Tag Archives: Aid business

Accountability Redux

I feel bad for the concept of accountability.  Must be hard for such a serious concept to get so little respect. At ALNAP’s annual meeting last month – a 2-day discussion of how change works in the humanitarian ‘system’, and why it so often doesn’t – poor ol’ accountability was stuck in the role of sectoral punching bag.  Need an example of how the system overcomes agreement, well-funded initiatives and 20 years of effort in order to resist change?  Then accountability is your man.  We even have trouble even changing the way we think about accountability (see e.g., my last blog), with system-led development of a downward accountability mechanism more or less occupying the entire space.

My mother says I am always too negative, so I will stop right now and change hats.   As a humanitarian motivated solely by compassion for the suffering of the downtrodden (and certainly not even nudged by the Oedipal pleasure of critiquing the aid establishment), perhaps I can rally to the aid of that punching bag?  In the spirit of a few but not exactly earthshaking ideas:

  1. Think smaller. As I have written before, there “is a danger that we ask too much of accountability”; invest too much in the search for a magic bullet. Our internal efforts, long guilty of greater promise than reward, have nonetheless delivered improvements. To do it better requires framing these efforts within a more honest and explicit understanding of their limitations, diminishing their outsized sales claims reducing the risk that they pre-empt or displace other, dissimilar efforts. In particular, that they do not function to dissuade external efforts aimed not at bequeathing accountability to people, but empowering them to take it.
  1. Make existing accountability work better. Nobody ever talks about the demonstrated accountability most NGO executives show to their boards/trustees. We talk incessantly about accountability moving upwards to donors, but almost never mention boards. Why? Humanitarian NGO boards are filled with the great and the good, titans of the private sector, masters of communication, big shot directors of non-sector NGOs, noted academics and venerated politicians (or even royal family). What they are not filled with are titans, masters or even relatively knowledgeable persons when it comes to humanitarian action. Fiduciary responsibilities, market share, communications and duty of care receive dedicated, expert attention. Do operations comply with the dictates of impartiality? Independence? What about operations? Do boards ask hard questions as to their effectiveness or luxuriate in the sense that they are “great, really really super”.  Would it not be a relatively straightforward affair to insist that boards receive training in humanitarian action, and that Trusteeship more explicitly requires challenging the executive to deliver on downward accountability (not to mention the humanitarian imperative) rather than battle for higher fundraising results and profit efficiency? (Hint: I already have a day-long training mostly ready).
  1. Untick the box. Some donors now routinely require aid agencies to establish some form of accountability to local pops.   Donors have power and the system dances to their tune.  As with all such measures, though, certain features of accountability will soon become a tickbox exercise.  And there is a moral hazard here, as both donor and agency share an interest in having the project look good, a current weakness of upward accountability to donors (i.e., the fudge factor).  But we can still promote donor pressure as a good move. We should only require that we maintain clarity on one thing: This is not downward accountability to people, it is accountability to donors. Box not ticked.
  1. Paradigm shift. It is a mistake to ground downward accountability in the discourse of effectiveness. If accountability is justified because it will make aid more responsive to the needs of people and hence more effective, then avoidance of downward accountability can be justified on the same grounds. The sector has long reduced downward accountability to an option in service to effectiveness rather than allow it to function as a control borne in ethical obligation. Effectiveness allows avoidance via the domineering idea that taking time to involve people affected by crisis is outweighed by the humanitarian imperative to act now now now. Let’s be clear: some of these downward accountability measures appear awfully burdensome in terms of time and resources, especially at the early stage of a emergency response. They will slow humanitarians down. Loud voices will complain about bureaucracy killing people. Doors will be slammed. This is what the clash of paradigms will produce. Anger and self-righteous indignation. A new normative framework needs to be explicit: ethical obligation trumps effectiveness. So the response to complaints needs to be “So what!?” or “Don’t worry, we’re looking into that”, the same responses that the existing paradigm has produced in answering those who have been looking for greater ethical accountability. The trick is to dismantle this effectiveness-based critique prospectively, not wait for it to dismantle the momentum for change.

[Dear Reader: Please insert here a clever summation] [21 March: This post was updated (edits to mistakes and unclear phrasing)]

 

What’s in a name?

Change can happen in the humanitarian sphere. I kid you not. Take TPFKAB. The People Formerly Known As Beneficiaries (also TPFKAAR – The People Formerly Known As Aid Recipients).  Long perceived as problematic – as passive, reductive and patronizing – over the past 18 months or so that nomenclature has been banished, the sector now self-imposing the more (politically) correct “crisis-affected populations” or “people affected by crisis.”

The new(ish) label is more correct in terms of the respect it confers upon TPFKAB. Reducing human beings to a status founded in their relationship to us – “beneficiary” or “aid recipient” or (worse still) “victim” (read: victim in need of saving by us) – placed a rather profound act of dehumanization at the centre of the humanitarian lexicon.  Kudos for recognizing the issue and making the change.  But the new label is sweeping; it too easily counts millions of people who lack a direct relationship to us at all, and whose well-being is heavily defined by that lack.  Why? Moving from TPFKAB to “people affected by crisis” involves swapping out those who actually receive aid with the larger, aspirational category of all those who probably should be receiving aid but often who do not. The new nomenclature obliterates this distinction.

