Humanitarian system: Just broke, or also broken?

Syrian refugees await registration at the UNHCR compound in Tripoli, Lebanon. Conflict was becoming the primary driver of poverty — not just in Syria and the Levant but globally. By 2015, the World Bank estimated that half of the world’s extreme poverty was clustered in fragile states. Photo by: Lynsey Addario / UNHCR

As summer spills into the Levant, the Karam Foundation — a small private charity working in Syria — is readying for Ramadan. For the last five years of the Syrian conflict, dozens of nongovernmental organizations and aid agencies have distributed food baskets to families in need, timed with the holy month for Muslims. Before starting their effort this year, Karam Foundation asked beneficiary communities: What do you need?

The response, said CEO Lina Sergie, was astonishment. “They’re used to NGOs telling them, ‘we’re going to distribute X, Y, Z,’” she said. “When we turned the question around — what can we provide? what do you need? what’s available in your community? — some didn’t know what to say.” As recipients, they weren’t accustomed to being at the center of aid.

To Sergie, the experience was just one in a string of incidents since 2011 that have convinced her that the humanitarian system is failing her home country of Syria. Supplies don’t match the needs; besieged communities get help only if fighting and politics allows; and the assistance consistently falls short of needs.

Karam Foundation is among several Syrian organizations attending the World Humanitarian Summit this week in Istanbul. The gathering’s remit is to address exactly these sort of failings, though Sergie finds it hard to be optimistic. “I have very little hope that things will change from this summit, but I think [stakeholders] need to be challenged on their failures,” she said.

Yet at least one thing is changing: her dire concerns are increasingly shared by everyone involved in relief. There is growing acknowledgement by even the summit’s United Nations organizers that the system isn’t just out of funds; it’s fundamentally in need of fixing.

“I hope we all come away with the new determination to frankly fix a broken system,” Neal Keny-Guyer, CEO of Mercy Corps, told Devex going into the summit. “The system could use more money — it might be broke — but as it currently operates, you could put two or three times the money in and you certainly wouldn’t see two or three times the impact.”

The Syria moment

DevExplains: The World Humanitarian Summit

The first United Nations World Humanitarian Summit opens Monday in Istanbul with a remit to reform and revamp global relief operations. With the growing number and duration of global crises, the needs have never been so great. Devex takes a look at what we can expect at the summit.

The WHS grew out of a realization, catalyzed by Syria. The country’s crises is hardly the first time that relief funds have been overstretched. But as the human toll spiraled, humanitarian leaders started to realize that this time was different.

Suddenly, conflict was becoming the primary driver of poverty — not just in Syria and the Levant but globally. Traditional development goals such as improving health and education were being undermined by instability. And by 2015, the World Bank estimated that half of the world’s extreme poverty was clustered in fragile states.

Neither short-term humanitarian relief nor long-term development was reaching into those protracted, volatile settings. “This is where the burden of preventable deaths are happening,” says Dr. Julie Hall, director of health for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. “Sixty percent of preventable maternal deaths are occurring in these settings, for example. They’ve fallen in that gap: development financing doesn’t flow there in the way it should, and the emergency funding is not directed to these longer term recovery issues.”

Before his mandate as high commissioner for refugees expired, António Guterres began to sound the warning that the humanitarian system alone couldn’t shoulder the burden. He used words rarely used by agency heads to describe their own operations: broken, unable to cope.

“The aid architecture we built after [World War II] is no longer fit for purpose. And to that extent, Syria is the canary in the coal mine,” he wrote in January 2015. “Already the biggest humanitarian crisis of our era, it is a harbinger of potentially far worse to come. Unless we fix this system, things are going to get much, much more difficult.”

The means to help

As demand for funding rose, donor commitments also expanded — but not fast enough. In 2014, for example, the humanitarian system brought in the most funding ever recorded — yet the U.N. also recorded a record shortfall of 38 percent unfunded needs.

Yet more money alone may not have helped. In January 2016, the U.N. secretary-general convened an expert panel on humanitarian finance that found almost universal agreement around this fact: “Almost everyone with whom we spoke said that finding more money will not solve all the problems, and may even entrench some of the current dysfunctions.”

Many now point to problems with the very structural foundations of humanitarian relief. The needs in protracted emergencies and fragile states didn’t easily fit into the current funding and programming structure. The United Nations, for example, is divided into agencies by sector, drawing discreet lines between emergency relief and development — the former coordinated by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the latter by the U.N. Development Program.

The silos go even further, with clear divisions between health and children’s well-being, for example, or nutrition and agriculture, despite the interdependence of these sectors.

“One of the things that’s broken about the system is that it’s so sector-based,” says Amy Slaughter, chief strategy officer of RefugePoint. “For example, UNHCR will contract with five or six NGOs for five or six services. So in theory refugees are running around accessing five or six different services, but no one is looking holistically.”

