Tag Archives: Funding

Multilateralism and its Discontents

1.  Did you miss Antonio Donini’s “The crisis of multilateralism and the future of humanitarian action,” on the IRIN website? Here it is. Donini smacks a lot of nails on the head. We live in an era of decline when it comes to the international agenda for a less violent and oppressive world. Global governance is heading the way of the polar bear, swaying in confusion on the lip of an isolated floe. Even Europe, typically much less unprincipled than my own USA, let alone Russia or South Sudan, has “become a flag-bearer for an untrammelled rollback of rights.” The article points the finger, and then examines how the retreat of multilateralism impacts upon humanitarian action. Finally, he asks, “what is the reflecting humanitarian to do?” I have the answer.

No I don’t.  I have one way of looking at it. This retreat of multilateralism rebalances the bargain between humanitarian aid agencies and their major Western donors. It rebalances our bargains with the corporate sector as well, because we humanitarians have long accepted to represent what Donini labels “the smiley face of globalisation.”  This sector we love needs to stop smiling about globalization and it needs to strike a new respect for the principles it enshrines.

On the government side and on the corporate side, some of this is aidwashing (see Point 2 below).  Some of this is soft power. Some of this is market entry.  Some of this is product placement. Some of this is guilt…  The sum of good impact far from counterbalances the sum of those somes, let alone the sum of drone warfare, hyper consumerism and political domination. Nor can it; nor should it. No government can place international interests above self interest as a matter of policy. No corporation can place do-gooderism above profit as a strategic objective.  And no humanitarian organization can afford to ignore these equations.

In other words, no humanitarian organization should continue with the delusion that this headlong rush into ever deeper partnerships with the private sector and dependence on Western donor governments will pave a virtuous path forward for humanitarians.  Of course corporations and entrepreneurs have much to offer. Of course they do good. Of course government aid agencies have much to offer. Of course they do good. But that should begin the discussion, not end it. Faust, at least, traded his soul for knowledge.  Budget relief seems somewhat less noble of a bargaining chip.

The point, as I concluded in a recently published report, is that humanitarian actors “need to decide how far they are willing to become coherent with the policies, players and multilateralism that help produce the crises of displacement, inequality and war in the first place.” Or perhaps Peter Buffett explains it better: Inside any important philanthropy meeting, you witness heads of state meeting with investment managers and corporate leaders. All are searching for answers with their right hand to problems that others in the room have created with their left. 

2.  Earlier this week I tweeted about Boris Johnson. On most days, an easy target. “You gotta love politics” I quipped, in reference to Johnson lambasting the Saudis for bombing Yemen while seemingly oblivious to the irony of the situation given Britain’s arms sales to the Saudis. That “paradox” has been noted before. And yet perhaps we aid industry vets do Yemen a disfavor with that label. Paradox? Perhaps that is only the way we choose to (mis)understand it, as a paradox between this delivering of bombs to the Saudis and relief aid to the bombed. Perhaps the paradox is more about how humanitarians can be so world weary and yet so naively full of our own wishful thinking.

There is no paradox whatsoever. There is enabling, causation and even a coherence of action, like arriving home with flowers on the day you will tell your wife what happened at Jonathan’s bachelor party. Are we really so convinced of our goodness as to ignore how the large humanitarian expenditure in Yemen pays for the arms sales to the Saudis? That is its purpose and that forms, hence, part of the impact that should be owned by us, regardless our less bellicose intentions.

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.

WHS — Views from the outside.

[The World Humanitarian Hootenanny is over! Scorecards are popping up, from glowing to relatively unfavorable to stinging and everything in between.  I will be giving my take on some key issues in this and forthcoming blogs.  Like a friend not invited to a wedding, I can only offer my envious observations from afar.]

  1. The Three NGOs We Need

The prominence of the localization agenda has been touted as a key WHS success, with the golden statue being awarded to the Grand Bargain. That recalibration of humanitarian financing includes the highly praised central commitment “to channel 25 per cent of financing to national and local responders as directly as possible by 2020.”

