How to boost resilience in practice

By Stephen O'Brien 25 February 2016

Stephen O'Brien meets with Syrians in Homs. What are the most pressing items on the agenda at the upcoming World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, Turkey? Photo by: Emmanuel Bargues / OCHA

For years the aid system has been designed around the presumption that humanitarians meet priority lifesaving needs, and then step aside for development institutions to move in. In reality, in most emergencies, the response is simply not that episodic — it is often a blend, or needs to be a blend of humanitarian agencies meeting critical needs, while the recovery and development phase gets underway.  

Often conditions remain critical for years on end, meaning the most vulnerable people risk not recovering from shock or becoming self-sufficient and more resilient to future shocks. The facts tell the story: humanitarian appeals are launched every year on average, for seven successive years. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia and Sudan, annual appeals have been launched for 16 years in succession.

But following years of discussion and analysis there is clear evidence of a transformational shift. Leaders are recognizing the need to put resilience and recovery at the center of assistance.  This is evidenced by governments’ adoption of social safety net programs; by institutions embracing cash assistance to boost self-reliance; and by stronger inter-sector collaboration in response, to name but three examples.

In anticipation of this year’s El Niño phenomenon, climate scientists, international organizations, governments, development and humanitarian actors worked together to map out and prepare for the potential risks of El Niño, mitigating some of its impact. This is evidence of progress.

But the shift is best illustrated at the global level by the remarkable achievement of 193 United Nations member states in 2015, when they adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. In doing this they made a collective promise to “leave no one behind,” putting those who are most at risk and vulnerable at the heart of change.

To leave no one behind, we need to focus on the whole picture — people’s full 360 degrees of need — and to rethink what success means for vulnerable people. For the 125 million people who make up the humanitarian caseload do not simply want to be kept alive on handouts; they want to reattain their self-reliance and to advance inter-generational prospects through education, employment and the fulfilment of human rights. To leave no one behind, we all need to embrace a number of changes.

First, development, humanitarian, peace and security and risk reduction organizations need to set unified goals and longer time horizons. We need to develop shared assessments, analyses, plans and strategies at the national and regional levels to prevent crises, manage risk, reduce vulnerability, lower humanitarian need and build up people’s long-term resilience. By combining forces, we can better avert humanitarian crises, and contain or limit their impact so that people can recover more quickly in the face of shocks.  

Second, we each need to work less to our institutional mandates, and more to our respective comparative advantages, depending on the task at hand.

Third, we must enter with a clear graduation plan, which will involve complementing and bolstering national and local institutions at every stage of humanitarian programming. If we are called to engage, it must be with a view to leaving greater local self-reliance and national risk management capacity in our wake. Our role should increasingly be that of a facilitator, bringing together national and regional capacities to meet needs and only to deliver where gaps exist.

Fourth, humanitarian agencies will need to expand our definition of success to include reducing need.

What would this shift in approach look like in practice? Take a cholera outbreak. What tends to happen now is that humanitarians and the government raise money to mount large-scale emergency water and sanitation and health responses, pulling out or scaling down once the money drains and the peak of the crisis subsides.

Operating through a resilience lens, governments, humanitarians, development partners and others would work towards a five-year target to reduce vulnerability to cholera. Their collective efforts would include strengthening the water and sanitation system, raising awareness in schools and shoring up the health ministry’s emergency services, putting at their center at-risk families over the medium term. For a family in a cholera-prone urban slum, it would mean eventually getting onto the water grid, practicing safe hygiene and knowing in advance what to do if cholera strikes.

The structural and financial barriers that stand in the way of this shift must be overcome. To support these shifts in approach, we need to rethink humanitarian finance. This involves shifting from an over-reliance on annual plans when responding to protracted crises, to explore multiyear strategies that reflect the engagement required to reduce need and invest in local capacity. It involves funding the sectors critical to addressing the humanitarian-development divide, including preparedness, livelihoods and early recovery support, which are always woefully underfunded. It relies on donors providing more predictable and flexible financing that encompasses humanitarian and development goals, allowing development resources to adapt as the situation changes. And it means we all have to act on early warning signals and forecasts to mitigate the impacts of crises developing.

While we aim to move to this new model, we must not forget our core humanitarian priorities, for which we need to urgently close the record-high funding gap set at $10 billion last year. This will entail tapping into new support from innovative sources, as recommended by the independent High-Level Panel on Humanitarian Financing. While we do need greater investment in real numbers, we also need an increased diversity of donors and financial tools that can support multiannual outcomes, with a greater tolerance for risk.

If 2015 was the year of ambitious agreements, 2016 must be the year of action. As we approach the World Humanitarian Summit on May 23-24, 2016, in Istanbul, Turkey, we have an opportunity to reframe the humanitarian response so that it better serves those it is mandated to help. The U.N. chief just launched the “agenda for humanity” that outlines the priority shifts and core responsibilities that each of us need to embrace to turn this agenda into a reality, and to contribute to a world in which we leave no one behind.

At the summit, the secretary-general will call on global leaders to commit to the unity and cooperation needed to confront these challenges, to accept our core responsibilities to prevent and end suffering, and to take all steps necessary to put vulnerable people at the heart of our decision-making and collective action.

Resilience in Action is an online conversation hosted by Devex, in partnership with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and the International Committee of the Red Cross, focusing on the practical realities of resilience building in the face of global challenges. Visit the campaign site to join the conversation using #ResilienceInAction.

About the author

Stephenobrein
Stephen O'Brien@UNReliefChief

Stephen O'Brien heads the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.


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