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A desert called reform

The creeping Sahara desert also threatens life in Diffa, Niger Jaspreet Kindra/IRIN

Have you been having doubts about your vocation as an aid worker? Perhaps you feel that the Sphere Standards don't contain the answers to the really big questions in life? Perhaps you've lost your faith completely – maybe even stopped attending the weekly cluster meetings? You're not alone; if you've been reading my previous columns for IRIN, then you’ve probably noticed that I have an ongoing crisis of faith in the humanitarian sector.

When it came to the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS), however, I was Fox Mulder rather than Dana Scully. No matter how implausible it sounded, I had solid evidence that aliens were taking over the planet the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) was organising a global consultation process that involved 23,000 people around the world. And I became a true believer when Jemilah Mahmood – who I have known for years, and who seems to be relatively well-respected across different parts of the sector – was appointed as as Chief of the WHS Secretariat.

Sadly my belief lasted about as long as it took for Jemilah to quit. It's coincidental that shortly before she quit, the WHS process took a sharp left turn towards... well, towards Stephen O'Brien, the inspirational new head of OCHA (and highest UN humanitarian official) who inspired this column through his inspirational interview with IRIN last month. O'Brien challenges those of us working in the sector who believe that the humanitarian system is broken. According to his interview, “the system is not broken. It’s simply financially broke.”

If that sounds familiar, that's because he said the same thing in an interview in September. And because Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, also said in September that the “humanitarian community is not broken... But we are financially broke.” And because the World Food Programme's statement to the WHS Global Consultation reaffirmed that “the humanitarian system is not broken, but it is certainly stretched.”

You might have spotted a pattern emerging.

It's no great surprise that the UN agencies are closing ranks on this issue, since they have a vested interested in the existing structure. The donors are likely to go along with that, since it's politically easier to make vague commitments for future disbursements rather than it is to make concrete plans for institutional reform. At this stage, the NGO community is still too fragmented to present a common platform, which doesn't leave too many stakeholders to nail our 95 Theses to the church door, or at least nail emerging proposals to the doors of the summit venue in Istanbul.

Clearly this status quo narrative is becoming the official UN line going into the WHS, enabling O'Brien to say that “the UN doesn't have to change” with a straight face. Not only is UN reform off the table, but O'Brien is anxious for IRIN (and presumably everybody else) to stop talking about “concrete items which might make a marginal difference”. What does that leave us with? O'Brien talks about “ever-greater efficiency, ever-greater transparency, ever-greater accountability” – which translates into business as usual, just with more infographics.

Some people are keeping the faith – the usually hard-nosed AidLeap bloggers feel that we have to “get over the imperfections of the process and focus on getting the most out of this rare global opportunity” – but my hopes for the WHS were dashed. I turned to Aid Worker Jesus to figure out what to do about my crisis of faith, but all he said was: “If thy sector is already headed for a Summit my son, then we must return from it with tablets, or upon them.” (Thanks Aid Worker Jesus, but if I'd wanted cryptic responses I'd have gone to the UN General Assembly.)

Going back to that formula of “broke, not broken”, it becomes clear that there is a bigger vision for the WHS. WFP's statement goes on to say that the WHS “is an opportunity to agree necessary reforms to humanitarian financing and to generate additional resources”. That's right: the WHS is the UN's biggest fundraising opportunity ever.

There's no doubt that humanitarian financing is a critical issue. Yet we know that lack of funding isn't the main problem. Otherwise the response to the Indian Ocean Tsunami – the first and possibly the last time where we had more money than we knew what to do with – would have been 100 percent successful. Unfortunately, the multi-agency Tsunami Evaluation Coalition found “many examples of poor quality work” in which “international agencies often brushed local capacities aside” supported by donor decisions “based on political calculation and media pressure”.

We've improved a lot since then, but none of those fundamental problems have been addressed satisfactorily, as a glance at Ground Truth Solutions' Community Survey shows: six months after the Nepal earthquake, 73 percent of respondents felt that their priority needs were not being met. More importantly, none of those problems were the result of a lack of funding, and none of them will be solved by more funding. More funding for bad practice doesn't lead to good practice: it leads to more bad practice. Even the inter-agency initiative looking at the Future of Humanitarian Financing didn't limit its recommendations to finance: it found that the system is “out of step with the realities of the world in which it operates and is far from fit to meet the challenges of the future”. The fundamental problem is the business model of the humanitarian sector – and that means a pressing need for structural reforms.

What’s strange is that, until quite recently, the UN agencies appeared to be painfully aware of this need. The first clause of the WFP Management Plan 2014-16 says that it was designed to make the organisation “fit for purpose”. In the aftermath of the Ebola pandemic, a report commissioned by the World Health Organization found that the organisation “does not currently possess the capacity or organisational culture to deliver a full emergency public health response” and proposed measures to make the organisation – once again – “fit for purpose”. Back in January, UNHCR’s Guterres even wrote an article that said: “The aid architecture we built after the Second World War is no longer fit for purpose,” under the heading: “A broken system”.

By the time of the global consultation, their line had changed completely. Few were expecting the WHS to be more than a talking shop, but we were hoping that we could at least be talking about these substantive issues facing the entire sector. With OCHA company men now steering the process, it seems increasingly likely that the UN will be leaving little room for genuine systemic change. Still, it seems like Stephen O'Brien has enough faith in the WHS for the entire sector, so maybe it's worth asking – what if he's right, and the system is working exactly how it’s supposed to?

Somehow, that terrifies me even more than the idea that the system is broken.

Paul Currion is an independent consultant to humanitarian organisations. He previously worked on responses in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and the Indian Ocean Tsunami. He lives in Belgrade.

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