After the Summit: What next for humanitarianism?

June 16, 2016

     By Duncan Green     

Here’s this week’s vlog – still trying to sort out a better camera and sound, sorry!

Spent a fascinating morning recently, discussing the state of humanitarian response with a bunch of fairly senior people from inside ‘the system’ – UN, donors, INGOs etc. It was Chatham House Rule, so that’s as much as I can tell you about the event, but the good news is I can therefore draw out the interesting stuff and take all the credit…..

Humanitarians often seem particularly questioning and anxious – hardly surprising as they work in some of the mostHumanitarian_Summit messy, chaotic situations, surrounded by the depths of human suffering, always short of money, always banging up against bureaucracy and head office. They can never do enough. Gallows humour comes as standard.

This group was no exception. They kept coming back to ‘the gap’ – between the 24/7 commitment of people working on the ground and the dead hand of the institutions; between the buzz and excitement in the side events at last month’s World Humanitarian Summit and the stultifying set speeches in the official plenary. Given the gap, how is the good stuff agreed at the WHS ever going to become reality? For example, what needs to happen to bridge the divide between humanitarian response and long term development? Or increase the proportion of humanitarian spending channelled via local organizations from 2% to 25% as agreed in Istanbul?

I went into How Change Happens mode. It is not enough to exhort the current system, in the title of a recent ODI report, that it is ‘time to let go’. Humanitarian organizations, like any other, have their circuits of power and incentives. As several participants pointed out ‘power is not ceded, it is seized’.

So let’s look at three sources of resistance to reform – ideas, interests and institutions – and the potential disruptors that could trigger a change in the system.

Ideas: The humanitarian principles of neutrality, independence and impartiality are deeply ingrained in the system. In practice, these are often dumbed down (at least rhetorically) to ‘we don’t think about power and politics, we just save lives’, making it very difficult to join up humanitarian response with longer term approaches (long term development, influencing) that see understanding and engaging with power and politics as central tasks. Lots of humanitarians are of course very conscious of the political roots both of human suffering and its redress.

Good or bad disruptor?

Good or bad disruptor?

Disruptors: New frames such as resilience or systems thinking, which allow us to think of both humanitarian response and long term development in new, connected ways, could help overcome the intellectual divide. Historically, major failures (Rwandan genocide, Asian Tsunami) have played an important role in highlighting problems and shifting ideas and behaviours. Could Syria and its refugees have the same impact? Unfortunately, as yesterday’s post on Europe’s disastrous response to the Syrian refugee crisis argued, failure can lead to destructive change as well as the good variety.

Institutions: The ODI report sets out a series of institutional obstacles to improving humanitarian response. The aforementioned siloes between short-term and long term development (6 month or 1 year funding cycles really don’t work when emergencies are getting ever-longer: in some cases people have been in refugee camps for decades). The burden of rules and reporting procedures (known in Oxfam as ‘treacle’) that effectively exclude new or smaller actors from entering the system. The turf wars within the UN system and beyond. The layers of intermediaries (‘there are 6 or 7 procurement layers before money ever reaches the ground’).

Disruptors: New entrants (eg private foundations, or new emerging country donors, national organizations raising local resources) could bypass the institutional blockages and at the same time exert pressure for the traditional system to reform. New tech could help. And the reality of increasing numbers of SMEs (small and medium emergencies) will highlight the failings of the current institutional set up.

Interests: Turnover is a success metric for institutional leaders. In some cases, through the growing privatization of aid, it is also a source of profit. What would make them agree to ‘let go’ of their dominant position and hand over the reins of cash and power?

Disruptors: Besides the rise of new sources of money (new donors, domestic resources in developing countries), the big funders have the power to change incentives and behaviours by turning off or redirecting the flow of money.

Beyond exhorting people to ‘let go’, what can reformers in the humanitarian sector do to encourage disruption andChina aid move to the better systems set out in innumerable agency reports?

One is to encourage an ‘enabling environment’ for disruption, for example by building the capacity and fundraising of local organizations, or spinning off more independent organizations to build diversity in the system. Or at the very least not closing down diversity by encouraging the kind of corporate monocultures that only fund ‘people like us’.

The second is to take a lesson from Milton Friedman’s book. Yes you read that right. In Capitalism and Freedom, the father of monetarism wrote ‘Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.’

The key here is ‘actual or perceived’. Activists and researchers seeking change need not only to respond to undeniable crises, but do so early, and in part help them be recognized as such. In addition to high profile failures, existential threats to the system mentioned at the seminar include climate change, the rise of Daesh, the Sunni-Shia divide, the shift to cash transfers and refugees/migration. It is through these filters that policy makers and power holders can be persuaded to change.


And here’s ODI’s Christina Bennett presenting Time to Let Go in a 4m video