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Aid reform’s new leader: A Q&A with Jan Egeland

‘To change the world as it is through talks and negotiations is difficult. There has to be a small grain of realism in what we can achieve in the short term.’

A man in a disposable mask speaks with a woman who wears a headscarf.
Jan Egeland speaks with Justine, recently displaced by the eruption of Mount Nyiragongo in Sake, North Kivu, on 26 May 2021. (Tom Peyre-Costa/NRC)

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On the first day of the Grand Bargain’s 15 June annual meeting, signatories heard from their new leader, or Eminent Person, Jan Egeland for the first time. Responsible for championing and advancing the Grand Bargain – an ambitious reform process launched at the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit to make aid more efficient – Egeland will lead the agenda for the next two years.

He steps in at a time of reflection and reconfiguration for the Grand Bargain as it enters a new phase – a 2.0 as it’s being called – to be re-evaluated at the end of his tenure. At this year’s annual meeting, which ends today, over 60 signatories are convening to reflect on progress since the launch and discuss the ways forward.

Read More → Renewing the Grand Bargain: Old Goals, New Path – Part 1 and Part 2

The Grand Bargain is an agreement between donor nations and aid implementers – the UN, NGOs, and the Red Cross. Egeland enters the role with a long career in the sector – a former UN humanitarian chief (Emergency Relief Coordinator) in 2003, a secretary general of the Norwegian Red Cross, and currently the secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council. “I’ve actually been in all the stakeholder groups of the Grand Bargain,” he said. “I know their needs and problems, and some of the constraints.”

During his tenure as ERC, he launched another major humanitarian reform agenda in 2005, which ultimately led to the “Cluster” system – the organising structure of how humanitarians organise themselves around key response issues – as well as a UN emergency relief fund, CERF, which last year distributed over $630 million

He sat down with The New Humanitarian’s Policy Editor, Jessica Alexander, to talk about why he took on the Grand Bargain role, his vision for the future, and how the endless bureaucracy of the aid system often fails what he calls the “Kivu test” – actually impacting the lives of people living in crisis. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

The New Humanitarian: Independent reports say Grand Bargain results are patchy and that not much has changed on the ground. Why are you taking this role?

Egeland: It's a real challenge, and I’m daunted by the expectations and challenges at hand. At the same time, it's a great opportunity. In many ways, I'm a little bit of a product of the Grand Bargain myself. I started at the age of 19 as a volunteer in a Colombian Catholic Relief organisation in the jungles of Colombia, on the border of Venezuela, in the 1970s. So I've seen how close local organisations are to people in need, and how they work. 

Then I was the state secretary in charge of all of humanitarian assistance for Norway, one of the biggest humanitarian donors. I was then secretary general of the Norwegian Red Cross. I’ve been in the United Nations, in several key positions, and now I am back to the international NGOs. 

So I’ve actually been in all the stakeholder groups of the Grand Bargain. So I know their needs and problems, and some of the constraints that are there: A donor has different realities than an NGO. 

Finally, I want the role because I think the Grand Bargain can help people in the Kivus, where I just visited. It can help the famine-stricken of Tigray. It can help people in Syria and in the worst corners of the planet. If we work together, there is a greater potential.

The New Humanitarian: You’ve just come out of the first day of the Grand Bargain’s annual meeting. What’s the mood like among signatories?

Egeland: I was encouraged by the first day, I must say. I was a little worried that after five years people would be exhausted and there would be no energy left. But there was a lot of energy. Yesterday, you heard people say, ‘We strongly support the objectives of the Grand Bargain. We celebrate the progress that has been made, and we're committed to help meet the new targets.’ That was the starting point from all, including the donors, including the UN agencies. People were also honest in recognising that there is a lot that has not yet been achieved.

There are a lot of expectations by fellow NGOs, not least the local ones who are frustrated by slow progress, which I can understand. But then again, I've been in multilateral diplomacy on and off for 30 years. To change the world as it is through talks and negotiations is difficult. There has to be a small grain of realism in what we can achieve in the short term.

The New Humanitarian: What’s your read on progress? What are you most pleased about that’s changed over the past five years?

Egeland: There were several things. This time five years ago, I remember the discussions about cash is going to be it to empower people. And there was a lot of resistance. Are you crazy giving people cash? Aid officials and donor diplomats [were saying], ‘no no, it’s too risky, the technology cannot be found’. Today, cash assistance empowers people to make their own choices. So there's one example of something that has moved fast. 

