Changing the way we respond

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Written by: Anne Street, Head of Humanitarian Policy

A CAFOD initiative to ReShape Humanitarian Aid

This year has been a year of Summits, from the Third Financing for Development Conference in Addis last month to the upcoming Climate Conference in Paris later this year.

The World Humanitarian Summit will take place in May 2016 in Istanbul. Consultations have been held across the world to try to inform changes to the Humanitarian System.

The World Humanitarian Summit will take place in May 2016 in Istanbul. Consultations have been held across the world to try to inform changes to the Humanitarian System.

The Humanitarian Community is also preparing for our very own global conference, the World Humanitarian Summit, which will take place in Istanbul in May 2016. In preparation a host of regional consultations have been held across the World, engaging with those affected by and responding to the many disasters we have witnessed over the past decades.

Sitting on the plane flying over the Atlantic coming back from one such consultation in June my head was buzzing with some of the ideas and discussions I had been involved in over the past few days. – Wide ranging and thought provoking debates on everything from how the humanitarian system should be financed to how we must work together to better deliver aid to people in need in highly contested and dangerous situations.

But something felt as if it was missing: there was a huge amount of discussion about ‘how the system should adapt and change’ what processes and mechanisms need to be put in place, what policies and practices should adapt etc, but there was much less emphasis on talk from any of the constituent parts about what they themselves – or should I say we ourselves – could do to change, whether it was from UN agencies, international NGOs, local organisations, or donors. Why was this and what could we do about it? Surely if the WHS process is about anything it is about change, writ large and small, and as humanitarian actors that means us.

It got me thinking about what we as CAFOD, and more broadly what CAFOD as a partnership focused international NGO should be doing to address this issue and push the agenda forward.

CAFOD has spent the last 4 years as part of a group of INGOs, now loosely branded as the Missed Opportunities network, (together with Christian Aid, Action Aid, Oxfam and Tearfund) researching the evidence of the current and future potential of partnerships with national organisations in humanitarian response. We have come up with some interesting and highly relevant findings from the research which has been conducted across a variety of humanitarian settings, from the Democratic Republic of Congo conflict in 2009-10, the Kenya food crisis and Pakistan floods, and the Haiti earthquake all in 2010 and more recently the devastating cyclone Haiyan in the Philippines which hit in November 2013 and the on-going conflict in South Sudan.

CAFOD's 'Missed Again' report examines the effectiveness of partnerships with local actors during the international response to Typhoon Haiyan

CAFOD’s ‘Missed Again’ report examines the effectiveness of partnerships with local actors during the international response to Typhoon Haiyan

So what have we found out during this process? Well, the research clearly demonstrated that working through partnership approaches enhanced the relevance and appropriateness of humanitarian response as national and local actors’ understanding of context and internal dynamics allow them to better shape programmes. It also improves both the effectiveness of assistance by ensuring accountability to disaster affected people and connectedness so that humanitarian responses take place in ways which respect longer-term perspectives. On the down side, (and not surprisingly) we found that sometimes coverage can be compromised as most partners are relatively localised and small-scale, and because partnerships take time and resources to set up and manage, and require a complex engagement we cannot always judge efficiency in simplistic measurements of value for money.

Partnership working in humanitarian action clearly takes commitment, and investment, and overall our findings showed that the potential benefits of partnership approaches across the sector have not yet been fully realised. On the contrary, more broadly within the humanitarian sector one could argue that there has been a race amongst international NGOs to get bigger and bigger and become more operational in order to demonstrate their effectiveness, in the competition for resources, by showing just how much they themselves are doing in humanitarian response, how their own teams are delivering food and water, how they are building temporary shelters and permanent homes and how their experts are leading the provision of water systems and sanitation for example. This is all driven by a series of perverse incentives which mean the larger and more operational the NGO, the more they can capture the media attention and demonstrate their own role in saving lives and rebuilding people’s futures, and thus attract more financial support to get even bigger and deliver ever more humanitarian assistance.

But this approach is in dangers of completely side-lining national actors and contributes towards maintaining the current status quo whereby national organisations are often pushed aside by international actors, unable to access direct funding, their trained staff are recruited by international organisations just when they need them most and they have little access to the international media which help them raise their profile and attract more funds.

The Charter for Change contains 8 commitments that seek to enable local and national actors to play an increased and prominent role in humanitarian response

The Charter for Change contains 8 commitments that seek to enable local and national actors to play an increased and prominent role in humanitarian response

So in an attempt to address these and other issues, CAFOD is now part of a group of partnership-focused INGOs, together with some southern actors, which are promoting the Charter for Change which commits signatories to deliver change within our own organisational ways of working to that southern-based national actors can play an increased and more prominent role in humanitarian response.

The 8-point Charter outlines a number of changes that we as CAFOD, alongside other INGOs who have signed on, will make to the way we work so that we work, to pass more of our own funding to our national and local partners and to ensure that how we work helps local organisations respond to the next emergency.

The Charter has already received substantial support from national and local actors, both large and small, across four continents who welcome the shift towards a locally-led humanitarian system.

In the run-up to the World Humanitarian Summit we as CAFOD are encouraging other International Organisations to be part of this change that we believe could significantly change the way we respond to emergencies and benefit all those affected by disasters in the years to come.

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