Parts of the aid system just don’t work – the dismal cycle of humanitarian response

Every now and then an email stops me in my tracks, reminding me that Oxfam is stuffed full of bright, motivated, DebbieHillieraltruistic people. Here’s one I got a few weeks ago from Debbie Hillier, one of our Humanitarian Policy Advisers, in response to my request for thoughts on the state of the aid business. Her views are fleshed out in ‘A Preventable Crisis’, a new report published this week:

‘Hi Duncan

Here is a current example of how the aid system doesn’t work.

El Niño events and other droughts are forecast months in advance.  There is of course some uncertainty in the forecasts, but nonetheless, there is often a high probability of a natural hazard.  And with major droughts/El Niño/La Niña, these can affect many millions of people.

So there are situations of high probability and high impact – like the current El Niño.  And these are situations where we know what the solutions are. There are far fewer complicating political factors than in conflict – we know what to do.

If this was the private sector, there would be a significant response at this point. However the aid system does not work like this.

El NinoHumanitarian funding is only available at scale when there is a serious crisis – eg major flooding or famine.  Humanitarian funding is not available at scale to respond early.

Public appeals only work when there is huge media coverage, and for food crises this relies on visual suffering – starving children, by which time we have collectively failed.

Institutional funding can be made available, but the amount depends on geopolitical factors, and some self-interest – which is often not present, and certainly isn’t there for this El Niño.  And currently is competing with the crises in Syria and elsewhere.

This is despite the humanitarian mandate to prevent suffering.  And despite the fact that there is unequivocal evidence that early response is much cheaper than late response, as well as reducing suffering and maintaining development gains.  Early response means rehabilitation of wells, rather than water trucking.  It means community care on nutrition, rather than therapeutic feeding centres.  It means commercial destocking rather than restocking after the drought.  The evidence is totally clear that early response is cheaper and helps to build resilience.

Humanitarian funding is generally for short term use – eg 6-12 months – and sometimes must be explicitly ‘lifesaving’ – which precludes early action.

Quite a lot of donors now have ‘Rapid Response Funds’ which enable a quick disbursal of funding for a quick onset crisis – eg Nepal earthquake.  But no donors – to my knowledge – have an ‘Early Response Fund’ to enable early response to drought to prevent deterioration.

Development funding streams are unable to respond at scale to drought.  Development programmes (of governments, as well as donor-funded) take a long time to negotiate (eg up to a year to agree a proposal, which clearly doesn’t work for crises) and are normally relatively inflexible over their lifespan (3-5 years).They are unable Kenya HSNPto respond to the changing context.  There are some programmes that are designed right from the start to be flexible (e.g. Kenya’s Hunger Safety Net Programme, which was designed specifically to respond to recurrent drought), to scale up and down, but this appears to be fairly exceptional.  And there are a few programmes which include ‘crisis modifiers’, where humanitarian funding is ‘tucked in’ to a long term development programme and can be accessed quickly – but again these are few.

So Early Response falls between humanitarian and development funding envelopes.  Oxfam went to a humanitarian donor last October for drought response funding for Guatemala and Honduras and was told it was ‘too resiliency’.  It was refused.  We took the ‘resiliency’ bits out and it was funded.  Ridiculous.

The lack of major funding available for early response to drought, and indeed to Disaster Risk Reduction which is also about preventing/mitigating the impacts of a natural hazard, means that people are much more vulnerable than they need to be and people suffer unnecessarily.  Only 0.7% of total ODA is spent on DRR, whereas Oxfam considers a figure of 5% to be more appropriate,.

More broadly, while it is brilliant that overall humanitarian funding has increased yet again in 2016, the appeal process is hardly fit for purpose. We would not be happy if a fire brigade has to pass the hat around before being able to respond to a fire, yet that’s precisely how the humanitarian funding system works.  In time-critical crises – eg Ebola – this was highly problematic.  And in situations where nobody cares – like El Niño now – we are stuck.’

Nothing to add.

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11 Responses to “Parts of the aid system just don’t work – the dismal cycle of humanitarian response”
  1. Paul Harvey

    All true – but also all truths that have been shouted about for the last 25 years and more (see this 1994 paper) from Simon Maxwell & Margie Buchanan Smith. So the real question is how to change the politics. You need to unpick fundamental tensions in approaches, principles and politics as well as the technical details of funding windows

  2. Izzy Birch

    Debbie’s article is spot on, as is Paul’s comment about the primacy of politics. The Kenya government has a drought early response fund, triggered by its early warning system and guided by pre-approved contingency plans. A prototype is already up and running (with EU funding), and a full version (a permanent, set-aside fund) was approved by parliament this year.

  3. Ben

    Difficult to disagree with most of this, and I share what are clearly huge frustrations with the system. For balance, let me try to pick out two little rays of (potential) sunshine amidst this grey cloud. The High Level Panel on Humanitarian Financing and the subsequent Grand Bargain proposes donors make their spending more flexible, efficient, transparent, and effective. Yes, I know we’ve had this before and indeed for a long time, but right now there seems to be political will and collective impetus to achieve this. I’m not saying it’s going to work, but unless we all pitch in, it definitely won’t. More specifically on early response, the Start Network is doing some thoughtful and innovative work on what they call anticipatory response. For example, the Start Fund has been activated for *in advance* of predicted floods in Sri Lanka, and *before* large movements of people across the border from South Sudan to Uganda – allowing humanitarian agencies to mitigate against the impacts of the emergency before it happens. Alright, it’s small scale at the moment (drop in the ocean stuff for El Nino), but gathering a practical evidence base within what is a multi-donor pooled fund can help to move the players in this system in the right direction. And more and more players are getting interested in either investing in it or in discovering what the results have been so far.

