Humanitarian funding reform due for rethink

Credit: The New Humanitarian

Making emergency relief more efficient, fairer and responsive to people’s needs is harder than it sounds but as urgent as ever.

Five years after a package of reforms dubbed the Grand Bargain were agreed, the aid establishment meets this week to chalk up its progress and decide what to do next.

Over 230 million people need humanitarian aid this year, double the UN’s estimate for 2019. The pandemic, climate change and conflicts keep pushing the number – and the price tag – higher.

A record-breaking $36 billion humanitarian funding appeal is only 20 per cent funded so far this year.

Those rising needs mean that although the Grand Bargain may have had patchy results, squeezing more from limited aid budgets and stopping more people from falling through the cracks remains an imperative.

In a new phase that begins in earnest this week, the Grand Bargain collective is expected to focus on fewer goals and tackle (again) some of the knotty issues that have hampered its progress.

The countries that pay for the majority of international humanitarian aid – and the aid agencies that spend it – committed to 51 improvements at a UN-led 2016 World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul. Those ranged from agreeing to publish open data about money flows, to saving costs by procuring goods in bulk. Some of the many targets were missed (most grants still come with plenty of strings attached), while others have taken off (giving out cash instead of goods is a rapidly growing trend).

Some small-p political issues are the most sensitive: Why do international aid groups get most of the money even when local NGOs can often provide at least as good a service at lower cost? Why do donor countries demand paperwork in a plethora of incompatible formats? Is there an oligarchy of Big Aid that won’t make space for others?

The Grand Bargain 2.0 has a new cheerleader: Norwegian humanitarian veteran Jan Egeland. Dubbed the Eminent Person, he is expected to push for results and broker deals on a narrower range of priorities amongst participants, all of whom joined on a voluntary basis and can only move ahead on consensus.

This new incarnation (but they may rebrand the Bargain) is expected to last at least two more years. The focus is expected to be about two main areas. Firstly, money, with aid agencies eager to see flexible longer-term funding grants and less paperwork. Secondly, support to local aid action and participation: A bigger say for the end customers, the aid recipients.

Talks to hammer out the details are due from 15 to 16 June, coordinated by the Geneva-based secretariat of the Grand Bargain.

There are a flurry of reports and commentaries to get you up to speed on the ins and outs of the reform process. Here is a selection:

An independent annual review from the Overseas Development Institute welcomed the new focus of the next phase of the Grand Bargain and made nine recommendations, including how it can simplify and re-focus. It points out that the pandemic has shown that deep-seated ways of working can be changed given sufficient pressure. “These are political actors, making political decisions,” it says. “Political tactics are thus required to unblock the remaining challenges.”

A group of 38 international NGOs say they passed on to local NGOs 23 per cent of the humanitarian funding they got in 2020. Charter4Change is an alliance that aims to hold themselves to a key element of the original Grand Bargain, to boost “location”.

The New Humanitarian's Jessica Alexander talked to dozens of people involved in the process to research a comprehensive two-part article on the ups and downs of the past, present and future of the Grand Bargain. With candid interviews and in-depth research, she tells the story of how good intentions bumped up against entrenched power and organizational vested interests. Look out for her interview with Egeland, coming soon.

The “huge disappointment” of the Grand Bargain's stated aim to shift financial resources to local NGOs has to be seen in a wider context of coloniality, according to a report by NGO Peace Direct, Decolonizing Aid . It argues that Global North-based international NGOs tinkered with definitions to dilute the commitment to “location”, and its failure is due to a “reluctance to relinquish power to local actors”.

Three more for the policy wonks: The difficulty of getting a credible level of accountability, representation in decision-making and even basic customer service into the provision of relief have led to a new look at “survivor- and community-led crisis response”. That's explored in another report published at ODI. The accountability problem is also covered in a new study called “ Stuck in the Weeds ”. Meanwhile, the success of cash in relief is marred by confusion over where it fits into the humanitarian aid system - an issue discussed in a new episode of Trumanitarian , a Geneva-based podcast.