Ten steps to a better humanitarian system

12 October 2015
Nick van Praag

by Nick van Praag

Nick van Praag directs Ground Truth Solutions, a programme of Keystone Accountability that focuses on accountability to affected people.

This week’s global consultation on the World Humanitarian Summit looks like it will be long on calls for commitment to reform and short on agreement about how to make it happen. Here are Nick van Praag’s suggestions for a better humanitarian system.

This week’s global consultation on the World Humanitarian Summit looks like it will be long on calls for commitment to reform and short on agreement about how to make it happen. Here are my ten suggestions for a better humanitarian system.

  1. Break-down old monopolies. It is time to launch an anti-trust drive that would eliminate the mandates that decades ago arbitrarily handed exclusive responsibility to organisations like the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for the protection of refugees and United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) for children. These old monopolistic arrangements are anachronistic in an age of increasing local and national civil society capacity. They distract agencies into turf wars rather than focusing on what should be their primary goal – optimising humanitarian action for people in need.
  2. Re-engineer the current aid architecture. Decades of tinkering with the system have led to mostly cosmetic changes, not substantial or sustained improvements. The underlying flaws remain: it’s a system where everyone is in charge, but no one is accountable. A good place to start is creating a firewall that strengthens normative bodies and divorces them from operational agencies.
  3. Slim down the humanitarian midriff: It is time to put more money into organisations that do the work on the ground and less into covering the internal costs of intermediary entities like the UN and some big INGOs. These agencies too often extract a hefty handling fee (arguing that this means better accountability and quality control, etc.) before passing the money on to organisations working on the front lines, without adding any real value in the aid chain.
  4. Specialise and lead: Rather than ever larger organisations doing a lot of things not very well, it is time for greater specialisation. Specialist organisations can be deployed together, but work under a light touch but authoritative programme-wide leader with the right field intelligence, connections to donors and clout within the humanitarian sector to make things happen on the ground.
  5. Duplicate optimally: Organisations – like people – don’t like to be coordinated; and certainly not by organisations that are seen as having their own vested interests in the system. We must learn to accept there will be overlap and, rather than trying to root it out through often fruitless coordination, we should aim for what ACAPS director Lars Peter Nissen describes as ‘optimal duplication’.
  6. Crowd in the private sector: The private sector has a major contribution to make in many spheres of humanitarian action – from innovation to camp management to logistics – but it is kept at arms length by the mystification on which the sector thrives. This does not mean building up the likes of Washington D.C.’s beltway bandits. No, what we need is the real thing … private sector smarts and innovation, coupled with a genuine commitment to help people in crisis, and not the corporate bottom line.
  7. Share the burden fairly. The elephant in the humanitarian room is who pays the bills. If the US and the rest of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Development Assistance Committee (OECD DAC)  along with the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and other countries paid a fair share to support aid efforts in proportion to their gross national product (GNP), estimated needs could easily be covered.
  8. Listen, learn, and act on feedback from affected people: An important way to both improve the performance of the sector and hold aid providers to account is to empower affected people to express their views on the quality of aid and their relationship with aid providers. But collecting feedback frequently is only part of the picture. Demonstrating how it’s used and measuring the results from the perspective of affected people is the other, and donors should make it mandatory for organisations they fund.
  9. Lift the fog that swirls around humanitarian interventions. As much as food and shelter, people hit by disasters need clear, transparent information about how to access services and raise concerns. Getting information about aid should be a basic right, and communicating with communities must be a central part of all humanitarian operations not a half-hearted, under-funded afterthought.
  10. Focus compliance where it counts: The demands of complying with myriad donor rules and reporting requirements add an additional layer of inefficiency to a system already stewing in its own bureaucratic juice. We need a compliance system that measures actual results for affected people, not how well an organisation fills out reports. One way forward is to create a performance yardstick using feedback from affected people. They know a thing or two about the quality and efficiency of aid.

The humanitarian sector is under pressure to do better. That won’t happen if it continues to spend more of its energy resisting change than embracing it. There’s still time for those involved in preparations for the World Humanitarian Summit to shift the balance towards concrete measures of reform such as those outlined in the CHS Alliance report On the Road to Istanbul. That way relevance lies.