The High-Level Leaders’ Roundtable on “Changing People’s Lives: From Delivering Aid to Ending Need” at the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul (CC BY-ND, WHS)
Those of you at the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) who were brave (or lucky) enough to make your way from the plenary building to the side events area, and through a maze of tunnels to the Exhibition Fair to then defy four flights of stairs up to the Innovation Marketplace, may probably have already met me. As Humanitarian Innovation Fellow at the IIHA and Manager of the High Tech Humanitarians project, I had the pleasure and privilege to participate in the WHS in Istanbul last week to present our activities and take part in the launch of the Global Alliance for Humanitarian Innovation (GAHI), of which IIHA is a founding member.
Many well-qualified and well-credentialed attendees have already produced a broad spectrum of opinions on the takeaways from the WHS. Their conclusions range from the downright critical, to the relieved, to the mildly enthusiastic, but there are still a few conclusions worth noting.
War, more so than the G7, was the biggest absence at the WHS.
Apart from a few blessed events dedicated to specific categories of vulnerable populations, the theme ‘protection of civilians in times of armed conflict’ was barely visible in the overall agenda. Discussions in this sense remained vague, and were mostly limited to recalling what is already well rooted in international law. Considering that around 80 percent of the humanitarian crises are due to conflicts, this basically means that for two days the humanitarian community discussed how to improve about 20 percent of its work.
Some could object that I’m being provocative – that, even without explicit mention of “times of armed conflict,” assistance as discussed also applies to situations of armed conflict – and they would be right. However, the reality is that some of the key measures finalized at the WHS as final global commitments to reform humanitarian assistance often do not apply in times of violence.
This is the case, for example, for cash programming and localisation. In times of conflict, the localisation of humanitarian assistance would be far from easy. Even those local NGOs who are not impeded from receiving international funds and grants for having ties with an armed or political faction very rarely have the capacity to absorb, manage, use and report on funds that, in order to be effective, easily reach the five to six digit range.
This is of course not the fault of local actors. As noted in a recent report, funding strategies are often the main threat to humanitarian neutrality, impartiality and independence, as donors discourage programming in opposition-held territories, or in areas out of government control, leading to a de facto politicization of humanitarian response.
Refusing to fund overheads to local NGOs, donors can potentially curtail the sustainability of programs and undermine future development. This is especially true considering that in situations of armed conflict, local capacity is put under considerable strain as organizations and their staff try to face a dangerous crisis while having to balance their altruism with the need to ensure their own safety and that of their families.
While the WHS closed with a commitment for less paperwork and bureaucracy and more direct access to funding, these issues were not addressed in any concrete way, and the feeling is that donors will continue deciding on a case-by-case basis, mostly according to their own existing regulations and agendas.
Finally, it is broadly agreed that the attention-grabbing figure of only 0.2 to 1.6 percent of humanitarian aid going directly to local groups is misleading, to say the least. There is a reason why we constantly praise the role of local actors, and lament the shrinking access of international humanitarian agencies and INGOs: National NGOs deliver most of the assistance and thus manage a relevant part of the resources.
Humanitarian aid is much more than its monetary value. If it were just about the monetary value, then the humanitarian assistance decision-making process would be limited to fundraising, procurement and warehouse logistic phases. However, the networking, access, distribution and M&E processes are just as valuable as the rest: covering the last mile doesn’t necessarily mean being in a subsidiary position compared to those applying for grants.
Focusing on promoting partnership models that ensure increased participation of local partners in strategic humanitarian planning – and limiting the abused practice of sub-contracting – rather than enforcing arbitrary quotas in direct funding, could probably better ensure that INGOs and humanitarian agencies, with all their well-known bureaucracy and malfunctioning, will guarantee, monitor and protect their operations without bossing around local partners.
As for the massive switch to cash programming, humanitarians know better than anyone else that giving money to local actors and civilians who are on the front lines of widespread violence often means exposing them to increased risks, with little to zero hope for them to be able to use that money at all. According to some figures, offering people affected by crises cash instead of goods or services would be feasible in as many as 70 to 80 percent of all humanitarian contexts. The studies that I know of surely prove the need to increase the amount of cash transfers and assess their theoretical feasibility, but don’t perform a conflict-specific analysis to scientifically prove that the cash system is the best option in such an overwhelming amount of cases.
Very often where violence reigns, money has a much higher value for armed actors, who still have access to surviving markets, than it does for local populations. It is true that in some cases direct cash to households has shown a positive trend in decreasing involvement of civilians in hostilities, but further studies also prove an increase in the number of conflict-related casualties in the receiving community. Also, this system risks encroaching on the neutrality of humanitarian assistance, as it mainly relies on institutional channels which make it difficult or dangerous for communities in areas not under government control to receive the money. Another reason for concern is the fact that conflict crises are more and more protracted in time, with refugee camps existing for decades and violence erupting regularly for many years. There is a risk, which in some cases has already occurred, of humanitarians adopting a “shadow government” role delivering guaranteed minimum income-style aid – and eventually supporting non-cash assistance and related services – for unpredictable stretches of time.
These were among the reasons why, many years ago, cash programming in conflict areas was progressively abandoned in favor of other forms of assistance. This is also the reason why, now, figures for cash-based assistance are so low in humanitarian action: with 80 percent of current humanitarian crises being conflict situations, the use of cash is still extremely sensitive.
