Reading this year’s Global Humanitarian Assistance report, the question is posed: What impact does all of this rather vast humanitarian machinery have on the people in need?
The uncomfortable truth is we often don’t know how significant our impact is. This is why Development Initiative’s annual GHA report is so important because it uses case studies and compiles information from which we can all learn.
Drawing on a range of evaluations conducted by different actors over the last three years, the GHA Report 2013 summarises very well the imperfect response to the Somali famine of 2010-12. It is estimated that some 257 500 lives were lost over this period – most of them during the six- to nine-months between the first reports of possible famine emerging and the actual scale-up of humanitarian operations on the ground (which only happened once famine had been declared and major funds allocated).
The GHA analysis attributes this poor response in particular to “risk aversion”, whereby various donors required “proof” before acting. The fact that the famine took a while to take hold exacerbated this caution – and contrasts with rapid-onset natural disasters such as the Indian Ocean tsunami where there is a clear and obvious trigger for funds. The report argues for greater attention to be paid to preventative action, addressing underlying vulnerabilities before they descend into catastrophe.
The report also pinpoints other issues that could impede performance and impact:
- The tendency, even in protracted crises, for assistance programmes to only receive six or twelve-month contracts from donors, hampering response capacity building.
- The concentration of assistance on high-visibility crises at the expense of many, sometimes more serious, crises (and even then only for the duration of that visibility, as the dramatic drop in assistance to Haiti demonstrates).
- And, while the report doesn’t say this explicitly, there must surely be considerable transaction costs involved in the number of agencies donor money must pass through before it reaches the beneficiary (the “channel of delivery” through which aid passes).
This issue of weak impact and poor performance in emergencies has been preoccupying many in MSF (and of course elsewhere) for some time. In an attempt to understand a bit better what actually is going on, we have recently looked more closely at three separate emergency responses conducted over the last year: the refugee emergency in Maban, South Sudan, from November 2011 to September 2012; the displacement crisis caused by renewed conflict in North Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo between April 2012 and April 2013; and the crisis of Syrian refugees entering Jordan from July 2012 to June 2013.
While all were related to conflict and displacement, the three emergencies were certainly very different to each other – the Maban emergency was the most “classical” in form, with the collection of some 120,000 refugees into a small number of camps, while in North Kivu and Jordan, some 25-30% of displaced people moved into camps while the rest moved into open and urban settings. Performance was also considerably different, with poor and delayed response (especially in water and sanitation) prolonging a high level of excess mortality in Maban, while the responses in the two other countries were somewhat more successful.
Certain common points stood out:
- The visibility of the crises had a considerable effect on the scale of the response – Maban was a relatively forgotten emergency, whereas the international community has focussed intensively on Syria and its neighbours for two years and the DRC received a brief spike of attention between November and December 2012 when Goma fell to rebels.
- The level of assistance people received was heavily weighted towards those in officially-recognised camps, while those outside received significantly less. In Jordan, Zaatri camp has dozens of humanitarian actors (12 in health, and rising), but the 80% of refugees outside the camp receive only 20% of the assistance. Rather than assistance being based on need, it seems that ease of access and operation for the humanitarian agencies themselves was a dominant criterion.
- “Risk aversion” does not just influence when donors pledge assistance, but also affects the choices agencies make about where and how to intervene. In North Kivu, the most affected zones were in the periphery, where very few agencies (perhaps only MSF, ICRC and three or four others) were willing to go, for reasons of security and logistics primarily. Internal bureaucracy within agencies, and especially within the UN, also plays a role here.
- Finally, we discovered that while more coherent planning and more work to reduce vulnerability is important, long-term approaches can actually hamper a rapid and effective emergency response if agencies are not able to quickly “change gears” from one approach to the other. In Maban this was especially clear: many agencies with very longstanding presence in the country were not able to quickly mobilise emergency operations.
Read Sean Healy and Sandrine Tiller’s article ‘Have we lost the ability to respond to refugee crisis? The Maban response’ in Humanitarian Exchange Magazine.