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Six aid policy priorities to watch in 2019

Martti Penttila/UNICEF

Not so much a crystal ball as a cracked Land Cruiser windshield: peering into the road ahead, here are six humanitarian issues to keep a close eye on in 2019. They’re not all new – and they are in no particular order – but all the same, they seem to us most likely to drive change, open up opportunity, or demand attention.

Maybe we’ve picked the wrong things? Missed out some big ones? Got the wrong end of the stick? We look forward to hearing your takes. Please respond on Twitter, email, or vent in the comments at the bottom.

1. Humanitarian principles under attack

Humanitarian work relies on acceptance that it’s well-intentioned and has no hidden agenda. Preserving the space to operate requires high standards among aid agencies, and persuasive humanitarian advocacy. But it also relies on an international consensus to uphold, not demonise, humanitarian action and principles. Right now, humanitarian action, busy mopping up man’s inhumanity to man, could use a little human aid itself.

International humanitarian action rests on four principles: humanity, neutrality, independence, and impartiality. Aid work should be protected under international law, but the taboos seem to be weakening: hospitals are bombed, refugees attempting to cross the Mediterranean are condemned to drown, aid workers are targeted by fighters, and civilians are starved into surrender. All with little consequences for the perpetrators. To many, humanitarian principles themselves seem under attack and the international community short of ideas to restore them.

The international consensus is showing some cracks across the board, whether it’s on climate change, human rights, migration, or the rules of war.

Aid work in situations of war and human rights abuse, as in Syria and Myanmar, is especially vulnerable to accusations of bias, of deliberately destabilising authority or helping the enemy. Without a broad coalition defending humanitarian law and values, governments, armed groups, and local communities feel justified to block, intimidate, or even harm relief operations and aid workers.

The guardians of the Geneva Conventions – the International Committee of the Red Cross, along with Switzerland – have tried to form a mechanism to monitor possible violations of humanitarian law, but international divisions have led to failure.

International humanitarian aid relies on shared values, collective action, and mutual support between states and aid organisations. But the international consensus is showing some cracks across the board, whether it’s on climate change, human rights, migration, or the rules of war.

2. New needs, new financing

The UN says crises are multiplying and lasting longer, and in 2018 the sector had a funding gap of about $10 billion. Pursuing new sources of income and a wider range of financial instruments is a top priority for humanitarian planners.

Taxpayers foot four fifths of the bill for most international humanitarian action, mainly through government grants to UN agencies and international NGOs. Contributions to charities from individuals make up the rest.

While the EU and the US account for about half of international humanitarian grants, the Gulf states have become big contributors to international relief agencies. Other emerging economies are less engaged, although in 2018 the Chinese government announced the formation of an International Development Cooperation Agency. Islamic finance is being tapped – one scheme applies Malaysian charitable zakat payments to a project in Kenya. In a significant policy shift, the World Bank’s shareholders have steered it to do more in risky and fragile places.

Fundraising by online celebrities, crowdfunding, and social media communities can unlock significant sums, and some play on “cutting out the middleman” of international aid groups. A French YouTube personality, Jérôme Jarre, raised about $3 million for drought relief in Somalia in 2017. Social media giant Facebook released new tools in 2018 for individuals to set up their own charitable fundraising campaigns.

Public-private financial instruments are being tested against real-world problems. Insurance on market terms is gaining ground: hurricanes, droughts, and epidemics are covered in private-public mechanisms. An impact bond finances new Red Cross centres for the war-wounded. Adaptive and predictive financing models use data to trigger early finance once indicators cross an agreed threshold, reducing the need for guesswork and donor persuasion. Most of these approaches are not yet at scale and underwritten by familiar Western donor countries.

Corporates, too, are moving beyond charitable giving. Philanthropic initiatives at MasterCard, DHL, IKEA, and Airbnb, to name just a few, are finding ways to sustainably apply their strengths to crisis response.

Donor countries are also trying to better join up their development and humanitarian planning to reduce long-term needs as well as tackle short-term essentials.

3. Giving money, not stuff

Donors and big aid agencies have committed to supplying more aid in the form of cash. In 2016, cash transfers and vouchers made up about 10 percent of international humanitarian aid, or $2.8 billion, up from 2.5 percent a year earlier. International NGO World Vision, for example, expects to provide fully half of its spending in the form of cash by 2020.

Cash aid offers an elegant solution for buying goods and renting accommodation, and injects funds into local economies. But the market can’t deliver face-to-face healthcare, counselling, or education: in crisis zones, commercial service providers are rarely an option. In practice, cash aid still needs monitoring, and advisory and protective services, especially to help those who fall through the cracks.

Why not cash should be the first question asked before starting any aid project.

As unconditional cash aid grows in scale, UN agencies and NGOs are having to redefine their raison d’être. Cash threatens the traditional “business model” of many aid groups: a highly specialist aid agency (focusing on supplying just food or shelter, for example) makes little sense if families make their own purchasing decisions.

