Every year, architects of humanitarian policy gather in Geneva at the UN for a week of high-level debate. At the end of last month, this ECOSOC forum heard a “glass half full” message on reform. But change doesn’t come quickly to the aid game and it’s hard to distinguish genuine movement from lip service.
Analysts say the growing role of cash-based aid and the juggernaut of the World Bank moving into the humanitarian space are the two most visible areas of change. In other parts of the ecosystem, disputes and inefficiencies continue: The humanitarian community has not yet shown it can put “egos and logos aside” to forge other fundamental changes, one senior analyst summarised.
Just over a year ago, governments, aid agencies, and others made hundreds of commitments to improve aid to people in crisis zones at the World Humanitarian Summit. A formal UN update will be published in September but in the meantime the recent reviews and discussions in Switzerland provided a useful snapshot of progress. Some issues, like more funding to local aid groups and impartial needs assessments, are becoming increasingly bogged down and contested.
Here are the key points and developments:
The Grand Bargain groups together some 50 donors and aid agencies representing a dominant proportion of humanitarian spending. They are set to continue their clubby improved efficiency and financial reform programme. At the Geneva gathering, Kristalina Georgieva, the former-EU-now-World Bank official was welcomed back as the champion of the process. But informed sources told IRIN that botched announcements had in fact named two women in the same, or similar, roles (British NGO veteran Barbara Stocking was also floated as the “eminent person” to act as figurehead/trouble-shooter).
Some Grand Bargain areas, including cash-based aid and closer links between development and humanitarian spending, have gained momentum without needing much of a push from the group, several analysts said. But the head of a developing country NGO confirmed to IRIN that “there is a clash” on localisation. Disagreements mar the key goal of providing local aid groups with a quarter of international aid money “as directly as possible”. Two fundamental questions are at stake: which groups truly are “local” and what counts as “directly as possible”? The latest definitions of both still leave plenty of room for ambiguity, and the main coalition of “local” aid groups, the NEAR Network, has rejected them in an open letter, saying proposals don’t go far enough. NEAR also rejected a narrow focus on training and organisational development, saying 30 years of “capacity building” had not resulted in “significant gains” in shifting the financial flows, and wouldn’t now. One analyst, who like the others preferred not to be named, told IRIN that the current funding patterns were not respectful of the burden the local NGOs bear. “They take the greatest risks and are used to do the donkey work at the sharp end,” the source said.
For a fuller picture of where things stand with the Grand Bargain, you can watch a video recording of a briefing and discussion event held at IRIN’s Geneva office with the authors of a review by the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi) and Kate Halff of the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response.
Whatever the assembled experts in Geneva thought, the “end users” of their humanitarian aid gave a mixed scorecard. New surveys commissioned from Haiti, Afghanistan, and Lebanon by Ground Truth Solutions show that recipients of international aid in general feel they have little say about the assistance that reaches them, and that it’s not enough. Haiti’s results were the most negative.
The “New Way of Working” is a tagline for a policy of greater alignment between development and humanitarian aid providers. A preparatory report for the Geneva ECOSOC meetings said the World Bank has $75 billion set aside for the world’s poorest countries, many of which are the setting for emergency relief operations. Following the World Humanitarian Summit – and in view of the Syrian refugee situation – the World Bank’s donor shareholders have adjusted its rules. It is now funding relief programmes in conflicts and refugee situations that couldn’t have happened before. One unusual outcome is a $50 million project the Bank is financing with the International Committee of the Red Cross in Somalia.
Data released in the new Global Humanitarian Assistance report showed that funding for local NGOs stayed very low, at 0.3 percent of tracked funding. Even when all local stakeholders are added together, including governments, they still only accounted for two percent of funding last year. Overall, the humanitarian “industry” handled $27.3 billion in 2016, a six percent increase on 2015.
Fifteen more “analytical papers” on other themes of the World Humanitarian Summit were published for the ECOSOC meetings, including on internal displacement, protection of civilians, disability and inclusion, urban crises, and gender. At the end of it all, governments adopted a typically generic resolution calling on the UN to improve the coordination and effectiveness of emergency humanitarian assistance.
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