Local responders

Slaughter, whose organization works on a small scale to boost refugees’ livelihoods, also sees a deep division between large organizations and U.N. agencies and the local and national NGOs that often do the bulk of the relief work. These smaller organizations are often brought in only as subcontractors or coordinators for bigger international groups.

Local groups often find their work dictated by donors, rather than by the communities they have direct connections with. Many local Syrian NGOs, “are dependent on [international] grants to function,” said Sergie, “and the grants are very restrictive in nature based on what the [donor] agency needs to check off their [list and meet a] quota for sectoral support.” In her experience, the donors set the priorities.

Meanwhile, IFRC’s Hall suggested that focusing on communities’ own assessments of their needs would solve the silo problem. Local leaders don’t divide their needs by sector; they see holistic systems.

Yet achieving such a shift is far easier said than done. Language emanating from the summit, such as the secretary-general report’s goal to “invest in humanity,” is so broad “you could drive a truck through it,” warns Jodi Nelson, senior vice president for policy at the International Rescue Committee. “The risk is that it doesn’t lead to any changes in behavior.”

Instead, prospects for change lie with hard questions about vested interests and structural impediments. “The [humanitarian] sector has been crippled by uneven power relations, corrosive competition and perverse incentives,” says Sara Pantuliano, managing director of the Overseas Development Institute. “Reversing these trends will take wide-scale system reform as well as a mindset shift by the U.N. agencies and large INGOs that make up the traditional system, who should progressively move away from direct implementation in a number of contexts, and take on a more enabling role.”

The methods to do good

Imagine closing the gap between needs and funds. “Imagine starting with a blank piece of paper,” suggests Keny-Guyer of Mercy Corps. “That’s not possible today, but it enables us to see the reforms.” Donors would almost certainly need to pitch in more. But aid groups would likely also have to think about how to make those dollars matter more than ever before.

Among the key proposals on the table at the WHS is boosting the role of evidence in humanitarian work. Emergency situations don’t easily lend themselves to controlled studies of which interventions make the biggest impact. Nor are there clear indicators of success in the sector.

“One of the most disruptive things you can do is to increase significantly the use of cash. It’s a more dignified way to do aid.”

— Neal Keny-Guyer, CEO of Mercy Corps

“The best thing we could walk out of the summit with is a very simple scorecard that we come back to every few years: What is the situation for people in these difficult places?” Nelson said.

Cash, for example, is one of the few interventions that studies back up, yet it represents just 6 percent of current aid. Scaling up cash interventions would require a rewriting of the humanitarian playbook.

“One of the most disruptive things you can do is to increase significantly the use of cash. It’s a more dignified way to do aid, because it empowers the person impacted to make his or her own choices,” says Keny-Guyer. “It promotes local markets. It radically disrupts the need for gigantic warehousing, complex logistics, and massive amounts of transport.”

Political spoilers

In the days before the summit, Karam Foundation almost pulled out of WHS, following Médecins Sans Frontières, who announced their boycott earlier this month. MSF feared the gathering would affix superficial operational solutions to the growing number of political crises that are driving increases in need.

The Syrian NGOs came to the table in the end, but their message was clear: Revamping the relief system may do little to help if something fundamentally political doesn’t change. In Syria, the humanitarian needs will expand until political leaders resolve the conflict. IRC CEO David Miliband put it this way at the Center for Global Development last week: “There’s never a bureaucratic solution to a political problem.”

There are few proposals on the table about how WHS could do more than patch up the damage of man-made crises. More than 130 states are attending the summit in Istanbul, but the political heavyweights’ delegations are led by aid officials. Washington, for example, sent a delegation led by U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Gayle Smith.

“It’s like there are two completely separate tracks,” said Khalil Gebara, an adviser to the Lebanese Ministry of Interior. “We hear always about supporting refugees, but people have started to forget that Syrian refugees are a direct implication of the Syrian war.

“Everybody is so busy trying to manage the spillovers but nobody wants to touch over the real issue, which is the war itself,” Gebara said.

That “real issue” continues to drive Syrians from their country — many of them into Turkey, yet a world away from the secure zone of the summit near Istanbul’s bustling Taksim Square. Humanitarians have a lot to think about this week, and the political roots of a five-year war will surely challenge their introspection.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Deloitte financially supported the reporter’s travel to Istanbul to attend the World Humanitarian Summit. Devex retains full editorial independence and responsibility for this content.

This story has been updated to reflect a correction. Amy Slaughter is Chief Strategy Officer, not CEO, of RefugePoint.

Read more international development news online, and subscribe to The Development Newswire to receive the latest from the world’s leading donors and decision-makers — emailed to you FREE every business day.

About the author

  • Elizabeth Dickinson

    Elizabeth Dickinson is a former associate editor at Devex. Based in the Middle East, she has previously served as Gulf correspondent for The National, assistant managing editor at Foreign Policy, and Nigeria correspondent at The Economist. Her writing also appeared in The New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Politico Magazine, and Newsweek, among others.