The realisation that more money has to reach frontline organisations faster – that is also an achievement. Five years ago, gender equality was less central and less unanimously agreed upon as a key objective for how we work and how we distribute our aid. So it should be easier now to reach progress than it was five years ago when localisation and [issues around] gender were less agreed upon. 

Quality funding has increased from a number of donors who now give between 30 up to 90 percent as multi-year, predictable, and flexible funding. However, it is disappointing that the proportion of quality funding to overall funding has not increased because many of the biggest donors have not changed how they disperse their funding, and because overall funding has increased so much. Some of the biggest donors are still slow. But I believe that can come.  

The New Humanitarian: Is that one of the things you’re most disappointed by over the past five years? 

Egeland: I’m disappointed by that, of course. Why is there less progress?  This is money awarded by parliaments within ministries of finance and hosts of compliance rules that oversee taxpayer money. I think we need to crack the following code: I'm a taxpayer, in the country that gives the most per taxpayer to humanitarian assistance. If my country actually gives more quality funding, how can [I], the taxpayer who pays three to four times more [to humanitarian aid] than the average taxpayer does, accept much more flexibility than those who pay very little? 

“I think the taxpayers really want their money to reach people in need faster and with less bureaucracy.”

It just shows that we have to turn it around. I think the taxpayers really want their money to reach people in need faster and with less bureaucracy. The taxpayer doesn't want to pay an army of auditors, an army of bureaucrats, to read millions of reports and applications. We need to turn it around. Taxpayers are interested in that flexibility and quality funding, in my view.

The New Humanitarian: What about the 2.0 gives you hope that some of the gridlock of the past five years will be broken?

Egeland: One of the pieces of good news is that we went from 51 goals to two. In my view that is not a setback, it’s an advancement. Fifty-one initial goals would basically lead to a million seminars in Geneva. And the Kivu test that I mentioned – does it reach the people in Kivu – would not be met by that. Now we say that quality funding is a priority, localisation is a priority, I think we should be able to make progress. 

To reach progress, we need to have a sharing mentality on all sides. You cannot get more multi-year and flexible funding and give it straight to frontline organisations without more risk-sharing. And the control freaks need to relax a bit here. The gender perspective is there throughout and will be there. But the goals of localisation need to be met by a number of these other objectives. 

The New Humanitarian: There’s a sense among aid workers that it’s donors – those holding the resources and power – who haven’t lived up to their end of the bargain. What do you think?

Egeland: I think some of them need to let go. And that's what they said yesterday [at the annual meeting] that they will, and that they realise this. There is an expectation from NGOs that some of the biggest donors, and some of the biggest UN agencies, need to change their behaviour to realise the localisation goal, and the quality funding goal for NGO frontline responders. 

I’ll give you an example of where it is happening. We (the NRC) previously looked at UNHCR (the UN’s refugee agency) as one of the difficult donors for three, four years. It was endless discussions with them. And today we (the NGOs – both international and local) have a much improved dialogue, cooperation, partnership with them in the countries where we operate.  UNHCR is now giving four percent overhead to local groups. Before, they gave zero. They also gave no real overhead to us (the NRC). We were their partners, but we can't live on air.  We also have to have overheads like the UN agencies have. So UNHCR has made changes. 

The New Humanitarian: What does it take for an organisation like UNHCR to make that change? 

Egeland: It’s basically a realisation that [they] can do it. There's no rulebook. It’s not in the tablet of Moses that you can’t do it; there’s no lawyers saying no. And [they’re] not losing control. It’s a win-win. So, for UNHCR now to work with happier – and thereby more productive – NGOs is a good thing for UNHCR; it’s a good thing for us; it’s a good thing for refugees. 

These are first steps only, but it shows it’s possible. The Netherlands now give 90 percent of their funding through a predictable funding agreement to Dutch NGOs. They didn't lose control. They basically empowered NGOs, with the expectation that those NGOs also empower local NGOs and countries through them.

The New Humanitarian: Last year, we saw more of these changes, as donors were able to manoeuvre around previous blockages to get more support to local and national organisations. Do you think these changes can become the norm, as opposed to a reaction to exceptional circumstances?

Egeland: That should be the norm. I, myself, participated in these meetings back in March/early April of last year. It was remarkable. We were all sitting in our kitchens – ministers sitting with children running around in their living rooms – and we were all feeling threatened by this pandemic. 

And in the Grand Bargain spirit, amazing things were agreed, like that. There was no resistance. It's easier than the leaders think. No taxpayers rebelled against this flexibility. I think it was praised by everybody. So why not keep it like that? Why roll it back? Let's work on that. 

