As the international development community prepares this summer for the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit, consultations are being held between governments, NGOs, businesses and communities to reflect on whether the current humanitarian system is fit to address future humanitarian crises — and if it is not, then what needs to change.
In these discussions, it will be important to distinguish between life-saving humanitarian action in conflicts and sudden-onset disasters on the one hand, and protracted crises of chronic food security, urban risk and cyclical disasters such as drought on the other. During conflict situations and sudden-onset disasters, effective humanitarian action is mostly a question of timeliness, coordination, quality and access; in protracted crises and cyclical disasters, it is the long haul of strengthening systems, mitigation and building resilience. Humanitarian effectiveness needs to be judged by very different criteria depending on these contexts.
Long, chronic crises are increasingly located in middle-income countries where three-quarters of the world’s poor now live. These countries gradually slip off the humanitarian radar as domestic revenue collection and institutions improve, even though chronic humanitarian crises can endure for years after a country is declared to have reached middle-income status. Domestic capacity can long remain inadequate to respond.
The World Humanitarian Summit should be an opportunity to redefine what humanitarian effectiveness means in these long crises. The definition needs to move beyond the quality of international assistance and focus instead on the capacity and timeliness of local responses.
There are a number of reasons why this makes strategic sense. First, low-profile crises in stable contexts rarely generate enough income for international organizations to respond to scale. Second, as domestic institutions strengthen and become more assertive, the space for — and acceptance of — iNGOs under Western leadership recedes. Third, and most importantly, domestic institutions and local systems are responsible for addressing domestic humanitarian needs. Strengthening these institutions and systems is the only viable, long-term solution.
Of course, there are challenges. Currently, humanitarian aid through emergency support or project support is as likely to undermine local institutions as it is to strengthen them. This weakening happens through financially-dominating institutions, implementing global strategies through domestic institutions, stopping and starting funding based on international opportunities, and sidelining local bodies from decision making and accountability.
If humanitarian effectiveness in long crises is to be redefined as an ability to enable local institutions and systems to mitigate chronic and cyclical hazards, then in these contexts humanitarian actors are going to need to move away from a focus on service delivery and align with development actors on a systems-strengthening approach.
This will mean deliberately enabling institutions and networks that have a mandate outside of an international aid framework, instead of creating structures to deliver project aid. These may range from community groups to National Red Cross Red Crescent Societies to government bodies and systems. It may also include regional and multinational institutions that can establish shared rules, mutual support and mutual accountability on humanitarian issues.
It will mean not shying away from the thorny issue of good governance and instead aligning assistance behind a criteria of financial transparency and functioning accountability systems. This can be tough to negotiate, but omitting such conditions stores up trouble for the future and ultimately weakens local systems.
Crucially, it will also entail better transition planning in the financing of humanitarian work. The financing of humanitarian work should not be the same in middle-income countries as it is in fragile states. If it is, that would suggest that the aid is isolating itself from the evolving opportunities of domestic funding, with neither local ownership nor local accountability being built. Negotiating cost-sharing can be awkward and slow, but it is an essential component of sustainability strategies. This domestic financing will stem from effective taxation and redistribution, but also cultures and mechanisms of private and corporate giving and supporting the income-generation schemes of local community networks, civil society organizations and National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
Much of the above may not come naturally to humanitarian organizations whose raison d’être is to raise money in high income countries to deliver time-limited services abroad — but for long crises, especially in middle income countries, it will be this ability to gradually enable and reinforce local systems that will determine whether aid is indeed effective.
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Alexander Matheou has worked for the past 15 years in humanitarian aid, development and institutional development in the Middle East, South Asia, the former Soviet Union and Africa. He is currently regional representative for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Southern Africa based in Gaborone, Botswana.