Exploring support beyond international humanitarian aid — Stories behind the State of the Humanitarian System

This blog is part of a series of articles we are publishing that tell the humanitarian stories behind some of the key findings and lessons emerging in ALNAP’s latest State of the Humanitarian System (SOHS) report.

Focusing on the international humanitarian system to understand how people survive and recover from a crisis is akin to viewing a large landscape through a pin-sized hole.

Survivors of crises draw on a wide range of resources and support –including their own capacities — that fall outside of international humanitarian assistance (IHA). IHA is but one piece of the puzzle and can be a relatively small proportion of financial flows to some crisis-affected countries.

The following section, featured in our 5th State of the Humanitarian System report, highlights some key modes of support that comprise the ‘support beyond the system’. For the first time, the 2022 SOHS report sought to better recognize these vital forms of support outside the formal international humanitarian system; looking at their role and how well how well the system engages with them. This section looks at four examples of support for people affected by crisis:

  1. Survivor/community led crisis response (sclr)
  2. Religious organisations
  3. The private sector
  4. Diasporas

It is important to note that these are an illustrative selection of important types of support where evidence emerged during the study period for the report (2018–2022), rather than a comprehensive picture of all resource flows.

Figure 1: Insights from entities who also play a role in humanitarian response

Quotes from crisis affected populations and aid practitioners illustrate the importance of crisis response actors whose primary purpose is not humanitarian action.

How well does the system engage with other forms of crisis support?

Survivor/citizen/community-led support

Whether it is a neighbour offering a place to sleep, a friend loaning money, or a relative sharing food, crisis-affected people and the communities around them are often their own first responders. Alternatively called ‘survivor/citizen/community-led crisis response’ or ‘mutual/autonomous aid’, these are efforts to respond to humanitarian need that are ‘led and managed specifically by survivors and communities from crisis-affected populations themselves.’¹ Sclr* has overlaps with locally led humanitarian assistance and participatory humanitarian action, but is unique in that it includes efforts that are not part of an institutionalised humanitarian programme or supported by official humanitarian funding.

Trying to get a global picture of sclr inevitably reveals a patchwork of diverse, often context-specific stories. In Bangladesh and Yemen, aid recipients explained that, before coming into contact with a humanitarian agency, they did as much as possible themselves to repair shelter and other infrastructure, with the help of neighbours and friends. Community members were the first responders in the earthquake-hit southern region of Haiti, where international presence was limited; and when the Ethiopian government limited access for international agencies, communities provided shelter to hundreds of thousands of displaced people from Tigray.² In Vanuatu, the response to Tropical Cyclone Harold in April 2020 was primarily community-led, through disaster committees and the National Council of Chiefs.³ After the Izmir earthquake in October 2020, Turkish civil society actors mobilised substantial donations from private citizens and the private sector to support community-led disaster response.

The COVID-19 pandemic made some agencies pay greater attention to community capacity, as they found themselves relying on it to maintain services. Around the globe, people commonly portrayed as ‘beneficiaries’ or ‘victims’ took leading roles in providing public health messaging, enrolling neighbours in mobile money systems, delivering food and non-food items (NFIs), and supporting the delivery of basic health services.⁴ The pandemic provided momentum to ongoing attempts to capture and reflect sclr efforts through databases⁵ and studies.⁶

Around the globe, people commonly portrayed as ‘beneficiaries’ or ‘victims’ took leading roles in providing public health messaging, enrolling neighbours in mobile money systems, delivering food and non-food items (NFIs), and supporting the delivery of basic health services.”

But outside the pandemic, with the possible exception of the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement’s volunteer network, humanitarian agencies were slow to routinely recognise, much less actively support, sclr. For instance, local and international staff involved in the 2021 Haiti earthquake response reported a lack of engagement by international actors with local people and networks, including missed opportunities on preparedness planning, despite this being a key lesson from the 2010 earthquake response.

