4 ways to integrate humanitarian and development aid in conflict areas

By Elena L. Pasquini 07 September 2015

Martha Nyandit, whose family fled the fighting in and around the town of Bor in Jonglei state, receives food aid at an Oxfam distribution site in South Sudan. About 19 percent of the world’s food-insecure people live in the 20 countries considered to be experiencing a protracted crisis. Photo by: Pablo Tosco / Oxfam / CC BY-NC-ND

When the U.N. food and agriculture agencies — Food and Agriculture Organization, World Food Program and International Fund for Agricultural Development — released their latest joint report on the state of food insecurity in the world, there seemed to be cause for celebration: Over the past decade, the number of hungry people worldwide dropped by 167 million to just under 800 million today.

But there is also cause for concern.

Protracted crises have been found to hamper progress in many countries that remain deep in conflict. About 19 percent of the world’s food-insecure people live in the 20 countries considered to be experiencing a protracted crisis. Of these countries, only Ethiopia has reached its Millennium Development Goal 1c target of reducing the percentage of its undernourished population by half. All the others have shown insufficient progress and in some cases even deterioration.

In their joint report, the Rome-based U.N. agencies noted that over the past 30 years, crises “have evolved from catastrophic, short-term, acute and highly visible events to protracted situations, due to a combination of factors, especially natural disasters and conflicts, with climate change, financial and price crises frequently among the exacerbating factors.”

The report further suggests that one way to address this challenge is to integrate humanitarian and development assistance in countries mired in a protracted crisis.

This is also a key recommendation in the “Framework for Action for Food Security and Nutrition in Protracted Crisis,” which was negotiated within the Committee on World Food Security and is expected to be endorsed at the CFS annual gathering in October. The framework, whose final draft was finalized in May, sets 11 principles and indicates concrete measures that should shape government and development actors’ actions, from meeting immediate humanitarian needs while building resilient livelihoods to strengthening coordination to empowering women and promoting effective financing.

“You can deliver humanitarian assistance in ways that fix the problems today but they don’t build the foundations for the future,” Stanlake Samkange, director of WFP’s policy and program division, told Devex. Responding to protracted crises requires the use of different types of interventions that build resilience, while addressing urgent needs through a mix of short- and long-term actions.

“There’s no one solution that applies everywhere,” he said. “In some situations — if you look for example at Syria — we are using a combination of mechanisms, using local market strength to open supply routes [or] working with the parties to ensure the access to population is made available on the humanitarian basis.”

But how can humanitarian and development actors come together to make sure this integrated response will work?

1. Change the culture and working modalities.

Most organizations tend to have a sectoral approach, Luca Russo, an economist at the FAO, said. And WFP’s policy and program director agrees.

“Development actors look at the situation of crisis and they don’t see the opportunity for investments and development they are normally used to,” Samkange said. “They wait for the situation [to stabilize] and in many cases this can [take a] very long time.”

But humanitarians also need a change in perspective and be able to think of longer-term solutions. That is what WFP is trying to do with a new policy on building resilience, approved in late May by the executive board, which promises to represent a “shift” in how “programming is designed, implemented and managed” to contribute to building resilience to shocks.

2. Invest in analysis and build local capacities.

“The most important thing is to understand better what are the roots of the problems and what are the existing capacities at local level to cope with crisis to [then] work more on strengthening [those] capacities than bringing external solutions,” Russo told Devex.

According to Russo, recognizing local stakeholders’ capacities and understanding the factors that make families resilient to shocks “is not always done.” Such an analytic approach should be adopted by nongovernmental organizations working on the ground as well. An FAO analysis, for instance, shows that investing in education can be crucial to build resilience.

“[To give another example], we noticed that in Kenya, the most vulnerable groups are pastoralists and what [they] lack — the capacities on which we need to work [on] — are access to credit and water. [So], we try to understand what factors and capacities are weaker to then work on them,” Russo said.

3. Innovate financing mechanisms.

An effective synergy between humanitarian and development assistance needs different financing mechanisms.

“You need the right investments at the right time, both in the short [and long] term,” Arif Husain, WFP’s chief economist, told Devex. Every year, according to Husain, there is a significant gap between the assessments for humanitarian interventions and the resources available. In 2013, it was around 36 percent.

But the nature of financial instruments available to fund development contributes to resource scarcity, which is why donors are new testing and scaling up new mechanisms. “Crisis modifiers,” pioneered by the U.S. Agency for International Development in Ethiopia, are among the “key” solutions, according to Russo.

“Funding mechanisms for development are very rigid, based on procedures that work for countries that are not in crisis. Those procedures are very standardized,” he said. Usually, Russo explained, resources are delivered for projects with specific objectives to be achieved in a certain number of years by the implementation of defined activities, with defined deliverables. If a crisis occurs in that country, donors cannot reshape the project and use those resources immediately in a changed scenario.

With few exceptions, “what happens at the moment is that the project is suspended [and] that’s that,” he said. Resources can be reallocated, maybe in other regions, through long-lasting administrative procedures — proposal writing, evaluation, among others — that do not fit with the need of a rapid response.

“Crisis modifiers” are budget lines that can rapidly change objectives — when some “trigger” indicators show a degradation in terms of security or in terms of food security — without the need, for instance, of writing new project proposals or raising new funds for the emergency.

“It seems a commonplace thing, but usually it is not,” Russo said. The introduction of crisis modifiers would require, according to the FAO economist, a “reform of the administrative systems by which aid [is] disbursed.”

A second innovation is to provide contingency funds to countries by the use of risk management models. Those are insurance mechanisms: In addition to donor resources, countries pay premiums based on probable risks and receive funding when a crisis occurs, for instance in the case of a drought.

“The problem — and that’s very important — is that those systems work in countries where there is a minimum of administrative capacity,” Russo said.

4. Strengthen coordination.

No one can address food insecurity in areas experiencing a protracted crisis alone, which is why the Rome-based agencies are working to find a common approach to build resilience.

“We are trying to focus on … bringing our collective comparative advantages together. Often we are in same place, but maybe we working in separate areas or we are not pooling our combined efforts,” Husain said. “Delivering together … can be challenging because sometimes we are targeting different groups, [but] where we are able to work together is more effective.”

According to Russo, one viable approach to improve coordination is to work with regional organizations to establish a common framework that would allow donor resources to be pooled into trust funds, which are directly managed by the regional groups. This approach has proven effective in addressing food insecurity in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa regions.

But to really improve coordination, NGOs need to be better integrated into the approach, the FAO economist noted.

“Many organizations tend to work a little bit in isolation. My impression is that there is a certain lack of coordination. … It is important that donors [incentivize NGOs],” he said. “My understanding is that the European Union, for instance, takes into great consideration NGOs’ forms of collaboration and alignment with national policies in disbursing funds.”

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About the author

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Elena L. Pasquini@elenapasquini

Elena Pasquini covers the development work of the European Union as well as various U.N. food and agricultural agencies for Devex News. Based in Rome, she also reports on Italy's aid reforms and attends the European Development Days and other events across Europe. She has interviewed top international development officials, including European Commissioner for Development Andris Piebalgs. Elena has contributed to Italian and international magazines, newspapers and news portals since 1995.


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