Five actions to move humanitarians closer to the 2030 Agenda

Participants at the 2017 Global Humanitarian Policy Forum at the UN in New York. Credit: UNOCHA/Paolo Palermo

Every year, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) hosts a global humanitarian policy forum. This year, the forum focused on the practical steps the humanitarian sector needs to take to ensure that we proactively contribute to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

At the same time, participants re-asserted the primary role of the humanitarian sector: to protect people and save lives in crises.

Central to discussions was the recognition that achieving the 2030 Agenda will require continued, significant effort to adapt the international aid system, particularly to facilitate better connectivity between humanitarian and development action. As David Miliband, President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, said: “The humanitarian sector has extraordinary entrepreneurialism, bravery and effectiveness…but I fear we rely on heroism rather than effective systems… We need major change: we need to redefine the humanitarian system, as well as revitalize it, because we are living in a world where refugees are displaced for more than 10 years, where 60 per cent of refugees are kids.” At the same time, Under Secretary-General Mark Lowcock reminded participants that despite major challenges, “progress is possible,” as captured in the first report on the achievements against the Agenda for Humanity, since the World Humanitarian Summit.

Here are five takeaways from this year’s forum:

Mark Lowcock, Emergency Relief Coordinator, with Koki Grignon, Permanent Mission of the Republic of Kenya to the United Nations, Charlotte Gornitzka, Chair of the OECD/DAC, and David Miliband, Director of the IRC. Credit: UNOCHA/Paolo Palermo

1. Financing differently is the top priority

Participants overwhelmingly called for financing as the area where change is most needed for humanitarians to support the 2030 Agenda. Donors need to lead the charge in delivering more flexible, longer-term financing. The Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Ursula Mueller, stressed the need for better ways to incentivize donors to bridge the humanitarian-development nexus. Likewise, Charlotte Gornitzka, Chair of the OECD/DAC, said that donors, as the “shareholders” of the international aid system, must “do more to incentivize collaboration and measure the people at the top, based on their efforts at collaboration.”

The Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Mark Lowcock, called for funding beyond immediate life saving, to invest in underfunded areas, particularly education and livelihoods, as well as the “massive underfunding of evidence-generation, research and inter-disciplinary policymaking.”

OCHA’s Policy Director, Hansjoerg Strohmeyer, stressed: “For our part, humanitarians and development partners need to come up with more coherent financial packages to donors that focus on outcomes, not activities.”

Assistant-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Ursula Mueller at the forum. Credit: UNOCHA/Paolo Palermo

2. Go beyond the UN to bridge the humanitarian-development divide

This is the crux of the New Way of Working, to transcend the humanitarian to development nexus. But this approach must not be seen as UN-only, stressed participants. International financial institutions, bilateral donors and NGOs are essential to it. “We have architectural issues, which we need to solve to connect all the dots,” said Rachel Scott of the OECD-DAC.

Mr. Strohmeyer explained that multi-year action alone is not the game-changer — the transformational part is collective outcomes. Strong leaderships will “make or break” success in achieving these.

Collective outcomes are already being set in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Mauritania and Somalia, and we need to draw on lessons learned as we proceed.

UN Deputy Secretary-General, Amina Mohamed, issued caution and reassurance to many who say the New Way of Working will muddy humanitarian principles. “I assure you that our efforts to achieve the 2030 Agenda will never compromise the impartiality, neutrality and independence of the global humanitarian system… They are the guarantors of humanitarian effectiveness on both sides of every conflict, and in peacetime as well as war.”

3. Value local capacity rather than assuming you need to “build it.”

Many participants reiterated the need to “reinforce, not replace” local and national systems by increasing the agency of local humanitarian actors and affected communities, as this is the only path to sustainability. “When you flip the coin and involve the communities, so that they own the problem and solution, then you have a better approach to a lasting solution,” said Koki Grignon, Permanent Mission of the Republic of Kenya to the United Nations.

We heard inspiring examples of national networks shaping humanitarian response, from diaspora groups to NGO consortia, to city councils connecting across regions. For instance, a 172-member national NGO consortium in Pakistan is now part of the UN cluster system and the humanitarian response team, as well as a pooled-fund recipient.

But it is not all about how local actors fit into international response, said several participants. “Piecing together how national and international responders can work together is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle,” said Francois Grunwald of Groupe URD. Rather than assuming local capacity needs to be built, international organizations should do a better job of recognizing, valuing and supporting existing local capacity and finding complementary ways of working with it, said Smruti Patel, with Global Mentoring Initiative. When support is needed, we need to start investing in local capacity over a longer timeframe to deliver sustainable solutions.

Now let’s get practical, said OCHA’s Strohmeyer, by unpacking what sustainable local responses look like at every level — financing, coordination, service provision — and coming up with three-year plans for each.

4. Mitigate the impact of urban conflict on civilians

None of these changes will have much impact if the consequences of warfare for civilians are not mitigated, especially in urban areas where many of today’s armed conflicts are fought.

With urban warfare on the rise, participants from the military, humanitarian and other sectors, examined the drivers and human cost of urban warfare, and the practical measures that can be taken to mitigate its effects.

These included collecting evidence and documenting the impact of urban warfare on civilians; training and equipping armed groups to adapt their tactics and choice of weapons to urban settings. Participants also advocated that efforts to clear explosive remnants of war must be built into all humanitarian response plans.

5. Do more to prevent crises

Participants repeatedly emphasized the importance of investing more in prevention and of finding political avenues to end conflicts. As David Miliband put it: “I am deeply alarmed by the crisis of diplomacy. At this year’s General Assembly, where was the all-night session to end the conflict in Yemen? It takes politicians to stop the killings…The reason 65 million people are fleeing for their lives is a crisis of diplomacy.”