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Will US aid change?

Q&A with Jeremy Konyndyk on cash, ‘localisation’, and Obama’s WHS no-show

Marie Jose Prince, a community health worker at a rally post in Mahotierre-Soisson, Haiti, provides care to patients. David Rochkind/USAID

In the aftermath of the World Humanitarian Summit, the world's largest humanitarian donor gives a frank assessment of what’s next.


  • USAID will not commit to specific targets for cash programming
  • USAID cannot yet commit to channelling one quarter of its funding to local groups
  • The humanitarian sector should no longer focus on responding to natural disasters but rather “pivot” towards addressing needs created by long-running conflicts
  • The US will invest in better understanding humanitarian access


He who pays the piper calls the tune. Many of the reforms to the international aid apparatus discussed at last week’s World Humanitarian Summit come down to those who hold the purse strings.

Fifteen of the world’s largest donors took a big first step in agreeing to provide funding that is more local, more flexible and more long-term. See: Is the Grand Bargain a Big Deal?

But just how far do those commitments go?

On the sidelines of the summit, I sat down with Jeremy Konyndyk, director of the Office for US Foreign Disaster Assistance at the US Agency for International Development, the world’s largest national humanitarian donor.

Here are excerpts from our conversation, including his take on the “big pivot” in the humanitarian sector, why Obama didn’t show, and the reality check needed in the ‘localisation’ debate.

Heba Aly: What is the one word that you would use to describe the summit?

Jeremy Konyndyk: Aspirational. I’ve been impressed at the degree of alignment and cohesion that’s been expressed around some of the big issues.

See: The World Humanitarian Summit: winners and losers

I’ve heard a lot of people, including the [UN] deputy secretary-general talk about this conceptual alignment, as you put it, as being in and of itself an achievement. [But] what are the most notable concrete agreements or takeaways that you’ve seen?

I see this whole summit in a frame of a big pivot that the humanitarian landscape is making. We have a humanitarian landscape that wasn’t really ever designed in any meaningful sense. It evolved. But to the extent it was designed to do anything, it was really designed to do fast onset natural disasters. And a lot of the core structures and architecture that we have reflect that. If you look at the reforms that were kicked off in 2005 under the ‘Humanitarian Reform’ and then the Transformative Agenda in 2011, the crises that inspired those were the Indian Ocean tsunami, the Haiti earthquake, the Pakistan floods. These are all natural disasters, and fast onset natural disasters.

Increasingly, with countries taking ownership of their own responses, [a natural disaster centric system] is not what we need the international humanitarian system to do anymore.

What we’re really contending with now – and what’s taking up well over three quarters of the humanitarian bandwidth and humanitarian resources – is not that; it’s protracted conflict and displacement crises. So the broad frame for this whole summit is reinforcing and accelerating a pivot towards a system that is focused more on that and can address that in a more coherent and systemic way.

[That’s] where the system – the agencies and the NGOs and the donors – struggles much more to deliver overall alignment and coherence of assistance… It gets much more complicated in these protracted conflict environments where you often don’t have the government leadership or it’s contested, where the problems drag on for years and years and years, [where] there’s no tapering; they just continue to get worse. That’s a very different kind of organisational challenge. It needs to be financed differently. It needs to be approached differently. That’s where the Grand Bargain comes in in an important way.

So if we take Syria as an example: the problems that led the humanitarian sector to fail to adequately respond in Syria – have they been addressed in this summit?

I don’t know if it’s fair to say the humanitarian sector has failed in Syria. I think the humanitarian sector has done heroic and amazing work in the face of probably the most difficult environment for humanitarian work anywhere on the planet. The biggest obstacle and the biggest contributor to the inability of humanitarians to reach those in Syria is the behaviour of the regime. We would be far more effective in Syria if the humanitarian sector had the unfettered humanitarian access that multiple UN resolutions have called for.

I’m going to stop you there because there have been a lot of reviews done and they found that [the Syrian government’s behaviour] has been an issue, but many of the bigger issues have been lack of political will, turf wars between UN agencies, a system that was very slow to deploy quality talent, that was still operating as if it was a retirement posting. There were a lot of issues that were external to the government that – we can debate whether it failed or didn’t fail – but that certainly held back the response.

There are a lot of those issues but I think it’s important that, as a starting point, we recognise that the biggest single impediment to effective humanitarian action is the behaviour of the conflict parties and their failure to live up to the requirements of multiple Security Council resolutions and broader [international humanitarian law] and humanitarian norms.

