New humanitarianism, local capacity and the case for system change

April 20, 2015

Posted by in Blog.

“….Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Tunisia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo were among the top ten donors to post-earthquake Haiti; the two largest individual contributors to the Haiti Emergency Relief Fund were Brazil and Saudi Arabia. Azerbaijan opened its international development agency, AIDA, in September 2001. India made the largest contribution to the Pakistan Emergency Relief Fund following the earthquake in 2010. Iran and Pakistan are among the top two refugee hosting countries in the world. In 2011, the Organization for Islamic Cooperation replaced the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs as the lead coordinating agency in Somalia. The bulk of humanitarian assistance within Syria is being programmed by informal civil society and volunteer networks. After Hurricane Katrina, Sri Lanka offered aid to the United States. ASEAN played a key role in facilitating international relief to Myanmar following Cyclone Nargis. Islamic NGOs were at the front line of the relief effort in Aceh and Mali…..”

The opening paragraph from the report from the November 2014 international conference on South-South humanitarianism makes fascinating reading. It outlines a timely wake-up call for those in the humanitarian system who have not already noticed that the humanitarian landscape is evolving.

The emergence of a new humanitarianism – new donors, new actors, new approaches and new values – provides fresh opportunities and new challenges to the existing multi-lateral aid system.

Challenges will present where common languages, normative values and universal principles that have been developed over many decades by the multi-lateral aid system, will bump up against new approaches based on diversity, uniqueness, inter-dependence, pluralism and empathy; approaches that embrace the concept of charity as a necessary part of the social fabric of a community rather than a rights based humanitarian duty.

And opportunity will come when the penny finally drops amongst the current incumbents that the “northern” multi-lateral aid system is not fit for purpose and that humanitarian contributions by southern donors and actors could not only help fill the gaps between growing humanitarian needs and stagnating humanitarian budgets, but also that genuine southern representation, participation and leadership can actually improve the legitimacy of international humanitarian action.

Analysing this paradigm from a systems perspective is fascinating, because it is complex and multi-faceted and tied up in politics, history, power and human relationships. The language in the existing multi-lateral system is beginning to change in acknowledgement that a paradigm shift is needed if the humanitarian capacity gap is to be closed.

During the UNOCHA policy conference in New York in December 2014 the language of humanitarian interoperability began to emerge, acknowledging that the big players need to get smarter about identifying comparative advantages: “humanitarians will need to focus on a key challenge for responders: understanding how to strengthen partnerships and leverage comparative advantages to work together better, meet affected people’s needs and ultimately increase the resilience of communities.”

The rhetoric is well understood, but for many INGOs the consequences of adopting a comparative advantage approach are at best not well understood, and at worst systematically ignored; ignored, because to embrace the concept is to understand that the fundamental business model that underpins and typifies all large INGOs (i.e. a competitive and reactive business model that relies upon increasing and unsustainable revenues) needs to dramatically change.

The international system needs to move from the linear, monolithic, homogenous and competitive system that it currently is, and move more towards an endeavour where plurality, diversity, collaboration and decentralisation are all encouraged – an ecosystem of humanitarian action that contains organisations of different sizes, types, cultures and modes of response, in a state of continual experimentation and growth. To do this requires an injection of new talent, new thinking and new behaviours – organisations that are populated by staff that operate with humility and a willingness to learn and open up their organisational boundaries to be able to partner with unusual suspects.

The Start Network is currently exploring a number of initiatives to pilot these new approaches. Large investments are being made in state-of-the-art talent development programmes to support local leadership to develop new competencies and behaviours that will help to adapt to the challenges of the future. Conversations are being held around how best to address power imbalances inherent within the system and a process is being developed to explore how best to unlock the potential that currently resides in local capacity, in order to prototype a new type of humanitarian business model through the “shifting the power project”.

Fruitful conversations are being held with traditional donors too. An innovative and unique partnership with DFID and the CDAC Network has opened up space to pilot and explore greater resourcing to local actors through the use of financial enablers, without the usual centralised and top-down driven risk control measures. This could be a truly breakthrough initiative which could generate significant learning on the benefits of locally led initiative for a system bedevilled by centralised controls and compliance. Collaborative surge capacity is being explored too. In a future humanitarian system, international surge capacity will be entirely necessary, but there are models of local and regional surge leadership that need to be explored so that international surge can be a last resort. System change is needed, but Network thinkers and systems analysts tell us that it is very hard for the status-quo to change the status-quo.

These are all exciting ideas and will be interesting to follow over the next few years, and should provide some good learning. But there are growing arguments that the international humanitarian system needs more of a fundamental rethink. Concepts such as parametric risk insurance, and global loan facilities and disaster bonds which shift the system from reactive to pro-active are just the beginning, with the Start Network in exploratory stages in this area. But what are the implications for INGOs and UN agencies if these ideas take hold?

And it is clear that this change is necessary. Some commentators have heralded the death of international development and claim that the international system is merely tinkering in the margins unless it actually addresses the structural causes of poverty – debt, artificial global labour markets, effects of colonialism, natural resources exploitation, consumerism all come into play here. But is it fair to saddle these issues at the feet of humanitarians?

It is clear that INGOs are going to need to start collaborating more effectively at individual, organisational and systemic levels to bring about the necessary changes to close the humanitarian capacity gap. Changes in organisational business models are going to be painful and require new thinking, new leadership and new behaviours in the sector. For example shifts from partnerships based on control, compliance and service delivery, to partnerships based on long term and transformative approaches; having the mandate to support with international surge capacity when local capacity is breached, and the humility to know when to take a step back and instead act as brokers to connect people affected by disasters with the best possible response – even if it means that your organisation will not be involved.

Local capacity needs to be supported, and existing barriers to local capacity sustainability need to be identified and worked through. (Could a 1% local capacity line be leveraged on all DEC appeals for example, where the proceeds go to supporting local organisations core costs over a longer term to allow them to be more strategic and less delivery focussed?) New approaches to risk, accountability and transparency will need to be piloted and there will likely be some failures. Divergent thinking needs to be embraced and local capacity, leadership and initiative needs to be a fundamental concern and priority for all of those within the humanitarian endeavour going forward.

These conversations will be challenging but the people affected by disasters deserve our best and compared to the alternative – sleepwalking along the path of the current status quo – this is surely a necessary barrier to break through.


1 “Conference Report; South – South Humanitarianism” The Centre for Global Governance and Policy at the Jindal School of International Affairs; November 2014

2 New is defined as where actors are finding new influence and consequently new contributions. Southern humanitarianism itself is of course NOT a new concept.

3 In the last ten years, the funding requirements of inter-agency appeals have increased by 600%. In the same amount of time the number of people targeted for assistance has more than doubled. UNOCHA 2014

4 “World Humanitarian Data and Trends 2014” UNOCHA, 2015

5 The Death of International Development” Jason Hickel, February 2015

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