Humanitarian actors are failing the world's most vulnerable, new report finds

Two siblings walk in an area near Mosul’s front line. Areas that were recently retaken from ISIS by the Iraqi government still remain dangerous and in dire need of humanitarian aid. Photo by: Peter Biro /ECHO / CC BY-NC-ND

Humanitarian aid agencies are failing vulnerable people by being unable to “stay and deliver” in the countries where their help is needed most, according to a new report.  

This comes at a time when the UN estimates a record 65 million people have been displaced by conflict and the world is facing the greatest humanitarian crises since the end of the second world war with more than 20 million people across four countries facing famine.  

However, despite these needs, only a relatively small group of humanitarian actors are able to operate in the highest risk locations, while emergencies where there is little or no conflict tend to have four times more organizations responding, according to a 2016 report.

Presence and Proximity: To Stay and Deliver, Five Years On,’ released on Thursday during the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) Humanitarian Affairs Segment meetings in Geneva, confirms this notable absence of humanitarian actors in strife-torn countries such as Yemen, South Sudan, and Syria, and offers explanations and recommendations to address this lack.

“It’s a critical report...we have to be ruthlessly honest with ourselves there are too few aid workers where women and children and the most vulnerable often need us the most,” Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, which published the report, said at a news conference.

“It is our duty as aid workers to work where needs are greatest. But our international humanitarian community is failing too many people in too many places,” he added.

The findings are drawn from interviews and online surveys with input from more than 2,000 humanitarian actors operating in highly insecure environments, including field-based interviews in Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Syria and Yemen, between October 2015 and March 2016.

Aid agencies and INGOs tend to blame this absence on the changing nature of conflict whereby aid workers are increasingly blocked, harassed and attacked by aggressors and prevented from doing their work. Head of OCHA, Stephen O’Brien said: “...conflict parties’ lack of respect humanitarian law and the brutality and volatility of today’s armed conflicts make it extremely difficult and deliver humanitarian assistance.”

However, the new report paints a different picture, arguing that in most instances such attacks are the result of staff mistakes and also suggests the growing influence and presence of security actors within the humanitarian sector has led to today’s risk-averse culture among aid actors.

Devex spoke to the authors to find out more. Here are five key takeaways.

1. This is not a new phenomenon.

In 2011, OCHA commissioned a report to look into the challenges facing humanitarian actors in conflict and disaster-ridden areas and propose recommendations. The resulting ‘To Stay and Deliver’ report called on humanitarian organizations to become more professional and to enforce humanitarian principles and standards in high risk circumstances, while it also recommended more funding go to security measures especially for local actors.

Similarly, Médecins Sans Frontières raised the issue in its 2016 report “Where is everyone?” which asserted that most humanitarian organizations shy away from working in the most difficult situations or are evacuated at the first sign of trouble.

The medical humanitarian organization also said that aid actors are increasingly working at arm’s length through local NGOs or government, thus taking on the role of donor or technical expert rather than front-line aid worker.

2. Attacks on international aid workers actually in decline

According to Ashley Jackson from research group Humanitarian Outcomes who co-authored the report, while there is a common perception among international humanitarian workers that they are under attack more than ever before, this is not reflected in the data.

Figures from the Aid Worker Security Database (AWSD) show that overall incidents affecting international humanitarian staff actually went down from 22 percent to 13 percent between 2000 and 2014. However, incidents against national workers have gone up.

Furthermore, AWSD data also shows that most attacks are concentrated in a small number of countries - Afghanistan, South Sudan, Central African Republic, and Syria - and that, in general, staff are now safer and better equipped to tackle risks than ever before.  

3. The humanitarian security industry needs to be evaluated

Jackson linked this increasing perception of heightened risk among humanitarians to the growth of the humanitarian security industry since 2011 - including the UN’s Department of Safety and Security (UNDSS), as well as NGOs’ in-house trainers, security personnel, and security managers.

These security staff have become the “gatekeepers controlling and restricting” humanitarian access, she said, and increasingly dictate field staff operations often from a distance in headquarters.  

This not only exacerbates the sense of “disconnect” felt by field staff from headquarters, it is an example of “remote management programming” and “bunkerisation,” both of which were criticized in the 2011 report.

“This approach is absolutely counter to the principles of ‘Stay and Deliver’ which call for greater integration rather than separation of programmatic and security decision making,” Jackson said.

Jackson also questioned the appropriateness of having security staff play programmatic decision-making roles since they have a “material and professional interest” in arguing that humanitarians are under attack and should stay in “bunkers,” she said.  

Many security staff also lack the requisite training and experience to advise, according to the report’s other author Steven Zyck.

“While we did find case studies and examples of where people felt UNDSS were providing a valuable advice and analysis and a problem solving approach...everywhere else there was an extremely high level of frustration with UNDSS’s ability to enable humanitarian access, people felt they weren’t adding value and they didn’t have the right skill set and attitude,” he said.

The UN’s deputy humanitarian coordinator for Somalia Vincent Lelei said when he first joined the institution 15 years ago, UNDSS “used to lock us away like children who might stray away,” but that things had changed since then. However, he said there is a need for additional change and called for additional investment to find “innovative security management actions.”

4. Subcontracting is the norm

Instead of having front-line workers on the ground in complex countries, a number of agencies and INGOs are subcontracting the work to local organizations, Zyck said. At best this process is wasteful since each organization in the contracting chain will take a slice of the funding, but at worst it can be used to enable activities which are in breach of humanitarian principles, such as paying for access, he said.

“Onion-like layers of subcontracting is draining massive amounts of resources from insecure contexts,” Zyck said, adding that it can make it hard to follow the money so that donors are often unaware of who is actually doing the work and what their funding is being spent on.

“This is not a responsible way to operate in some of world’s most delicate countries,” he said.

Furthermore, such subcontracting arrangements are not in the spirit of the Grand Bargain’s “localization strategy” whereby 25 percent of all ODA is meant to go directly to local and national actors by 2025. Instead they are for the purposes of avoiding risk.

“They are only rarely adopted as part of a conscious localization strategy aimed at strengthening local humanitarian actors, but mainly are drawn upon when an international organization determines conditions are too dangerous for its own international and/or national staff,” the report states.

5. Aid workers and agencies pose more of a risk than terrorist groups

A number of incidents experienced by aid workers are the direct result of their own or their organization’s mistakes, according to the Presence and Proximity report, which details how “self-generating risks,” including basic missteps and misunderstandings, can raise tensions with local communities, government and armed groups, and even lead to attacks.

Jackson said she came across a number of “bad practices” while doing her research such as instances of staff paying bribes, not showing impartiality when hiring or selecting beneficiaries, as well as not doing needs assessments or adequately communicating their activities to communities.

Such mistakes need to be avoided, Egeland said, since they can have wide negative repercussions.

“The need for discipline is very important since one agency making mistakes taints the whole humanitarian effort and it becomes dangerous for all of us,” he said.

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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.