Each year Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), Médecins du Monde, the German Red Cross, the Berlin Chamber of Physicians and the Charité Universitätsmedizin organise a Humanitarian Congress at the Charité teaching hospital in Berlin. This year the focus was on ethics but there was also a focus on the changing environment and how the humanitarian sector should respond. The Congress was well attended by academics, NGOs, international institutions, students, the media and consultants from across Europe and northern America.
The first panel of the Congress was lead by GHA’s Lydia Poole who presented on the global trends of private funding to the humanitarian sector. The panel was chaired by Kathrin Schick, the Director of VOICE, and the other panellists were Jean Saslawsky, the Secretary General of the International Network of Médecins du Monde, and Marion Lieser, the General Director of Oxfam Germany. The session had been moved into the auditorium as so many people had expressed an interest and the room was almost full, further proof that money is power!
Interest in private and other non-official sources of humanitarian funding run high in a world where demand for humanitarian response shows no signs of slowing yet the pot of official funding from traditional donors is likely to fail to meet this growing demand: with an economic slow-down in many OECD countries, ODA has probably peaked, and fell by 3% in real terms in 2011.
Private funding meanwhile may offer some hope for growth in humanitarian financing. Private funding grew rapidly, by 70% in 2010 in response to the major crises in Haiti and Pakistan, and remained surprisingly buoyant in 2011, above 2009 levels in 2011. And moreover, private funding also has some uniquely attractive attributes vis-a-vis official funding.
Jean Saslawsky of MDM received one of the biggest laughs of the conference with his brilliant comparison of trying to tessellate emergency funding for a crisis response like a game of tetris. In these circumstances, private funding can be essential to fill the gaps.
Lydia also noted that if we want to think more creatively to try and harness the potential, increase flows of private financing for humanitarian purposes, we need to look a little wider.
Poles of economic growth are shifting and the public of many emerging and even developing economies are also motivated to give. In response to the Horn of Africa crisis in 2011 for example, private individuals in Turkey donated US$60 million through the Turkish Red Crescent society and the Kenyan Red Cross Society, the Kenya Media Owners Association, telecoms company Safaricom and the Kenya Commercial bank, raised 678 million Kenyan shillings ($8m) through the Kenyans for Kenya (K4K) initiative to support humanitarian relief operations.
Remittances are also a growing and relatively stable private capital flow, which can pass directly into the hands and bank accounts of vulnerable and crisis-affected people. Recorded remittance flows to fragile states have grown rapidly, by 272% in the ten years between 2002 and 2011. An estimated US$1 billion in remittances flows to Somalia each year.
This opens up a whole range of new considerations in terms of government policy, private sector regulation, investments in technology. You can find Lydia’s presentation here.
Perhaps the largest ethical area of concern around private humanitarian financing is the lack of transparency as to how and where the money is spent as compared with official sources of funding. The potential for power afforded by independence and a lack of accountability requirements associated with private funding to corrupt are explored in this blog from MSF conference panellist Jeroen Jansen.
Many questions from the audience focused on accountability and transparency including the difficulties of real time reporting of financial transactions during an emergency and several raised concerns about the additional burden of reporting asking ‘where will this transparency thing end?’ and ‘why cant we just be trusted?’. Lydia explained that in fact reporting to the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) should in fact reduce the burden of reporting in the long-run and cautioned that NGOs might as well get used to the demand for greater transparency as it is part of a world-wide cultural shift. Humanitarian organisations need to adapt and respond to this if they want to maintain their reputation for impartiality, fairness and neutrality and if we want to make real progress in accountability and efficiency in our collective response.
The Congress explores a wide range of emerging practical and ethical humanitarian considerations and immerses attendees in MSF’s culture of vigorous debate. It is truly invigorating stuff and comes highly recommended as an annual spiritual retreat for humanitarians, but the conference also contributes to the important work of collective thinking on how we interpret and apply core humanitarian principles to the challenges of an ever-changing world to ensure they continue to remain relevant and of practical use in identifying and targeting populations in need and negotiating humanitarian space.