Will moving money from major donors to national governments and local NGOs contribute to empowerment? It might. But the politics of aid may not be so kind. Rule #1: there is no such thing as a free lunch. That point aside, localization seems to have been reduced to this ‘groundbreaking’ shift of funds, which may actually divert attention from a much broader local empowerment.  To begin with, the management of this new financial windfall – the bureaucratization and proceduralization which it will require – seems poised to become the core business of the humanitarian sector over the next several years. Empowerment? Be careful of what you wish for (the subject of a future blog).

Looked at from within the sector, for meaningful localization to occur, the system essentially needs to empower people against itself. That, of course, runs contrary to the working of most systems, which is why the humanitarian sector has been characterized by such a grotesquely lopsided north-to-south grip on power. Beyond funding, how might the system contribute to local empowerment? With hundreds of NGOs essentially duplicating one another in terms of service delivery, here’s my list of the three agencies that have long been missing from the sector.

  1. Fundraising without Borders. Rather than tie local NGOs and civil society actors into the institutional funding mechanisms that have so effectively gutted the independence of Western NGOs, the aim of FWB would be to support (1) the development of fundraising within the local context and (2) entry into the well-established fundraising markets of the West.
  2. Image Rescue Committee. The IRC would function as a communications and promotions department for local response to crisis, be it civilian, NGO or governmental. The aim is to counter the skewed narrative delivered by the humanitarian sector – one that disempowers everything local by promoting a dated, warped tale of how they have been (heroically!) saved by the Western intervention.
  3. No-Mercy Corps. According to their own reports, international actors have worked for decades towards empowerment of the marginalized, poverty-stricken and oppressed populations of the global south. And yet not one has focused on empowerment against one of the most powerful and undemocratic forces impacting on their lives, the aid sector itself. Ending this Uncle Tomist free ride, NMC would work to create a set of local mechanisms or bodies (external to the sector) that build control and accountability over the aid sector’s interventions.

Three magic bullets to deliver on the promise of localization? Not at all. Perhaps more important than the potential of FWB, IRC and NMC to empower local responders and communities in the future is what their absence says about the past. Why is it that these organizations, designed and resourced to stand up to the humanitarian oligopoly, do not exist?  Why did the humanitarian ecosystem** not give rise to these rather obvious aid functionalities? Because Grand Bargain or not, the architecture, incentives, power dynamics and culture of the aid system all push in a different direction.  And that is one problem the WHS should have been busy addressing.

** Actually, FWB and NMC would better suit the development community, that has long missed out on opportunities to exploit the humanitarian field for its development gains – see here, here or here.

[Over the weekend, I hope to put some flesh on FWB, IRC and NMC, so that post is coming.]

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.

Three Songs (3)

[This blog is the third of a 3-part series.]

Part 3. Towards a New Song

Adding up the Swansong and An Old Song, here is what you get: a sterling example of oversimplification. Mea culpa. The point is to make a point: the two songs share a foundational error, one emblematic of too many similarly inspiring yet fruitless aid songs.

Both Ban Ki Moon’s compelling World Humanitarian Summit report and the international community’s push to Leave no one behind rest upon a causal logic shaped something like this: by identifying a problem and agreeing to solve it, highly skilled people plus good intentions will fix the problem. This approach works well for repairs, when something is broken, like an engine with a leaky radiator. It works less well when the system itself is flawed, when the problem is generated by the system functioning as it has evolved to function, regardless our collective intentions and commitments to the contrary.

Remember, the same people have come together over and over again to declare that the recipients of aid should participate meaningfully in the process or that humanitarian action must be accountable to local communities. Another example: ask yourself how the proposed ‘Grand Bargain’, the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) solution to the woes of humanitarian financing, differs from previous attempts such as the 2003 Good Humanitarian Donorship Agreement.  Does it once again ask the leopard to change its spots? Or does it set forth a plan that will work in spite of the spots?

