From the Global Consultation for the World Humanitarian Summit in Geneva

27 October 2015
Alex Jacobs

by Alex Jacobs

Alex Jacobs is the Director of Programme Quality at Plan International.

I was at the vast Global Consultation of the World Humanitarian Summit last week. It was a big step in the final push to Istanbul, next May.

It’s been a rollercoaster. Stephen O’Brien (the UN’s relief chief) has outlined a vision that the summit should focus more on inspiration than transformation, reported as “the UN doesn’t need to change”.

In other words: inspiring states and others to support humanitarian action, rather than transforming the organisations that dominate the aid landscape. Previous leadership put more emphasis on transformation. But there is still a great opportunity for significant progress.

Here are the key messages I took away. There are four general messages and then more detail on community engagement.

General messages

1. We should re-assert humanitarian principles
There are growing humanitarian needs around the world. The “humanitarian system” is meeting more of them than ever before. But it is also falling short in the face of new threats and horrors perpetrated by the worst of humanity. 80% of humanitarian needs result from conflict; and humanitarian action cannot solve the basic political problems.

Humanitarian actors have to reassert our fundamental humanitarian principles and international agreements; and find better ways of influencing the most important actors to respect them.

2. International actors need to engage better with local actors
International humanitarian actors have to engage better with local actors, at all levels. This includes engaging respectfully with governments, social institutions, local NGOs, women’s groups and affected people.

A small group of international organisations (and major donors) still hold the vast majority of funds and influence on global decision making. They should do more to support local leadership and capacity for principled action. This is being increasingly vocally demanded by southern organisations, including NGOs like COAST in Bangladesh.

This stretches from the level of global leadership (for instance, with calls to reform composition of the IASC, or the mandates of major UN agencies) to the most individual level (for instance, with calls for agencies to support local institutions, and provide more assistance in the form of cash).

3. We need to build cooperation and trust
There is an urgent need to strengthen cooperation and trust among all actors. This includes clarifying responsibilities (in particular between international and local actors); and improving accountability. There was a lot of agreement that better transparency is an important step towards achieving this. It should be enhanced at the operational level, as well as the international level (via IATI).

The Core Humanitarian Standard received a great deal of support, as a common foundation that addresses many of the concerns mentioned above, developed through a major process involving many Southern and Northern organisations. It may not be perfect, but it’s got a lot going for it. And it doesn’t require certification.

4. Progress depends on changing incentives
Progress will depend on changing the existing incentive structures that shape how money flows. There were calls to move away from ‘subcontracting’ at all levels, towards more equal partnerships that actively encourage and reward work to build local people’s dignity. Risk should not be outsourced so much to local organisations.

Suggestions in this area included: greater use of community feedback, independent verification of performance, common frameworks of goals or outcomes, rating agencies and donors, and creating a global regulatory framework. I heard no discussion of certification as an approach, despite previous controversies, though this remains on the table for the new Humanitarian Quality Assurance Initiative. Otherwise, these ideas remain pretty general. It is not clear who can make them into concrete proposals for wide adoption.

Some other big ideas got an important push, such as:

  • The centrality of protection,
  • A new deal for refugees and funding refugee hosting,
  • Increasing the quantity and reliability of funding,
  • Scaling up cash assistance,
  • Enhancing innovation.

Community Engagement

I continued to focus on community engagement in humanitarian response.

There was a strong opinion that ‘community engagement’ means engaging with existing institutions among affected people. Agencies must make sure they understand formal and informal social institutions, and engage with them and government bodies, in order to: enable effective co-ordination, support effective leadership and improve engagement.

From the other point of view, it is normally easier for affected people and local institutions to engage with agencies when agencies collaborate with existing structures.

In the dedicated breakout session, there was growing momentum behind these specific proposals:

  • Develop & adopt concrete commitments to radically enhance transparency by all humanitarian actors at the operational level (i.e. to communities, local and national government, and other operational actors).
  • Adopt the Core Humanitarian Standard, by using it at least as a standard basis for all capacity assessments & development; and for monitoring, evaluation & feedback activities. Going further, this could be used as the basis for common reporting frameworks or tools, which could significantly shape incentives.
  • Two enabling factors will be required for these commitments to generate real change:
    • Ensure consistent leadership and resources for community engagement in all humanitarian programmes. This includes a role in each senior management team specifically focused on community engagement.
    • Ensure regular review and revision of all strategic and project plans.

I think these could drive real progress. There’s always scope to go further. But, if consistently implemented, they would mark a major change from current business as useful. I hope to continue to work with colleagues across the sector on making them real.

It seems unlikely that the summit will turn the existing balance of power upside down. The process is limited by a familiar fragmented decision-making and lack of central authority across the sector. It depends on agencies making their own reforms.

So it becomes a challenge for all us, individually. No one else can drive change for us; and, as a sector, we only have limited capacity for collective reform. How far can we go to improve our own organisations and practice? What self-driven improvements can we announce in May, that will make a real difference and build on the vast amount of time and money spent on the summit?