The new terminology risks producing a sectoral sleight of hand, as becomes obvious in usage, for example in relation to our humanitarian Waterloo, accountability to those self-same crisis-affected people.  Here is how the Core Humanitarian Standard, the latest elixir for our accountability-challenged sector, proclaims itself: It also facilitates greater accountability to communities and people affected by crisis: knowing what humanitarian organisations have committed to will enable them to hold those organisations to account.  I hate to sound picky (actually, I am rather picky), but the word “some” seems missing: “some (and often small percentage of) people affected by crisis.”  That is who gets our aid.

As Austen Davis wrote 10 years ago, “There are no accountability initiatives that would hold agencies to account for not being somewhere.” That remains true today.  In a smart paper on accountability, James Darcy further elaborated on this blind spot, highlighting the degree to which initiatives to establish humanitarian accountability really mean accountability “for what they do, and how they do it; not for what they fail to do”. Agencies remain unaccountable for their “strategic choices.” These form no small gap: “decisions about whether or not to intervene, the timing of intervention and withdrawal, which areas and communities to prioritise, the choice of programme approach and the ‘mode’ of delivery (how to work, with what types of partner, funding etc.).” (at note 10).

The result? Accountability frameworks that offer no accountability to many of those most profoundly affected by the humanitarian response to crisis – those not receiving aid.  Accountability, of course, is just one problematic area for the use of the new terminology.  What of the very image that comes to mind in a casual expression like “The international humanitarian sector has mobilized in large numbers, with dozens of organizations busy delivering aid to crisis-affected populations in [country].”? If only it were more true.

What of the TPFKABWSBDGA? The People Formerly Known As Beneficiaries Who Should But Don’t Get Aid.  The new nomenclature may not conceal the agency or dignity of TPFKAB, may not wrap TPFAAR within their own victimhood, but it nonetheless manages to exemplify the same old trait of placing our lens onto their world, with something going invisible in the process.  In this case, millions of people affected by crisis yet unaffected by our crisis response.

The trouble with labels

The realization that humanitarian action masks political (in)action is an old story, as is our collective lament that blankets, pills and food will not fix an Afghanistan, even if they may prove quite useful to the cold, sick and hungry.  This is the problem of the humanitarian fig-leaf.  The humanitarian sector at times recognizes this effect, and has long echoed former UNHCR High Commissioner Sadako Ogata’s well-quoted wisdom that “there are no humanitarian solutions to humanitarian problems.” That is certainly true, but tends to be deployed as an alibi for our failures.  We forget to invoke Ogata as a critique of our successes.

In other words, we humanitarians bear responsibility for maintaining the lustre and exclusivity of the humanitarian label, a mode of action that emplaces one set of responses by displacing others. Have we not safeguarded our turf by averting any critique of the its sufficiency; of the effect of humanitarianizing a crisis? Beyond a label that obscures the political and military, it also occupies turf within the aid sector. To label a crisis as “humanitarian” makes us the Big Kahuna, and its calcification into policy and practice – for example, the humanitarian-development divide – has usefully meant that only humanitarian projects could be funded in some contexts.

The price of the label hence falls upon people. To wit, using blankets and pills to fix war, rescue at sea to fix killer migration, or the incongruity of responding to decades of crisis in places like DRC or South Sudan through projects aimed at addressing people’s immediate needs.  As I write in a forthcoming report, the “urgency of [humanitarian] needs eclipses but in no way lessens a greater spectrum of human aspirations – to secure livelihoods, education for their children or to live in peace.”  The degree to which such short-term approaches to long-term problems have been particularly damaging in refugee settings, addressing neither the causes of flight nor the protracted nature of being in flight.

So let us begin. Let us begin by tossing out Ogata, as a necessary but insufficient realization.  As Tom Scott-Smith cleverly concludes, the problem is not with the humanitarian solutions being inadequate, but ‘humanitarian problems’.  In his words: Framing an issue as a distinctly humanitarian one necessarily limits the responses available. Seeing inescapably political issues as humanitarian ones, in other words, can seriously curtail the possibilities for reducing suffering, and nowhere is this more evident than in the recent migration crisis. 

So let us begin in earnest by a moratorium on humanitarian tagging. The situation in DRC is not a humanitarian crisis. The situation in Haiti is not a humanitarian crisis. And the situation in the Mediterranean is not a humanitarian crisis.  The world should not sleep better knowing that humanitarians have responded to a humanitarian crisis.

And if it does not seem to be in our institutional interest to remove our label? Take heed! What goes around comes around. Look no further than the ‘crisis’ of refugees and migrants in Europe or the Ebola response. It will not be long before the security label more completely paints over the humanitarian one, replacing victims with problems, aid with self-protection and compassion with fear; replacing one Big Kahuna with another.

