The World Humanitarian Summit is an opportunity to enact reform and deliver better, evidence-based aid

Refugees arrive at Idomeni on the Greek-Macedonian border. The scale and nature of human displacement and suffering due to conflict is staggering. Sixty million people are now fleeing for their lives. Photo by: Natalia Tsoukala / Caritas International / CAFOD / CC BY-NC-ND

The scale of humanitarian crises around the world demands fresh thinking on how to address the consequences of conflict, as well as its causes. A series of summits this year — the U.N. World Humanitarian Summit next week, U.S. President Barack Obama’s summit on refugees in September — have a responsibility to shine a light on the needs of people uprooted by crisis, and develop far more effective ways of helping them survive and recover.

This is not just a matter of money. Sixty percent of refugees are in urban areas, yet the service delivery model is camp-focused. Aid is generally funded on a short-term basis, yet 80 percent of refugees are exiled for 10 or more years. And there is not sufficient evidence of what works to allow investments to be directed toward the highest-impact programs. The problems are likely to grow: Climate risks are only one factor adding to the exodus.

The scale and nature of human displacement and suffering due to conflict is staggering. Sixty million people are now fleeing for their lives. Only 1 percent of refugees returned home in 2014. And while conflicted-affected states have just 20 percent of the global population, they account for half the world's maternal mortality, nearly half of all under-5 deaths and 43 percent of all out-of-school children at the primary and lower-secondary levels.

We need a change of approach, not just a change of policy. Better aid means moving from being a sector to a high-performing, dynamic system of comprehensive service provision. A sector is a diverse group of organizations, each with different focus, operating on the basis of shared principles — think private sector or NGO sector.

The World Humanitarian Summit: What to expect

The first World Humanitarian Summit will draw a record crowd from across the globe to discuss how to reform humanitarian aid. Devex asks thought leaders from across the field what to expect at the summit, and what concrete outcomes might emerge.

A system is directed toward shared outcomes, not just shared principles; has agreed metrics of success, not just multiple measures of activity; uses common methods of accountability not just voluntary methods of coordination; and relies on a financing structure that supports rather than subverts the outcomes that the system is trying to achieve.

The International Rescue Committee operates in over 30 of the toughest environments for humanitarian work. We have three priorities for reform.

1. We need for renewed focus on outcomes and targets.

The absence of a limited set of agreed outcome measures prevents us from operating like a proper system: our energy is too diluted, accountability is undermined and responsibility is dispersed into silos. If we don’t agree what constitutes success, then “results” become a chimera.

The Sustainable Development Goals (which do not sufficiently address fragile states), humanitarian SPHERE standards and the Core Humanitarian Standard on Quality and Accountability, while helpful, are simply not enough to underpin the system we need or that the people we serve deserve.

We need to specify much more clearly what health, education, violence prevention, empowerment and economic well-being mean for conflict affected and displaced persons — and then we need to set targets for improvements. Measuring our progress in a more systematic way will make us more accountable and will incentivize collaboration instead of inter-organizational conflict. In essence, these targets would form the bedrock of a systemwide performance framework.

2. We need a transformational culture shift in the way we fund, prioritize and apply evidence.

While there have been over 2,000 rigorous evaluations of programming in stable countries over the last 10 years, we've seen only 100 in conflict settings.

A well-known example is that a substantial body of evidence now shows cash transfers to be significantly more effective than a distribution of the goods we think someone wants. Giving people money helps them buy essential items specific to their needs and families. In some contexts, cash has been proven to help families raise their income so they can send their children to school rather than work; it contributes to the local host economy. Yet cash accounts for only 6 percent of the overall humanitarian aid budget.

A clear set of ingredients is needed to do better: We need to systematically map evidence across our sector and agree on the most urgent lessons, including what new evidence needs to be prioritized. We must identify success and be far more transparent about failures.

A good start for agreement on evidence generation would be centered around three issues: how to make sure we improve learning outcomes for children affected by conflict, how to dramatically reduce the high levels of violence that occur against women and children in communities ruptured by poverty and conflict and how to increase family income and assets given the new normal of long term urban displacement.

3. Success or failure will be decided by our funders and their willingness to back reform.

Donors and the big private givers, must embrace a shift from short-termism to predictable multiyear funding dedicated to clear outcomes for affected populations with funding for measurement, evaluation and evidence-generation.

A good example of best practice is USAID’s child survival and health program. This small program is remarkable in several ways. The grants are focused on a limited number of specific, evidence-based outcomes: increasing the use of bed nets and breastfeeding, as well as increasing access to treatment for the most common, killer diseases such as malaria. USAID has made monitoring and evaluation a priority, giving the resources needed — typically between 5 and 10 percent — to make sure that the projects are monitored by technical specialists. And the time frame of the grants has been expanded, from two years at the outset to the current four to five years.

We must add a focus on effectiveness in addition to one on efficiency. Nongovernmental organizations, such as the IRC, report on the percentage of donated funds that go directly to programs — for example we say, accurately, that 93 cents per dollar given goes directly to programs. While a step in the right direction, this form of reporting has significant limitations. It assumes that low admin costs are equivalent to efficiency, but that is not always the right assumption. This ratio actually tells us very little about how costs relate to the actual outcomes that programs have achieved and can undermine crucial infrastructure investments such as ICT. A more meaningful analysis would be to look regularly at the cost-efficiency and cost effectiveness of specific programs. For example, cost per latrine constructed, or cost per diarrheal death avoided.

The biggest challenge following next month’s World Humanitarian Summit, which the United Nations secretary-general has boldly dedicated to "fundamental reform,” will be follow-up on commitments. Major donors have the money — and therefore leverage and the responsibility — to drive change. If they remain too fragmented, focused on inputs not outcomes, and siloed in their thinking, then the sector will remain so.

Overcome this inheritance, harmonize their and our efforts, put people at the center, and the extraordinary commitment of all the players could build a humanitarian system worthy of its name.

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About the author

  • David Miliband

    David Miliband is president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, where he oversees the agency’s humanitarian relief operations in more than 30 war-affected countries and its refugee resettlement and assistance programs in 25 United States cities. From 2007 to 2010, Miliband was the 74th secretary of state for foreign affairs of the United Kingdom, driving advancements in human rights and representing the U.K. throughout the world. Miliband graduated from Oxford University in 1987 with a first class honors degree in philosophy, politics and economics, and received a master’s degree in political science in 1989 from MIT.