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A new four-point plan to reform humanitarian aid

‘The time is now for international actors to have a bit of rethink as to what their role should be.’

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To meaningfully change the humanitarian sector, reforms must challenge its underlying architecture, the Center for Global Development argues in a new report that offers four ways that aid can better respond to the needs of people affected by crises.

The report, which summarises three years of research by the Washington, DC-based think tank, proposes changes to the way aid agencies are held accountable, coordinated, financed, and governed.

The case for an upgraded humanitarian system is by now all too familiar: needs are at an all-time high, humanitarian funding is not at pace with the rising humanitarian need, the system struggles to keep up with the demands. At the same time, the lack of meaningful inclusion with people on the receiving end of aid threatens its legitimacy and relevance.

Technocratic fixes that have characterised past humanitarian reforms have done little to change aid’s underlying structure or power dynamics, stubbornly leaving the system looking much the same as it always has – a supply-driven model that struggles to be truly accountable to the people it intends to support. 

CGD suggests the humanitarian system move forward in four ways: reorienting to be more accountable to people it aims to serve; changing the current silo-ed and supply-driven coordination model to one that is geographically organised; making the financing flows more predictable and with fewer intermediaries; and promoting a governance structure that is truly representative of the places where humanitarians operate.

At an event last week summarising the recommendations, moderated by The New Humanitarian, CGD Senior Policy Fellow Patrick Saez acknowledged that the solutions presented are not “entirely new”.

However, by concretely tackling the flawed architecture and perverse incentives in the aid system, they go further than other calls for change. Here are the main takeaways of the new CGD proposal, with reactions from participants at the launch. 

For more, watch the full event or listen to our podcast episode.

An independent accountability mechanism

Accountability to affected people, community engagement, the participation revolution – the aid sector brims with buzzwords about putting people at the centre of humanitarian decision-making. Despite a proliferation of not only terms, but of complaints and feedback mechanisms on the ground, the system is still far from being inclusive of the voices of people it aims to serve.

One of the problems that CGD identifies with current efforts at improving accountability is that aid agencies still police themselves – they collect, mediate, and control the messaging about the feedback received. 

Their proposed approach would remove organisations from the middleman role altogether, instead establishing an independent mechanism to convey the perspectives of affected people publicly and to agencies’ governance boards. Audits would be used to verify that aid agencies are heeding that feedback and incorporating it into all levels of aid decision-making. 

Sound familiar? The UN’s former emergency relief coordinator Mark Lowcock proposed a similar independent mechanism, which never picked up steam. Criticisms ranged from it being top-down and non-consultative in its design, to ignoring the many lessons of experts who have been trying to promote the use of feedback for years. 

Danny Sriskandarajah, chief executive of Oxfam GB, agrees that feedback from communities is important not only for quality programming but also for uncovering issues around safeguarding and employee engagement. But, he cautioned, while a system-wide feedback system might be more cost-effective and drive greater assurances for donors, it may not have the intended benefit for affected people and could become yet another top-down exercise.

“Affected people want justice, they want accountability for crimes committed towards them, they want us to fight for their rights.”

Annika Sandlund, head of partnerships and coordination for the UN’s refugee agency, also welcomed the proposal and offered insights from UNHCR’s experience. In Iraq, for example, an independent system-wide feedback mechanism has been useful not only for uncovering programme issues, but also for safeguarding. UNHCR has taken other steps as well: using a refugee-led gender audit team to inspect gender achievements, and a youth advisory team that gives the organisation feedback on how they can improve. 

But, she warned, humanitarians need to be ready to respond to feedback that falls outside of what they’re equipped or prepared to provide. “[Affected people] want justice, they want accountability for crimes committed towards them, they want us to fight for their rights,” she said. Opening up a system-wide mechanism without linking to other kinds of support is risky if not properly managed. The sector would be only partially listening, “welcoming feedback on what [affected people] think is the most important thing for them, and not on what we can deliver”, Sandlund said.

Alix Masson, advocacy lead of the NEAR Network – a movement of local and national civil society organisations from the Global South – agreed, noting that often its members are put in a difficult position, asked to collect community feedback that ultimately doesn’t go anywhere. 

“The feedback is usually not confined to what the donor wants to hear,” Masson said. “It's confined to the situation of people, and how they see their future, how they see what they need to be provided with.” The response from international organisations, she said, is often: “But that’s not what we do.” For true accountability, she said, it would be necessary to reorient the aid system to consider people and their needs holistically – not divided along different humanitarian, development, and peacebuilding lines. 

Coordination based on where, not what

The current way humanitarians coordinate the delivery of aid, known as the cluster system, breaks response functions into technical areas  – food, water, shelter, etc. – each delivered by a set of specialist agencies.

CGD acknowledges that the approach – launched as a result of the chaos and confusion in the response to the 2005 southeast Asian tsunami – brings order, predictability, and clarity to the way humanitarian response is organised. But, it says, it also increases fragmentation, both for funding and implementation. The model, CGD argues, also marginalises local frontline actors and governments in favour of the large international organisations that often lead the coordination. 

Others have criticised the coordination structures as being more about completing templates and sitting in meetings, rather than promoting strategic direction or leadership. 

CGD’s research calls for a “next generation architecture” that would reorient the current system so that needs are defined by the community in a certain geography, not by the offerings that a humanitarian agency can provide. While sectoral experts providing normative and technical assurance remain, the new model would ensure local actors would be more engaged in setting the priorities, coordinating the response, and implementing it. 