The trouble with refugee summits

[Apologies for the long absence – I have been working on two large projects and distracted from my usual flow of sideways thinking.]

Is Tuesday a good time for a scattering of ideas?

1. The real problem with hype.

The UN Refugee Summit – all hype and no substance? A typically good read from IRIN. The question we have to ask as a sector, and I think within the framework of research rather than accusation, is whether the emptiness of hype constitutes the full extent of the damage. Do summits, conferences and other grand ‘change change change’ plus ‘build back better’ moments actually produce more negative than positive outcomes? Specifically – and I’ve blogged on this before, in the aftermath of Angelina Jolie and William Hague’s 2013 proclamation of a ‘historic moment’ in ending rape in conflict – do these well-hyped declarations actually function to diminish the likelihood of positive change? Did Bill Clinton’s ‘build back better’ speech help doom Haiti to the not-so-built-back future it would soon discover?

Mechanisms? The obvious question is whether the well-reported declarations of world leaders take the winds out of the sails of public pressure? Will people across the West now sleep better, knowing that the refugee problem is being dealt with by no less than Barack Obama and the entire United Nations?  More important than public urgency, what about pressure from within the sector? Do these global launches generate too much of an opportunity for the aid system to capture momentum, political will and (surprise surprise) funding, only to transform it into conferences, evaluations, policy discussions, guidelines, and the unproductive yet satisfying busy-ness of saving the world? One might ask, “Where’s the beef?”

2. Fight the fear, not the violence?

The Viet Nam war produced the incongruous situation whereby young black American males were removed from the civil rights struggle and shipped off to fight in Viet Nam. A journalist/historian named Wallace Terry interviewed these soldiers. As I listened to this fascinating BBC program on Terry’s work, one moment caught my ear. One of the soldiers interviewed talked excitedly about the Black Panthers, justifying their violence because blacks had to fear the police and fear the KKK, so it would be a positive and fair change if white people also had something to fear.  I couldn’t help wondering if that same logic hasn’t fused with jihadi anger against the US or Europe.  Which prompts the strategic question of how to get rid of their fear?

3. Respond to the fear (and to the suffering, loss, hopelessness, anxiety…), not just the violence

And while I am on the topic, the news from the US when it comes to inner city gun violence will be one of the great producers of phd theses a hundred years from now. It defies comprehension. Here’s a recent headline: In Chicago’s Deadliest Day Of 2016, 9 People Killed In Shootings On Monday. Get that? On a Monday.

In a timely BBC piece, the journalist attaches himself to a local rapper to penetrate one of the most violent Chicago neighborhoods. The report quickly transports. I slipped into voyeurism, appalled and yet enthralled by the combination of youth, energy, guns and lurid deaths. The entertainment ended at 12:53, when our tour guide broke through to my human side. Worth the watch.

Parts of Chicago must surely define a humanitarian crisis. I say that less because of the violence than because of the pain, the unfathomable grief, anxiety, powerlessness and waste that produce urban landscapes seemingly imagined by Cormac McCarthy. Trauma wounds may be dealt with at the hospital, but where is MSF with its psycho-social programming for the tens of thousands of victims? Because ‘this shit will fuck you up’ and because you know that the US healthcare system isn’t offering mental health care? Where is Save the Children with its ‘Child Friendly Spaces’? Or, more simply, how do we respond to these Americans who desperately need to ‘get out’ of a place that ‘ain’t normal’?

4. “Where’s the tofu?”

Tired of the gloom? Here is a rather devastating take on humanitarian action, cleverly disguised as a restaurant review. “It’s the good intentions that sink vegetative restaurants. They are selling the goodness of their intentions in the hope that you’re more interested in filling the karma bank than your stomach. The explanations of the ingredients are always longer than the recipes. Vegetarian places are to restaurants what the Big Issue is to journalism… It’s a commitment to niceness and oneness and caring and nurturing. The Big Issue is vegetarian journalism.”  That’s the brilliant AA Gill’s Table Talk review of Tiny Leaf restaurant (Sunday Times Magazine 21 February 2016). By the way, he gave the restaurant two out of five stars.

 

Friday Traffic Jam

1. The lesson of the traffic jam

The traffic situation in New Orleans tells us a great deal about the current state of the world, with humanitarians at the center.  I lived there in the late 90s. The peak hour jams were miserable. The wide cement lanes of I-10 reconstituted themselves as a parking lot full of people full of a demoralized rage. The solution was obvious — build another lane. So the traffic jams were then tripled for a few years as construction of another lane took place.  Traffic was eased. Hooray for the new lane.  And then it wasn’t: more people started driving, the developers built more homes so more people could move out to those homes . . .  A few years after the opening of the new lane? The same miserable jams, now 33 percent wider.  This is not my observation.  This is science. This is the problem of ‘induced demand’.