“It’s not about us, it's about them, the people in need.”

We need to work on the general compliance regimes. As a large organisation, you need to have an army of controllers and a team on sexual exploitation and abuse, and a team on investigations, and a team on gender to really tick all the boxes required by many of these donors. The expectation becomes astronomic. How can a local group in the Kivus meet those expectations? The risk aversion of those giving funding is too big. 

On the humanitarian side, it’s also too much about: how much of the pie do I have? Is it shrinking? Is it going up? Will I lose a little of the pie now to some other organisations, or another group of organisations? If so, I’m against it. 

It’s not about us, it's about them, the people in need. I've been in Yemen and Venezuela, and Congo and on the Tigray border, in recent months. It’s those people we have to focus on. 

The New Humanitarian: National actors I’ve spoken with are frustrated by the commitments not translating on the ground. How could this really work at country level?

Egeland: What 2.0 must mean is that this will start with the villages in Tigray, with their needs in mind. One of the shortcomings of Grand Bargain so far is that we started to communicate with people in need, but we're not listening. And, what they tell us is [assistance is] not really leading to change. We (the NRC) have call centres that take thousands of calls in local languages. What we must admit is we don't have a system to really respond, yet. It’s coming. 

So first is, what's happening in the country? We are setting up two-way communication, where we listen, but [we also] take action so that they [people in need] tell us what we should do.

“One of the shortcomings of Grand Bargain so far is that we started to communicate with people in need, but we're not listening.”

And then secondly, of course, we all need to get resources in the hands of local relief workers and especially through local groups. 

Would it be a new Grand Bargain field structure? I don’t think so. I was just in Goma, where humanitarian leadership from the smallest NGO to the largest UN agency was running from meeting to meeting. 

When do they see [affected] people? When are they with [affected] people? And they’re Zooming with each other – one aid official to another sitting in their offices in Goma. So I do not want us to have more Zoom meetings on the Grand Bargain in Goma. I'd like to see action to realise localisation, quality funding, the gender aspects, risk sharing, etc. 

The New Humanitarian: One group that's been absent from this are local governments. Where do you see them fitting in? 

Egeland: I think, in general, we, as humanitarians, are often not good enough at understanding that national governments are in charge of their own countries, and they should be. I would distinguish between when governments are parties to armed conflicts and when they are not. If they are party to an armed conflict, we need to consult with them, but we’re not going to go to bed with a party to an armed conflict. There has to be distance there, according to the humanitarian principles. 

“I think, in general, we, as humanitarians, are often not good enough at understanding that national governments are in charge of their own countries, and they should be.”

In general, we have to expect more of host governments in all contexts, but we also have to take them more seriously and consult more, discuss more. I’m also going to discuss with local NGOs, and ask them whether they see more of these local governments coming in as domestic donors. Many of them are richer than Norway was when we agreed on the 0.7% goal [of GDP going to overseas aid]. There’s exploding growth in countries in Asia who are giving zero. 

The New Humanitarian: The political caucuses are meant to elevate the discussions to a political level and get the discussions out of the technical weeds. But they will be meeting behind closed doors. Is that OK?

Egeland: Yes and no. I’ve been part of many peace negotiations. If you're going to hammer out compromises, there has to be some kind of bargaining that is not happening. But it has to be transparent as well. I think the caucus idea is a good one.

Let's have a club that would like to join the donors who are reaching the targets of quality funding. Look at the Scandinavians, look at the Netherlands, Canada, Switzerland, they’re reaching these targets. They are leading by example. But they should also push the bigger donors to make progress. 

I'm one person. What can I do? I can convene, I can propose, I can push, I can advocate. But I need champions – donor champions, UN agency champions, NGO champions, Red Cross partners to take on issues. Then I will encourage them to avoid 10 more consultants that write 20 more reports that lead to 50 more seminars that lead to 30 webinars.  

The New Humanitarian: Adding local NGO representation on the Grand Bargain’s Facilitation Group is seen as a welcome and long overdue change. But is that just a token seat? 

Egeland: It’s a very real seat and I welcome that. It would mean two seats for NGOs – one for the local and one for the international – two for the UN, two for the donors, one for the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement. It's an opportunity also for them to launch ideas, proposals. Let’s not then propose another study. Come with how we can overcome the elephant in the room – the compliance regimes, the lack of risk-sharing – the real issues on which we need to find ways forward. Because everybody agrees that four percent of funding reaching them is too low; and that they need to be listened to: But then they need to offer concrete suggestions, not generalities.