Such idealism requires an ahistoricism, one that occludes the magnitude of previous efforts dedicated to the same ideal. In our zeal and in our need to believe, humanitarians all too regularly leap past the question of why it didn’t work before. Are we frightened the past might blunt our enthusiasm (or funding) for the future? Would history usher us towards apathy in a world so full of brutal crisis?  Or, in less psychological terms, do ideals obviate the grim need for systemic change given a sector where nobody gets fired for singing an old song?

In Moon’s own words, 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” (One Humanity, ¶ 72). Beautiful. Dead wrong for humanitarians, but beautiful. A goal to be endorsed wholeheartedly for the development community, but the humanitarian imperative instructs that we should leave people behind. It even tells us who: the principle of impartiality instructs that the most urgent of cases are the ones to receive aid first. (All the more reason to hope that development works to build capacity that can address less urgent needs.).

The problem for humanitarians today is not one of leaving people behind, it is one of leaving the wrong people behind. Reaching the most vulnerable imposes political, program and personal costs/risks that have long forced aid away from the most vulnerable (see, e.g., MSF’s Where is Everyone). To begin with, reaching the most needy costs a lot more than reaching the merely needy. Reaching the most marginalized entails far higher risks of delay, insecurity and unforeseen consequences. It requires an aid industry able to embrace the likelihood of failure, not one that must flee the risk of it.

The aid community aspires to aid the most vulnerable, the humanitarian system is largely designed (by evolution, not intelligence) to avoid them. Political pressure ensures that we will not hear USAID or DFID disavow the idea that aid must deliver ‘value for money’ or ‘bang for the buck’. There can be no press release on not building ten clinics for the needy IDPs near Goma, but instead venturing out and building two clinics for the desperate IDPs in the hinterlands (for the same amount of money and with a year of delays). NGOs cannot boast of new programming directions that might not work, complete with promises to learn from mistakes. Taking more risks cannot gain approval from boards governed by concerns for public reputation, future funding or the threat of lawsuits.

Leaving no one behind offers us a slogan to rally behind, an ideal towards which we can dedicate ourselves, a direction that taps into funding streams. Without changes to the incentives, drivers, architecture, culture and politics governing aid, Leaving no one behind also risks offering us another old song. Until we recognize and address how and why the design of the ‘system’ often forces humanitarians away from the most vulnerable and most marginalised, we will never be able to place them at the epicenter of our work. That is the lesson to be learned.

And that is all we need for a new tune. We need songs that no longer end with grand visions of what needs changing. We need songs that begin with them, with our longstanding challenges, and then go on to offer an explanation of why they didn’t work and a vision of how we are going to get there this time.

Final note for the record: if the plan boils down to calling for a new political commitment, that is an old song. World leaders possess no lack of political commitment. The problem is a surfeit of competing, contradictory commitments.

No Time to Rejoice

Hip hip hooray? The British government has announced it will welcome thousands of Syrian refugees, an abrupt reversal of fortunes for those dreaming of barbed wire boundaries.  So much for the previous day’s logic that the UK’s generous aid / involvement ‘over there’ somehow cancelled out legal and moral obligations right here.  It would be difficult to concoct a more perfect example of abusing the purpose of aid.

There are many who will view this as a victory of politics, a democracy where the voice of the people was heard.  It is certainly a case where the shift in public opinion, not to mention the shame of having even the likes of Nigel Farage (UK’s anti-immigration demagogue) call on the government to do more for the refugees, prompted better policy. But this remains a political failing.

What do Aylan Kurdi and Thomas Eric Duncan have in common?  They are both dead.  And their deaths changed public opinion.  And so their deaths changed prime ministerial / presidential policy.  That is the problem with democracy, its inability to act against the will of the people when the will of the people is too slow to embrace what is right.  David Cameron has long known what is right – legally and morally – in terms of those seeking asylum from Syria, or places like Eritrea, Yemen and Libya.

