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If the humanitarian system is to meet the growing needs of people affected by crises, we need transformation not tinkering

The finding of “business-as-usual-but-little-improvement” in today’s State of the Humanitarian System (SOHS) is not good enough.

The system needs transformation, not tinkering at the edges — and this will only happen if there is adequate investment in different and better ways of working. We need to grasp opportunities to improve humanitarian action and bring about systemic change.

We know the challenges. The question is, why are these not being addressed?

Eight humanitarian networks and organisations[1] have come together to further support the strengthening of the humanitarian system — to improve the accountability, quality and effectiveness of humanitarian assistance. We believe that if the experiences of crisis-affected people are to improve, the sector requires focused investment and action to transform the way we prioritise, fund, collaborate, operate and hold ourselves to account.

The SOHS report is an opportunity for us to show how and where change can happen, and collaborate to accelerate the changes we want to see.

Expanded, but converged

Earlier this year, the UN Secretary General shared a sobering reflection that “global megatrends are converging into a mega-crisis of conflict, climate disruption, hunger and the rising cost of living,” followed by a plea to increase funding to meet rising needs — impending famines in Yemen and the horn of Africa, catastrophic floods in Pakistan and Bangladesh, and displacement from conflict in the DRC and South Sudan, among many others.

While funding has plateaued, what money is available is channelled primarily through the largest aid organisations[2]. This concentration of resources may mean greater efficiency for donors, but not the people we serve. Years of data from community feedback show this. It also limits innovation and adaptation when crisis dynamics demonstrate that we need to do more with less.

A less diverse system is also prone to inertia or at worst monopolistic behaviour. We have seen this in Ukraine, where the big agencies have had the cash but have been slow to implement, while smaller local actors with local knowledge and networks struggle to tap into overly bureaucratic funds.

External disruptors, such as COVID-19, have challenged our ways of working but not fundamentally changed much. The “not enough money” or “we’re busy saving lives” excuses can no longer account for stagnant reforms on accountability and localisation. We can’t afford a system that doesn’t disburse funds quickly to where they are most needed, marks its own homework and tries to coordinate and control at the same time.

Performing, but not progressing

We do not underestimate the importance of humanitarian assistance, especially where getting aid to people is incredibly dangerous. The risks and the stakes are high. However, this cannot be an excuse for not doing things better. Data[3] shows that even when access is possible, aid doesn’t go to those who need it most, doesn’t always meet the most pressing needs and doesn’t live up to claims of empowerment, dignity and inclusion.

The SOHS report clearly suggests that the humanitarian system is not changing quickly or enough, perhaps with resistance from the largest and most powerful stakeholders who have the least incentives to transform. We cannot have a system that does not adequately work for the people we are meant to assist.

As systems change organisations and networks, we have decided to bring our collective experience, expertise and learning, to accelerate transformation of the humanitarian system.

To break the cycle, we collectively call on all humanitarian actors to support the following actions:

1. Allow more flexible funding to ensure that the humanitarian system remains agile and responsive to crises and the people affected by them.

2. Increase investment in humanitarian standards, learning, leadership development and collaboration amongst all humanitarian actors to improve the quality of aid.

3. Support experimentation and innovation that are evidence-based and can be brought to scale.

4. Reduce bureaucratic impediments for engaging with crisis affected people and community organisations.

5. Shift power, decision making, funding and other resources to local and national organisations and community responders who know best and will carry on when attention shifts elsewhere.

6. Invest in networks and collaboration. Networks have the greatest chance of harnessing collective action, expertise and reach at greater speed, lower cost, reduced bureaucracy and better impact.

Some would say that doing things differently without guaranteed success creates risks when human lives, livelihoods and dignity are at stake. But we would argue that there is an even greater moral hazard in standing still. What does it say about us as a sector if we cannot deploy our expertise and the billions of dollars at our disposal to make the changes that will increase our impact?

Tanya Wood, Executive Director, CHS Alliance

Mary Ana McGlasson, Executive Director, Centre for Humanitarian Leadership

Meg Sattler, CEO, Ground Truth Solutions

Kim Scriven, Executive Director, H2H Network

Christina Bennett, CEO, Start Network

Dr Balwant Singh, Executive Director, Sphere

This statement does not necessarily represent the views of individual members of the above organisations and networks.

[1] ALNAP, CHS Alliance, the Centre for Humanitarian Leadership, Ground Truth Solutions, H2H Network, ICVA, Start Network and Sphere have joined forces to collaborate to further improve the accountability, quality and effectiveness of humanitarian assistance. Collectively, this collaboration covers critical aspects of the humanitarian system –accountability, evaluation, effectiveness, funding, innovation, leadership, learning, localisation, quality, standards and support for humanitarian actors.

[2] Global Humanitarian Assistance Report 2022

[3] Ground Truth Solutions

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Start Network

Start Network

An international network of NGOs, catalysing a new era of humanitarian action, with proactive financing, innovation & localisation to transform the system.