The move towards an increased use of cash-based solutions would be a wise one, especially considering that most of the emerging or low-resource economies are already pioneering forms of remote, digital or mobile payments for daily use, leapfrogging from traditional paper money to cryptocurrencies and paperless distributed systems. However, approaching this issue from the dogmatic perspective of imposing quotas to be fulfilled, means not only denying that the shortages of food and basic items as well as the collapse of market services and retail infrastructures are part of the common paradigm to most conflict contexts, but also that most of the current architecture of the humanitarian system is not yet prepared to deliver cash in the face of armed actors.
Rather than setting unattainable quotas to be reached in an arbitrary time-frame, it would be more feasible and realistic for the humanitarian community to commit to dedicating an appropriate amount of internal funds and resources to create global, measurable and standardized procedures to effectively use cash-based methods in war contexts, without increasing vulnerabilities or affecting local markets. A collective push to incorporate cash as a regular tool of response would also have the positive effect of shifting the language of cash transfers from “innovation” – a reference which almost allows cash interventions to remain in pilot phase or at a very small scale – to “standardization”, which would allow humanitarian actors, academic institutions and donors to evaluate the real impact of these measures in a transparent, comparative and evidence-based manner.
So, did the WHS get it all wrong? Was it a smokescreen with red herrings for outcomes?
Absolutely not, at least in my opinion. As I said recently in an interview with the International Peace Institute’s Global Observatory, the WHS did what had to be done, in the given conditions: the humanitarian system may not be broke nor broken, but it surely needs a thorough revision. At the Summit, the humanitarian actors completed a long-overdue first step moving from soul-searching to re-shaping.
Some new actors emerged (new to the international conference scene, not to the field), especially from regions not traditionally known for exporting INGOs, while established actors agreed on the re-definition of operational boundaries among national and international NGOs, and on the need to update and improve humanitarian strategies.
The Grand Bargain addresses most of these issues, and promises to clear the table from some of the absurd earmarking and funding restrictions faced by potential implementing actors. All this had to be done, and as a result, the humanitarian system emerges stronger from this display of (almost) unity.
Many chastised the absence of the most important states, fearing the lack of engagement and commitment could anticipate a gap in political positioning. This fear seems superfluous: Indeed, states’ lack of engagement is by itself a political move. Refusing to engage in discussions about a stronger commitment to International Humanitarian Law (IHL), first at the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and then at the WHS, the international political structure is detaching itself from the humanitarian consequences of its actions.
The message is clear: a stronger and modern humanitarian system is welcome, as long as it doesn’t interfere with military and tactical priorities. As long as it keeps out of the war business, and keeps focusing only on doing its best to solace the victims, all is in order. But this system is not sustainable, nor just. As it has been said, one of the few conclusions that attracted broad consensus is that humanitarian problems can’t be solved only by assisting people and throwing money at problems.
Whatever will come after the WHS (implementing and follow-up mechanisms were not announced, which raised even more skepticism), the humanitarian system must prove itself able to reach real unity and demand to bring conflicts (and their victims) back to the center of the discussion.
Providing direct support to local actors is impossible if they are either identified as partial, or barred from receiving funds for political reasons under the blanket pretext of very loose anti-corruption, anti-terrorism and anti-violent extremism blacklists. National organizations cannot effectively implement relief operations if their staff is forced to flee with the civilian population because of the indiscriminate targeting of civilians and aid workers. Delivering cash is counterproductive and harmful if armed actors don’t respect the obligation to spare civilians and their belongings. The international NGOs and humanitarian agencies can and must reform their procedures to leave more space to local actors, but they all need an environment conducive to delivering and providing humanitarian assistance in order to operate together in harmony.
It has been said that for states, the alternative to respecting the rules of war is to pay the price. The humanitarian system still has the chance to rally and demand that the real final price isn’t paid by their staff and the civilian population. It is a good opportunity for the freshly motivated humanitarian world to cluster around the points proposed before and after the WHS, and lobby for a more positive discussions in the next international conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement in 2017. Everyone will gain from a stronger IHL, be they national or international actors.
PS: If you just discovered reading this post that what you thought was the Innovation Marketplace was actually the Exhibition Fair and that there was a whole world just above your head and you missed it, you’re not alone. Realizing the limbo we were stuck in, with the innovation crowd decided to turn to Twitter to voice our cry for attention and visibility.
Giulio Coppi has more than 8 years of humanitarian professional experience managing operations in South America, West and Central Africa, South and Central Asia. He earned his BA, MA and MAS in International Law with a specialization on Humanitarian Law and Human Rights in conflict. In his career, Giulio has cooperated with NGOs, Universities, the UN, the OECD and the ICRC. At the IIHA, Giulio oversees the Humanitarian Innovation program of the Institute, with a special focus on Open Source technology and community-based approaches, manages the joint initiative High Tech Humanitarians (HTH), and is IIHA’s focal point to the Global Alliance for Humanitarian Innovation launched during the WHS in Istanbul. To get in touch with him and contribute to the discussion, feel free to comment on this post or to email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. A big thanks goes to Kasia Laskowski for invaluable brain-picking, feedback and editing support.