Now, with that said, have there been other shortcomings and challenges? Absolutely there have. It took the humanitarian system far too long to develop one comprehensive picture of need for all of Syria. The 2016 Humanitarian Needs Overview is the first time that’s been done; it’s a very impressive document. But that came out of years of donors pushing for something like that, of agencies struggling to produce it. And that’s where the Grand Bargain commitment around joint needs assessments is really crucial, because it commits the system to produce something like the 2016 Syria [Humanitarian Needs Overview] as the norm, not the exception. That’s a very important starting point because how the system defines the needs it’s seeking to assist then affects everything else it does downstream. So when you don’t have cohesion at that level, it’s very hard to have cohesion downstream from that.

The second big piece that we’re starting to see more in Syria – but again only several years into that response – is much greater and more effective prioritisation of what the relative needs are. And again that’s crucial because, from a donor perspective, it helps tell us where is our next $10 million going to do the most good, and what are the hard trade-offs that have to be made if the money doesn’t all come through, which of course it never does. That’s also something that’s been a real struggle to produce – and when we have seen that, it’s tended to be the exception rather than the rule. Under the Grand Bargain, it’s now the rule.

Maybe to rephrase: Has the summit tackled the fundamental problems facing the sector? The outcomes or the areas in which we’re seeing something tangible emerging from the summit – are they actually addressing the root of the problem?

This summit is going to produce steps forward; it’s not going to produce the whole solution, but no summit ever does.

Things like a commitment to developing a common picture of need, a commitment to developing response plans to that that are truly strategic – not just an aggregation zipped together of what each of the constituent agencies individually want to do, but a truly strategic picture of what is needed in the response, defining priorities and trade-offs, and strategic choices that need to be made within that – that is the foundation for a more effective response. So I think that we have taken some very tangible steps through this summit, and particularly through the Grand Bargain process, to build a foundation that will serve us much better in the future than what we’ve had in the past.

Does that achieve everything we needed to achieve? No, of course not. On international humanitarian law and humanitarian norms, that’s a crucial, crucial area. A summit like this one, which is not inter-governmental – it’s multi-stakeholder – by definition is going to struggle to address that because it isn’t designed to be agreement between states. But there’s been a strong push and a lot of very tangible commitments to take on great steps towards improving that as well.

The US committed to work towards a much more systematic approach on humanitarian access, and we’re going to work with other member states to define what that’s going to look like in the coming months. Over and over, around the world, we see that as one of the biggest impediments that our partners face. If you’re living in a besieged area in Syria and living on grass, the human toll there is incalculable. You see that in South Sudan, and you see that in Yemen, and you see that in all sorts of places. There’s also huge financial cost; it’s a financing issue as well. The airdrops that [the World Food Programme] is doing over Deir Ezzor right now cost 14 times as much as if they were to deliver those same things over land. The airlift that’s had to be done in South Sudan cost 10 times as much as over land.

We’ve had an ad hoc approach to [aid access] as a humanitarian eco-system. We need to be more systematic about it. 

USAID hygiene items for Ebola response
Sarah McElroy/USAID OFDA
USAID's DART (Disaster Assistance Response Team) procures hygiene items for the Ebola response

So to zero in on the US and its particular commitments, one of the big themes that has run through this summit, surprisingly perhaps, is a focus on the political, and the fact that… we have to do a better job of preventing and ending conflicts in the first place. To that end a lot of people are asking: why aren’t the leaders of the P5 here, if that’s the goal? Why is [US President Barack] Obama or even [Vice-President] Joe Biden not here?

In the case of President Obama, he’s in Vietnam right now, and so he couldn’t come. Secretary [of State John] Kerry is with him on that trip. The president felt strongly that [USAID Administrator] Gayle Smith was the best person to lead this delegation for the US. He designated her as his presidential representative, so it’s a presidential delegation in terms of its official designation by the White House. So she’s here on his behalf.

But I don’t think there’s any questioning the US commitment to this issue set. If you look at the range of commitments that we made to the summit; if you look at the $26 billion that we’ve contributed to humanitarian systems over the last five years. The US is providing a lot of leadership in this space. The president will host a summit on refugee and displacement issues in the fall at the UN General Assembly high-level week. So there is a US commitment to this set of issues. The president just wasn’t able to personally come to this summit.

If we look at some of the other areas [that have come up in this summit] – cash [as aid] for example... Has the US bought into a shift towards cash, and what are some of the constraints – political or otherwise – that might make the shift hard for you?

I don’t think that shift is hard for us. We were not supportive of a target for cash in the Grand Bargain. We need to get away from, in general, setting arbitrary targets for which tool is right. Which tool is right is heavily context specific. We were supportive of language saying that, ‘as a system, we need to do more with cash’ – I think that’s an under-utilised tool. But picking an arbitrary figure and saying ‘this much should be cash’ doesn’t respect the diversity of the environments in which we operate.

