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It’s time to talk about the Grand Bargain

‘We all need… to transcend our power and go forward and do something concrete that will reach the field.’

Cécile Bonin/TNH

When big donors and aid agencies signed the The Grand Bargain in 2016, they committed to reforms that included greater transparency, bringing people who receive aid into the decision-making process, and getting more resources to local and national responders.

But three years on – at a recent event hosted by the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva – some in the aid community described the process as “endless”, “top down”, and a “smokescreen” doing little to deliver humanitarian aid more efficiently.

An annual progress report by the Overseas Development Institute think tank found some progress but also pointed to fuzzy goals, unwieldy management, and slow-going in certain areas.

So what’s next, and what’s needed? Those are questions The New Humanitarian and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) put to six professionals with expertise across the humanitarian sector as NGOs, donors, analysts, and campaigners.

The discussion, said panelist Bonaventure Gbétoho Sokpoh, with the Core Humanitarian Standard Alliance, ought to be “how do we shift our culture?”

To reboot the process, and get a clear view of what works and what doesn’t, Jeremy Konyndyk of the Centre for Global Development suggested piloting the ambitious agreement in three countries with the full backing of international donors, rather than implementing it in half-steps at a global level.

Sokpoh, head of policy, advocacy, and learning at the CHS Alliance, hoped that uniform yardsticks could help bridge the gap between donors and local actors by increasing transparency and trust.

But without greater integration with development and peace actors, said Rachel Scott, senior policy analyst for crises and fragility with the OECD, the humanitarian sector will never be able to fully address the long-term effects of crises.

At the event late last month – just before an annual meeting to assess the progress of the Grand Bargain commitments – audience members said that without tackling risk-sharing and the burdens of regulatory compliance, the fulfilment of the reforms may still be far off.

Scott of OECD noted: “We believe that the changes to the humanitarian system only make sense if they're actually making a difference in the lives of people on the ground.”

Based on a real-time poll taken during the discussion, attendees seemed to agree. The Grand Bargain commitments they deemed most important were: including people who receive aid in the decisions that shape their lives; and shifting more resources to the local level.

Yet, as Sema Genel Karaosmanoğlu pointed out, a great deal of power, funding, and decision-making is still concentrated far from local communities. “We don't want to be talking on behalf of local actors,” said Karaosmanoğlu. “We actually want them to be here. The discussion needs to be happening on the southern level, on the regional level.”

Progress on this element of the Grand Bargain is “in the very, very beginning stages”, she said. “We feel that we, as local actors, are not genuinely included and involved in the discussion.”

Konyndyk argued that the structure of the industry as a whole – who gets money and how – incentivises the same old behaviours.

“Over the past several decades, you still have fundamentally the same proportions of money going to the same core set of organisations for the same basic activities,” he said. “So when you look at it through that lens, it's not that hard to understand why we haven't seen more change.”

Highlights of the conversation, edited for clarity and length, follow. Or listen to the full panel discussion, and audience comments, here ▶.


How can we move the Grand Bargain forward?

Birgitta Tazelaar: “It's not all gloom and doom. I think real progress has been made on a number of areas and it would be a shame if the perception [was] too negative… If we don't know what efficiency and effectiveness mean, then it's upon us to clarify that, and to find indicators to be able to measure whether we are on the right track or not… [But] we shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.”

Bonaventure Gbétoho Sokpoh: “I think accountability to the people we are serving is something that is moral and ethical, and really helps the effectiveness of our work. And we need to do it as the starting point of our work… The discussion is: how do we shift our culture? I was surprised when I was working with different people in the field. When I was talking to people they say, ‘There is no power balance between us and aid workers.’ Then you talk to the aid organisations and they say: ‘There is no power balance between us and the international organisations.’ You will go to the internationals and they say, ‘This is the same thing we are facing with the donors.’ So we all need, at each level, to transcend our power and go forward and do something concrete that will reach the field.”

Rachel Scott: “I would bring back Workstream 10, enhancing engagements between humanitarian and development actors, but this time I would add the peace actors as well… We believe that the changes to the humanitarian system only make sense if they're actually making a difference in the lives of people on the ground. First of all [in a new OECD report] we found that the humanitarian aid that people are receiving is never enough to meet the basic needs of the people on the ground. So people, if they're lucky, are turning to alternative livelihoods to supplement their humanitarian aid. A lot of them are turning to debt and negative coping capacities. So we need to do something that's going to be much more in-depth and dealing with the root causes rather than just humanitarian aid alone.”