Financial service providers are taking over a significant role – and a percentage of the value transferred. In Turkey, for example, the European Commission provides cash transfers for 1.3 million Syrian refugees, in collaboration with the Turkish government, state-owned Halkbank, the Red Crescent, and the UN. The two-year contract is worth €650 million.

Why not cash should be the first question asked before starting any aid project, a key 2015 study published by UK think tank the Overseas Development Institute urged. Yet institutional and technical hurdles linger, some based on misperceptions. Cash aid doesn’t succumb to more fraud than bags or boxes of goods. Fears that recipients will spend the cash unwisely – on tobacco and alcohol, say – have also proven unfounded.

4. A ‘participation revolution’

Thanks in part to models borrowed from the private sector, and higher expectations from donors, aid recipients are now getting more of a say in how humanitarian response functions.  

In Jordan, for example, a UN-backed call centre handles 150,000 calls a month from refugees with complaints, questions, or seeking advice. Modest improvements long familiar to conventional customer service are gaining ground across the sector, from simple suggestion boxes to self-service user apps and satisfaction surveys. Some donors require their grantees to be independently audited against humanitarian accountability benchmarks.

A 2018 survey by aid quality analysts ALNAP reported that only 36 percent of humanitarian aid recipients were able to give opinions on programmes, make complaints, or suggest changes to aid agencies. It’s low, but a jump from only 19 percent in 2015.

Affected people are often asked what they need, but not how they need it.

Major aid organisations at the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016 promised a “participation revolution” to include affected people and communities in the process of designing the programmes to help them. The hope is to correct course based on their feedback, and to handle complaints, including abuse by aid workers, effectively.

An environment in which aid recipients get to design services, criticise providers, and expose failure doesn’t happen by itself, though. Donors and the agencies tend to call the shots. Affected people are often asked what they need, but not how they need it. Feedback can also take a back seat due to the urgency to get things done. Checks and balances, from police forces to pharmaceutical testing, may be weak or in disarray, leading to a regulatory vacuum.

5. Making way for home-grown aid

On balance, relief aid should be “as local as possible, as international as necessary”, according to the resolutions of the World Humanitarian Summit and a reformist alliance comprising major donors and international aid groups – the Grand Bargain. The group set a target to increase funding to local groups from under three percent to 25 percent by 2020.

That’s the policy, but it’s proving harder to implement than it may sound. In 2017, IRIN found that two thirds of international relief funding, some $14 billion, went to just 12 UN and international non-governmental organisations.

Grassroots NGOs with local knowledge and networks are at the end of a sub-granting chain, doing frontline relief delivery but not getting the recognition or the finances to match. Some claim they feel more like disposable sub-contractors than partners, and international groups are hogging resources and market share. As a result, local groups say they are unable to grow and mature as organisations in their own right, especially when their staff are poached.

There is plenty to value in the internationalism of emergency aid and an equilibrium needs to be found: aid groups that can rapidly operate at scale are not always there in humanitarian situations. Skills and expertise often need to be imported. Helping civilians in conflicts may work better with a neutral external organisation.

Big donors are now looking to overcome the barriers. Some are legal: for example, the European Commission’s humanitarian department is restricted to funding EU entities. Others are administrative: stringent donor reporting requirements and financial rules present a steep learning curve for smaller NGOs. Finally, the donor civil servants that approve grants argue they don’t have the capacity to sign up dozens of smaller new partners. As a stop-gap measure, donors are increasing contributions through UN-administered pooled funds, which can funnel cash to local NGOs. More recipient governments, like Indonesia’s, are forcing the issue and not allowing new aid agencies to set up shop.

6. Doing no digital harm

Humanitarian action has only started to experience the digital disruption that has upended other sectors. The digitisation of aid will have far-reaching effects on a sector still structured around post-World War II institutions. While the potential gains in meeting needs effectively could be inspiring, humanitarian managers are focused too on a new take on an old dictum: “do no digital harm”.

A fingerprint being taken
Biometric data being collected in Uganda from South Sudanese refugees. Jiro Ose/UNHCR
Biometric data is being collected in Uganda from recently arrived South Sudanese refugees.

A common thread to the digital developments, whether around biometric ID, software vulnerability, or privacy, is about risk. Tightening up data protection has become a new priority for the sector. Aid systems have often been built ad hoc and lack the robust data protection and cybersecurity measures that would be standard in the commercial sector.  

Personal data and a framework for responsibly handling new digital ID systems is becoming an urgent challenge. The details of more than 20 million vulnerable people are on the cloud in databases run by aid agencies.

Their records may contain data about family circumstances, income, and place of origin, as well as fingerprints or iris scans. These systems can offer compelling advantages: by removing duplicates and ghost entries, a recount of refugees in Uganda in 2018 reduced the headcount from 1.4 million to 1.1 million.

On the flip side, that personal data could be hacked or misused by governments or criminals, bringing a new level of risk to people who are already vulnerable.


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