Both Cameron and Barack Obama knew that their countries needed to launch an urgent response to Ebola long before their catastrophically late (September 2014) interventions.  But they could not act because the increasingly deadly combination of the high stakes of power plus the brutal oppositionalism of domestic politics means that politicians cannot afford to act in accordance with necessity, principles, or even in line with their own moral compass.  When it comes to these sorts of foreign policy issues, it means they must wait for the public because they will not sacrifice political capital to lead the public. So they watched Syrians drown and Sierra Leoneans perish.  We all watched.

Political (and financial) dynamics thus twist the financial and proverbial logic, creating a structural preference for pounds of ‘cure’ rather than ounces of ‘prevention’. In other words, for late intervention, after the weight of a crisis has gained sufficient media attention to tip public sympathy.  The well-foreseen, slow-onset 2011 famine in south central Somalia provides a well-documented example. The humanitarian community needed those images of starving children to unblock funding, many fatal months late.  It is not a victory when doing what’s right in the face of (impending) crisis means waiting for the likes of the crumpled little boy on the beach or the feverish Liberian man in a Dallas hospital.

Called Out

Story 1. The Daily Mail’s recent investigation revealed that charity fundraising agents employ aggressive techniques, harassing everyone, even people with dementia in order to score a donation. The DM trumpets a revolting story of how one lovely old woman, 92-year-old Olivia Cooke, was killed by cold calling.

Story 2. All these charities have ‘robust’ measures in place, none of these charities ‘tolerate’ unethical call practices, all these charities have elaborate systems to ensure their telephone fundraising agents comply with the ‘highest standards’ of practice, none of them knew what was going on, all of them are ‘outraged’ and will get to the bottom of this… (see here, for example)

Point 1: Something does not quite add up.

Question 1: Which conclusion is worse? That charities all know exactly how cold-call fundraising campaigns function, and yet make a calculated compromise? That it is largely the charities who dictate a game in which call agencies must deliver the greatest bang for the buck – an equation doomed to sideline ethical concerns? Or that nobody knew the path that was being taken in their names (conveniently, in that case, all we need to do is change paths by hiring a different agency)?

Answer 1: No answer to those questions gets rid of the queasy feeling that more of the public now thinks of us in terms usually reserved for celebrities who get caught cheating on their spouses.

Point 2.  We are all in this together. Trust is the primary precondition for the aid world.

Story 3: The aftermath has been predictable. Now, the industry trots out sincere handwringing, apologies and pledges for investigations/change. Now, announcements to stop using cold call tactics and a new supporter pledge to behave better. Now, the politicians, fundraising industry and aid business have jumped on the bandwagon of salvation.  Tough measures will be taken! Abuse will be stamped out! A new morality will rule the day because it turns out humanitarians – like the politicians and bankers in opposition to whom we routinely define our goodness – need a new morality.

Question 2. The question isn’t whether NGOs should wean themselves from cold calling or establish confidence-building supporter pledges. The question is why supporter promises, a relatively ancient, tried-and-true practice, were not in place long ago. The question is why cold calling is ever used to raise money for humanitarian ends.

Answer 2 (literal version): Decisions were taken not to make a supporter promise.  Decisions were taken to ignore the ethical concerns around cold calling in order to deliver on cash.

Answer 2 (simple version):  We have large headquarters and we have massive needs to fulfill – a globe of human suffering no less –and that costs money.

Answer 2 (complex version): The incentives in a supply-driven aid system emphasize financial bottom lines over operational effectiveness.

Answer 2 (deep version): Across many dimensions of our work, the humanitarian has a vested interest in believing that ends justify means.

Main Point: The Daily Mail – and we should expect as much – almost defines the “shark kills surfer” school of journalism.  Shock sells news.  Little old ladies with Alzheimer’s became the story. So little old ladies become the problem and then drive the solution.  In whipping up the lurid tale of our fallen humanitarian nobility, the media buried the greater imperative. A focus on the extremities of harassment veils the banality of aid’s hard-fought principles being eroded by the business of self-interest.

Story 4:  Where have we heard this saga of disenchantment before? Just about everywhere.

