The 'Grand Bargain' one year on: Some progress, a long way to go

Stephen O'Brien (left), United Nations under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, briefs journalists during the Economic and Social Council Humanitarian Affairs Segment. Also with him is Jan Egeland (right), U.N. special adviser on conflict prevention and resolution issues. Photo by: Jean-Marc Ferré / U.N.

A year after the landmark “Grand Bargain” was agreed, humanitarian aid leaders met in Geneva for the biggest emergency aid meeting in the United Nations calendar and took stock of progress so far. Their verdict? Some improvement, but could do better.  

The last two weeks have seen the release of a number of reports and surveys looking at the so-called Grand Bargain — a set of reforms intended to increase funding for emergency aid and make its delivery more efficient and effective — which were presented and discussed during multiple side events and panels held during the U.N. Economic and Social Council Humanitarian Affairs Segment last week.

Expectations were high for the Grand Bargain when it was launched at last year’s World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul. The agreement was formed to help close the reported $15 billion financing gap facing the humanitarian sector, and was heralded as a major breakthrough in efforts to reimagine the humanitarian system and make it more effective, efficient, equitable and broaden its funding base. This included increasing the amount of humanitarian aid going directly to local and national actor to 25 percent by 2020, and enhancing engagement between humanitarian and development actors.

While the message coming from a number of Grand Bargain officials, and also an independent report by the Global Public Policy Institute, was broadly positive, others questioned the validity of this assessment, especially given the relative absence of civil society groups, especially from the global South, both at the ECOSOC meetings and throughout the Grand Bargain process.

Some described the tone amongst the 52 signatories — which includes the major humanitarian donors, NGOs and U.N. agencies — as “self-congratulatory,” and pointed out that very little movement has occurred in many areas of the Grand Bargain that contains 51 commitments divided between 10 workstreams. Others warned that it was “too early to tell” and praised the general positive momentum being shown.

Devex summarizes the key themes and takeaways that came out of last week’s meetings.

No clear picture of what success looks like

Representatives from all of the Grand Bargain signatories met for their first annual meeting on June 20, before the ECOSOC meetings kicked off.

Kate Halff, executive secretary of the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response, an alliance of international NGOs that is part of the Grand Bargain facilitation group and a co-convenor of one of the work streams, was at the meeting, and said it revealed a lack of cohesion among the different activities and actors.

“There is a proliferation of initiatives taking a lot of time and resources, but it’s not clear how they feed into each other and build on each other,” Halff said. She stressed the need for signatories to think about developing “sequencing” and prioritization strategies.

Speaking during a side event organized by media group IRIN on the first day of the ECOSOC meetings, Halff also said there was a lack of agreement about what the Grand Bargain is meant to achieve. “We don’t have a common agreement of what success looks like … what are our expectations … we don’t necessarily have this common understanding,” she said.

Some of this confusion could be attributed to a lack of leadership within the Grand Bargain, something that signatories hope will change thanks to last week’s reappointment of Kristalina Georgieva, now the World Bank's CEO, but who co-chaired the 2015 high-level panel that laid the groundwork for the Grand Bargain, as the bargain’s “eminent person.”

It is hoped Georgieva can help “maintain [political] momentum” for the Grand Bargain, which GPPI’s director Julia Steets said appeared to have been fading.  

Then United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon makes remarks at the launch of "The Grand Bargain: A Shared Commitment to Better Serve People in Need" during the World Humanitarian Summit on May 23-24, 2016 in Istanbul, Turkey. Photo by: Eskinder Debebe / U.N.

Concerns over cherry picking

Last week, the GPPi published an independent evaluation of the extent to which donors and aid organizations have followed through on their Grand Bargain commitments. The evaluation is based on self-reports submitted by 44 organizations, supplemented by interviews with signatories, non-signatories and other experts.

GPPi found that on average donors and aid organizations have taken steps to implement approximately 40 percent of their commitments, and have planned activities for an additional 5 percent, but that there was significant unevenness in which commitments and workstreams saw progress.

For example, 73 percent of those surveyed reported progress on specific commitments around collaboration, information sharing, and the development of standards and guidance for cash programming. But just 30 percent said they had invested in new delivery models and only 7 percent reported progress on multi-year planning and risk and vulnerability analysis.

This is positive news, according to Steets who spoke at a side event, considering the voluntary nature of the agreement, the wide range of commitments it covers, and the newness of the agreement.

“Now we can ask is this a glass half full or a glass half empty. We would say it is a glass half full because we are only one year after the beginning and because we would expect organizations to first act on their priorities and to perhaps first harvest the lower hanging fruit,” she said.

However, Steets also warned that such disjointed progress could point to cherry picking by actors. There was a “great risk that the more difficult commitments may remain orphaned,” she said.

A second risk exists around power struggles between signatories, according to András Derzsi-Horváth, project manager at GPPi who said: “There is also a risk that more powerful members of the Grand Bargain will impose their will and upset the level playing field between aid organizations and donors, which has been so highly praised,” he said.

