U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron shakes hands with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. According to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the U.K. is the third largest donor of humanitarian relief after the US and the European Commission. Photo by: Arron Hoare / Crown Copyright

The United Kingdom is poised to be among the leading government voices pushing for tough reforms to the United Nations-led humanitarian relief system at the World Humanitarian Summit this week. Among the U.K.’s goals will be to increase the resources directed to local NGOs, to improve accountability, and to boost aid effectiveness through new underutilized aid modalities, like cash transfers.

The moves come as part of the broader “grand bargain” proposed by the summit — a compromise between donors and implementers to bridge the current gap in humanitarian financing and accountability. The grand bargain would see donors commit to longer-term, more flexible funding in exchange for more thorough reporting from the most-funded 15 implementing organizations.

The U.K. will also likely push for targets for aid directed to local NGOs, and the inclusion of local groups among the 15 largest implementers encouraged to improve accountability, an official from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office told Devex.

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Setting targets for cash transfers is also high on the U.K.’s list of priorities for the summit.

“We need to break silos, work across sectors and encourage entry of new actors. Cash payments can help will all three of these aims,” Nick Dyer, director general for policy and global programs at the U.K. Department for International Development, said Monday at an event called “Four Ways to Join the Cash Revolution”.

Providing 8 percent of the world’s humanitarian aid, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the U.K. is the third largest donor of humanitarian relief after the US and the European Commission — so it’s own reforms can set the tone across the humanitarian community.

A tradition of change

The U.K. has been at the forefront of past aid reforms. The country was the first in the G-7 grouping of economies to commit to the U.N.’s target of spending 0.7 percent of gross national income on aid. U.K.’s DfID goes to great lengths to demonstrate value for money to taxpayers and as a result, leads government donor agencies in transparency, according to 2016 IATI data.

Still, much of U.K. aid spending comes under fire when, like donor funds from other governments, that money moves from the agency to the humanitarian system, designed more than 75 years ago in the aftermath of World War II and dominated by the less transparent U.N. system.

In other words, the grand bargain is in the U.K.’s domestic interest.

Rupert Simons, CEO of Publish What You Fund, told Devex that while it’s clear the U.K. is sending aid to the most affected in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, “it’s quite hard to trace it through the U.N. system and the big NGOs to the beneficiary communities,” pointing to the systems’ need to improve accountability and make their processes more transparent to both the public and aid beneficiaries.

Local first responders

One of the primary mechanisms for efficiency proposed by the grand bargain is moving more assistance directly through local and national organizations. In many cases, these NGOs are quickly gaining capacity to implement in their own communities, but are often underutilized or written off by old guard humanitarian players, which simply weren’t designed with local capacity in mind.

“Civil society and local groups and organizations are often unofficially the first responders to crises, we know this, but the U.N. and [others] don’t trust them,” Anne Mitaru, humanitarian advocacy at ActionAid and a member of the World Humanitarian Summit’s Thematic Working Group on Humanitarian Effectiveness said at an ActionAid event in Parliament on Thursday.

While this goes a long way in bridging the accountability gap, Marie Staunton, chairwoman of the board at Crown Agents told Devex in a phone interview, it doesn’t go far enough to encourage big players to work through local organizations.

“One concern is that an unintended consequence of the grand bargain, which involves the bigger players, will be that it leaves out local capacity, who everyone agrees need to be more involved in the process,” Staunton said.

“Things like incentives for the experienced players to use local organizations could be a solution, and for them to use youth and gender markers when they’re looking at their response, could be a way to unlock some of those local and national capacities,” she added.

The summit will be an opportunity for practitioners to discuss at which stages in a crisis, and in which contexts local capacity can be brought on board, Staunton said.

“For slower-onset crises, it’s crucial to involve local players from the start,” she explained, “and for more immediate crises, where local organizations are likely to lose capacity in the beginning, it’s important to get them up and running for the second phase.”

A diverse response

Many credit the U.K. and gender advocacy groups for bringing the issue of gender in humanitarian response to the top of the agenda at this year’s summit, but Diane Abbott, a member of Parliament and shadow secretary for international development, told Devex this success should be complemented by thorough follow-up.

“My biggest hope … is that resources are released to support grass-roots, women-led organizations, which have the greatest impact in delivering safety for the women of the global south and prosperity for their communities,” she said.

“Britain talks a big talk on women and girls but the projects it implements are all top-down, which means that they are not owned by communities in the ‘global south,’” Abbott added.

Mitaru, speaking on the panel, said the solution “starts and stops with governments.” Albert Owen, a member of Parliament and a member of the International Development Committee tasked with overseeing all U.K. aid, said the committee will take “the opportunity to scrutinize what has come out of the summit and what the government is doing in response.”

For more U.K. news, views and analysis visit the Future of DfID series page, follow @devex on Twitter and tweet using the hashtag #FutureofDfID.

About the author

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    Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a former U.K. correspondent for Devex. Based in London, she reports on development finance trends with a focus on British and European institutions. She is especially interested in evidence-based development and women’s economic empowerment, as well as innovative financing for the protection of migrants and refugees. Molly is a former Fulbright Scholar and studied Arabic in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.