A small number of international agencies intentionally invested in addressing this — for example, in 2018 the Start Network supported the creation of four ‘grassroots’ innovation labs in Bangladesh, Jordan, Kenya and the Philippines, providing small grants and training to crisis-affected people.⁷ The Local to Global Protection network continued to document and share examples from its partners’ work on sclr, which included support to L/NNGOs in Haiti to undertake participatory projects in which community members co-managed funds.⁸

But the lack of deeper efforts to take account of and support sclr has been disappointing to advocates within the system, not only because it reflects a failure to uphold commitments to be more local, complementary and participatory, but also because of the wider recognition that, as one study noted, this ‘is not a radical request: rather, it is a common-sense invitation to become part of an inspiring and long-overdue process of promoting and strengthening proven ways of working that support the remarkable humanity, capacity, initiative and collective compassion of people in crisis.’⁹

Religious organisations

The international humanitarian system has had mixed experiences with supporting and connecting to religious organisations. Faith-based international NGOs have long worked with local networks and religious leaders to provide a timely response and to connect with communities.¹⁰ For example, Caritas Myanmar worked with diocesan networks to create a COVID-19 preparedness and response plan, supported by long-standing INGO partner funding. These connections helped the system reach hard-to-access populations: Pastoral Social Caritas Bolivia provided prisoners with food and hygiene supplies during the pandemic when most organisations were denied access.¹¹ Secular agencies also applied lessons from the West Africa Ebola response by more consciously engaging religious and traditional actors during recent Ebola outbreaks and the COVID-19 pandemic.¹²

Religious actors have also been important from a funding perspective: interviews indicate that individual donations from Christian and Muslim religious communities in high-income countries remained surprisingly strong during the pandemic, helping several faith-based INGOs to maintain their operations in the face of cuts to institutional donor funding. Zakat and Islamic social financing were an increasingly important resource for humanitarian efforts both inside and outside the system throughout this period. Zakat was estimated to be worth between $550 billion and $600 billion in 2019, with estimates of the portion of this that went to some form of humanitarian assistance ranging between 23% and 57%.¹³ In recent years international organisations explored how to harness some of this potential — organisations including Islamic Relief and IFRC have been working with different forms of Islamic social funding, and UNHCR has sought to solicit zakat donations, with over $23.6 million received for its Refugee Zakat Fund in 2021, which targeted over 687,000 refugees or displaced people in 13 countries.¹⁴

Several barriers remain to effective system-wide engagement with local faith actors, including limited religious literacy among many humanitarian actors and concerns that faith-based actors may discriminate against some crisis-affected populations.¹⁵ Concerns go both ways: often, there is little incentive for local faith-based organisations to work with cumbersome aid agencies and structures. Counter-terrorism laws also affected the ability of humanitarian actors to engage with some religious groups, with several INGO interviewees reporting difficulties in passing funding to Muslim organisations.

The private sector

In addition to the contributions to IHA outlined in Chapter 2 of the SOHS report, private sector actors — particularly domestic businesses in crisis-affected countries — provide other forms of support outside the humanitarian system. While this support can be significant, its full scale is difficult to estimate. There are no organisations or platforms that track or enable reporting of these resource flows, and if there were, they would be challenged to gather data from the thousands of small to mid-size domestic private sector actors on efforts ranging from supporting governments’ logistics capacity, to local corner stalls providing free meals. The influencing power of the private sector can also be very effective but is similarly diverse and difficult to monitor.¹⁶

The COVID-19 pandemic shed some light on the importance of local private sector actors. A global survey of humanitarian actors found increased mobilisation of local private sectors during the pandemic compared to previous responses in most of the study countries.¹⁷ They provided resources, including PPE, and supported food and cash provision, sometimes in collaboration with humanitarian actors and sometimes independently.¹⁸ In the Philippines, for example, local NGOs and government coordinated with the private sector to deliver PPE and health messaging without international humanitarian funding, and in Vanuatu, the Vanuatu Business Resilience Council was critical in the initial response to Cyclone Harold when the pandemic made it difficult for international humanitarian actors to gain access.¹⁹

“Development actors have also noted that ‘a knowledge gap remains concerning which approaches and instruments are effective in engaging the private sector in fragile and conflict-affected setting countries’.”

