3 positive trends that are bridging the humanitarian-development divide

Distribution of food aid to Syrian refugees in Kawrgosk refugee camp, northern Iraq. What trends are helping bridge the gap between development and humanitarian efforts? Photo by: IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation / CC BY-NC-ND

After a natural disaster strikes or a conflict breaks out, how can humanitarian assistance transition smoothly to long-term development?

Over the past two decades, the question has sparked considerable debate and research within development circles. However, well-intentioned attempts to foster a more sustainable and seamless integration between humanitarian and development efforts in response to a crisis have led to little tangible progress.

As the sheer scale and complexity of emergencies continues to grow, the challenges associated with designing interventions fit for transitional contexts are steeper than ever. As of today, 90 percent of U.N.-coordinated humanitarian appeals carry on for three years at least. At the same time, many ongoing crises — both old and new — remain unresolved, driving worldwide displacement up to a staggering 59.5 million at the end of 2014.

Such figures point to the urgent need for the international humanitarian and development communities to take a long, hard look in the mirror. In fact, various constraints currently hampering effective engagement in protracted crises and fragile contexts stem from the current aid architecture.

Take funding, for example. The funding patterns governing humanitarian assistance on one hand, and development aid on the other, are almost antipolar — thus leaving few opportunities for increased coordination.

“Funding for emergencies is released very rapidly with comparatively very low procedural thresholds, and high flexibility allowed in where you can use those funds,” Volker Hauck, head of the conflict, security and resilience program at the European Center for Development Policy Management, told Devex. “By contrast, development funding is embedded in a much more rigid and long-term process, up until the moment it is released.”

Meanwhile, global discussions on the future of aid have not sought to tie both funding streams together. Next year’s World Humanitarian Summit will touch upon financial concerns that are intimately connected to those that were tackled at the third International Conference on Financing for Development which recently took place in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Yet these processes have largely evolved separately.

In the field, humanitarian and development actors also have fundamentally different ways of working. To guarantee safe and sustained access to affected people in complex political environments, humanitarian workers abide by the key principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence. The same is not applicable to development actors, which usually work closely with government or local authorities.

“While the very fact of humanitarian suffering requires a direct, straightforward, and highly logistical response which sometimes resembles a military intervention, a development focus often translates into a hands-off approach which seeks to enhance national capacity,” Hauck explained.

Such an operational divide is made sharper by the fact that each and every organization has its own characteristics and interests — which realities on the ground and available funding mechanisms tend to reinforce.

“All of these organizations and institutions have their own strategies…and the conditions under which they are funded and have to work reinforce their mandates and ways of working,” Hauck underlined.

Albeit subtle, there are nevertheless some positive trends underway which — if taken to scale and articulated in a sufficiently sustainable and flexible manner — hold potential for incremental progress in the international community’s crisis response. Here are three of them.

1. NGOs are blurring the lines — and that’s a good thing.

The proliferation of protracted crises has prompted both humanitarian and development actors to reassess the way they work and adopt a more versatile role.

Such “blurring of the lines” between humanitarian and development work is often interpreted as an indication that the international community’s response to crisis situations has reached a breaking point. But it can also be interpreted as a sign of progress.

According to Hauck, the mere fact certain agencies now have multiple mandates reflects the extent to which organizational capabilities and awareness have grown over the years — a shift, he said, that forms the basis of a much-needed holistic approach to crisis situations.

This stance is shared by a number of nongovernmental organizations that have been working under a dual mandate of humanitarian and development work.

“[Through a focus on] disaster management, advocacy and development, World Vision crosses perceived divides,” an expert at World Vision told Devex. “With an increase in protracted crises and slow-onset disasters, the traditional lines between development and humanitarian communities are no longer relevant, and the focus must shift to focusing on the vulnerabilities of communities and how to address these in a sustainable way.”

“Plan is a dual-mandated organization — our humanitarian and development work are interconnected and inseparable,” Unni Krishnan, head of disaster response and preparedness at Plan International, said. “The simple truth is if we can’t adapt, we will perish.”

2. Hybrid pooled funds are appearing.

Similarly to actors working at the intersection of relief and development, a number of hybrid funding streams are increasingly being made available to help fragile and conflict-affected states meet needs that are not strictly humanitarian or developmental. By providing flexible, accelerated and risk-tolerant funding, these pooled funds aim to support the first steps toward recovery in countries where it is still too early to implement traditional development operations.

Handing out financial support to relief, rehabilitation and longer-term development efforts, the Bêkou trust fund set up by the European Union in the Central African Republic is one such example.

"Providing predictability of early recovery and long-term development mechanisms at this juncture in CAR's crisis will allow our teams to design programs with longer-term planning in mind, therefore building local capacity and ensuring the transition from relief to development is a factor in all phases of the crisis response," Michael McKean, director of programs at Mercy Corps, told Devex in a previous interview.

The EU has also been increasingly experimenting with instruments to prevent and respond to actual or emerging crises around the world. The Instrument Contributing to Stability and Peace, for instance — previously known as the Instrument for Stability — delivered urgent short-term funding while focusing on longer-term crisis response and peace building in countries as diverse as Mali, Liberia, Timor-Leste and Kosovo.

3. Humanitarian work is becoming more sustainable.

Although they have chosen to remain within the limits of their core remit, more and more humanitarian actors are embracing the resilience agenda by adopting more sustainable, context-specific approaches to crisis situations.

This is notably the case of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which now designs its assistance and protection systems with an emphasis on resilience and sustainability.

“Our mandates to protect and assist the victims of armed conflict are firmly rooted in public international law and the statutes of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. ICRC works carefully within these mandates and does not exceed them,” ICRC policy head Hugo Slim noted. “But what has changed is the nature, scale and longevity of our work. These changes are usually determined by the demands of a particular context.”

In past conflicts, Slim explained, ICRC typically operated small and temporary water supply programs in rural areas. But the current scale and duration of recent conflicts — such as those raging on in the Middle East — have led it to support large, high-tech water supplies to provide appropriate relief to large, urban populations. The same goes for its programs focused on health, economic security and detention — areas where ICRC is progressively seeking to ensure impartial local capacity building and long-term value for money.

In the meantime, more predictable and sustainable humanitarian financing solutions are also starting to be devised.

Launched in 2013, multiannual strategic response plans now account for more than a third of all requirements within U.N. appeals. Announced as a “paradigm shift,” they aim to address more comprehensively a wide variety of challenges — from chronic food insecurity in the Sahel to mass protracted displacement in Syria’s neighboring countries.

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About the author

  • Manola De Vos

    Manola De Vos is an Engagement Lead for Devex’s Analytics team in Manila. She leads and designs customized research and analysis for some of the world’s most well-respected organizations, providing the solutions and data they need to grow their partner base, work more efficiently, and drive lasting results. Prior to joining Devex, Manola worked in conflict analysis and political affairs for the United Nations, International Crisis Group and the EU.