Does humanitarian finance need a revamp?

Volunteers unload from an aircraft humanitarian supplies for Typhoon Haiyan victims in Guiuan, Philippines. Humanitarian aid is in higher demand than ever before. Photo by: Russell Watkins / U.K. Department for International Development / CC BY

Humanitarian aid workers have long sought to spark reform within a sector resistant to change — one guided by bureaucratic international bodies criticized for being far removed from the people they’re designed to serve.

Now, with the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, Turkey, less than a year away, U.N. officials are taking a critical look at humanitarian finance mechanisms in an effort to redefine how humanitarian aid is designed and implemented.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon last month appointed a high-level panel on humanitarian financing that will analyze funding gaps and inefficiencies and submit recommendations for reform in November.

Is financing the key to meaningful change?

For at least a decade, humanitarian professionals have grappled with how to shorten country dependence on humanitarian aid, how to bolster local capacity for emergency response and how to bridge the gap between humanitarian and development work.

But despite efforts to spur significant change in the humanitarian sector — to guard against local reliance on multilateral and bilateral emergency funding — such challenges remain all too visible when disasters strike.

For the first time this year, total multilateral humanitarian funding requests could cross the $20 billion mark, said Hansjoerg Strohmeyer, chief of the policy development and studies branch at the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, this week in Washington, D.C..

That’s up from just $3 billion 11 years ago, the U.N. official added.

“Humanitarian aid … has become an internationally organized safety net for millions of people,” Strohmeyer said, speaking on the occasion of the Emerging Humanitarian Frontiers Conference at the American Red Cross headquarters.

The secretary-general noted last month that the number of people in need of humanitarian assistance has more than doubled since 2004 to over 100 million.

In 2014 alone, the number of internally displaced persons was 11 million — more than the population of New York City, Strohmeyer added.

And the average humanitarian appeal is now up to seven years, according to the U.N. official.

“We need to be, from the outset, much more outcome and exit driven,” Strohmeyer said. “We have to redefine success. Success is not every year to generate more money and more services for the same people. That’s perpetuating [dependence].”

For Strohmeyer, financing is one critical component for much-needed shifts in policy.

“Humanitarian financing can affect some of that policy change that I don’t believe the system itself … is capable of,” Strohmeyer told Devex.

The U.N. official likened the current method of financing to a “junkie-dealer” relationship between humanitarian agencies and donors — a system that fosters too many vested interests and makes reform difficult to achieve despite widespread recognition of the need for a different approach.

Strohmeyer explained that the current humanitarian finance model provides funds for international organizations on behalf of a country, but that the country itself gets nothing. Strohmeyer also highlighted the fact that there is no conditionality on the funds — no requirement to have an exit strategy or a multiyear plan. For Strohmeyer, such a model is not sustainable.

Nigel Fisher, senior adviser for humanitarian policy and complex crises at The KonTerra Group, echoed this sentiment — stressing new risk factors that are adding to the demand for humanitarian aid, such as climate change, urbanization, pandemics and terrorism.

“[Such risk factors] are resulting in vastly increased vulnerabilities and needs, which we can’t meet by continuing business as usual. They’re straining our capacities, our credibility and our financing,” Fisher said during Monday’s conference.

What’s needed, according to Strohmeyer, are new financing facilities that provide accessible funds not only to international organizations, but also to local civil society and to local first responders. Such a model jives with the widely recognized idea that resilience building post-disaster or conflict requires the heavy participation of local partners. This is especially evident now in Nepal as that country rebuilds following a massive earthquake in April.

Conditions should also be attached to humanitarian funds, according to Strohmeyer, in order to ensure a multiyear strategy and an exit strategy.

Strohmeyer suggested that the United Nations would consider working with the World Bank to collaborate on such funding mechanisms.

For Fisher, the broader community of development professionals should play a role in communicating the capacities of local responders to deal with crises before disasters happen.

“We must find a way of persuading our development colleagues to catalog — before crises break out and as part of their standard operations — the capacities of [local organizations] … and to identify their needs for support and to strengthen their capacities,” Fisher said.

Regardless of how it’s accomplished, strengthening and understanding local resilience to crises could fundamentally change how humanitarian aid is carried out.

“If the international humanitarian community starts to get a better handle on such local capacities, we’ll be better able to distinguish where and how we need to intervene when crises arise,” Fisher said. “Perhaps in a major way. Perhaps in a lighter supportive role. Perhaps not at all.”

Does the current system of humanitarian financing need a total revamp or rather moderate change? What role should the broader development community have in enabling more efficient humanitarian assistance? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

Read more international development news online, and subscribe to The Development Newswire to receive the latest from the world’s leading donors and decision-makers — emailed to you FREE every business day.

About the author

  • Jeff Tyson

    Jeff is a former global development reporter for Devex. Based in Washington, D.C., he covers multilateral affairs, U.S. aid, and international development trends. He has worked with human rights organizations in both Senegal and the U.S., and prior to joining Devex worked as a production assistant at National Public Radio. He holds a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor’s degree in international relations and French from the University of Rochester.