The humanitarian system functions as many things, and one is as a new lane. I’m not quite sure of the mechanism. Is it that human society will always tolerate a certain level of excess misery, of people in crisis due to poverty, pestilence and war that escapes our efforts at alleviation?  Greater and greater budgets, greater and greater resources, greater and greater effectiveness and yet needs still outstrip supply.  Getting on top of it (ending human need), in other words, will always remain at the horizon.  Or does the mechanism have more to do with the behavior of governments and armed actors? Those making a mess and those who are supposed to solve the messes (or prevent them in the first place) will not respond, will not take difficult action, and will not end their wars because humanitarianism relieves enough pain to reduce the pressure to act.

We do not like the old idea that humanitarianism prolongs war. But if we admit that powerful/western governments will rarely act until there is a crisis, then the lack of a crisis often means they will not act.  But this traffic effect is not a question of prolonging war. This is a question of allowing more war: this is the degree to which the delivery of humanitarian aid becomes not just a palliative or fig-leaf, not just an illusion of or substitute for difficult political action, but the degree to which it produces an effect of putting out fire with gasoline.

Can we learn from the traffic jam? Here is what the research proved. The answer to the paradox of why building more lanes actually makes traffic worse has to do with what roads allow people to do: move around.  More roads = more moving around. That raises a question: what does humanitarian action allow people (politicians, soldiers, refugees, donors, aid workers) to do?  Even more intriguing, here is another finding of the researcher: if you take away lanes, it doesn’t create a big snarling mess. People adjust and the amount of jam stays about the same. In humanitarian terms, that would be a very good thing.

2. You can’t make this stuff up.

There are some quotes that seem better placed in a Peter Sellers movie. Here is Philip Hammond, UK Foreign Secretary, speaking in the aftermath of the Chilcot Inquiry on whether or not the UK made too hasty a withdrawal from Iraq.  “Maybe it was too great an ambition to dismantle quite a sophisticated country with a long-established civilisation, traditions and culture of its own, and to recreate a mid-Atlantic construct of what government should look like, often going against the grain of local culture and tradition.”

The word ‘great’ seems mildly out of place.  One could easily sub ‘monumentally misguided’. Does that ambition not seem familiar, though, to anyone in the international aid community?

3. Risk aversion or neurosis?

Has anybody ever measured the cumulative effect on our culture of entire nations singing their children to sleep with Rock-a-Bye Baby?  Hundreds of millions of admonitions pouring into the infant brain “When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall, and down will come baby, cradle and all.”  Seems like a recipe for creating a nation of  neurotics. Evidence of this mass insecurity? The mass hysteria that Ebola provoked in the USA? Our collective overestimation and overreaction to the threat of terrorism? Well, here’s more evidence, in an advert I just saw.

Living Fearless

Apparently, we now reside live in a world where living fearless is thought to include that old daredevil pursuit of tasting lettuce at what appears to be a posh street market.  Be afraid. Be very afraid. Said the spider to the fly?

 

Open Letter to Ban Ki-moon

Dear United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon,

Millions of people heard you. I heard you.

This is what you said before the World Humanitarian Summit.

Our global landscape is still blighted with the brazen and brutal erosion of respect for international human rights and humanitarian law. Every day, civilians are deliberately or indiscriminately injured and killed. Air strikes rip families apart. … The brutality of today’s armed conflicts and the utter lack of respect for the fundamental rules of international humanitarian law on care for the wounded and sick, humane treatment and the distinction between civilians and combatants threaten to unravel 150 years of achievements and cause a regression to an era of war without limits. (UNSG Summit Report ¶ 46)

Flouting the most basic rules governing the conduct of war has become contagious … We can, and we must, do better. (¶ 48). Remaining silent while serious violations of international law are unfolding is morally unacceptable […] Our common humanity demands that we do everything we can to prevent and end violations and hold perpetrators accountable. (¶ 59).

Whenever serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law occur, Governments, global leaders and other relevant individuals must systematically condemn them. Even where we may not be able to stop violence and suffering immediately, we have a minimum responsibility to speak […] I have asked all United Nations senior officials to do so and I encourage all United Nations staff to act with moral courage in the face of early, serious and large-scale violations. I also exhort all relevant actors and stakeholders to end the double standard of condemning the violations of some but not of others. (¶ 62, emphasis added).

Let us make the Summit in Istanbul the turning point that the world sorely needs and the beginning of the change (¶ 180).

Wow.

This is what you said after the World Humanitarian Summit:

State, civil society and humanitarian leaders repeatedly stated that international humanitarian and human rights law is more relevant than ever: it is the last protection against barbarity. We therefore must not take the easy way out and declare all civilians collateral damage. (Chair’s Summary p. 3)

There was wide agreement that unless we hold perpetrators to account, there will be no stopping this downward spiral. (Chair’s Summary p. 4). The World Humanitarian Summit has been a wake-up call for action for humanity. It has generated global momentum and political will to move forward on the Agenda for Humanity and the five core responsibilities to deliver better for people across the globe. (p. 7).

The Summit is a point of departure to act, but there must also be a destination … Let us now turn the Agenda for Humanity into an instrument of global transformation. (p. 8)

This is what you did earlier this week. You succumbed to political pressure and erased Saudi Arabia from the UN’s blacklist of those violating the rights of children (due to their often indiscriminate bombing in Yemen).