  4. As the comments above illustrate, there are some good examples of flexible, adaptable projects that were able to more quickly to provide emergency or post disaster relief, but they are still the exceptions to the rule. The response to the 2015 Myanmar flooding in the Ayeyarwady delta ( demonstrates both Debbie’s point that the system is broken, and how–with some enlightened thinking–development aid was suspended and channeled to disaster relief. I might be drinking too much of adaptive management “kool-aid” but there is a movement within the industry to move in this direction. While adaptive management doesn’t necessary answer funding shortages, in theory, it does allow for more efficient and effective use of existing resources.

  5. As Ben mentions above, the failings of the humanitarian aid financing system resonate deeply with the critique which led to the founding of the Start Network, a transformational network of 39 humanitarian agencies which are experimenting with anticipatory response. I work for the Network trying to build systems which will enable earlier action through a) improving access to risk and forecast information, b) creating feedback loops between agencies to spread the word on ‘what works’ in early action, and c) providing flexible funding which can be accessed ahead of a crisis. This seems like a new way of doing crisis response.

    As lamented in Debbie’s letter however, and in meetings we have been having since we first convened a Start Network discussion on this in October last year, the Start Fund is not at sufficient scale (either in project duration or funding level) to meet the needs in a slow-onset emergency such as a drought. We believe the answer to financing this effectively and removing the ‘political modifiers’ which often inhibit early action is to adapt a layered approach to risk management. The Start Fund is the contingency pot for civil society, aimed at kickstarting programmes or responding rapidly to under-the-radar emergencies. That’s fine for a subset of emergencies but we need also to build systems which preposition finance for slow moving crises. We want to link crisis response to a) evidence-based decision-making, b) pre-canned but adaptive contingency plans, and c) prepositioned financing, potentially through a link to the insurance market. Ben has mentioned some of the chinks of light which offer hope that we can deliver on this. I would add the Forecast-based Financing initiatives which include the Red Cross Movement, WFP, FAO and Start as well as the Insurance Development Forum. Let’s be frank with ourselves though, from an agency perspective this will require a complete retooling of our approach as well as some brave and forward-thinking donor support, from both institutional and from the private sector sources.

    This all sounds a bit naïve and the devil is always in the detail – who will pay the premiums? how do we ensure local ownership? how do we fill the gaps in data to improve impact modelling? etc etc. Nevertheless, to me at least, if feels like we have a pathway towards the dream of many to start making disasters ‘dull’.

  6. Amy Holly

    It’s a very hard bridge for NGOs to cross, in general people (and governments) are only inclined to act when things become very extreme and it no longer feels morally acceptable to turn a blind eye.

    I also tend to donate when there is a disaster but as you mention, I’ve never been asked for an early intervention donation.

    For donors like me, following up on my disaster donation for an early risk prevention donation would work.

  7. Allan Moolman

    This is the bit in the commentary that worries me: ‘Oxfam went to a humanitarian donor last October for drought response funding for Guatemala and Honduras and was told it was ‘too resiliency’. It was refused. We took the ‘resiliency’ bits out and it was funded.’
    Should we not be talking about our complicity in propping it all up by playing according the rules…

  8. Save the Children are funding their own Early Action Fund Pilot in 2017 in order to add to the evidence on this. I’m not sure how much information is publicly available, but I’ve seen a very interesting proposal which cites interest from DFID and the EU as well as the StC Humanitarian Executive. If anyone is interested please contact me (contact details on the website) and I’ll put you in touch with the person leading this project.

  9. Seja muito bem vindo a esta nobre instituição voluntária de resgate e ajuda humanitária internacional com sede no Brasil. estamos honrados com vossa presença. Desde sempre prontos a prestar ajuda a todos os povos em prol de todas as vidas humanas.
    convidamos, se se interessarem a participar, do projeto: ALIANÇA DE RESGATE E AJUDA HUMANITÁRIA INTERNACIONAL, a qual estamos formando em parceria com diversas instituições, tanto nacionais quanto internacionais. promovendo em conjunto com estas instituições troca de experiencias, intercâmbios,palestras, cursos, enfim… unindo forças e conhecimentos para construirmos uma sociedade melhor, mais digna e humana para todos! e, ao mesmo tempo formando novas amizades e parcerias. Se interessarem, estamos a disposição desde já para maiores informações. lembrando, que o interessante é que este acordo de aliança, ou também ACORDO DE COOPERAÇÃO TÉCNICA, só vem a contribuir com o crescimento de ambas as instituições afiliadas, convido a conhecer este projeto social e humano que está sendo desenvolvido.

    é um site dos bombeiros e socorristas voluntários do brasil, no qual estamos desenvolvendo um projeto de aliança humanitária internacional reunindo diversas instituições de todo o mundo para compor uma aliança de ajuda mutua onde cada instituição possa contribuir e ajudar aquelas familias e pessoas que sofrem em situações de emergencia e catastrofes.
    Esta aliança, tem o objetivo de unir as mais diferentes instituições em busca tanto de apoio a este nosso trabalho voluntário de resgate e ajuda humanitária, como também, de novas idéias, troca de experiencias, intercâmbios, enfim, cada um contribui da maneira que pode, sem obrigação a qual não seja a de respeito, amizade e fraternidade para com seus semelhantes.

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