On Aid: The WHS and Donor Priorities

The World Humanitarian Summit was held last week, the culmination of over two years of work by the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), and based on my Twitter and Facebook feeds, there was a lot to say about it.

Now, I’m not always a fan of ‘summits’; I feel they are often talking shops or rubber stamp exercises that mostly result in lots of photos of smiling people, a suitcase full of reports and briefing papers, and an inbox full of emails that you have to catch up on when the event is finished. I’m not cynical, I’m pragmatic. A lot of money is spent for an outcome that runs along the lines of ‘the next steps.’ However, as I know quite a few of the people who worked tirelessly to make the WHS happen, credit is due to them for actually making it happen.

I hadn’t planned on commenting on the process or the outcome (‘The Grand Bargain’), however, I was struck by a comment in my Twitter feed that has me overcoming my initial reluctance, despite the fact that I am not an humanitarian worker (post-conflict transition to ‘normal’ development is my preferred area). Sometimes you just have to speak up.

Thus, my inspiration:

“An unfortunate consequence of pressures on the industry to be more risk averse, meet deadlines and not run over budget means we are no longer reaching the most vulnerable people. Even a policy as sensible as ‘value for money’ pushes aid away from the people most in need, because reaching the most vulnerable people is always the most expensive. With major donors prioritizing their national interests, we’ve been leaving entire crises behind for years… [We need] a lot more analysis of what went wrong in the first place, rather than well-intentioned declarations to do better in the future.” (Marc DuBois)

Everything he says is spot on. It’s as true for development work as it is humanitarian response, and if we do a little soul searching, perhaps one lead to the other. ‘Value for money’ has become so mainstream that we’ve stopped pushing boundaries and taking risks and trying untested methods in poverty reduction and have ended up in something of a holding pattern, just circling around pretending we’re making progress when in fact we leave more and more people behind, slipping into crisis, and the resulting crises are spiralling almost beyond our control. Here’s an excellent example of just what Dubois is referring to, in an article on UK Aid.

“We have to ensure value for money. The new aid strategy… entails a focus on fragile states, economic prosperity and defense and security, with an emphasis on ensuring aid spending is aligned with UK national interests. What I don’t want to see is a loss of focus on tackling the most extreme forms of poverty… a balance will have to be struck between the Syria strategy… and making sure we will protect the really important work in some of the poorest countries.”

The thing is, working in the poorest, most vulnerable countries, in fragile states – that work is practically by definition inefficient. You may be asking ‘why?’ Because it is almost without exception a process of one step forward, two steps back. And then sometimes a few steps forward. Value for money in these instances isn’t about absolute efficiency, it’s about simply not giving up, of pushing boundaries and trying to make things happen so that the most vulnerable are not left behind. To donors: you can’t have your cake and eat it too. You can’t reach the poorest on the cheap and hope to have something that we in development like to call ‘sustainable impact.’ Sigh.

Increasing inequality has left large segments of the most ‘fragile’ states vulnerable to crises that have emerged or reemerged as issues surrounding political change and ideology (governance, authoritarianism and corruption) that have come to dictate the relationship between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ in many countries, such as South Sudan, Central African Republic, Libya, Yemen and so many others. This is a major factor behind the effective explosion of conflict in the past five years. And the explosion of conflict was the impetus behind the WHS, rather than why there was an explosion of conflict.

The WHS aimed to address structural and funding challenges. The essence, as neatly summed up by Patricia Erb, CEO of Save the Children: “Competition and fragmentation is perhaps the greatest inhibitor to achieving the new partnership agenda. Funding restraints in the face of growing need has led to a replication of similar but branded approaches that don’t necessarily translate to scale and sustainability. A lack of flexibility in donor funding, particularly for development efforts in countries impacted by crisis, continues to mean delayed responses in the short term and challenges to building long-term resilience.”

Although this is not deep analysis, we can get a sense of what went wrong – promises of funding are tied to guarantees of value for money, which in turn means leaving increasing numbers of the most vulnerable people behind not only in terms of development, but vulnerable to exploitation and those seeking conflict for self-interested reasons.

Major donors, and in particular the UN Security Council, G7 and OECD countries have, while not failing outright to recognize this, have determinedly underwhelmed on the political will front to prioritize commitment to reaching the most vulnerable over value for money and quick results to share with their voter base.

So, in light of the absence of political will to actually do something, the WHS was forced into a small box in which, in the words of Fred Abrahams of Human Rights Watch, ‘we ask governments to make commitments on principles they’re already obliged to uphold.’ These commitments (51 of them) are detailed in the ‘Grand Bargain,’ the outcome document of the WHS and the basis for ‘what next?’

Evidently, ‘what’s next’ is this:

  • Greater (humanitarian aid) transparency
  • More support and funding tools for local and national responders
  • Increasing the use and coordination of cash-based programming
  • Reducing duplication and management costs with periodic functional reviews
  • Improving joint and impartial needs assessments
  • A ‘participation’ revolution: include people receiving aid in making the decisions which affect their lives
  • Increasing collaborative humanitarian multi-year planning and funding
  • Reducing the earmarking of donor contributions
  • Harmonizing and simplifying reporting requirements
  • Enhancing engagement between humanitarian and development actors

Whew. Sounds like a lot. It is. Except, does it matter?

If we’re looking at more efficient and streamlined humanitarian response (separate from value for money), then yes. Donors and development organizations and NGOs are increasingly publishing what they fund. There is a real push for humanitarian response to be undertaken (and lead by) national and community-based groups. This helpfully addresses the ‘participation’ revolution. When is comes to coordination and planning? That’s been in the works for years, under the Cluster system that we all love to hate and simultaneously swear by. Specifically: “In the capitals of crisis-affected countries, attending coordination meetings can be a full-time job. Out in the field the schedule is also often full, where at times, 15-20 organizations are expected to meet weekly in eight or 10 different groups.”

True story. But it continues: “At the same time, all of this effort only has only a limited effect on what aid organizations actually do. Donors fund single organizations not the common response plans. Most aid organizations therefore use coordination meetings to share information, but take decisions elsewhere.” (emphasis added, read the full article here). This is very telling. And likely puts paid to the ideas of functional reviews, joint needs assessments and collaborative planning and funding. Donors will continue to earmark funding in line with national interests, which means funding organizations that can commit to those interests and don’t implement projects counter to them. Ahh…. donors.

I’ve written previously that the humanitarian system isn’t broken (although it could do with some maintenance and upgrading). I’ll reiterate my argument here: unless donors (and the Security Council) and development organizations really reach the most vulnerable, worry less about value for money, and throw everything at conflict resolution, we’ll continue to be overwhelmed by crises.

So, five days after the closure of the World Humanitarian Summit, where are we? Well, in the words of Christina Bennett of ODI, “we’re no closer to ending the world’s most devastating conflicts than before the Summit began.” It would have been naive to think that the WHS could achieve that, but it was disappointing that too much focus was on structure and more funding when what we really needed was to understand where it all went wrong, the point where we started to lose control and where political will drifted to the sidelines. This is where we need to begin fixing problems. Hopefully, one day, someone will try.

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