The global system for dealing with the growing financial burden of humanitarian crises has been at breaking point for too long. In 2015, I was asked by the United Nations Secretary-General to co-chair a working group of experts from government, the private sector, and civil society on how to fix it. At the time, 88 percent of humanitarian aid was being spent responding to crises that had lasted for eight years or longer.
Our panel’s report, “Too Important to Fail: Addressing the Humanitarian Financing Gap,” was adopted by leaders at the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit. They signed the “Grand Bargain,” a pact between donors and the humanitarian organizations they fund. Its simple aim is to get more life-saving resources to the frontlines of crisis.
The detail of how to achieve that is complex. It requires give and take on both sides, disrupting the fraying model for aid delivery, adapting to new realities, and learning to stay adaptive. Negotiating the nuts and bolts of how to do this is hard, but the signatories have stuck with it and are making progress.
A year after the "Grand Bargain" was launched to much fanfare, humanitarian aid bosses and experts gathered in Geneva to take stock and assess to what extent the commitments under the agreement are being delivered or not. Devex digs into some of the key messages, challenges, conflicts and opportunities coming out of those discussions.
Two years have passed since the Grand Bargain’s birth and since then, as conflicts have remained unresolved and natural disasters recurred, the number of people in need of assistance has risen from 125 million — which was already a record figure — to nearly 136 million. A figure so large is hard to visualize, so imagine the world’s 10th largest country, fitting in between Mexico and Russia, made up entirely of these needy people. When my panel colleagues completed our report they were the world’s 11th largest country — do we want to see them rise higher up the top 10?
The cost of helping so many people continues to outpace the available resources: The U.N.’s own calculation, reached through its coordinated appeals, sets the shortfall at 40 percent. For these reasons, the Grand Bargain has even greater relevance today.
So, while I and many others are impatient for the lives of this staggeringly high number of people to improve, I am also encouraged by what I see beginning to happen. Since I returned to the World Bank, I am proud to say that it has embraced the Grand Bargain recommendations, setting the pace in terms of innovation and breaking down the barriers that persist between humanitarian and development aid — barriers which hold us back from helping the world’s most needy people.
We have doubled our funding to address the root causes of fragility, conflict, and violence. Last year, we created the first global platform for stemming the spread of pandemic risks in poor countries. I see painstaking efforts on the data front for how humanitarian needs are assessed, on fomenting more efficient collaboration and avoiding duplication of efforts — all in pursuit of the Grand Bargain commitments.
When the immediate threat of famine loomed in Somalia in 2017, we supported cash payments that helped nearly 65,000 households and worked with new partners, including the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Food and Agriculture Organization, to improve access to health services for 650,000 people, vaccinate livestock, and provide seeds ahead of the much-needed rains.
In Yemen, for the last 18 months, we have redirected nearly$1 billion through U.N. partners to protect the capacity of local health care and water institutions to provide basic services and respond to the cholera outbreak. We also activated an emergency cash transfer program that assists more than 8 million people.
The U.N. is embracing reform, with a significant opportunity for its agencies to harmonize their cost structures and use their resources more efficiently. As part of this new way of working from Afghanistan to Haiti, it is promoting sound humanitarian planning.
New ideas and approaches are emerging to mobilize resources from, and share risks with, new private sources. The ICRC launched the first results-based humanitarian impact bond, while the World Food Programme is trialing a blockchain system to help hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees which combines biometric data, credits stored in digital wallets, and direct payments to food retailers. Mercy Corps is partnering with Mastercard on digital cash.
But we have to find ways to do more. By working harder to channel the energy driving forward the Grand Bargain agenda, we will deliver more for vulnerable and desperate people everywhere. Our commitment to getting more funding to frontline local organizations has to move with greater speed from words to action.
We need a relentless focus on ensuring that people caught in protracted crises get the right support, for example from cash transfer programs which are now active in 129 countries.
And now that efforts to enhance data availability are starting to pay off, we should tie multiyear long-term funding for protracted crises to performance, while protecting resources to respond to emergencies. By being more rigorous in linking expenditure to the best and most productive outcomes, we will ensure that we get maximum value for every precious dollar of aid.
We have the expertise, the technology, and the commitment to end the suffering and restore dignity to the “citizens of the world’s 10th largest country.” Through no fault of their own, they are living fragile, marginalized lives. They deserve the same opportunities that we enjoy. It is a “country” that should not exist.
The Grand Bargain has moved on from being a pact to a process for achieving this goal. It is also a muster point for everyone who believes, like me, that we can and will succeed — just so long as we are prepared to embrace change.