Less Paper, More (Better) Aid

10 May 2016
David Loquercio

by David Loquercio

Former Head of Policy, Advocacy and Learning at the CHS Alliance

The World Humanitarian Summit takes place in less than two weeks. The so-called “grand bargain” that aims to transform the humanitarian system through harmonised reporting, has been presented by some stakeholders as the most concrete set of actions due to come out of Istanbul. David Loquercio argues that we need to ensure that these efforts to harmonise reporting do not end at Istanbul and that the CHS can be used as a tool for harmonisation.

The World Humanitarian Summit is due to take place in less than two weeks. People who have been involved in summit preparations and events over the past two years are split into those who have given up any hope of concrete results, those who are hopeful it will revisit the way humanitarian response works, and those who are just happy that this time-consuming process is finally coming to an end. Those in the latter group shouldn’t rejoice too quickly as the official line is that “Istanbul is not the end, rather the beginning of something else”. The so-called “grand bargain” has been presented by some stakeholders as the most concrete set of actions due to come out of Istanbul. The grand bargain aims to transform the humanitarian system by getting more effectiveness and transparency from aid organisations on one hand, and more predictable and flexible funding from donors on the other hand. It includes measures for greater financial transparency, more cash programming, increased multi-year funding, better linkages to development work, more localised response, and a participation revolution, among other things.

A long forgotten promise

At first sight, one of the grand bargain workstreams may look like an administrative detail, but one whose achievement would generate much applause from any aid worker who’s had to produce donor reports. Indeed, harmonisation and simplification of reporting requirements is part of the grand bargain, partly as a result of a campaign entitled #lesspapermoreaid led by ICVA and supported by CHS Alliance among others. There’s no need to explain the benefits harmonised reporting would generate in terms of transparency and effectiveness. In fact, the main question is why it took so long to start working on commitments that members of the Good Humanitarian Donorship group took in 2003 (but then conveniently forgot). If you want to find out more about why the current system needs to change, and how, then visit http://lesspapermoreaid.org.

The reason why this workstream is more than just an administrative detail is that donor conditionalities continue to drive the priorities of aid organisations and can make or break any of the rather promising commitments expected to come out of Istanbul. The dynamics of change have too often been overlooked in previous humanitarian reform agendas, and are without doubt a key reason for past failure. Commitments don’t work in a vacuum, and to work, change needs to be “engineered”, as illustrated in Switch, a book which reminds us it’s not just the social or health related behaviour of “aid beneficiaries” which should be targeted, but also that of those who administer aid.

We should be more ambitious

Even though achieving harmonised reporting would be great, why don’t we go further and transform the system from its compliance driven setup to a performance-based approach? What is the use of harmonised reporting if it is contradicted by partner assessment criteria, the content of proposal templates, or that of evaluation frameworks? Only when the same message about what drives quality and accountability is repeated in a consistent way, by all donors, and throughout the programme cycle, will the approach lead not only to less time-demanding compliance requirements, but also to more appropriate, effective programmes. Finally, if the proponents of the grand bargain are serious about promoting a “participation revolution”, then the revision of these processes needs to makes space for the voice of people and communities affected by crisis at every stage.

With the Core Humanitarian Standard (CHS) we’re fortunate to have a framework that is solid enough to cover current donor requirements (a desk review of seven donor reporting formats found that nearly 90% of requirements would fit under one of the Nine Commitments of the CHS).  This means that the CHS could be a basis for the harmonisation and simplification not only of reporting formats but also of partner assessments, proposal and evaluation templates, with appropriate differences for each stage. At the same time, the CHS’s unique selling point is that it puts people at the centre of each one of its Nine Commitments. Indeed, a participation revolution should not just be about better needs assessments or more dialogue during programme implementation. It should also be about empowering people and communities affected by crisis to have a voice that counts at all stages of the programme cycle.

As a verifiable standard, the CHS comes together with guidance notes, performance indicators and a verification framework that allows stakeholders to assess their situation and measure progress in an objective way, both at organisational and programmatic levels, including people-based performance indicators.

Checking the fine print

It certainly seems like Istanbul will not be the end of the process for the grand bargain and efforts to harmonise reporting and promote a participation revolution. What we need to make sure by then is that all stakeholders agree to progress with the following principles:

  • Harmonise AND simplify: Harmonising is great, but only if it means everyone uses a better system. Trying to just create a new system by using parts of existing compliance requirements would be a disaster. For donors, this should be an opportunity to start with a blank page and throw away all the reporting requirements no one needs or uses.
  • Pass down the benefits: If bilateral donors harmonise and make reporting easier, this effort needs to be mirrored by other grant managers such as the UN and INGOs. UN agencies need to discuss and harmonise their own compliance requirements, including partner assessments. INGOs ought to lead by example by offering their own national partners a coherent set of compliance requirements. It’s not enough to complain about your own donors, you also need to practice what you preach.
  • Treat everyone equally: Today, funding is not neutral. Though the lead-up to the WHS has resulted in positive discussions around the necessity to acknowledge and encourage the increased role national actors have taken in responding to crisis, they are still discriminated against in terms of access to funding. If localising aid – where appropriate – is indeed a priority, then the conditions under which national actors can access funds need to be revisited.
  • Put people at the centre: If we are serious about a participation revolution, then we need to start conducting evaluations that rely on the feedback of people and communities affected by crisis and acknowledge that the ultimate benchmark to assess our performance is whether people for whom we say we work think we did a good job.
  • Clear the way for change: When it comes to “engineering change”, we also need to consider what impedes the participation revolution, something the grand bargain has done to some extent. However, if the CHS, as countless stakeholders believe, is a way forward for the humanitarian sector, then donors should also assess their compliance requirements against the standard in order to assess whether they promote or impede more effective, accountable humanitarian response.
  • Assess and monitor progress: Members of the CHS Alliance have committed to assess the degree to which they comply with the CHS through a structured, rigorous and objective process. For the time being, the grand bargain completely lacks a convincing monitoring framework. This needs to be fixed, either by attaching it to existing tools such as the CHS self-assessment tool, or by coming up with something equally rigorous, and a promise to transparently share the results.