On the heels of the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit, the Summit organizers issued a chair’s summary that illustrates a key problem for the sector. They noted that after consulting 23,000 people in 153 countries, over 9,000 people from 173 Member States came together and made over 1,500 commitments.
The humanitarian sector is somewhat obsessed with numbers like these, reporting on how many fed, how many commodities distributed, how many people received services. But here’s the problem: these numbers, like those issued by Summit organizers, say nothing about the change that will result in the lives of those displaced by conflict and crises. That’s the standard against which the Summit’s success should be measured, and on that standard, the jury is out.
The Summit took place against a backdrop of tremendous global challenge. The more than 60 million people displaced today is the largest number on record. The drivers of their displacement are conflict, state fragility, and climate change — long-term challenges that lead to long-term displacement, typically lasting decades. The Overseas Development Institute reports that over 80% of refugee crises last ten years or more, and that conflict-related internal displacement averages 23 years.
The international community has stepped up its assistance — the $28 billion provided in 2015 is the highest amount ever provided — but the 48 percent shortfall on UN-coordinated appeals is also the largest deficit to date. Put simply, the humanitarian sector was never set up to address long-term displacement on such a massive scale, and it’s not a problem more money can solve. The Summit succeeded in pivoting attention to these trends. What remains are the concrete actions the donors and practitioners must take to drive responsive changes in the sector.
The most promising Summit outcome on that front was the agreement reached by all major donors and international organizations on the “Grand Bargain,” a set of commitments to improve the transparency, efficiency, and effectiveness of humanitarian aid; and to collaborate with the development community to improve outcomes for the long-term displaced.
The commitments identified in the Grand Bargain are substantive, and if implemented, put the sector on a path to the modernization it needs to respond effectively to current challenges. But not all elements within the Grand Bargain are created equal. Among the agreement’s 10 commitments and 51 actions, three are critical:
Establishing collective outcomes. Collective agreement on outcomes — measurable improvements in people’s lives — is the organizing principle for the new way of doing business called for in the Grand Bargain. Collective agreement among humanitarian actors on outcomes would drive joint needs assessments, joint planning, and common reporting frameworks. A focus of effort on measurable improvements in, for example, the health, education, safety, or self-reliance, and the range of interventions required to achieve them for a given community, would help drive changes from short- to longer-term funding, and from earmarked to more flexible funding, recognizing the time and responsiveness required to achieve outcomes in complex, protracted crises.
It puts people at the center of our work, not organizational mandates, and encourages resources to flow to the interventions that work in achieving shared goals. All of these are actions called for in the Grand Bargain, and establishing collective outcomes is the lever. At the IRC, we hope to pave the way with an Outcomes and Evidence Framework that defines outcomes for the people we seek to assist, together with the interventions that will help achieve them. We’ve designed it as an open-source platform, available to peers and partners to help design more effective programs.
Building the evidence base. To maximize impact with limited aid — the goal of the Grand Bargain — we must direct scarce aid resources to the interventions proven to work, and generate the evidence we need where we have gaps in knowledge. A reliance on evidence, for example, would lead more humanitarian actors to provide cash instead of commodities. It would encourage the scale-up of community-based education to help reach the large number of children out of school. And it would support the use of family-based interventions to reduce violence against children. Donors must signal their commitment to evidence and evidence generation by allocating a standard percentage of grants to support measurement, evaluation, and actionable research.
A study by Deloitte found that the largest expenditures on R&D by humanitarian agencies is only .67% of total budget, while best practice suggests a target closer to 5%. The IRC has developed detailed evidence maps related to outcomes we seek to achieve, which reveal the dearth of high-quality studies in crises-affected contexts. A research collaborative of donors, practitioners, and universities could help close our most pressing gaps and identify solutions for the unique contexts and needs of displaced populations.
Measuring cost efficiency and effectiveness. With the gap between need and financing growing ever wider, we must understand the costs and outcomes associated with different interventions in order to direct resources to programs with the greatest reach and impact. The IRC has committed to using cost analyses systematically and to publishing the results of our analyses for use by donors and practitioners. But only a collective commitment to cost analyses and transparency can drive efficiency at a scale that will allow the sector to reach many more people with limited aid dollars. As a follow up to the Summit and Grand Bargain, donors and aid agencies could establish a Humanitarian Costing Alliance to develop a standard for evaluating and reporting on cost-efficiency and effectiveness.
These three elements make concrete the Grand Bargain’s ambitions — to put every dollar of aid to best use in achieving results for displaced populations. Pushing them forward will help ensure that the Summit’s success is measured on the right dimensions — not how many people it gathered (throngs), or how many side events were held (too many), or how many commitments were made (did I mention? Over 1,500) — but whether it served as the moment when the humanitarian sector came together and made a collective shift, in ways that will result in meaningful, measurable improvements in peoples’ lives.