Q&A: Head of Unicef UK on the need for humanitarian reform

Mike Penrose, new executive director of the United Nations Children’s Fund in the United Kingdom. Photo from: Twitter

International humanitarian organizations need to put more resources into “foresight, knowledge and analysis,” take on more risk, maintain their independence from security actors, and be prepared to downsize in the wake of localization trends if they are to stay relevant and effective in a challenging aid environment, according to to Mike Penrose, the new executive director of the United Nations Children’s Fund in the United Kingdom.

Many experts agree that the humanitarian sector is becoming increasingly challenging due to factors including the protracted nature of crises, rising violations of international humanitarian law, epidemics, population growth, and unprecedented numbers of refugees. This has been accompanied by cuts to aid budgets in some countries and an increasingly skeptical public.

According to the new report The Future of Aid: INGOs in 2030 from the Inter-Agency Regional Analysts Network, a consortium of academic institutions and international NGOs, INGOs could cease to be effective if they fail to properly prepare and adapt to some of these changes.

Penrose, who started at Unicef UK last year, spoke at the launch of the report in London last week, drawing on his 20 years of experience working with organizations such as Action Against Hunger, Save the Children International, Oxfam and the U.K.’s Department for International Development.  

“There is a very negative narrative about aid at the moment, and part of it is our own doing.”

— Mike Penrose, executive director at Unicef UK

“We need to change … based on what we’ve learned [from the past] and what we think is coming,” he said, warning that INGOs would need to give more than “lip service” to the effort.

“It needs to be viewed as a fundamental part of humanitarian aid and we need to invest in it,” he said, arguing that analysis can have “as much impact as a bag of rice delivered today” because it enables organizations to “target aid in a better and more effective way.”

Devex caught up with Penrose after the session to find out more about his work at Unicef UK, and how he sees the humanitarian sector evolving. Here are highlights from the conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Having worked as a humanitarian for more than 20 years, how has your view of the sector changed?

Over the years, my opinion of the sector has changed regularly. I still fundamentally believe in what I do, and that the majority of people in the sector do what they believe to be the right thing. But, like any organization, we grow and evolve, and that need to grow is what we’ve been talking about today.

There is a very negative narrative about aid at the moment, and part of it is our own doing … We’ve painted a very idealistic picture of aid, but the truth is we work in some of the most difficult, hard to reach environments with some of the most vulnerable children, and that is not an easy thing to do and we shouldn’t portray it as being so.

At the same time, I don’t think we have been as effective at using the type of evidence we generate to create a true and informative narrative both to the general public, but also … to government. I’ve been working on that at Unicef UK, by trying to really enhance our ability to represent the truth about aid and the fantastic work it does.  

How are you applying this thinking to your work at Unicef UK?

Opinion: Yes, the humanitarian sector really is going to localize

Localization is an idea whose time has come, writes Jemilah Mahmood, under secretary general for partnerships at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. But translating this into measurable outcomes on the ground is not going to be easy.

Unicef has such a fabulous position in terms of having public respect — we are the number one [aid agency] in terms of children; we’ve vaccinated half the world’s children.

As a result, we have some fantastic stories to tell, but we need to get them to people [more] quickly and in a more accessible way. We’re quite an academic industry; a lot of what we put out, frankly, isn’t very accessible, so I’m trying to position the truth of what we’re doing … and make that link between what we do and what we communicate stronger … Not just [in the] media but also through advocacy work.

Unicef UK also continues to work on its four focus areas which are: Quality education for all; early child development and survival; ending violence against children; and serving children on the move.

How has the aid industry changed in recent years?

Some changes I’ve seen include a shift in mentality away from what could be termed a “neo-colonial” approach to aid … The idea that aid needs to be delivered or imposed [shifting] to more of  focus on making sure an affected population has access to the services it needs. This could involve facilitating local access, or delivering aid through cash transfers. This [more decentralized approach] is not happening as quickly as I think it should … but it is certainly happening.

It’s also not possible to do this in every context — working in Somalia requires a different operational model to working in Malawi for example. In some areas you can switch very quickly to more decentralized approaches, but in others you still need to rely on directly administered aid.

In what areas does the sector need to evolve further?

Where direct delivery can be done by civil society and government, we need to step up our ability to provide those actors with technical guidance, support and the kind of knowledge that we’ve generated having delivered humanitarian aid for over 70 years. We should also draw from other institutions and get better at putting together world leaders in technical competencies with field actors. By helping that knowledge exchange happen, that will hopefully facilitate a more efficient humanitarian aid system in the future.

“We shouldn’t be measuring our worth in terms of our dollars, pounds and cents, we should be measuring it in terms of the outcomes we achieve for our beneficiaries.”

This may well lead to a smaller international presence and I’m fine with that as long as it leads to an increase in impact … We shouldn’t be measuring our worth in terms of our dollars, pounds and cents, we should be measuring it in terms of the outcomes we achieve for our beneficiaries.

How can actors deal with the widespread perception that they are more at risk in the field than ever before?

I have spent most of my career in highly insecure environments — I was kidnapped and held for a couple of months while working in Chechnya in 1996. Having experienced that, I still think we need to get back to taking a little more risk as humanitarians. In order to do so, we need to make sure we separate ourselves from security operations and appear neutral, as that’s what keeps us safe.

INGOs do have a duty of care to their staff also — but it’s as much about informing people as protecting them. This means asking if they know the risks they are taking and whether they can take those risks in a calculated way, knowing that everything that can be done [to protect them] is being done but within clearly defined parameters.

At the same time, an organization needs to be able to say, “we are a humanitarian agency, we should take risk … ” There are good protocols but you can’t negate the risk. Furthermore, the vast majority of humanitarian casualties are not international but local staff, so we need to consider them with the same level of care.

How do you see increasing securitization affecting the humanitarian sector?

Aid needs to be impartial, independent and neutral, and to be applied by actors who act in that way… But there are no humanitarian solutions to political problems, and a lot of humanitarian crises are caused by security failures.  

Therefore, we need to get better at separating the two and saying: “This is a humanitarian consequence of a political issue — the political issue has security issues, and we will leave that up to the competent actors to solve, but the consequence of that political instability is a humanitarian crisis and we will deal with that.”

Do you think the current “negative narrative” about U.K. aid will affect Britain’s commitment to spend 0.7 percent of its gross national income on aid?

Everything I’m being told is that [the 0.7 percent] will remain, and so it should … but we need to keep scrutinizing not only the number, but what it’s being spent on.

We agree when the U.K. government talks about the need to make aid more effective … That is done by targeting the most vulnerable and the hardest to reach; focusing on poverty reduction activities; and making sure that aid is supplied neutrally and independently from political considerations, and by the best-placed people to deliver it, be that international or local agencies.

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About the author

  • Edwards sopie

    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.