Providing humanitarian aid in a time of crisis: maintaining our promise to the most vulnerable
The world seems to be becoming an increasingly uncertain and dangerous place, especially for those living in fragile and conflict-affected states, where the incidence of poverty is high and natural disasters occur frequently. The way in which the international community has faced disasters in the past few years raises cause for concern about the ability of the international humanitarian system to respond and adapt to an unpredictable and ever more demanding environment.
In 2011, the effects of the world economic crisis were felt at a global level, as total official development aid (ODA) from Development Assistance Committee (DAC) donors dropped for the first time in 15 years. It fell by 2.3%, with 16 out of 23 donors decreasing their disbursements. DAC humanitarian assistance fell by 2% from the previous year.
In recent years, at the individual donor level, humanitarian aid has declined. For example, between 2008 and 2009 17 out of the 23 DAC donors plus European Institutions saw a drop in humanitarian aid – averaging US$44.5 million.
Between 2009 and 2010 ten donors’ humanitarian aid decreased, averaging US$29.8 million. In some years the total humanitarian budget is reliant on a small number of governments who either protect or increase their aid budgets. The result is an increasingly unstable and unpredictable financing situation for the sector and, ultimately, the people in need.
How do we maintain the humanitarian commitment to the most vulnerable at a time when funding is insecure? According to the Institute of Studies on Conflicts and Humanitarian Action (IECAH), increasing efforts in terms of quality, accountability and transparency are central to the solution.
On 14 March, in Madrid, IECAH held a conference considering these very issues. Representatives from a wide range of backgrounds focusing on quality in the humanitarian field presented their latest work at the conference. Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP), which focuses on accountability to beneficiaries, called for a more forward looking approach to humanitarian response, where research takes precedence over evaluation and the focus on value for money is substituted for a focus on quality delivery.
HAP stated that beneficiaries find humanitarian delivery is often not sustainable – too much is done too quickly without training and support. HAP advocated for the eradication of a northern or western driven standardised response. Instead, they propose that operations should be designed and implemented following consultation with humanitarian aid beneficiaries, especially in protracted emergencies where timeliness of funding is not as key as in immediate emergency responses.
Groupe Urgence, Réhabilitation, Développement (URD), helps humanitarian stakeholders improve programmes through evaluations, research, quality support and training. URD focused on how quality initiatives can help improve humanitarian assistance and how better-organised responses are possible by prioritising communication with beneficiaries and partners to build trust. They considered this more important than developing common standards and quality certifications.
Even so, a wider humanitarian certification project is being led by the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response (SCHR). SCHR believe that despite being well known to all humanitarian players, concepts such as best practices, standards, indicators, quality control and accountability initiatives have not necessarily led to improved aid effectiveness. There are some 4,400 NGOs worldwide undertaking humanitarian aid activities and there is a proliferation of other domestic and non-state actors. Therefore, SCHR considers a possible future certification of humanitarian players as key in achieving a more effective humanitarian response worldwide.
Quality initiatives aside, the discussions inevitably kept returning to the issue of the widespread budget cuts and their implications for the humanitarian system. In Spain, the Agency for International Cooperation (AECID) significantly reduced its humanitarian assistance budget by US$202 million between 2009 and 2011, and there was a further 50% reduction in 2012. Such dramatic decreases in humanitarian resources have been accompanied by an equally notable geographic concentration of resources: in 2012, AECID worked in only ten countries, down from nearly 40 the year before.
However, there are some positive results of this new intervention framework, such as more strategic and targeted humanitarian action, with Spain choosing to work only in contexts where it already has strong presence on the ground before disaster strikes. Spain hasn’t abandoned humanitarian needs elsewhere, and is continuing its support to pool funding mechanisms, such as the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF), and by giving unrestricted funds to the International Committee of the Red Cross global appeal.
From a thematic point of view, AECID’s humanitarian work will integrate the resilience building approach, through investments in disaster risk reduction, into all its activities. The example of Spain’s role during the 2012 food security crisis in the Sahel was outlined to demonstrate how this resilience focused approach would be taken forward. Future plans also include setting up a new national pooled fund for the central and regional governments, which will allow for speedier and more coordinated humanitarian response on the ground.
Finally, the conference included a pledge by Spanish humanitarian actors to the aid transparency agenda. It was agreed that there was a need to move from simple financial accountability to a broader tracking of impact. Such a mechanism would raise the profile of Spain’s humanitarian assistance and support them in maintaining and improving on the achievements of the past seven years.
For more information about the conference see the Instituto de Estudios sobre Conflictos y Accion Humanitaria (IECAH) website (in Spanish). For more information about AECID’s humanitarian work see their website. For further details on Spain as a humanitarian aid donor please visit GHA’s country profile webpage.