ways of planning and delivering aid, and can develop “original, country or area-based coordination and response solutions”.


Past aid sector fixes have stayed at the technocratic level without reforming the underlying structural problems and power imbalances that bedevil the system, leaving it looking much the same. The Flagship Initiative, however, promises a significant departure from the status quo, offering a chance of a “response reset”, with “leaner and simpler” coordination approaches that can be re-imagined at the country level, the document says.


It may all sound quite theoretical at the moment, but Louisa Aubin, the UN resident coordinator and humanitarian coordinator in Niger, told The New Humanitarian she was more than happy to give the new initiative a go.


“Once in a while, we need to shake it up, we need to break through bureaucracy, because it loses touch with what it was meant to achieve,” Aubin said. “We’re not wedded to what we’ve done before. If something needs to be rejigged, let’s do it.”


Getting away from the same old bureaucratic cycle

For years, aid workers have bemoaned the laborious and lengthy “humanitarian programme cycle” (HPC) – the yearly process of identifying needs country by country, drawing up a coordinated response plan to meet each of them, costing each response plan, appealing for the funds to pay for as much of each plan as possible (often barely 50% of these appeals are met), monitoring and evaluating those responses, and then beginning the cycle all over again.


With limited resources, donors wanted to make sure their funding had the most impact and was channelled to those who most needed it. The HPC was meant to be the solution: a process to bring the dozens of agencies working in a certain country or setting together around an agreed set of criteria to determine who is most in need so they could prioritise where to put their money. 


The UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, has tried to conjure an HPC process that isn’t too bureaucratic but is still rigorous enough – not too complex but still evidence-based. However, critics say it never quite hit that sweet spot. The HPC is now considered by some unfit for purpose – a “globally led time suck” as one aid insider described it – and its potential abandonment leaves many in the sector excited. 


“I’m hopeful [the Flagship Initiative] will allow us to try things differently as a system – not a pilot from an NGO that is never scaled – but collectively let’s look at what we can do,”Julien Schopp, vice president of humanitarian policy and practise for InterAction, a US-based alliance of international NGOs, told The New Humanitarian.


“What is great about this initiative is being told, ‘if something needs fixing, you have carte blanche to do it’.” 


According to the “Key Messages” document, the flagship comes with a “no strings attached” licence for senior UN coordinators to reinvent the way the system runs at country level. Within reason, that is: Certain “guardrails” will guide leaders around upholding the humanitarian principles and the centrality of protection, for example. 


In the Philippines, a flagship workshop in mid-March – bringing together stakeholders from local NGOs, the UN, international NGOs, and others – discussed some initial possibilities for change: moving to a primarily cash-based response; or embracing a new approach to coordination – away from one that breaks response functions into technical areas (food, water, shelter, etc.) delivered by specialist agencies and towards one defined by geographies, whereby the communities themselves will have more say and influence.


Aubin from Niger, hopes this kind of flexibility will help the system break free from some of the bureaucracy that can stifle innovation or new approaches.


”Our efforts at coordinating… have become self-serving. A good idea can’t seem to exist without a bureaucratic structure,” she said. “What is great about this initiative is being told, ‘if something needs fixing, you have carte blanche to do it’.” 


Accountability and improving lives 

The flagship also aims to tackle some other intractable problems, one of them being the persistent lack of accountability to affected communities. Those who receive aid feel disempowered by it, according to a study by Ground Truth Solutions from November 2022 that looked at aid quality from the perspectives of affected people in 10 crisis contexts.


“There have been a number of attempts in the past to reshape the humanitarian response. But this is the first time that the accent is not on the mechanics and architecture, but on the most important part of the value chain, and that is people,” Gustavo González, UN resident coordinator and humanitarian coordinator in the Philippines, told The New Humanitarian. 


“People are saying, ‘you have to change’,” he said. 


For Schopp, the way the system addresses accountability is wrong. “We arrive with our clusters and tools, and the way we interact with communities is, ‘do you like it or not? Here’s the suggestion box.’ And then we deal with the fallout and consequences.” he said.


The GTS study found that most people don’t even use these feedback mechanisms because they don’t believe what they say will make any difference in the aid they receive. 


“This initiative is taking place when there is huge evidence that we need to bring both humanitarian and development budgets together.”