While there were new efforts to engage with the private sector over the study period, there is little evidence that international humanitarians are engaging with the private sector beyond as a potential funding source. Almost half (45%) of humanitarian aid practitioners in the SOHS survey rated their current relationship with the private sector as poor and were ambivalent about future engagement. Many humanitarians see the potential value of more strategic partnerships, but the incentives driving private sector actors remain poorly understood in the humanitarian space, leading to ongoing concerns about ethics or resource competition.²⁰ This is not limited to the humanitarian space: despite private sector mobilisation being more of a core aspect of development assistance, key development actors have also noted that ‘a knowledge gap remains concerning which approaches and instruments are effective in engaging the private sector in fragile and conflict-affected setting countries’.²¹

Diasporas

People who no longer live in their country of origin are an important source of support for their families and former co-nationals affected by crisis. One of the most significant ways diaspora networks contribute to crisis response and recovery is by sending money to their contacts in crisis-affected countries. Other forms of diaspora support include skills sharing, advocacy, political engagement and volunteering.²²

In 2021, remittances to low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) were estimated at $605 billion, over 10 times higher than the total amount of IHA, and a nearly 15% increase from 2018.²³ While remittances to LMICs were expected to fall significantly in 2020 due to the economic impacts of COVID-19, they instead increased by a smaller rate that year (0.8%), and rebounded with an 8.6% increase in 2021, akin to pre-pandemic growth rates.²⁴ While these remittances include transfers to people in a wide range of circumstances, studies suggest that substantial amounts do pass to people in some crisis-affected countries.²⁵ For example, in 2020, the $7 billion of remittances accounted for the largest financial flow into Lebanon, despite a decrease of over 40% between 2019 and 2020.²⁶ Concurrently, there is recognition that remittances are not a substitute for humanitarian assistance, as they are typically available to individuals who are better off, and who can access money transfer mechanisms in urban areas.²⁷

Figure 2: Estimates of remittance flows to low- and middle-income countries, 2018–2021

Remittance flows to low- and middle-income countries have increased by nearly 15% since 2018, to an estimated $605 billion in 2021. This is 10 times higher than the total amount of international humanitarian assistance.

Outside of remittances, diaspora communities relied heavily on social media to connect with crisis-affected people in their countries of origin. For example, WhatsApp groups have been used to assess needs,²⁸ the Syrian diaspora used online crowdfunding to support underground hospitals²⁹ and the Somali diaspora used social media platform Somali Faces to provide funds to implementers via local bank accounts and fund managers.³⁰

Humanitarians have attempted to better engage with diaspora groups at different levels. For example, USAID sought to connect diaspora communities to humanitarian responses through national cluster systems, engaging them in funding efforts for specific crises — a televised collaboration for Haiti is one recent example — and working with networks across response, risk reduction and resilience initiatives.³¹ Elsewhere, however, humanitarian agencies’ attempts at coordination with diasporas have been limited — in part due to difficulties identifying representative actors among diaspora groups and a lack of trust in international aid institutions among diaspora groups based on fears of racism and power asymmetries.³²

The 5th State of the Humanitarian System Report was published in September 2022. Read the full report on ALNAP’s website: https://sohs.alnap.org.

*‘sclr’ tends to be kept lower-case when used as an acronym, by the design of those who coined the phrase, reflecting its informal and community-based nature

[1] Justin Corbett, Nils Carstensen, and Simona Di Vicenz, Survivor and community led crisis response: Practical experience and learning, HPN Network Paper no. 84 (London: HPN/ODI, 2021). www.alnap.org/help-library/survivor-and-community-led-crisis-response-practicalexperience-and-learning.