Here is what others think you did earlier this week (click): Amnesty International, War Child, and Human Rights Watch (and 35 other organizations).  Here is what I think you did earlier this week: I think you gutted the World Humanitarian Summit.  Without a global recommitment to political responsibility, legal obligations and humanitarian ideals, the Summit births nothing more than a broad set of bureaucratic aid system reforms.

I have not yet understood why this move leaves me so sad and so angry. After all, as an example of politics and power trumping the norms and principles of humanity, it seems emblematic of the current state of affairs to the point of banality. It exemplifies well the shortcomings of the United Nations and, more generally, global leadership.  Could it be that your words pierced my cynicism?Touched my humanity?  Could it be that I felt hope? Yes.

If May’s Summit functioned as a “wake-up call” then your actions this week signaled a death knell, clear notice that the most fundamental commitments to humanity were not reaffirmed, nor a new moral courage discovered.  While I was never convinced the Summit was worth staging, I am certain it was not worth killing off so quickly.

Mr. Secretary General, this is the moment, a critical juncture for your World Humanitarian Summit and for your legacy. Stand up now. Put the Saudi-led coalition back on the list.

Yours sincerely.

PS: And Mr. Secretary General, if you happen to run into other world leaders, could you ask why they do not loudly insist you hold the Saudis accountable (even in this small way) for their actions? Sadly, I think we know the answer. Back to business as usual: shared inhumanity, many irresponsible.

Addendum: The Three NGOs We Need

Addendum to the May 27 posting.

This blog adds detail to my post-WHS argument for three new INGOs, which should not be confused for either a general call for more INGOs or a lack of recognition that such NGOs may exist, though on a much smaller scale than necessary.

  1. Fundraising without Borders.

The mission of this FWB is to build the fundraising capacity of NGOs in the global south in order to safeguard their independence.  One target, the home markets. Many ‘poor’ crisis-affected nations hold wealth and cadres of wealthy citizens and a burgeoning middle class that could easily sustain local organizations and finance national humanitarian crisis response. (Combined, Africa’s very wealthy elite have a combined net worth over $660 billion).  Note that FWB does not provide a short-term fix. It must develop a long-range vision of nurturing a culture of local support to NGO activity, building national and global fundraising support services, ensuring robust finance mechanisms, etc. FWB will mechanize the implicit call of One Humanity, Shared responsibility to replace the ‘white man’s burden’ with an everyman’s compassion.

Second target, and perhaps initially of greater financial import, my neighbors. FWB would enable NGOs in the global south to fundraise directly in the markets of the global north. Following Typhoon Haiyan, the Philippines Red Cross advertised for donations in the UK media. The shock to fundraising departments might have been visible on British seismographs. Buying some advertising space, though, marks a crude beginning. Fundraising in Western markets constitutes a science, full stop.  On behalf of southern NGOs and based in each of the ‘fat’ markets, FWB would host highly developed skills and resources in terms of multimedia donation architecture (from an SMS to processing a check), media buying, messaging, financial management, database management and so forth.  The idea would be to take distinct advantage of being a non-Western NGO in the Western market – allowing donors to ‘bypass the middleman’, avoid expensive INGO costs like hotels and expat salaries, and to donate directly to those best situated to know the context and ‘solve’ local problems.

  1. Image Rescue Committee (IRC-II).

To raise money, Western NGOs deploy a range of techniques to ensure their prominence in media coverage of disaster response, displacing and disempowering local actors/efforts in the process.  The humanitarian sector’s distortion of the narrative impoverishes the global south, unsurprisingly reinforcing a picture of dysfunctional and/or primitive local societies being rescued by the international do-gooders.  And while the humanitarian sector has paid lip service to the enormous efforts of local actors, it has strenuously averted actually changing their dominant narrative. We should not wait for the Western humanitarian media machine to significantly improve the integrity of its messaging. Rather, this media bias needs to be challenged by the mainstreaming of alternative discourses. Enter, stage left, IRC-II.

The task is simple and rather straightforward. IRC-II should deploy teams on Crisis Day 1, delivering interviews, film footage and clever soundbites that profile (exclusively!) local actors and efforts.  One can imagine special reports that highlight the expertise and effort of local actors, complete with economic calculations of the value of the local effort – stats to rival those of the international community. Or maybe a TV montage of local authorities complaining that the Western intervention seems overly preoccupied with finding comfortable hotel space? Famous photographers documenting the goings on of the aid community at the local swim club or beachside restaurant?

Naturally, IRC-II would employ all of the same media tricks as the major INGOs, such as transporting journalists and film crews to their projects, lobbying news outlets for choice positioning, commissioning advocacy reports, or rolling in the celebrities, Hollywood megastars able to show their deep concern while strolling through an IDP camp in the logo-festooned shirt of a local NGO.  Put differently, the goal of IRC is to use international media to broadcast the truth in such a way as to crack the narrative divide.