Making development work for humanitarian response–and vice versa

[This is the first of a series of posts aimed at the World Humanitarian Summit.  More generally, this post and the next one offer ideas on how development and humanitarian organizations can work better together. Many thanks to WhyDev for their encouragement, editorial help and posting of this blog. Check out their excellent site if you don’t know it. – MD]

How many times have we seen this: a complex emergency with a decade or two of heavy humanitarian intervention (maybe some development organisations and peacekeeping forces as well), scores or even hundreds of millions of dollars spent by aid agencies, legions of expats trafficked through–and yet close to zero planned impact on local economic development or resilience? Sound like Eastern DRC? Haiti? South Sudan?

Foreign aid policy and practice have failed to view humanitarian crisis as an opportunity for development. This gap highlights a missed potential to capitalise on the presence of such a well-resourced foreign enterprise as humanitarian intervention.

A house divided

The aid community has improved its performance these past years by learning that, particularly in complex emergencies, contexts cannot be shoehorned into one end or the other of a false continuum, designated as either “humanitarian” or “development”, with one-size-fits-all implications for the aid response. Nonetheless, this divide is deeply ingrained, reinforced by the two-pronged architecture of the aid system, from funding streams to academic departments to organigrams of agencies and governmental ministries.

This divide has given rise to a fair amount of acrimony, and to a blind spot when it comes to opportunity. It is good–but not good enough–to comprehend that humanitarian crisis and developmental needs lie side by side. We must take the next step and see long-term development opportunities as residing within crisis. It’s time for development agencies to seize the presence of the humanitarian machine, by exploiting its potential as a source for financially sustainable (small) businesses. It’s time to make friends with the enemy.

Mind the gap

We understand almost intuitively how humanitarian crisis, whether conflict, flows of refugees or natural disaster, generates destruction, including damage to the local economy. Yet crisis often means that business is booming for the humanitarian endeavour. Viewed through an entrepreneurial lens, humanitarian response, particularly those stereotypical Western-led interventions in long-standing emergencies, resembles a pretty fat cash cow.

In crisis contexts, INGOs possess relatively massive resources, and they often represent the biggest fish in the pond. In line with these resources, humanitarian NGOs also have needs–many of which could be met locally. Why is it, then, that an organisation like MSF/Doctors without Borders works in Goma for decades, and still expends resources on importing and servicing its own vehicles? Or why in Nyala were there so few restaurants where an expat could go out to eat, even at the height of the Darfur response?

With a large, wealthy and needy humanitarian community present for decades, why do we still find development NGOs teaching women to make soap? Okay, that’s an exaggeration. There is nothing wrong with soap. The point is that many income-generating efforts are not successful, in part because of the lack of people willing or able to buy. But the humanitarian industry and the expats it employs are willing and able – so why aren’t development NGOs helping local people meet this demand?

In places like Port-au-Prince and Goma and Nyala, there are, of course, some local businesses and people who take advantage of the presence of foreign NGOs and expats alike, such as landlords, nightclubs and security services. Typically, though, the untapped demand is much larger, particularly for in-house service at NGOs; and, these businesses are either ad-hoc or pre-existing (especially in the early stages of a humanitarian response). Importantly, they are not the result of development agencies capitalising on opportunity, and so do not by design benefit the community, contribute to self-reliance or help establish an entrepreneurial culture.

The major humanitarian NGOs (and the UN) continue to be the managers and providers of an internal set of non-humanitarian services, which is inefficient. Here, one could talk of NGOs that hire and manage staff to clean their offices or residences, rather than having a development NGO work with a local group to create a cleaning service business. Ditto for vehicle maintenance, transport, catering, many aspects of supply and other functions that typically remain in-house to the INGO. And what of demand for highly-skilled counselling or consulting services (why do Westerners get so many of those contracts?), outsourced not necessarily due to a lack of local expertise, but because the local expertise lacks the know-how to package and market itself effectively?

