Ed Cairns, Oxfam’s Senior Policy Adviser on this kind of thing, explores the shifting sands of humanitarian aid policy
After a flurry of reviews and new policies on all aspects of aid, the UK put out its new humanitarian policy, Saving Lives, Preventing Suffering and Building Resilience, a couple of weeks ago. Not every word is new – it owes a lot to the review DFID commissioned from Paddy Ashdown, former High Representative in Bosnia, earlier this year.
More importantly though, it’s rather good – in some parts even brave. If the UK really means to implement its new policy, we’re going to see some improvements. Not that the UK is a bad humanitarian donor. Far from it. It’s been the third largest humanitarian donor, but, according to the independent Humanitarian Response Index, the UK ranks only 8th among OECD donors for spending its money according to agreed international principles. Even in humanitarian action, the UK just can’t shake off the suspicion that it’s sometimes peddling its political or security interests. A lot of this stems from the UK’s continuing closeness to the US. In 2010, it was the US and UK, according to UN insiders in Pakistan, that tried to pressurise humanitarian agencies to make use of NATO’s ‘air bridge’ to fly in flood relief – an initiative that had more to do with promoting NATO than creating an effective disaster response.
Now though, DFID’s new humanitarian policy speaks passionately about ‘preserving the civilian nature of humanitarian assistance’ and the threat that ‘access may be compromised when humanitarian aid is perceived to be linked to political or military goals’. Quite so.
More fundamentally, the new DFID policy puts building long-term resilience to disasters at its very heart – ‘a core part of DFID’s approach in all the countries where we work’. As we see in the Horn at the moment, terrible disasters will always be with us. There will always be a need for relief and response. But DFID gets the big point: that a much greater focus of humanitarian action should be on helping countries and communities build up their own strength to cope with disasters – which means that the long-term development and humanitarian enterprises are not so different after all. We need not only the leadership – often lacking – to ‘call’ a disaster at the first warning signs, but the far longer-term work of making people less vulnerable to disasters forever.
Where DFID is quite brave is in criticising the UN – though still too mildly, in my view. In the humanitarian field, ‘the quality of UN leadership is not consistently good’. DFID is British after all; it does understatement, but over the last couple of years, DFID has seemed significantly more critical of UN performance than when, in the middle of the last decade, it encouraged the UN’s Humanitarian Response Review, and put its faith in the ‘cluster system’ and other conclusions from the review to deliver results. In sorrow rather than anger, most humanitarians now see those results as modest and disappointing. In the bigger picture, this December will mark 20 years since the UN General Assembly set up what is now OCHA, the UN Office for Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs, to ‘make more effective the collective efforts of the international community, in particular the UN system, in providing humanitarian assistance’. We have come a long way since the 1980s, but after overstretched responses to Haiti’s earthquake or Pakistan’s flood in 2010, who now believes that UN humanitarian performance has improved as much as it should have in those two decades?
Indeed, it is perhaps that very overstretch – an international humanitarian system incapable of responding to the world’s increasing humanitarian need – that DFID does not yet quite grasp. For all its many strengths, UK policy still looks like a document written in a Western-centred world, in which international humanitarian action is the most important thing.
Think again. International aid reached only half the 14 million people affected by last year’s Pakistan floods. An enormous proportion of assistance to disaster victims already comes from within their communities, local authorities and Southern-based organisations. That proportion is likely to expand. While it is shocking how little international donors give in humanitarian aid – around $60 for each person in need – nobody believes that in the current economy that amount will substantially increase to meet the demand from a rising tide of often climate-related disasters.
DFID is, more than anything, a donor and it inevitably sees the world through a donor’s lens. If there’s something missing in its new policy, it’s the sense that the world is moving from a Western-inspired, UN-centric model of humanitarian response, to something much more diverse, localised and sustainable. And that means that donors should think more – even more, to be fair, than DFID already does – about substantially increasing their support to disaster-affected countries to build both resilience, and their immediate capacity to respond.