  1. No-Mercy Corps.

Five decades of development work have yielded organizations specializing in empowerment against a wide array of oppressive and anti-democratic structures.  From the empowerment of labor against industry to the empowerment of women against the patriarchy and from empowerment of farm laborers against farm owners to the empowerment of people against despotic leaders, there is no shortage of NGO-led effort against the powerful.  Critically, nobody in this spectrum of work looks in the institutional mirror.  So there remains one glaring gap – empowerment of local communities against the Western NGOs and UN agencies.

Too often, the grand, noble aid agency remains largely untouchable to the marginalized, desperately grateful communities. No wonder the WHS consultations found that only 27% of aid recipients felt their needs were being met. Time to end the sector’s free pass and create No-Mercy Corps, to work locally on how people affected by crisis can better control the crisis response. Looked at functionally, the purpose of NMC would be to counter the powerless of people affected by crisis against one of the most powerful determinants of their lives by creating multiple points of accountability.

The problem is not a new one. Yet the good-intentioned though relatively ineffective ‘solutions’ have always sought to change the sector from within, to (grudgingly) bequeath some illusion of participation, as exemplified by its decades-slow and miserly (voluntary) bequeathing of downward accountability.  Control and power, of course, need to be taken. (The Core Humanitarian Standard? A first sectoral step in the right direction, but we should be wary when the foxes approve new controls on the henhouse.). Specific to each context, NMC’s aim is to build multi-pronged, independent/external control upon the humanitarian response.

  • Setting up and funding aid ombudsman or watchdog functions, either as organizations within the community or as part of local government capacity.
  • Enacting local legislation or standard technical agreements that incorporate Sphere standards and the guiding principles, or require greater foreign NGO transparency in terms of decision-making, performance and reporting (and ensuring translation/dissemination).
  • Creating and funding local organizations that are able to work with aid recipients to assess aid performance and rectify problems.
  • Ensuring local consultation, both individually and across communities, such as has been done through surveying by Ground Truth.
  • Training local media, community leaders and existing CBOs in the assessment of aid efforts, with attention for example to the humanitarian principles.
  • Monitoring and advocacy (in the West) on the work actually being done, aiming to change the behavior of the INGOs, such as reports delivered to donors and media in INGO home societies or lobbying INGO trustees/boards to improve performance.

Impartiality’s Forgotten Clause

[The ICRC has launched a new blogsite: Humanitarian Law & Policy.  Very excited to have this opinion piece among their opening day blogs. Thanks to the team there for feedback. Good luck.]

In the words of the UN Secretary General, ‘Leaving no one behind’ “is a central aspiration of most political, ethical or religious codes and has always been at the heart of the humanitarian imperative” (¶ 72). In the world of humanitarian relief, we leave people behind every day. It isn’t pretty.

On my first mission, as project coordinator in Khartoum way back in 1999, I found myself informing about 250 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Omdurman el-Salaam camp that MSF would be closing its health centre. I explained how the situation in the camp had improved to some degree, that there were other parts of Sudan with greater needs, that MSF was bound by the principle of impartiality to leave, and that this was the same principle that had brought us to Omdurman el-Salaam in the first place.

Naïve, a bit smug in the correctness of my position, I expected some initial grumbling, to be followed by tributes, appreciation for the high-quality services provided and perhaps lunch. I departed about two hours later, frustrated, sad and brimming with self-righteous indignation after having been called a murderer many times over, and told that MSF would carry the blood of their children on its hands.

The World Humanitarian Summit’s Core Commitment to ‘Leave no one behind’ constitutes neither a humanitarian imperative nor an option. In the heart of crisis, needs almost always exceed response, essentially obligating aid agencies to implement painful choices – deciding where to deliver aid includes a decision where not to deliver aid. The principle of impartiality dictates that choice. It even tells us who to leave behind: as Jean Pictet put it, humanitarian action “makes no discrimination as to nationality, race, religious beliefs, class or political opinions. It endeavours to relieve the suffering of individuals, being guided solely by their needs, and to give priority to the most urgent cases of distress.”

Those most in need come first

For half of impartiality, there seems to be good news. Humanitarian agencies treat non-discrimination in aid as a red line at project level, ensuring that services or distributions reach individuals without regard to race, religion, ethnicity, etc. What about the definition’s second half? Impartiality prohibits discrimination and requires aid agencies to identify and prioritize those most in need. Is this impartiality’s forgotten clause – ‘forgotten’ in the sense of being voiced with little regard to its implications for operations?

Critics often call attention to the weakness of impartiality at a global level, highlighting the degree to which aid funding disproportionately follows the political and economic interest of the main donors. At the context level, though, impartiality seems challenged by the evolution of humanitarian practice itself. Too often, needs assessment slips into a logic of finding those with (some) identifiable needs, not those most in need, or finding those with needs corresponding to supply, to the stuff that the agency has to offer. Tellingly, the World Humanitarian Summit consultation process revealed widespread discontent among people affected by crisis – with surveys showing only 27% agreeing that aid received met their primary needs.

