Opinion: What’s wrong with the humanitarian aid system — and how to fix it

A Rohingya refugee holds her humanitarian aid card as she lines up to receive humanitarian aid in Balukhali refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo by: Hannah McKay / Reuters

The global humanitarian system is a remarkable public good. Tens of thousands of people around the world working for NGOs, Red Cross and Red Crescent organizations, and the U.N. do a good job, saving millions of lives every year and overcoming huge obstacles.

But the drivers of humanitarian need — COVID-19, climate change, and conflict — are growing at unprecedented levels. Although we have record finance, it is not enough to meet those rising needs. The system is overwhelmed and over-stretched. This puts a premium on using resources as effectively as possible.

As I come toward the end of my time as emergency relief coordinator, I have reached the conclusion that one of the biggest failings of the humanitarian system is that agencies do not pay enough attention to what people caught up in crises say they want. If we are to meet the daunting challenges we face we need to fix this.

I propose an independent body that holds the system to account. A way of holding a mirror up to the system and increasing the consequences for humanitarian agencies of not listening.

The humanitarian system has good intentions to help the most vulnerable people. Over the past decade, there has been growing recognition that affected people should have more say over the type of help they get and how they get it.

Many aid agencies should be praised for really trying to find out what people really want and responding accordingly. In some places there has been progress. But these efforts are too piecemeal, too scattered, and have not fundamentally changed the culture of our sector.

Despite good intentions, the humanitarian system is still set up to give people in need what international agencies and donors think is best, and what we have to offer, rather than giving people what they themselves say they most need.

In Chad and Cox’s Bazar people are frequently selling aid they have been given to buy what they need more. After the Central Sulawesi earthquake in 2018, almost half of displaced households said they needed shelter, yet only a small fraction got it. These are not isolated examples.

Listening to affected people and giving them what they say they want will make for a humanitarian system that is more humane, dignified, and make better use of scarce resources.

I’m not the first person to say this. The issue is well known. Yet it is rare in all of the senior-level discussions that I have had about various crises that the two basic questions — what do people say they want and how can we give it to them — are the focus of attention.

So we need to look hard at this again. This is morally the right thing to do, since it will give people greater dignity and control over their lives. It is the rational thing if we want to achieve efficiency and value for money.

I propose a three-year pilot of an Independent Commission for Voices in Crises to hold the system to account. Here are my proposal’s key points.

First, ICVIC would issue public reports on the needs prioritized by people in a given crisis and advocate with senior-level decision-makers on those needs.

Second, it would grade the Humanitarian Response Plan as soon as it is issued on how well the planning and programming responds to needs identified by affected people.

Third, it would review and publish interim findings to highlight evolving needs and promote course correction by aid organizations.

Finally, ICVIC would publicly evaluate and grade the humanitarian response to independently assess how well the response matched people’s needs and priorities. For ICVIC to be successful, it must be independent from all operational humanitarian organizations. Humanitarian agencies can’t just mark their own homework.

ICVIC’s findings and grades should be transparent and publicly available. It should, wherever possible, draw on existing sources of information rather than creating new data-gathering exercises.

Finding the right incentives to change the system will be key. How money flows through the system is clearly one of the most powerful incentives. Donors therefore hold powerful levers.

2021 will be the 'bleakest and darkest' yet for humanitarian needs

The pandemic has created new, all-time-high requirements for humanitarian response. OCHA announced Tuesday that it is seeking more than $35 billion to reach 235 million people in need.

But we have some scope for action within the humanitarian system, too. I propose we start with the funds OCHA manages — the U.N.’s Central Emergency Response Fund and country-based pooled funds, which amount to up to $1.7 billion a year — to institute systems to prioritize allocations to programs that respond to affected people’s expressed priorities.

ICVIC should also work with donors and partner organizations to explore other incentives. The behavior of those who finance the humanitarian system will be critical as to whether or not we can change.

Listening to affected people and giving them what they say they want will make for a humanitarian system that is more humane, dignified, and make better use of scarce resources. This must become the way humanitarian agencies do business.

This is my proposal to help achieve that. I believe it has the power to make a significant impact in people’s lives. I look forward to the discussion that follows.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Mark Lowcock

    In May 2017, Mark Lowcock of the United Kingdom was appointed as the under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs at the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and emergency relief coordinator. With over 30 years of humanitarian and development experience, Mr. Lowcock serves as the chief coordinator of the world’s humanitarian response in times of urgent crisis. In his most recent position, as permanent secretary for the Department for International Development, Mr. Lowcock led the United Kingdom’s humanitarian response to conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Libya as well as to natural disasters in the Philippines and Nepal.