The point of the Grand Bargain is to make us help people more effectively. I hope it’s less who speaks first in a meeting, who sits on the podium, who has five minutes, who has two minutes [to speak], and is there one man [and] one woman. It’s the people in Tigray. We now have a famine on our hands. So how can the localisation agenda help us to reach people in Tigray faster and more efficiently. That’s it. 

The New Humanitarian: You’ve seen reform agendas come and go over your time as a humanitarian leader. Does this feel different?

Egeland: Yes. What's good, and humbling, is [that] you [now] have a mandate from all stakeholders. It’s the only place where the big donors and the smallest NGOs, and everyone in between is meeting. We're sitting at the same table. Of course, this job is similar to being the Emergency Relief Coordinator, which also has the job of coordinating or herding cats, including the member states. 

I think it was well reflected in your stories: Most people have found that we need to change. Of course, we also have the new administration in Washington who will also have an influence. The previous one was not a leader in this. The US never [stopped] being the biggest absolute donor in the world – throughout administrations. With the new administration, I hope we will see more energy. The US – as they said yesterday – [is] committed to doing a lot of things, including pushing the Grand Bargain. I look forward to my first conversation soon with Samantha Power [USAID Administrator], Commissioner Lenarčič  [Commissioner Janez Lenarčič, who runs emergency response for the EU’s humanitarian aid arm, ECHO] and actually [speaking] to the Germans, the UK, the Scandinavians, heads of UN agencies. I have [had] a very good conversation with the incoming ERC, Martin Griffiths, who I know well from the old days. His commitment [to the Grand Bargain] is very clear. 

I'm hopeful, but then again it takes time. You still hear the excuses. A few donors yesterday said, ‘we can not give to local actors’, for instance the EU. But that means, ok, what will you do about that? Can you enable the UN to do much more of reaching them in real time straight through to local actors? The country based pooled funds: I love them; they are great in that respect. I led the humanitarian reform process of 2005 and you see how important the CERF is for UN agencies. And the common services of the World Food Programme – that is also like the Grand Bargain. When we all fly UNHAS (the United Nations Humanitarian Air Service, a passenger and cargo transport service for humanitarians in crisis areas), funded by member states, it’s to benefit more efficient aid systems. It’s a common service approach.

The New Humanitarian: Does it come down to donors incentivising the change for it to actually happen? 

Egeland: Well, it's hard to do it without money. I wish I could print money, but it’s not just the Grand Bargain. The High-Level Panel said three things: we can make the system more efficient, but also shrink needs, and increase resources. I do expect the development actors and the international financial institutions to also step up and make it possible for us to reach people so that the [Sustainable Development Goals] can be realised. 

“If I had a penny for every seminar on the nexus that I have heard of, or all of the seminars with international financial institutions on fragility, I could fund it myself.”

I must admit it’s slow. If I had a penny for every seminar on the nexus that I have heard of, or all of the seminars with international financial institutions on fragility, I could fund it myself. The development actors and the IFIs [International Financial Institutions like the World Bank] are extreme versions of this risk aversion and the control obsession. There has to be some understanding. We need to empower those who are present on the front line of humanity, and there has to be sharing with them. 

The New Humanitarian: What has happened with the two other recommendations of the High-Level Panel? The Grand Bargain was only meant to be a third of the solution.  

Egeland: They were mentioned yesterday, related to our work. How come the global economy has changed completely and there are still more or less the same donor nations? How come the three tiny Scandinavian nations are in the top 10 humanitarian donors, with this global economy? How come we’re not seeing the development donors and the IFIs enabling a much stronger response in the worst crises on the planet, with their resources? I’m hopeful we can make progress there, but that goes beyond my role; it goes beyond the Grand Bargain. 

The New Humanitarian: In two years time, when your tenure as Eminent Person comes to a close, what will success look like to you?

Egeland: Clearly, it will be that we collectively have made progress on the two goals: localisation and more funding for more organisations quicker on the front lines of humanity; and, secondly, more donors giving more quality funding. This is also related to less time and money wasted on ridiculous bureaucracy. We had a study with NRC and Boston Consulting Group, “Money where it counts”. If we would have a rational financial reporting system and donor cost classifications in place, we would save two million hours of expert time.

I hope we will have more political involvement of the highest levels. I’m not hiding that I hope to see leadership from the US and EU. They are the two biggest [donors]; I hope they will lead now. Certainly what they said yesterday is a very good indication that they are willing to lead on this. 

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