[2] Interviews with key informants globally and in Ethiopia.

[3] Véronique Barbelet, Gemma Davies, Josie Flint, and Eleanor Davey, Interrogating the evidence base on humanitarian localisation: A literature study (London: ODI, 2021). www.alnap.org/helplibrary/interrogating-the-evidence-base-on-humanitarian-localisation-a-literature-study.

[4] Nils Carstensen, Mandeep Mudhar and Freja Schurmann Munksgaard, ‘“Let communities do their work”: The role of mutual aid and self‐help groups in the Covid‐19 pandemic response’, Disasters 45, no. S1 (2021) www.alnap.org/help-library/let-communities-do-their-work%E2%80%99-the-role-of-community-mutual-aid-and-self-help-groups-in; Baron, CARE and UN Women, Latin America and the Caribbean Rapid Gender Analysis for COVID-19 (Geneva/New York: CARE and UN Women, 2020) www.alnap.org/help-library/latin-america-and-the-caribbean-rapid-gender-analysis-for-covid-19; ALNAP COVID-19 lessons paper, forthcoming.

[5] HPG, ‘COVID-19: Tracking local humanitarian action and complementary partnerships’, HPG/ODI, n.d; Geneva Centre of Humanitarian Studies, ‘COVID-19 humanitarian platform’, n.d. https://covid19-tracking-local-humanitarian-action.odi.digital.

[6] Corbett, Carstensen and Di Vicenz, Survivor and Community Led Crisis Response. www.alnap.org/help-library/survivor-and-community-led-crisis-response-practical-experienceand-learning; also efforts to document locally-led humanitarian action have included sclr, see for example: Barbelet, Bryant and Spencer, ‘Local Humanitarian Action during COVID-19’ www.alnap.org/help-library/local-humanitarian-action-during-covid-19-findings-from-a-diarystudy; ALNAP COVID-19 lessons paper, forthcoming.

[7] Lillie Rosen, ‘Reflecting on two years of community-driven innovation with the Depp Labs’ (Blog), Start Network, 2 August 2019. www.alnap.org/help-library/reflecting-on-two-years-ofcommunity-driven-innovation-with-the-depp-labs.

[8] Charlotte Greene et al., ‘Learning from survivor- and community-led response in Haiti’, Humanitarian Exchange 79, 50–56. www.alnap.org/help-library/localisation-and-localhumanitarian-action-learning-from-survivor-and-community-led.

[9] Corbett, Carstensen and Di Vicenz, Survivor and Community Led Crisis Response. www.alnap.org/help-library/survivor-and-community-led-crisis-response-practicalexperience-and-learning.

[10] Olivia Wilkinson et al., Bridge Builders: Strengthening the Role of Local Faith Actors in Humanitarian Response in South Sudan (Islamic Relief, Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities, RedR UK, Tearfund, Tearfund Belgium, University of Leeds, 2020). www.alnap.org/help-library/bridge-builders-strengthening-the-role-of-local-faith-actors-inhumanitarian-response.

[11] Caritas Internationalis, Localisation in Covid-19: Experience of Caritas national organisations with humanitarian funding, partnerships and coordination in the Covid-19 pandemic (2021) www.alnap.org/help-library/localisation-in-covid19-experience-of-caritas-nationalorganisations-with-humanitarian.

[12] Wilkinson et al., Bridge Builders. www.alnap.org/help-library/bridge-builders-strengtheningthe-role-of-local-faith-actors-in-humanitarian-response.

[13] Willitts-King, Bryant and Spencer, Valuing Local Resources. www.alnap.org/help-library/valuing-local-resources-in-humanitarian-crises.

[14] UNHCR Refugee Zakat Fund, Islamic Philanthropy Annual Report 2022 (Geneva: UNHCR, 2022). www.alnap.org/help-library/islamic-philanthropy-annual-report-2022.

