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Something has gone woefully wrong with the way humanitarian aid system has come to operate. Humanitarian needs have multiplied several-fold in the past two decades and humanitarian aid has at least doubled in the past five years. At over $24 billion a year, though far below what is actually needed to meet all need, it is not delivering results and outcomes for those in need, on the one hand, and those paying for it, on the other.

The United Nations Secretary General’s initiative in calling for the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) due to take place in May this year in Istanbul to address precisely the challenges facing the humanitarian system could not be more opportune. A humanitarian reform which began in 2005 did bring in several changes including better coordination among multiple agencies responding to disasters, but has failed to engage national and local agencies, governments and communities, treating the latter as passive recipients. Some commentators even called it the 21st century ‘humanitarian colonialism’.

One of the major issues which the WHS is examining is that of financing the humanitarian system including the architecture through which funds are channelled. It is variously estimated that no more that 20-30 cent of every donor dollar from the point of its origin (read taxpayers in donor countries) reaches the disaster-affected communities it is meant for. The system simply is top-heavy with too many middlemen in the delivery pipeline as the donor dollar journeys from the pockets of donors to the final recipient. The High Level Panel (HLP) on humanitarian financing appointed by the Secretary General, in its report delivered a few weeks ago, observed: “Humanitarian aid must be disbursed with a minimum of bureaucracy as directly as possible to affected people.”

It simply is not working for anyone – the taxpayer/donor, administrative agencies, international NGOs, national NGOs and communities – in the delivery chain.

The administrative, overheads and management costs of the administrative agencies, the UN and international NGOs who bring your donations from the point of origin to the countries they are meant to support are too high. We all know that in any disaster, a significant volume of work is carried out by local actors including local NGOs, local authorities and citizens’ groups – in fact, these are what we call the first-responders, first on the scene 2-3 weeks before the international actors even begin to operate on the ground. But only a miniscule of the total humanitarian aid is channelled through them – one reliable estimate puts it at measly 0.2 per cent (20 cents our of every $100) of donor money being channeled through national and local NGOs.

Beggars cannot be choosers.

National and local NGOs have long known and lived with this distorted architecture for decades, though in recent decades things have only got worse, with increasing ‘corporatization’ of many of the largest international NGOs (INGOs). But many have now begun to speak up. Not just national and local NGOs, even some of the INGOs not yet swallowed by the global corporate culture have joined this debate for change.

A group of over fifty NGOs from Africa, Asia and Middle East came together calling for a new charter for change in the humanitarian architecture. Earlier this week I volunteered to facilitate a workshop of some 20 NGOs from these regions who are forming a Southern Network to campaign for localization of humanitarian aid. This platform would over the coming months invite others to join them, and through this promote a dialogue on the issues that have often been swept under the carpet in discourse on humanitarian system. The issues are complex and concern all agencies – the UN, INGOs, NGOs, local governments and communities – and need open and transparent discussions:

High transaction cost due to top-heavy bureaucracy, especially within the UN system and INGOs;

Non-transparent system of accounting which hides the true cost of delivery of humanitarian aid (hence no incentive to alter the status quo);

Undermining of national and local capacity by ‘international’ machinery during times of disasters;

Low capacity and credibility of national and local NGOs;

Weak accountability of the entire humanitarian system to local people;

Weak/poor governance at national and local level making coordination with national system difficult.

As one having observed the evolution of humanitarian system over the past three decades, I am glad that the conspiracy of silence that we all gave in to, especially over the past 10-15 years, is now broken and there is willingness to finally grab the bull by the horns. That we only deliver 20 to 30 pence of every pound we raise from the pensioner back home to the intended recipient has vexed all of us no end. The answers may not be easy, but at least let us see an open discussion on these tricky issues. The Nairobi network will be working over the coming weeks with NGOs and governments in several regions to bring these issues to the table in Istanbul. Let us all – fellow humanitarians who believe that the international humanitarian system with all its deficiencies is critically needed in this world – work together to contribute ideas that can make the system more responsive, cost-effective and equitable.

(This article was first published on Results Matter )



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