Similarly, a number of trends and factors within the humanitarian sector collide with impartiality in ways that raise important yet largely ignored questions. When crisis strikes, how does and how should impartiality relate to program choices for agencies already operating in the country (e.g. doing development work); who already have connections to a specific community or geographic location? If the needs are greater elsewhere, does impartiality not require the organization to shift its relief effort to that place? Or would it make more sense to remain in a location that is familiar, where the agency is trusted and has existing infrastructure? That seems logical from an operational standpoint, but arguably functions to create constituencies of preferred aid recipients, where distribution is not at all based on need alone but depends on a variation of ‘who you know’.

Thorny questions abound. How does agency specialization affect impartiality? As I have discussed before, do agencies looking for the needs of children even see the needs of the elderly? And yet, again, specialization brings with it considerable advantages. Further, as MSF has argued, does the pressure to be successful, whether imposed by donor contracting or simply internal agency dynamics, push the delivery of aid toward easier-to-reach populations, closer to central hubs, and away from the uncertainties inherent in trying to address the needs of the most vulnerable?

Even policies as commonsensical as ‘value for money’ may impact on impartiality, because reaching those with the greatest need will usually incur greater costs. A discussion at an MSF HIV/AIDS project in Zimbabwe illustrates this point. When asked, the team clearly explained that the most urgent cases had to be the HIV-positive street children, whose situation was truly shocking. But the resources necessary to reach them and maintain their participation in the treatment program were deemed prohibitive, because substantially higher numbers would have to be left out of the program. So the program focused elsewhere. A tough lesson: distributive justice does not necessarily align with impartiality.

Impartiality is an aspiration, not an operational principle

In practice, the principle of impartiality plays a dual role for humanitarians, at once a defining characteristic or ethic of the trade and an obligation that shapes crucial decisions. In practice, impartiality constrains the urge to help everyone because capacity constrains the ability to do so. Critically, impartiality is an ideal. Its perfect form exists in lectures and textbooks, not in the messy world of humanitarian crisis. Compromise is therefore unavoidable. To maintain the integrity of the principle, then, we should establish agreed standards or best practice guidelines. Perhaps we can define red lines that should not be crossed in terms of leaving the most urgent cases behind. The point is to ensure these compromises and trade-offs are recognized and deliberate, rather than the unseen by-product of humanitarian decision-making.

Compromise, though, implies acknowledging what is at stake to begin with. Yet far more discussion and analysis focuses on the independence and neutrality of the sector than on its impartiality. Always highly touted as an ethical foundation and inviolable principle, impartiality takes on even greater importance today as people affected by crisis progressively insist that aid should do a better job of meeting their needs. That mounting shift may prove to be one of the defining dynamics of the next decade of humanitarian aid. With that in mind, we need to ensure that Leave no on behind remains a moral principle, an aspiration, not an operational principle and certainly not an excuse to treat everyone’s needs as of equal urgency.

 

Three Big Questions for the World Humanitarian Summit

The World Humanitarian Summit is this month. The UN Secretary General’s report One Humanity: Shared Responsibility forms the basis of Summit. The report announces a new direction, or at least the aspiration for a new direction. There’s a lot to like. There are also questions that come to mind.

Big Question 1: When it comes to upholding the cardinal rules of war, is it good enough that states may (or may not) reaffirm their commitment to their past commitments?

Follow up questions:  Faced with ever more widespread disregard for existing obligations under international humanitarian law and an ascending moon of impunity, shouldn’t humanitarian actors be aggressive, fighting for more than a recommitment & photo op session?  Why does the Summit feel more like a kumbaya moment than a protest one? In its kumbayaness, does the humanitarian sector not show more solidarity towards the system of powerful states than to the people suffering unfathomable deprivations generated and sustained by that system of states? What is the cost of the sector accepting vast amounts of its funding from states that routinely violate fundamental humanitarian norms or fail to uphold them? Is it not time for humanitarians to rethink rather than solidify their close cooperation and partnership with all states?

The question not being asked: Given trending global norms of violence against civilians, blockages/abuse of humanitarian aid, and impunity, and given the humanitarian sector’s two decades of growing central role in all this crisis, is it not time to examine our (wishful) framing of the problem as an external one?

Big Question 2: Is ‘ending need’ a humanitarian goal?

Follow up questions:  What does it mean that the UN Secretary General proposes to make humanitarian action accountable to the Sustainable Development Goals? Isn’t that what development efforts aim to do, while humanitarians address the consequences in the meantime?  Where is the (humanitarian) opposition to the SG moving the sector’s goalposts? What happens to access if humanitarians are asked to end need by addressing the underlying politically-charged power dynamics of poverty, inequality, marginalization and war?  Does getting rid of the humanitarian – development divide actually require erasing the distinctions between the two?  Are the two really nothing more than ‘artificial institutional labels’?  What does it mean to place paramount emphasis on reinforcing national authorities when such a large chunk of humanitarian aid responds to conflicts involving those same authorities?