Closing the gap

There needs to be a convergence of policy and practice aimed at the progressive outsourcing of services from within the foreign humanitarian community to local NGOs and businesses. The first step requires a teaming of development NGOs with their humanitarian cousins to delineate the concept. What services already exist? What services and businesses might comprise “easy wins”? What are the no-go areas (where humanitarian NGOs should retain direct control)? In what contexts would outsourcing be most likely to work? How can the development actors reduce the risks of negative impact when the humanitarians go home?

Next, the development agency must negotiate with national and local authorities, humanitarian NGOs and institutional donors to establish coordinated action and goals. NGOs will need to progressively cede control over important components of their activities. Donors may need to nudge them towards compliance, and national governments may be able to encourage change through regulation.

Most importantly, NGOs will have to work in the local community to build the actual businesses and services. This requires working in tandem with humanitarian organisations to ensure that needs are met and the quality of services is sufficient. The point is to create sustainable local capacity–businesses, services, NGOs, etc.–that can fill gaps or replace existing services that are owned or managed by humanitarians themselves.

Even to the extent that the activities proposed here already exist, they remain exceptions, haphazard in their genesis and limited in their impact. They do not reflect policy choices aimed at exploiting large-scale, protracted humanitarian interventions for the benefit of local development. Can we not imagine increasing local businesses’ support and service to the humanitarian community, to the point where it becomes a successful core component of development aid?

This opportunity may prove infeasible in some contexts, or it may be counter-productive to become dependent on cash cows whose presence is temporary. But, there is significant potentially successful development work in transforming existing functions into sound, income-generating local businesses.

The Product of Systems

Who is in charge? Part 1.

The richest 1% of the world will soon have a greater share of the world’s wealth than the other 99%. With that eye-catcher of a stat, Oxfam launched a report and a discussion on extreme global inequality. Great stuff. Do not let the quibbling distract you. This is a street child face down on a busy sidewalk in a pool of excrement. Trust your gut: imbalance on this scale is inherently and dramatically wrong. The only debate should be which is worse – what this says about wealth distribution or what this says about power.

But what if I told you that I just read about a place where the richest few control 99.8% of the wealth? Not 48%, as Oxfam’s report denounces, but the whole enchilada? Ninety-nine point eight percent represents an astounding achievement in disparity. Can you guess where? No, not mega-corrupt states like Angola or Equatorial Guinea. No, not the petrol-rich like Qatar or Bahrain. No, not even Mark Zuckerberg’s family. Give up?

The surprise winner of the award for the most inequitable distribution of wealth and control on the planet is none other than us, the ensemble of humanitarian NGOs. Congrats to the likes of MSF and Save and (of course) Oxfam. Here’s Development Initiative’s excellent financial analysis of the humanitarian system (see p. 55ff): National and local NGOs form an essential part of the humanitarian response, but in 2013 only directly received US$49 million – just 0.2% of the total international humanitarian response. That’s US$49M out of about $2.3 billion hitting NGO coffers worldwide.

You can quibble with that figure – it’s not counting indirect flows to national NGOs – but my advice is to trust your gut. Eat your heart out, Donald Trump.

Who is in charge? Part 2

Bill Gates talks solutions. Bill Gates is right. Bill Gates calling for “germ games”. Bill Gates is all over my Twitter feed.

Gates has published an Op-Ed in the New York Times, an article in the New England Medical Journal and done a lot of media work to proclaim that good old human “ingenuity and innovation” can avoid the next Ebola disaster.

Gates makes sense, of course, calling for the development of vaccines, for better surveillance, for a global logistical and medical epidemic response capacity. Gates’ central point, though, is only half correct, and therein lies the flaw in his cunning plan. Gates claims (NYT piece): The problem isn’t so much that the system didn’t work well enough. The problem is that we hardly have a system at all.

Really? Is it that the system doesn’t exist? Or is it that the non-system of epidemic response is the direct product of another system, a highly inequitable international system of interests and power that does not typically place the public good as its paramount ambition? In other words, the very same international system upon whom Gates calls to act.