González hopes the Flagship Initiative will bring “a relationship [between humanitarians and affected people] that moves to the next degree of sophistication”, which he says requires including people in decision-making processes.  


But doing so means the system must face up to the longer-term issues that aid recipients repeatedly mention as top priorities – such as improving livelihoods and children’s education. The GTS report found that fewer than half of respondents thought the assistance they received would enable them to live without aid in the future. 


“This initiative is taking place when there is huge evidence that we need to bring both [humanitarian and development] budgets together and practise what we call emergency development, taking into account livelihoods and critical assets affected by a shock,” said González. 


Ben Noble, the coordinator of an inter-agency task force on accountability to affected people, agreed. “Most of the feedback in the humanitarian space is about people wanting us to invest in durable solutions and not understanding the divide we’ve created between humanitarian and development,” he said. “It’s good that there is an emphasis on community-led resilience.” 


What are the challenges ahead?

While having the political muscle of the UN’s top humanitarian official behind the initiative is an encouraging start, some insiders wonder whether the same old blockers will persist, namely the biggest UN organisations at the helm of the current coordination model – those with potentially the most to lose from any large-scale re-orientation.


“Big agencies need to be on board, and need to be willing to rethink their contribution,” Aubin said. “Coordination is big business. The backing of the ERC is a big thing, but that’s the biggest challenge.”


Local responders like Nanette Antequisa, executive director of Philippines-based ECOWEB, also see this as a threat. “As a local actor who has been in this work for 30 years… it is always [those] benefiting from the system that is usually the blockage,” she told The New Humanitarian by email. 


“You can’t change everything in two years. It’s not possible.”


But for Meg Sattler, director of Ground Truth Solutions, it’s also those who provide the money who need to be on board. “Donors need to be willing to fund the initiatives and programmes,” she said. “We’re talking about resilience – that would involve working with development partners and funding in a different way.”


Expanding the use of country-based pooled funds – unearmarked pots of funding used to respond to locally determined needs – are mentioned in the “Key Messages” document as a means to do that.


These UN-managed pots, whereby resources are pooled together and channelled to local organisations, still make up only a small fraction of the overall funding for humanitarian assistance – $1.6 billion, or 6%, in 2021.


Recent initiatives – such as guidance on equitable partnerships with local actors released this month by the European Commission’s humanitarian arm, ECHO; and this August 2022 localisation approach from USAID – are showing greater promise for donor investment in more flexible and locally led support.


The timeline conundrum

The three-year timeline around the pilots is also giving some pause.


As it stands, the plan is for changes to the system to happen in the second year of rollout, with the third year spent reporting on, refining, and potentially scaling up that change.


“What worries me a bit is that what we’re talking about is this fundamental change to the system, but it’s being engineered in a way that has a global timeline on it,” Sattler said. “You can’t change everything in two years. It’s not possible. The hope is that it can evolve as needed. If power actually shifts, it wouldn’t be beholden to these global decisions anyway.”  


Her particular concern is the time it will take for the financing issues to be resolved. “If [donors and development actors] are not given the time… this will still look the same. We will have to spend time testing and refining to work towards a system that looks different.” 


Insiders told The New Humanitarian the initiative has intentionally been developed outside the aid sector’s usual global mechanics – like the UN-led Inter-Agency Standing Committee’s Accountability to Affected People (AAP) Task Force (made up of the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC), the CHS Alliance, and the WFP) – to avoid it becoming bogged down in bureaucracy and taking years to progress. 


But those who sit in those groups are frustrated.


“I agree, let’s avoid the bureaucracy,” Alexandra Sicotte-Levesque, speaking in her role as community engagement and accountability manager at the IFRC, told The New Humanitarian. “But then why waste our time and have these processes if they’re just going to be bypassed? These [global processes] then need reform too.”  


For Sicotte-Levesque, and others who have laboured on these issues for years, the Flagship Initiative risks ignoring some of the good work that has already been done on accountability – behaving as if no lessons have been learned at all. 


“Let’s not dismiss everything that has been done before,” she said. “We need other people in the room, of course, but it’s a balance. A whole community of humanitarians exists who set up many initiatives – small and big. There is immense value in learning from this.” 

Edited by Andrew Gully.

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