Cash, for the most part, is not a highly appropriate intervention in Ethiopia right now because there is a deficit of available food… In Jordan and Lebanon, there’s plenty of market-based food available, so we’ve used a cash voucher intervention there rather than in-kind food. In Somalia, a few years ago, we used a more cash- and market-centric approach to the famine response there because the markets were pretty robust even in amidst the conflict. [By] setting a ‘here’s the target for how much cash we should do’, you don’t focus on what’s the appropriate tool for this environment, you focus on how to hit an arbitrary target… We decide based on the merits.

But does [US] Congress tie your hands in your ability to do cash programming?

There aren’t any formal restrictions. As with anything we do, we need to be judicious in being able to show that we’re making good decisions with the money. There’s a lot of support for cash and voucher approaches in Congress – we have some voices in Congress that really like it and we have some that have more concerns about it, and we’re working with them to address those. But within the international disaster assistance account – that’s the account that funds all of the Office of US Foreign Disaster Assistance and a good chunk of the Food for Peace office – there’s no earmarking or restrictions on how we can use that money. It’s really up to our determination.

[Turning to] localisation – the importance of moving towards a more locally led response: you’ve spoken a lot about this and it’s been a very big theme in the lead-up to the summit. Yet a lot of donors have expressed limitations in what they can do given that they’ve got fewer and fewer staff to manage more and more money, and they just don’t have the capacity to do a whole bunch of smaller grants. So what does localisation actually mean for you and how do you change your approach to that moving forward? How is it actually feasible from a donor perspective?

We have a lot more staff than most donors. The US takes a very operational approach: when there’s a major event, we deploy sizeable teams. But still, we give our money out in several million-dollar chunks, if not several tens of millions of dollar chunks. That’s the set-up and that’s even more true of other donors that have less bandwidth than we have. So there are not a lot of national or local level organisations that have the capability to absorb a $10 million grant in a way that’s going to satisfy the accountability requirements that we have to [fulfil]. So I think we need to find some ways to square that circle.

Part of it, frankly, is that if small local organisations want to tap into those funds, they also need to invest in their ability to manage money on that scale and the accountability that goes with that, and make a strategic choice if that’s the direction they want to go as an organisation – because it is a choice. We also, as major donors, can probably find some ways to be more flexible in how we deploy our money. So one of the things that the US is going to do under the Grand Bargain commitment on localisation is, for the first time, start giving money to country-based pooled funds, which we haven’t done before… One of the things that we really like about those funds, and why we’re excited about piloting this, is that those put UN agencies, [international] NGOs and local NGOs and organisations on an equal footing in terms of their delivery capacity. Ultimately, we should be focused on who is best suited to provide the assistance in the best, most effective way to the population and can do that without putting a greater management burden on us.

So we see those as an exciting option to be piloting [in at least three countries], and if they’re successful, I think we’ll scale [up]. Now, that’s never going to be the predominant way that we contribute our money, but I think it’s going to be an important tool that we can use.

We’ve also been investing, for the last few years – and have made a grant towards this in Syria – in building up the capacity of local and diaspora organisations. That’s a trend we see continuing. I get a little bit tired of some of the very intentionally oppositional rhetoric between international and local organisations – I don’t think it’s helpful. And I don’t think it really grapples with the reality of the situation, which is: donor money is going to be parcelled out in large chunks. You can’t have a $20 billion international system with only two levels of operation. There are always going to be some intermediate levels.

What’s incumbent upon all of us is to make sure that those intermediate levels are actually adding commensurate value, and I think they do. Saying that the intermediate levels are just to pass through for funding and they can be cut out misses the value that they do add in terms of management oversight and technical quality assurance. But what we do need to do is make sure it’s a more equitable partnership between international and local groups. The organisations that can hit on the right formula there – it’s those kinds of partnerships that I think are going to dominate the landscape of the future.

You said before that targets can be arbitrary. Will the US meet the 25 percent target to directly fund local NGOs?

Too early to say. One of the things we’ve committed to as part of this is to tracking how much of our funding goes either directly or indirectly to local groups. There’s this figure of 0.2 percent [of humanitarian aid that goes directly to local groups] that’s bandied about a lot that I think is deeply misleading, because it doesn’t reflect the vastly larger amount of money that goes to local groups through partnerships with international organisations. So we are going to track that and then we’ll publicise how much that is every fiscal year.


Cover photo by David Rochkind/USAID.

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