[15] Tara R. Gingerich et al., Local Humanitarian Leadership and Religious Literacy: Engaging with Religion, Faith, and Faith Actors (Oxfam and Harvard Divinity School, 2017). www.alnap.org/help-library/local-humanitarian-leadership-and-religious-literacy-engagingwith-religion-faith-and.

[16] Global key informant interviews.

[17] DA Global, Is Aid Really Changing? What the COVID-19 Response Tells Us about

[18] Localisation, Decolonisation and the Humanitarian System (London: British Red Cross, 2021) www.alnap.org/help-library/is-aid-really-changing-what-the-covid-19-response-tells-usabout-localisation.

[19] DA Global, Is Aid Really Changing? www.alnap.org/help-library/is-aid-really-changing-whatthe-covid-19-response-tells-us-about-localisation.

[20] Global key informant interviews.

[21] World Bank Group, The International Finance Corporation’s Engagement in Fragile and Conflict-Affected Situations: Results and Lessons (Washington DC: World Bank Group, 2019), 9 www.alnap.org/help-library/the-international-finance-corporation%E2%80%99sengagement-in-fragile-and-conflict-affected.

[22] Shabaka, Diaspora Engagement in Times of Crisis (Brussels: EUDiF, International Centre for Migration Policy Development, 2021) www.alnap.org/help-library/diaspora-engagement-intimes-of-crisis; Jeeyon Kim et al., “I Could Not Sleep While They Were Hungry”: Investigating the Role of Social Networks in Yemen’s Humanitarian Crisis (Portland OR: Mercy Corps, 2021). www.alnap.org/help-library/%E2%80%9Ci-could-not-sleep-while-they-werehungry%E2%80%9D-investigating-the-role-of-social-networks-in.

[23] Knomad, ‘A war in a pandemic: Implications of the Ukraine crisis and COVID-19 on Global Governance of Migration and Remittance Flows’, Migration and Development Brief no. 36 (Washington DC: World Bank Group, 2022). www.alnap.org/help-library/a-war-in-a-pandemicimplications-of-the-ukraine-crisis-and-covid-19-on-global.

[24] Knomad, ‘A war in a pandemic’. www.alnap.org/help-library/a-war-in-a-pandemic-implicationsof-the-ukraine-crisis-and-covid-19-on-global.

[25] Amy Keith et al., The Future of Financial Assistance: An Outlook to 2030 (Oxford/London: CALP Network and IARAN, 2019). www.alnap.org/help-library/future-of-financial-assistancereport; Willitts-King, Bryant and Spencer, Valuing Local Resources. www.alnap.org/helplibrary/valuing-local-resources-in-humanitarian-crises. Official remittance figures likely underestimate the actual total value. Accurately estimating remittance volumes is challenged by lack of personal transfer information, inability to capture remittances in the form of physical money brought across borders, and lack of central bank reporting from several receiving countries.

[26] Bangladesh and Lebanon remittances are in 2020 constant prices.

[27] Willitts-King, Bryant and Spencer, Valuing Local Resources. www.alnap.org/help-library/valuing-local-resources-in-humanitarian-crises.

[28] Shabaka, Diaspora Engagement in Times of Crisis. www.alnap.org/help-library/diasporaengagement-in-times-of-crisis.

[29] Samuel Hall, Creating Opportunities to Work with Diasporas In Humanitarian Settings (Copenhagen: Diaspora Emergency Action and Coordination, 2018). www.alnap.org/helplibrary/creating-opportunities-to-work-with-diaspora-in-humanitarian-settings.

[30] Hall, Creating Opportunities. www.alnap.org/help-library/creating-opportunities-to-work-withdiaspora-in-humanitarian-settings.

[31] Global key informant interview.

[32] Shabaka, Diaspora Engagement in Times of Crisis. www.alnap.org/help-library/diasporaengagement-in-times-of-crisis.

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