We need a radical overhaul in record time to stand a chance of meeting the needs of people on the front lines of the climate emergency. We’re starting this journey decades late and – critically – not taking lessons from other recent transformations in the humanitarian system.
The recent annual trade fair known as Humanitarian Networks and Partnerships Week is always a good time for a temperature check on trends and developments in the sector. Geneva’s conference rooms were brimming with passionate people and energetic discussion, but the conversations around climate felt all too familiar: the humanitarian system providing what it can most easily provide, even though people consistently tell us that’s not what they need; an over-reliance on clunky frameworks and slow-moving sub-committees to bring about change; individual agencies moving fast all in different directions without sharing what they are learning; insiders questioning the need for any change at all.
To me, the former head of policy at the CaLP Network – a global network of organisations working to expand cash and voucher assistance in the humanitarian realm – it sounded a lot like the early days of moving cash from what was once a fringe project to becoming a mainstay of humanitarian response. Building a humanitarian system fit for the climate crisis requires far more fundamental changes, and it needs to happen in a fraction of the time. But cash shows the system can change, and gives us a playbook for how to make this happen.
Here are six pieces of advice, based on what worked for cash:
1. Take instructions from people on the front lines of the climate crisis
What clinched the case for cash was the clear and repeated call from crisis-affected communities for a different kind of humanitarian response. We have clear instructions from the people we serve that we need to make radical changes to address the climate crisis. Those should be our central guide.
2. Paint a clear picture of what the change looks like
It’s not necessary to build a mountain of evidence of what’s not working. Chart a shared research agenda and focus on figuring out how, concretely, we can work differently to maximise our impact. Building live, crowd-sourced guidance on cash and COVID-19 was one way cash actors got this right. Find examples of climate response done well – shout about them, learn from them, make the practical play-by-play available to others, and scale up.
3. Open source everything
Progress is faster when it’s shared. Playbooks, evidence, evaluations – everything should be treated as a public good, supercharging system-wide learning. For cash, the existence of CaLP has been critical for sharing knowledge about how to deliver cash well. Build on similar knowledge hubs for climate – for everyone, owned by everyone, with no institutional agenda other than to share learning and promote cooperation – to catalyse progress.
4. Let the daylight in
The more that can be done in the open – decisions made publicly, direction set collectively, clarity about red lines, sending the same messages to all stakeholders – the less room for obfuscation. We made the most progress on cash, fastest, when people solved problems in the same room – the donor cash forum and the Grand Bargain cash caucus, for example. Getting people to clearly describe the change they envision, and what they are and aren’t willing to do, encourages transparency and saves time.
5. Build a rock-solid policy vehicle, with room to bring everyone on board
Having a process in place that houses clear commitments and tracks progress against them is a great way of maintaining focus and keeping everyone accountable. The Climate Charter is an excellent basis for this. Making this inclusive and independently reviewed, with strong high-level support, helps to keep things moving.
6. Get donors on board and aligned
A lot is laid at the door of the donors, and it’s true that they don’t always make innovation and flexibility easy. But in the case of cash, donors have been more progressive than many other actors, putting forward the case for reform and for working differently – this helped to make the evolution to cash more effective and push the system in the same direction. Donors should get together, take lots of advice from those doing the work, and be crystal clear on the changes they want to see.
It’s important to note that the cash journey wasn’t always easy or straightforward – and that there’s still a lot of work ahead. Mistakes were made along the way, but they also provide lessons that can be applied to the climate crisis:
1. Don’t pretend change is win-win
Changing the way we work means jobs, power, mandates, and money are all up for discussion. Trying to make the scale-up of cash work for everyone cost time and led to some suboptimal decisions. Some organisations will win and some will lose out. That’s OK – it’s not about what’s best for the system, individual agencies, and their employees. It’s about what’s best for the people we are meant to assist. Confront this head-on. No humanitarian organisation has a given right to exist, and not all will be well-placed to make an impact in the age of climate crisis.
2. Don’t get stuck in the humanitarian bubble
Humanitarian response is only a small part of the picture in addressing the climate crisis. To do that part well, we need to borrow the best ideas, the best tools, and the best networks from the world outside. Cash actors often built their own distribution channels rather than working with financial service providers, and built parallel social protection systems rather than working better with governments. To avoid this, we need to partner with tech providers, work better with national governments, and get to grips with the climate financing streams, building together and not in parallel.
3. Don’t just chase the money
With a growing humanitarian funding gap, the temptation to grab new money by any means necessary is huge. Accessing climate finance if it enables real innovation and impact is great, but rebranding existing work as climate-sensitive to chase donor dollars is not. Grant-makers need a clear idea of what’s needed and should be on the lookout for skin-deep climate rebrands.
4. Don’t get distracted by things that matter in Geneva but not Juba
Because the humanitarian bottom line is poorly defined, we can easily pour time and resources into solving problems that don’t truly matter for delivery: “Is cash a modality or a need?”, “Is coordination technical or strategic?”. These kinds of red-herring issues consumed years of highly paid people's time and made zero difference to the quality of delivery. It’s on leaders, managers, and individuals to apply the acid test – is this responsible stewardship of limited time and resources? Is this set of actions making a difference for the people we serve? We need to get far more ruthless about focusing on what matters, getting the right assistance to the right people at the right time.
5. Don’t let people self-report success
To identify and scale up what works, we need to get far more serious about how we measure impact. Allowing organisations to set – and selectively report against – their own targets isn’t good enough, nor is hoarding and censoring this information. Programme efficacy should be robustly measured and treated as a public good so that other organisations can copy what works and aren’t repeating the same mistakes.
6. Don't insist on consensus before moving forward
Not everyone needs to sign off on an official new policy before the system works differently. As long as they're transparent about what they learn and what it achieves, individual organisations can and should try things – that can function as an engine for progress. Instead of looking for consensus, we should embrace experimentation, demand rigour and transparency when it comes to results, and fund and replicate the ideas that work.
Because of the climate crisis, hundreds of thousands of lives depend on the humanitarian system changing quickly, and fundamentally. Getting to where we need to be in time is a long shot, but so is everything at this stage of the climate breakdown. If the system can take on the challenge from a place of shared urgency rather than self-preservation, it may have a chance.
Edited by Jessica Alexander.