Bigger? Smaller? And What about the Missing Middle? Great discussion on the future of Humanitarianism

January 8, 2021

     By Duncan Green     

For reasons I hope to be able to explain in a few weeks, I’m mugging up on debates in the humanitarian sector, and really enjoying the ‘Rethinking Humanitarianism’ podcast series from The New Humanitarian and CGD. Each episode provides a full transcript, but no accompanying blog, so I thought I’d summarize November’s discussion on forces of disruption and the future of aid, as I did last month for the episode on ‘Money Talks’.

With hosts Heba Aly and Jeremy Konyndyk were Simon O’Connell, incoming CEO of SNV in the Netherlands, Paul Currion, who recently started a financial technology company for the aid industry and Muthoni Wanyeki, the Regional Director for Africa at the Open Society Foundations.

The conversation was typically aid-sector-polite. Everyone agreed that humanitarianism needs big reform, that localization is a Good Thing (and White Saviour Complex is bad), but there were some interesting differences on display.

Simon kicked off with a plea for more mergers:

‘In South Sudan, there’s well over 100 international NGOs. A back of the envelope calculation shows if you’ve got every NGO with its Country Director, Finance Director, Operations Director, HR Director etc. etc., you’re probably looking at not far off half a million dollars per NGO in terms of operating costs.’

So mergers would free up money both for local organizations, and for delivering more aid. Paul Currion disagreed – his pitch was for a move in towards ‘network humanitarianism’.

‘The network humanitarianism model is not to consolidate, it’s to go in the opposite direction, to distribute, to decentralise, to create modular organisations rather than mammoth organisations.

‘If we’re talking about how local communities respond to aid, how local communities respond to disaster – they use the resources of the network society. That’s how they organise their own responses. What becomes important is not just the material resources of aid, but the information resources, understanding who is doing what and where, where resources are, of being able to collaborate effectively. So part of network humanitarianism is moving towards more collaboration, and emphasising the relations between individuals, communities, and organisations, not the transactions. When I hear talk about aid outputs, I think of that as a transaction. Whereas I think that we need to move to a much more relational approach.’ 

Paul highlighted the Diaspora as a key player in network humanitarianism, but almost absent from the radar of Big Aid.

But he got into a bit of a tangle when Heba asked him if he was advocating something like a humanitarian Airbnb. He preferred the pre-Airbnb world of informal couch-surfing to the behemoth platform that followed. And he gave some couch-surfing equivalents from humanitarianism:

‘Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring, when a Twitter account organised the resourcing for a field hospital to treat the protesters that were injured, up to and including very expensive medical equipment in the range of $40,000 worth of medical equipment. That was a combination of volunteer effort with network effects. You can also see it at community levels. There was one example which was Daryeel, which is a Somali initiative. But again, it’s community based, it’s using WhatsApp to structure aid deliveries for communities that are in need of food resources.’

So small is beautiful, but big is complicated. If you want to take these things to scale, how do you avoid the Airbnb problem?

Muthoni had a great insight onto Africa’s response to Covid. At the grassroots she has seen:

‘Incredible examples of African solidarity for one another, at the family level, at the neighbourhood level, at the community level. I can personally count on my hands three people who initiated their own personal cash transfer systems. And because people knew them, they were personalities and social influencers, they were trusted, people gave them money. One person I know supported almost 5,000 families through donations. I saw examples like that all across the continent.

At the continental level, we saw incredible leadership from the African Union Chair, the appointment of the African Special Envoys, the creation of the common purchasing platform, first on PPE, then on oxygen, now moving on to negotiations around where to get sufficient supplies of vaccines. We saw the Africa CDC, the Center for Disease Control, come into its own and, because they were being serious, a serious amount of money behind it: philanthropic money, bilateral money, multilateral money.

The thing that was lacking is okay, you have this incredible planning at the continental level; you have this incredible solidarity at the neighbourhood and community level, but where are the linkages? And, if we could get that right, that would I think be a significant step forward. Providing the leadership, providing a channel through which external sources can support the leadership, the agency, and the self-determined solidarity with one another, rather than this sort of dependency on an industry that really isn’t ours, to be honest.’

Listening to the discussion, which really is excellent, I could sense two underlying quandaries:

  • Can you separate money from power? People in difficulty need resources, but how to get them help without creating a system that ends up imposing its own views and institutional logics? Breaking up money into smaller units, eg via cash transfers, may be one option, as is building a more diverse set of sources (Diaspora, domestic taxation, crowd funding as well as official aid). Any others?
  • The aid sector still tends to romanticise ‘the community’ as a homogeneous and altruistic nirvana. As if communities are magically free of power, struggle, inequality, conflict etc etc. Whenever someone advocates for ‘community solutions’, alarm bells go off in my head.

Great stuff – do listen if you have a chance.

January 8, 2021
Duncan Green