Jeremy Konyndyk: “I think it's time to move the Grand Bargain out of committee rooms and into a set of maybe three pilot countries and just try and pilot the whole thing… It's not delivering the kind of change that we had hoped to see when it was launched in 2016... When reading through the Grand Bargain report, it is a glass half full, but it's a glass half full of process. And the empty half is impact – the report says very clearly it's difficult to accurately assess what tangible progress is being made.”

Katie Sams: “From the report, our takeaway is about the process being over-managed and under-governed... Our plea would be: let's deliver the results on the ground, but let's also keep this elevated at the political level and push the political level to deliver on the commitments that have been made.”

Sema Genel Karaosmanoğlu: “We're in the very, very beginning stages because we feel that we as local actors are not genuinely included and involved in the discussion. We need to genuinely talk about change of power. We've been talking about organisational operational capacity for local actors. What we really need to be talking about is collective capacity.”

What are the challenges connecting humanitarian, development, and peace efforts (a.k.a “the nexus”)?

Rachel Scott: “What we found is that actually the humanitarians are not very comfortable working in the nexus when it all comes down to it. Now that the development people are coming in, humanitarians are sort of putting up this humanitarian principles smokescreen... I think we need to get comfortable with working as humanitarians in the nexus space.”

Katie Sams: “In our institutional strategy we're really positioning the question of protracted conflict and what that means for us. We're not necessarily trying to discuss the nexus per se… but on the other side the reality that, with the characteristics of protracted conflict, there's a different role to play for all of us and how can we do that efficiently and effectively.”

Jeremy Konyndyk: “The thing that changed the least over the last 20 years in the humanitarian sector is the donors. Over the past several decades you still have fundamentally the same proportions of money going to the same core set of organisations for the same basic activities... So when you look at it through that lens, it's not that hard to understand why we haven't seen more change. If the donors are not changing the things you have to do to get your money, then that's not incentivising change.”

Is localisation working on the ground?

Sema Genel Karaosmanoğlu: “It's critical that we do have a body that represents the great variety of local actors out there. For us to be present here in these kind of events is... a challenge, in terms of accessing the resources to bring us here. But we don't necessarily always have to be here. It's more important that we that we carry these discussions down to the ground level as well.”

Rachel Scott: “I think we should get away from the idea that quality funding is just about no earmarking. It's not, it's much more than that... It's about the right amount of money. It's about the right tools to do that so that you know localisation, for example, can happen. It needs to arrive at the right time, before a crisis starts. It needs to provide the right incentive.”

Jeremy Konyndyk: “The independent report says localisation is making progress because the norm of localisation has been established. The norm of localisation has been with us for a long time. It's been respected only in the breach. And that needs to be where those workstreams are focused – who's shifting power to whom and through what channels... We're basically doubling down on the existing business model of the big agency. I don't think it changes their incentives to collaborate or to shift power.”

How do we enable accountability?

Bonaventure Gbétoho Sokpoh: “We need to be enabling the environment to value the result that we are getting through [Core Humanitarian Standard tools], because it is also indicating how we can work better with the people, where the weaknesses are in the sector, where we are doing well. We need people to adopt these tools and donors to support the use of the tools.”

Birgitta Tazelaar: “What kind of behavior do you want to see from these organisations? And what can we as donors do to enhance that? Sometimes I feel the discussions and the topics remain maybe too much at working level and they don't reach me, they don't reach the minister, and then it's difficult to use that leverage.”

How can we ensure compliance and risk-sharing that isn’t a burden?

Katie Sams: “Organisationally, we are asking, how are we efficiently able to address these requirements? Is there some streamlining, is there some merging that could happen to help that? And this also intersects with questions of counterterrorism and sanctions, which, if you push that to a certain degree, could impede us and our ability to deliver our impartial, independent, neutral, humanitarian response.”

Rachel Scott: “How do we make sure these things happen without turning a proposal format into a 60-page checkbox? I think we have to look at risk profiles. What are the things that, if they really did go wrong, would have the highest impact on – or negative impact on – what's going on? And what are the things that are most likely to happen? Are there other ways of demonstrating that things are going on without necessarily having a checkbox on the end of a proposal or a report?”

Bonaventure Gbétoho Sokpoh: “All of us national actors and international donors need to have the same language. So what we have with CHS Alliance is to provide different tools for people, not only for compliance but to address learning and improvement... What we really want is to trigger the learning and improvement process and build on that to reach the compliance.”


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