An expert with the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department meets with members of the Oxfam team in Waspam, Nicaragua, during a monitoring visit to assess the achievements of a disaster preparedness project funded by EU. What do donors really mean when they champion innovation, and what do they expect in terms of coordination? Photo by: Silvio Balladares / ECHO / CC BY-NC

Aid agencies and nongovernmental organizations relying on funding from the U.K. Department for International Development ensure gender equality is included in the business cases they submit to the agency. Those submitting funding proposals to the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department, meanwhile, take time in assessing  how much of their proposed interventions contribute to building resilience.

But what donors require or expect of their partners can’t always be found in paper manuals or electronic documents.

Devex gleaned a few of these more unspoken requirements after a recent conversation with a technical expert for ECHO and a humanitarian adviser for DfID in Sudan. Though both spoke to Sudan's context, it turns out each of the five notes can be applied globally.

1. Coordination is not a ‘tick box exercise.’

In 2013, as foreign aid poured into the country for the victims of Typhoon Haiyan in central Philippines, concern was directed at whether money was being funneled to the correct channels, whether there was enough engagement between aid actors to avoid overlap and duplication in assistance and whether assistance was equally distributed among affected municipalities.

Coordination continues to be an issue in development and humanitarian settings, particularly in emergencies.

But concern about it isn’t sufficient, Clement Cazaubon, ECHO’s technical expert in Sudan, told Devex.

“Coordination is not ticking a box; it is a permanent and continuous effort that must take place between all actors, sectors and at all levels, ensuring accountability, responsibility, [with] the aim to avoid any duplications, and finding common solutions to shared issues to tackle,” he said. “It is not only a memorandum of understanding between actors or meeting regular sessions: it must prove effectiveness and lead to results.”

One can’t claim coordination is taking place on the ground just because minutes during a meeting are later shared, he added.

Instead, in Cazaubon’s view, it should be a permanent effort — be it at field or national level — within humanitarian and development donors. It means ensuring assessments and findings by different actors are shared among each other, and are all taken into consideration when deciding on the next course of action. And that even during the implementation phase, actors continue to coordinate with one another, particularly sector leads.

2. Innovation doesn’t need to be groundbreaking.

A toilet composed of low-cost, sustainable materials, requiring little water for use, that turns waste into fertilizer or fuel is one example of a grand innovation — and an example of the type of grand innovation many people think of when they consider the term.

There is nothing wrong with this mindset. The world has and can benefit from revolutionary ideas. But it doesn’t always have to be groundbreaking. In humanitarian contexts, it can be something like shifting from a food-based to a cash and voucher-based type of assistance for internally displaced people or refugees, according to Cazaubon.

“Innovation is a word that can be used in a lot of different aspects,” he shared. It can be a modality in delivering assistance, a new assessment tool, or in incorporating climate change predictions in programming.

“The El Nino issue, right now, is an important subject in Sudan,” he said. “This subject should raise also innovative orientations from our partners,” he said

3. Keep challenging yourself.

Responses to protracted crises are tricky in that they still cover humanitarian needs, but they also require long-term interventions that build communities’ capacity and help them better able to respond to shocks.

DfID recognizes this, and it is in contexts like Sudan that the agency seeks to work in a timeframe of three to five years, not the usual 12-month cycles that the agency often finds in a lot of humanitarian organizations’ budget plans, according to Alastair Burnett, DfID’s humanitarian advisor in the country.

DfID, in fact, has been making longer-term humanitarian commitments for the past three years, according to Burnett. What the agency wants however is for more of its humanitarian partners to think about how they can make better use of this opportunity.

“We can provide longer term funding for [partners], but what we don’t want to do is fund the same activities year on year. For organization X to come to us, we’ll say, we’re changing the way we will finance you, you go change the way in which you work,” he said.

Having this conversation is increasingly important amid pressures on humanitarian financing, he said.

4. Knowledge is good, but operationalizing them is better.

In 2014, the U.K. signed into law the gender equality bill, which requires DfID to consider gender equality in all its humanitarian and development programming. That same year, the U.K. aid agency released its disability framework that sets out how it plans to boost the inclusion of people with disabilities in its humanitarian and development planning.

Organizations relying on DfID funding are aware of these requirements. A study in July revealed, for example, that the International Development (Gender Equality) Act of 2014 has been successful in getting organizations to consider the gender impact of their proposed interventions; it is being incorporated in business cases concerning development and humanitarian aid submitted to DfID, although not yet in 100 percent of cases.

DfID’s disability framework meanwhile continues to be a work in progress, but Burnett said the agency is keen to continue to push and promote its inclusion in partner assessments.

“A portion of these particularly vulnerable groups may sometimes seem quite small, [but] we must make sure that they are taken into consideration [as] they are still important,” he said.

The humanitarian adviser also talked about “beneficiary accountability,” which means engaging communities in program design to make sure the programs fit their needs, as well as having in place a mechanism for feedback.

“I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily new … most organizations do know about it,” Burnett said. “I just think we can do better in kind of operationalizing it.”

5. Think at scale.

Both Burnett and Cazaubon mentioned their agencies’ interest in scaling up cash transfers, elevating the strategy to the heart of humanitarian response.

ECHO is raising the idea to its partners of using cash transfers beyond food assistance, Cazaubon said. Burnett meanwhile discussed having the modality available from the early onset of a disaster.

Both understand there may be challenges that could keep organizations from pushing this forward, such as market conditions. But it is a big area of interest for both agencies, and something that Burnett says “challenges the way in which we look at the way the humanitarian system functions [and] the way in which we look at how we kind of monitor and work with markets, for example, and the local community.”

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About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.