A lot of noise, but not much action on localization

Increasing the amount of international humanitarian assistance going directly to local and national actors is seen by many as the most significant commitment within the Grand Bargain — and arguably where the power struggle described by Steets is being most prominently played out.  

Although the Grand Bargain was only signed a year ago, progress against localization goals appears to have been spotty at best, and also controversial.

While the global total of international humanitarian finance increased for the fourth year running in 2016, reaching $27.3 billion, this growth represents an overall slowdown compared with other years, according to the Global Humanitarian Assistance report published by Development Initiatives on June 21, ahead of the ECOSOC meetings. Furthermore, levels of recorded direct funding to local and national actors have actually gone down in the last year from 0.4 percent in 2015 to just 0.3 percent in 2016, according to the report.

This drop is only partly reflected in the signatories’ self-reported outcomes analyzed in the GPPi report, which revealed that while 70 percent said they had increased investments in building capacity of local and national responders, only 34 percent said they had given more direct funding, and most of this was through pooled funds.

Furthermore, some humanitarians have questioned the legitimacy of the way direct funding is being interpreted and tracked by signatories in a bid to maintain the status quo. A network of Southern NGOs called NEAR published an open letter to the conveners of the Grand Bargain’s localization work stream objecting to a proposal to interpret “direct” as including passing the money through one intermediary layer such as an INGO, and apply the term “local” to include NGOs that are based in the global south but are affiliated to an international NGO.

Linked to this, the GPPi report describes a “growing impatience” among local and national humanitarians who say they have seen little in terms of impacts from the Grand Bargain on the ground. Steets described frustration about the amount of time being spent on global level discussions to further define the commitments and goals, as opposed to actually activity.

Beneficiaries don’t feel included or empowered when it comes to humanitarian aid

This was expanded on by new reports from Ground Truth Solutions, an independent consultancy, which surveyed nearly 3,000 people — including humanitarian aid beneficiaries, national actors and international NGOs and U.N. agencies — to assess perceptions of the Grand Bargain reforms at the field level.

Commissioned by the OECD and funded by the German Federal Foreign Office, the survey asked a range of questions related to the goals of the Grand Bargain to try and develop a baseline picture of the different groups’ perceptions of the provision of humanitarian aid and track how they change over time.

The initial survey findings from Afghanistan, Lebanon and Haiti reveal that while people receiving aid generally say they feel respected and safe, they are less positive when it comes to the fairness and relevance with which aid is distributed. Furthermore, most respondents said they do not think their opinions are taken into account regarding aid provision, and less than a third agreed that the aid they receive is empowering them to live without future support in future.

“While it’s too early to say how the Grand Bargain is playing out on the ground, what’s pretty clear is that there is a lot more to do and no time for complacency,” said Groundtruth Solutions Director Nick Van Praag.  

“We now have a baseline and we can clearly see that some areas are problematic, like participation and what the future looks like, and therefore those things need attention,” he added.

The surveys of field staff also revealed a clear disconnect between the views of front line responders and the people they are serving, according to Van Praag, with field staff generally reporting “more optimistic” views. This underlines the importance of continuing to track the views of beneficiaries and also act on those findings, he said.

Cash financing

Under the Grand Bargain, signatories agreed to “increase use of cash programming beyond current low levels, where appropriate,” due to a growing consensus among global humanitarian actors that giving people cash in crises situations can be more efficient and also offer recipients greater choice and dignity. This was the position taken by the 2015 High Level Panel on Humanitarian Cash Transfers.

The HRA reports the number of cash-based programs likely rose in 2016, notably among the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and World Food Programme, but said the data was incomplete.

The GPPi report confirmed this upward trend, with almost half of all Grand Bargain NGO and U.N. signatories reporting increases in cash-based assistance, while nearly a fifth of donors reported increases and also said they had been promoting the use of a single contractor to deliver cash.

At WFP, cash-based transfers increased from 5 percent to more than a quarter of all assistance in 2016, while UNHCR doubled its cash assistance portfolio between 2015 and 2016, according to the report. Furthermore, a number of donors and organizations have made bold commitments to increasing their level of cash-based programming, including the United Kingdom, Belgium, the European Union, International Rescue Committee and World Vision.

However, the cash agenda has also raised concerns among agencies and NGOs, especially in light of a move by the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations, and the U.K Department for International Development to radically change the way they provide cash-based assistance — going through a single agency and delivering money, not vouchers, as IRIN reported.

“This has created concerns among agencies that do not want to be excluded from funding … under a single contracting approach,” according to the GPPi report.

The Ground Truth Solutions surveys also consider the issue of cash payments and reveal a disconnect between the attitudes of field staff and affected populations, with field staff generally reporting higher satisfaction levels. This points to another example of where field staff seem to have a “more optimistic” view than those receiving aid, and thus needs to be watched closely, according to Van Praag.

The NGO has also launched a Cash Barometer to track how cash transfer programs are being perceived by their intended beneficiaries.

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About the author

  • 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.