A Covid-inspired rethink of the humanitarian system

A community health worker reads a handbook on coronavirus prevention at a training session conducted by the national NGO Health Link in Gumbo, South Sudan, August 2020. Covid-19 exposed stark inequalities in the aid system. With most money going to international aid groups, local aid workers have been left exposed on the pandemic’s front lines. Credit: AP Photo / Charles Atiki Lomodong

The World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Future Council on the New Agenda for Fragility and Resilience aims to find solutions to help reshape the humanitarian system. Geneva Solutions talks to council member Sara Pantuliano about the upcoming term.

As the international aid sector grapples with increased numbers of people in need and funding shortfalls, many are rethinking its current operating model. Among those are the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Future Council on the New Agenda for Fragility and Resilience, launched in early November, which is bringing together actors from both inside and outside the humanitarian sphere to find innovative solutions and mobilise reform.

“[The pandemic] has highlighted once again how the current system that deals with humanitarian crises is not fit for purpose, because we’ve seen the struggle to be able to deliver in the context of the pandemic,” said Sara Pantuliano, council member for over a decade and chief executive of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) in a recent interview with Geneva Solutions.

System overhaul. Although the initial Covid response saw a 20 per cent increase of the humanitarian budget, it’s estimated that Official Development Assistance (ODA) could drop as much as $25bn in 2021. As Pantuliano notes, the pandemic and its aftermath has highlighted the urgent need to rethink the humanitarian business model at a time when budgets shrink while needs grow.

“A lot of us [council members] have struggled  with trying to help make serious progress on changing a system that is inefficient, ineffective, under representative, and [does not deliver] in a way that's commensurate to the investment of resources that we make in these places,” she explains.

Rather than try to “reform the system” - an overwhelming task - the Council will aim to come up with a number of alternative models and context-specific examples — Pantuliano explains, “one or two things we can contribute that can demonstrate how you can work differently,” be these ongoing projects or new concepts.

Formerly the Global Future Council on the Humanitarian System, the latest humanitarian iteration has a new mandate: to learn from the lessons of the pandemic and focus on how the international aid system can be transformed to become more resilient to future shocks. To achieve this, the WEF has selected its members to include international and local humanitarian and development professionals, as well as donors and actors from the private sector.

“From the shifting name itself, you can see that we've widened the scope of the engagement,” explains Pantuliano. “There is a very deep realisation that you can't address crises or find different ways of working in crisis settings if you don't look at a longer term horizon [and include] a variety of actors that work beyond the scope of humanitarian crisis.”

Lessons from the pandemic. The Council’s emphasis this year will be on building resilience in places that are more fragile due to protracted humanitarian crises - finding ways to support recovery and respond to immediate needs more effectively.

“We’re looking at the resilience element in countries where there is either a full blown crisis, or there are elements of instability, or they're recovering from a crisis...and how we can work on a longer term horizon, building or supporting the resilience of communities,” explains Pantuliano. “Really rethinking how we can move from the pandemic [recovery] to a more sustainable and resilient future.”

Council members will work in the coming year to come up with examples of how the aid system can be evolved in certain contexts, as well as potential partnerships and projects that can respond to the challenges posed by the pandemic. “Sustainability is at the centre,” says Pantuliano, “and it’s an opportunity to recover in a way that is fairer for communities.”

Unlocking digital potential. Digital technologies have rapidly expanded during the pandemic. Digital cash transfers, for example, have been used more widely, as have remote operations such as mental health support services . The Council will focus on how technology can be used effectively in humanitarian responses and to further build resilience, in a way that will not leave certain populations or communities behind.

“It's about how we use digitalisation in a way that people themselves can make progress both in terms of economic gains and social progress,” explains Pantuliano, “to really help a number of countries accelerate digital transformation in a positive way, in a way that doesn't create more division, give way to more misinformation, or takes away more jobs than it currently does. ”

Supporting local actors. In the same way that the pandemic has necessitated a shift to digital, restricted movement has also emphasised the importance of local actors when it comes to delivering humanitarian response.

“The pandemic has once again demonstrated how critical local action is,” says Pantuliano. “So you need to think of processes that enable the local action to come to the front. The pandemic has made that all the more apparent because things have worked out better when there has been a devolution of actions. ”

Cooperation is key to innovation. The council will reconvene virtually this month to finalise their priorities for the term ahead. Pantuliano is optimistic about the Council's readiness to step-up and address the problems at hand.

At a time when multilateralism is facing unprecedented challenges, the collaboration that lies at the heart of the council is vital, bringing together actors from across different sectors and nations. Pantuliano reiterates a widely held view that the pandemic response has exhibited a “deep lack of global cooperation”.

“In many ways the structures that should have led the response to the crisis really struggled,” explains Pantuliano. “A challenge to multilateralism as it is currently configured has been amplified during the pandemic, putting into stark relief the need to create more of these alliances that are working together towards a certain goal.”

“It enables you to see things through a different lens,” she continues, “Innovation always comes from somewhere else. It's very difficult to innovate in-house, and being exposed to different ideas and different ways of doing things unlocks your own innovation. ”