The question not being asked: What political and economic forces are driving the redefinition of humanitarian action as a subsidiary of state-building and development work (and what are humanitarian actors going to do about it)?

Big Question 3: Is it possible that major donors will invest in humanity differently than they have been able to do in the past?

Follow up questions:  How does the ‘Grand Bargain’ on humanitarian financing propose to reverse recent trends in funding when other efforts, notably the Good Humanitarian Donorship Agreement, have not? More importantly, why didn’t that 2003 agreement work? In other words, how does the ‘Grand Bargain’ alter the political commitments of the major donors (e.g., to aid oversight committees and voters in their home societies) that have pushed aid funding towards short-term, project-based grants, direct links to homeland national/security interests, supply-based targets rather than human-based needs, ‘value for money’, etc.?  Are the major donors ready to overhaul their policies and organigrams to make this work? What of the heavily bureaucratized grant reporting that has evolved to demonstrate to voters that their taxes are well spent in these days of austerity – how in real terms do we arrive at significant direct funding to local NGOs?

The question not being asked:  Given decades of humanitarian actors blaming their inaction on the lack of external funding, what is Plan B in terms of humanitarian organisations taking responsibility for their financial (and hence operational) independence?

Bonus Question: Why is this billed as a World Humanitarian Summit?

Bonus Answer:  The Summit is not about humanitarian action (as I first expected it would be).  This Summit is primarily about preventing and ending humanitarian crisis, not alleviating its impact on people.  Good.  But that is a story of war, politics, development, marginalization, inequality, or even gender and ethnicity and culture.  I see that states will be at the Summit. I know that humanitarians have booked their tables.  Who else? Has the development sector mobilized? How about the peace and reconciliation communities?  Human rights and global justice agencies? Civil society organizers? Forget the H in WHS, this is their Summit too, because while humanitarians fix people caught in crisis, we need completely different actors to fix the crisis itself.

Double Bonus Question: Does anybody have any idea what is going to come out of the Summit?

Double Bonus Answer: Not me.

A Political Economy of Aid Reform?

The IRC has recently released a study of reports on studies of the Ebola crisis. Their conclusion is that these reports ‘offer valuable solutions, but they also perpetuate problems by ignoring fundamental realities.’  That is because these reports ‘reflect a persistent weakness of the global conversation about health systems: the erasing of politics.’  And now, for a bit of shameless self-promotion, IRC singled out our ODI report for not falling into this trap, for correctly saying ‘what most reports, and indeed most health systems efforts, failed to recognize: that any effort to improve health systems can only succeed if it is based on an understanding of the politics involved.’

What does the Ebola response tell us about the World Humanitarian Summit?

The fast-approaching World Humanitarian Summit holds the promise of a better humanitarianism, meaning it also holds the risk of repeating the same mistakes that have doomed so many of our good intentions in the past. Of course, there are multiple mistakes that undermine implementation of the humanitarian imperative. Shortcomings and gaps as well. Not multiple, but thousands.  But in some ways, there is only one mistake that needs fixing. We need to replace talking about what we should do with talking about how to do it. And in particular, how to do it given the incentives, architecture, political dynamics and culture which govern the ecosystem of humanitarian aid.

Thus far, and the Ban Ki Moon’s recently released report reinforces this weakness, the Summit process has traded more heavily in attractive ideas than in an analysis of how history might avoid repeating itself.  New and intriguing recommendations surface, and yet they resemble the sector’s standard recommendations, conclusions and lessons learned in the degree that their feasibility is wishful. As the UNSG admits, the measures he proposes are not new, a “testament to the failure to learn from the past and to embrace necessity and change more forcefully.”  (UNSG ¶170).  It does not help that the UN’s #1 humanitarian, ERC Stephen O’Brien, has proclaimed that the system is ‘broke’ but ‘is not broken.’

How do we change our stripes? By ending the gravy train of funding for technical evaluations, dismissing rather than embracing so-called ‘lessons learned’ approaches (see here for one of my previous blogs on lessons identified but not learned), and basing analysis on a thorough political economy of the given situation.  In other words, at the system level and at the organization or project level, stop promoting reforms based on an overly simplistic understanding of the problem. Top aid thinkers Ben Ramalingam and John Mitchell explain it a lot better than I could:

Two broad sets of reasons for this lack of change are widely cited. One is that there are many drivers of change for the sector, of which the reform agenda is only one. Reforms, moreover, are seldom, if ever, the most prominent of the internal drivers. Others include organisational interests, professional norms, donor interests and so on. These serve to reinforce the status quo of the sector. … The second set of reasons relates to the reform efforts themselves. Seldom have change and reform efforts attempted to change the fundamental rules and incentives that underpin humanitarian aid effectiveness.

The paramount question is whether we will do better in the future by examining how and why we failed in the past, replacing the question of what do we want to achieve.  In this regard, the Ebola outbreak and response signaled (once again) the need for a more transformative agenda, one that avoids wishfully imagining the dawn of a new age where global public good trumps political self-interest, and instead addresses both the shortcomings of humanitarian action as well as their underlying causes.