The research also calls for a more multi-sectoral approach, recognising that people and their needs can’t be broken down into technical specialties provided by multiple agencies, but require a holistic package to live a dignified life.

UNHCR’s Sandlund noted similarities between the suggestion and the Global Compact on Refugees, which also calls for an area-based approach, so that not only refugees but also host communities are engaged. “There's a lot we can learn from the local actors, and maybe we should try to see how we fit into the systems that exist, rather than ... replicate our system on different levels,” she said.

But, Sandlund added, a transfer of power may not always be possible, especially when it comes to protection, the cluster that UNHCR leads. “Limiting [the] protection cluster in Afghanistan, or Syria, Myanmar to a technical or normative-setting role,” she warns, “just doesn't get to the heart of protection, which is… about the whole system. And it's about enforcing rights.”  

NEAR’s Masson admitted that while in many cases local and national NGOs do have the capacity to not only respond and coordinate in many countries, they may not have the capacity to manage the large number of international aid agencies and personnel who arrive in their country. Greater investment is needed for them to expand that role so they can truly lead.  

A new way to finance aid 

The critiques of aid’s current financing model – short-term, restrictive, and reactive – are well-documented. A central ambition of the Grand Bargain package of aid reforms was to bring more “quality funding” – longer term and less earmarked – into the sector, but the results so far have been patchy. While anticipatory financing and action – giving funding in advance of a known risk – has gained traction in recent years, the system remains largely reactive. 

Oxfam’s Sriskandarajah calls the current financing system sub-optimal. “We have created a sort of ecosystem that has far too many intermediaries,” he said. “There's too much duplication, and too many links in the chain, which involve some form of extraction, either of overhead resource or of power.” 

The CGD proposal builds on an already proven way of financing – through pooled funds at the country level. It takes them a step further, proposing a pre-arranged funding pool that would allocate resources on a multi-year, multi-sectoral basis. The fund would serve as a “central treasury function”, which, like other funding models such as the vaccine alliance GAVI, would be regularly replenished based on what the report calls, an “objective assessment of priorities, not mainly political choices or pre-determined mandates”. 

“We have created a sort of ecosystem that has far too many intermediaries.”

Groups like Oxfam GB are ready to reorient their funding flows in favour of local actors and are already considering new functions for themselves.

“We have a role in amplifying voice on global advocacy, but I don't think we really have a role in local delivery or local interventions. We should be facilitating others. And we're busy trying to get out of the way in some of those areas,” Sriskandarajah explained. 

“I hope the next few decades is about dismantling the bits of that infrastructure and ecosystem that we don't really need anymore… Each of us has to go back to being clear about where is it that we're adding value, and where can someone else do it better.”

More representative governing structures

The bodies that govern large humanitarian organisations tend to be exclusive groups made up of the most powerful players in the system. CGD research found that only two percent of board members of 15 international organisations surveyed had lived experience of crises. And it’s the perspectives and priorities of those members that often define mission impact. 

CGD asserts that governance bodies should be more reflective of the communities and countries in which humanitarians operate. And humanitarian effectiveness should be measured differently: through partnerships rather than organisations’ individual capabilities; through programme outcomes rather than fundraising targets. 

“The measurement of [humanitarian] outcomes should be done independently, and directly inform those governing structures,” Saez explained. “We have a growing practice of independent accountability, audit, and independent perception surveys in crisis response that provide a useful basis on which to do that.”

Masson also noted that more diverse and inclusive governance bodies will help catalyse some of the other changes being called for: “Global South leaders and actors… will bring forward why it makes sense for these organisations to actually change their business model and where they can support investments.”

Change is never easy 

While there’s agreement that reform is needed, getting there won’t be easy. Some suggestions make humanitarian responders and donors nervous. “The sector has spent the past three decades… improving its direct delivery,” remarked Saez. “And now we're asking the sector to basically stop and rethink: what is actually your unique added value as an international organisation… The time is now for international actors to have a bit of rethink as to what their role should be.”

One way Oxfam GB has tried to accelerate reforms is by changing key performance indicators to include the quality of funding to local partners – whether it is long-term and flexible. “Eventually, that's the sort of stuff that I hope will have more profound implications,” Sriskandarajah said. “It's just not going to be particularly visible, and it's not going to happen overnight.”

“I'm not convinced that the majority of international actors are ready to change their business model, and are ready to decrease the ecosystem that they have created.”

NEAR’s Masson also cautioned against unrealistic expectations in terms of how long the reforms will take, and was sceptical about the willingness of many international organisations to really follow through. “I'm not convinced that the majority of international actors are ready to change their business model, and are ready to decrease the ecosystem that they have created,” she said. While Masson has noticed tweaks and adaptations, more radical change, she suggested, “is much more challenging”. 

Masson also flagged an often-missing part of the conversation: the role of governments. “When you talk about local actors, [they] operate in a context that doesn't apply to international actors,” she said, noting that they face multiple burdens inside their countries – from shrinking space for civil society, to their work neither being supported nor protected. 

Sandlund offered a more hopeful message, recognising that past reform movements – like the Grand Bargain – have provided an impetus for change, especially around funding to local actors and cash. “It’s not all… bleak,” she said. And since the Black Lives Matter movement, she noted, the power of grassroots groups has been highlighted in a powerful way: “So my hope is really that the push for change will come from [affected people], and that we would listen to them.”

Edited by Andrew Gully.

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