Long-term planning of humanitarian assistance piloted by the U.K. Department for International Development in Yemen could be “transformational” according to those behind the shift in approach — but amid constrained budgets, the new strategy will first need to prove its worth.
DfID switched in 2013 from annual to multiyear programs in this country, where some 14.7 million people — nearly two-thirds of the population — currently need humanitarian assistance. The agency committed 70 million pounds ($117 million) to Yemen over a two-year period for emergency food assistance, shelter, clean water, and conflict recovery and has since also introduced multiyear humanitarian strategies in Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, Kenya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
In the DRC, for example, rather than relying on short-term funding for cholera treatment, this means helping to build systems that can detect outbreaks more quickly and enable health services to prepare for a response. Such longer term planning blurs the widely-accepted — if not concretely defined — concept of humanitarian assistance as a short-term response in the immediate aftermath of a disaster.
But in protracted crises such as Yemen — where ongoing insecurity contributes to one of the world’s gravest humanitarian crises, including the second highest rate of chronic malnutrition — short planning cycles have proven problematic.
The United Kingdom had initially responded to the 2011 crisis “with year-long, or even [shorter-term], humanitarian project funding,” Helen McElhinney, humanitarian adviser for DfID in Yemen, said at a recent event hosted by the Overseas Development Institute in London.
“By the time they’d set up and got staff on the ground and navigated some of these tricky local dynamics to try to build trust and gain access, many partners were already having to think about the next funding cycle,” she added.
Drive for efficiency
The hope, McElhinney said, was that multiyear programming would “allow more space to focus on delivery, to focus on those local relationships and enable better access and trust building.”
It may also result in procurement efficiencies: some partners have been able to negotiate lower office rental costs, for example.
Though the new approach may sound logical, it was in fact the result of a long process and “a lot of internal and external lobbying” preceded its sign-off by government, McElhinney told Devex on the sidelines of the ODI event.
And a seemingly minor — though in some ways, perhaps more controversial — shift in how DfID works with partners also gained approval after some internal haggling.
“It’s pretty difficult to find partners who are able to get the staff into Yemen and to get to some of the areas where we know the needs are greatest,” explained McElhinney. To counter this, DfID therefore sought to be more flexible, for example allowing partner organizations to skip the usually strict branding guidelines that would explicitly identify their work with the U.K. government.
“We’ve [said to our partners] that if this is in any way endangering your staff, then by all means don’t use [the branding] … That might seem like a small thing, but it was quite a significant decision,” she said.
There is no guarantee that the multiyear programming strategy will become standard, even if the message from many of DfID’s humanitarian aid partners in Yemen has been that they can work better this way.
“The case still needs to be made” that the new approach improves impact, noted McElhinney. The pressure is all the greater, given that British aid is expected to plateau having now reached its target of spending 0.7 percent of GNI. DfID can expect to see “a tightening” of the budget, she said, and potentially a rethinking of priorities.
Rolling out the model
If the Yemen experience proves its worth, though, DfID hopes it can influence humanitarian funding models worldwide.
But a trend that sees funds increasingly diverted from contingencies to a small number of protracted crises around the world — notably Syria — could be problematic. With “more and more funding tied up in advance,” said Steven Zyck, research fellow and humanitarian specialist at ODI, the lack of flexibility to deal with unforeseen crises will become “a big concern.”
Trond Jensen, who heads the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Yemen said that 2014 has seen “better focused” humanitarian efforts in the country this year, aiming to reach 7.6 million people.
Indeed, a concerted effort by humanitarian actors has helped reduce total requirements from some $700 million in 2013 to under $600 million this year, and political progress is paving the way toward a new constitution.
However, Jensen warned, “the perception among many Yemenis is that the situation is deteriorating rather than improving.”
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