Gayle Smith's blueprint for an activist humanitarian community

Gayle Smith, former United States Agency for International Development administrator. Photo by: Overseas Development Institute

LONDON — Former head of the United States Agency for International Development, Gayle Smith, said that she has never been more worried about the scale of crisis in the world and called on aid workers to launch an “activist humanitarian movement” to convince politicians the humanitarian sector needs their support more so than ever.

With an estimated 145 million people in need of humanitarian assistance, funding levels on the decline, and increasing instances of attacks against aid workers — including the most recent reports that at least 15 United Nations peacekeepers were killed in eastern Congo — Smith, who is now president and chief executive officer of the ONE Campaign, said the sector needs to come together and fight for its survival.

“I have never seen a time that worries me more, a scale and scope of crisis that has sharper edges or a greater urgency,” Smith said, adding that it is made worse as “countries in the north are turning inward,” and “multilateralism is on the wane [and] populism on the rise,” she said.  

“My appeal would be that we come together, we form the activist movement we need, we stand up for the people we serve and frankly we fight back,” she said, adding that “I think we can win, but if we don’t, I think we risk losing,” she said.

Speaking at the annual Humanitarian Policy Group lecture at the Overseas Development Institute in London last week, Smith, who was head of USAID for just over a year under the Obama administration, said the humanitarian sector was “breathtakingly impressive” in its agility and effectiveness and called on aid bosses to “brag” more about their achievements.

However, she also called on humanitarian actors to take a more active stance when it comes to defending their sector. Otherwise, she warned, constraints and violations against humanitarian norms and activities will continue amidst a “deafening silence” from the international community.

The development veteran, who has also served as senior director for development and democracy at the U.S. National Security Council, offered the following advice about how to build and shape her vision of an activist humanitarian movement.

The international humanitarian community needs to “learn to brag.”

— Gayle Smith, president and CEO, One Campaign

1. Form a united front and learn to brag

Smith described the current humanitarian community as “fragmented” and called on members to “come together with a single voice” and proclaim that the status quo is “not acceptable.” Putting collective pressure on governments “would make a huge difference,” she said, although it will be hard, she admitted, since organizations are often competing for the same resources and have different priorities and boards to answer to.

The international humanitarian community also needs to “learn to brag” about its own achievements, Smith said, explaining that “the fact is the humanitarian community is so agile and so creative … but it doesn’t brag and I think the humanitarian community needs to get out there and say ‘sure we can always improve but here’s what we are and here’s what we do,’” she said.

2. Louder and smarter advocacy

The next step is to think about how to influence policymakers, something into which Smith has useful insights from her time in government — where she was on the receiving end of the “asks and aspirations” of advocacy groups. According to Smith, the most effective advocacy was “angry but smart and fierce and fair,” she said, adding that advocates “do better when [they] question somebody’s policy or their vote [rather] than when we question their motive.”

She also advised that they “invest in and encourage political courage,” something which she said has worked in the U.S. where aid generally benefits from bipartisan support. This is in part because “if you have the political courage to invest in humanitarian spending and development, we give you credit and it really matters a lot to people being elected,” she explained.

Effectively influencing policy also requires keeping track of what donors and governments are spending and where, and then making this information public, which is something the humanitarian sector needs to do more of, Smith said.

3. Have better asks of politicians

Concrete asks which go beyond “do the right thing” and asking for more funding will be critical to securing political buy-in for the humanitarian sector, Smith said. When speaking with advocacy groups while at USAID, Smith said, “she learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t.” Using hard data is one of the most effective strategies, she said.

“We need to challenge [political leaders] as to how, in the eyes of taxpayers and voters, they can justify underinvesting in development and humanitarian aid now when we know … that doing so will require overspending in the future.”

For example, advocates need to make better use of evidence about the costs of war and violence — such as that collected by the Institute for Economics & Peace in the Global Peace Index which shows violence globally cost an estimated $14.3 trillion in 2016, equivalent to 12.6 percent of its gross domestic product — to influence policy makers, she said.

“It doesn’t take a mathematician … to figure out that the world’s failure to invest sufficiently in preventing wars, or staunching the bleeding when a crisis arises, is expensive,” she said. And this can then be turned into an effective “challenge” and ask to political leaders.

“We need to challenge them as to how, in the eyes of taxpayers and voters, they can justify underinvesting in development and humanitarian aid now when we know … that doing so will require overspending in the future,” she said.  

In her experience, no advocacy groups have ever asked that question, she said, but added that “I think it would get through.”

4. Track and publish where humanitarian norms are being eroded

Talking about what she described as the steady “erosion” of human rights laws and norms, Smith said that while aid workers are right to be angry about the “deafening silence in the face of those violations” from the international community, a more effective response would be to measure, aggregate and report on the problem.

“On New Year’s Day every year the international humanitarian community should issue its annual report [including] how many clinics were burned this year … how many humanitarian workers were killed … how many humanitarian norms and laws were broken,” she said, adding that if the community does this then “people will take notice and start to look for it.”

This is what will get through to today’s politicians and people “who don’t want to hear about far off crises,” she said.

5. Understand and listen to the skeptics

“Talk to people where they are and not where you think they should be,” Smith said, which in practical terms means acknowledging and understanding that people are “turning away” from aid because they are fearful of “the other” and the future. This is also being fuelled by “political figures who are legitimizing the definition of the other …[and] cultivating hatred,” she said.  

Addressing these fears requires painstaking time listening and persuading, Smith said, adding that it “takes a long time but actually works.”

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About the author

  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.