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Inklings | Aid leadership, cold UN offices, money on the table 

Notes and musings on how aid works, from The New Humanitarian’s policy editors.

The header image for the Inkling's entry of December 20, 2023. On the top left you see Inkli ngs written in a serif font with an ink bleed effect and underlined with a burgundy color line. On the bottom right we see a list of the main topics being tackled: Aid leadership, Cold UN offices, Money on the table

This is the second edition of Inklings, where we explore all things aid and aid-adjacent unfolding online, on the front lines of emergency response, or in a dark UN office basement in Geneva.

It’s also available as an email newsletter. Subscribe here.

Today: An executive shuffle, cold pizza ovens, and what 2024 appeals are trying to say.

On the radar|

Aid leadership: The International Council of Voluntary Agencies has a new executive director, and it’s a surprise choice for some. Jamie Munn, who was most recently country director for the Norwegian Refugee Council in Iraq, began his new role in November. Ignacio Packer, the humanitarian NGO network’s former head, stepped aside this year, intending to make way for someone from the Global South. Packer said he knows and respects Munn, but he found the news “difficult” at first. “At the end of the day,” he told me, “the board has chosen somebody from the INGO community and from the Northern Hemisphere.”

  • The ripple: Change doesn’t come easy, even when the push starts at the top. Packer’s very planned move – announced internally in November 2020 – was a rare example of the “get out of the way” tactic to shift power. It’s not exactly a long list, but will this give pause to others who may be mulling it over? 
  • Read more: In this Q&A interview, Packer reflects on what happened, what it means, and how to spark change.

Baby, it’s cold inside: As the end of year approaches, spare a thought for those who can’t afford to keep the lights on. This includes the UN’s sprawling and slightly chilly Geneva offices, the Palais des Nations, where cost-cutting measures are in full swing. The thermostat has been turned down, escalators and an elevator have been switched off, and in the clearest sign of belt-tightening, pizza is off the menu in the main cafeteria: “Pizza corner will remain closed until further notice,” a sign warns.

  • Last slice: Behind the ostentatious display of frugality – person-sized banners declaring a budget crisis are a bit showy – is a real fiscal crunch for the UN Secretariat, which oversees the UN’s day-to-day work and many of its physical offices. The Secretariat faces a liquidity crisis because countries are late paying their annual dues. Most of the world missed this year’s mid-February deadline. China waited until mid-November to pay. The United States was still a laggard as of 12 December, while even North Korea had kicked in its share. The Palais, meanwhile, will be shuttered until 7 January to save more cash.


AI: Back in February, the ICRC’s senior techplomacy delegate, Philippe Stoll, called this blog post “the most important article of 2023”. To be fair, he hasn’t read this newsletter yet, but the article succinctly frames questions – on artificial intelligence, big data, and humanitarian principles in the digital age – that the sector is only beginning to grapple with.

NELD: This one didn’t make our COP28 jargon decoder, but it may become more ubiquitous as the climate crisis escalates: non-economic loss and damage. Loss and damage funding has become a pivotal part of climate negotiations. By nature, NELD is the stuff that’s particularly hard to quantify: the loss of identity, land, and culture when communities are forced to move, for example.

End quote|

“Let's be very clear: If we do this, first of all, you need to respond as well. You need to make an effort just as much as we have.”

Martin Griffiths, UN emergency relief coordinator

The UN’s estimates for what humanitarian response will cost in 2024 are a roadmap for restraint – and a not-so-subtle message to other corners of the aid world.

Humanitarians will need $46 billion next year for crisis response – a haircut below 2023’s initial $51.5 billion ask. This reflects months of warnings from the small pool of donor governments that aid budgets are shrinking, and that humanitarians need to rein in their demands.

Humanitarian appeals are alway aspirational: Few aid groups expect to hit these lofty targets, but they use the inevitable shortfalls to fundraise and tug at heart strings. On this, the messaging from the top may be shifting. 

Donors have been urging aid groups “to bring the totals down somewhere closer to the amounts that they're able to give”, UN relief chief Martin Griffiths told reporters in Geneva, “so that we don’t go around the world saying, ‘You’re only 35% funded and good luck with that’. Because that doesn’t help anybody.”

On paper, this means concentrating on core life-saving needs – and saying “no” to taking on “the sorts of things that development agencies are actually much better at doing than we are”, Griffiths said.

But that means other parts of the aid world – particularly aid focused on longer-term development work in conflict areas, and the donors that cut this funding when crises escalate – need to step up, he said.

Will this newfound restraint continue through 2024? In practice, international humanitarian aid has never been known to leave money on the table, and scooping up development funds, climate finance, local fundraising, and money intended for local groups is often in the playbook.

The Inklings newsletter: Have any tips, recommendations, or indecipherable acronyms to share? Get in touch: [email protected]

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