On one level, Gates forgets what happens to good ideas when their basis for attention and funding is fear and insecurity. What happens when you employ scaremongering to mobilize politicians and Western publics into funding better healthcare systems for the world? My guess: skewed priorities (epidemiological surveillance trumps maternal mortality) and unforeseen consequences, like helping to justify military expansion into global health and humanitarian action. It has not exactly served the lofty goals of international development to have become an integral tool in the global war on terror.

Most importantly, though, Gates seems to be addressing symptoms, not causes. In calling for an international epidemic response system, Gates essentially advocates the same superpower and global institutional approach that helped deliver WHO’s ineffectiveness, Sierra Leone’s woefully inadequate healthcare, or an Ebola response in West Africa that was too late, too slow and too focused on staunching the Westward flow of Ebola rather than healing those who already had it.

Bill Gates outlines a system the world needs to build. Dead right. Now he needs to outline the world that will build it, because he is silent on the need for changes in the way global institutions are conceived, controlled and built in the first place.

“Pound of Cure” Politics

Who hasn’t heard this one: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The old adage presents a truism well relevant to the world of international aid. Ebola comes quickly to mind as the latest in a long list of lessons not learned. To wit, at what point – March? May? – would a fairly modest ten million or so have staved off the need for the $1.3B intervention that has been launched to date?

But the proverbial equation generates a false comparison. The “pound of cure” logic dissimulates. That tail of the proverb represents the cost of an intervention at a later stage – the bill for the fix (i.e., action after the problem has materialized). The mistake is to confuse the cost of the fix with the value of the damage. Pound of cure thinking hides ten, twenty or maybe thousands of pounds of loss – 11,000 orphans, schools shuttered, crops unsown or harvests unharvested, businesses bankrupted, national economic growth about-faced. And over 9600 people who are no longer people.

Let’s not be too hard on the proverb. Let’s be hard on ourselves. In the deeply politicized world of international aid and emergency response, the availability of the proverbial ounce of prevention turns out to be part mirage, hence a solid track record of paying for pounds of cure. This study of the 2011 famine in Somalia seems clear enough: Famine early warning systems clearly identified the risk of famine in South Central Somalia in 2010–2011 but timely action to prevent the onset of famine was not taken.

It too often proves more difficult from a political perspective to prevent a problem from arising than to deal later with the consequences of the problem itself. That is because mobilizing preventative action often proves trickier than launching a curative response. Humans seem hardwired to contend with the urgent at the expense of the important. In proverbial terms, that is also because frogs don’t hop out of water brought slowly to boil. And because screeching wheels get the grease before those that merely squeak. Tired yet? How about this? In the aid world, few will pay the early bird to catch the worm.

Enough of the proverbs. Let’s try fairytales. Is it even fair to balance a pound of cure against one sole ounce of prevention? What does the story of the Boy who cried “Wolf!” tell us? If not a boy, then what about the Western NGO? We belong to a business that depends on the production of a veritable smorgasbord of impending disasters; of persistent, strident calls for action (read: squeaky wheels in search of grease). That makes for a fast drip of public alarm, elbow-steered lobbying, and celebrity-endorsed impending doom. Act now! (Or: Send cash!). How many cures – how many actual crises – have actually been averted? Perhaps this is not just a tale of a Boy. Perhaps this is also the work of Chicken Little.

If we flip this around: the emergency aid business is of necessity an industry of alarm. Is there today a cacophony of alarm and media hype that deadens the ear? Have we reached the point where it is actually more efficient and more financially prudent for key donor governments and international institutions to wait and pay for the cure?

And what about the lessons of those fairytales? Cries of “Wolf!” or “The sky is falling” became quite pertinent in the Ebola crisis, where MSF’s early alarm was derided or dismissed in some quarters as yet another NGO fundraising ploy. The NGO cried out that Ebola was real and nobody listened. Real it was. A ton of cure that could have been averted by an ounce of prevention? Seems so. And maybe also a ton of cure that was necessitated by the perception of too many false ounces?