Humanitarian action is about saving lives and alleviating suffering caused by conflict and natural disasters. Over the past 150 years, a well-defined framework for international humanitarianism has emerged. International humanitarian and human rights law provide the legal basis for humanitarian responses, while standards, principles, and coordination platforms guide humanitarian practice. Over time, more and more donors, NGOs, and individuals have added their support alongside the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, UN agencies, and governments. This has expanded the size and reach of humanitarianism.
With climate change and increasing conflicts, the need for assistance continues to grow. At the same time, it has become more common for governments and armed groups to question the legitimacy of humanitarians, and to try to control who provides and receives aid. In addition, new humanitarian actors are challenging existing principles and reshuffling the “rules of the game.”
In short, humanitarianism today is in search of a new vision. We support this search by conducting research, evaluating humanitarian programs and approaches, and providing input for policy debates.
Airports clogged with relief goods, duplications of assistance, delays in providing help in the face of a disaster: These are stark reminders that effective coordination of humanitarian assistance can be challenging. Since 2006, the “cluster approach” has sought to improve coordination. We have analyzed the strengths and weaknesses of the approach itself; the 2010 Haiti earthquake response, which made use of the approach; and the food security cluster. We have also worked with humanitarian actors and donors to improve their approach to coordination.
We find that the cluster approach is the right way to go. It reduces duplications and gaps and strengthens partnerships between UN agencies and other humanitarian organizations. Donors should therefore, within reason, fund cluster coordination costs, and member organizations should be ready to share information and comply with common decisions and plans. But the leaders of humanitarian organizations represented in the Inter-Agency Standing Committee must also make sure that clusters are not over-burdened with bureaucratic processes that take up too much time and add too little to the response on the ground. Clusters also need to get better at supporting the response of national and local structures and at integrating new humanitarian actors.
Non-Traditional Humanitarian Actors
Our research used to focus on how the largest humanitarian donors – the US and the European Commission – could better coordinate their efforts. We found, however, that a purely transatlantic perspective is myopic, as non-Western donors are increasingly shaping humanitarian action. Our premise now is that successful engagement with non-Western donors depends on a thorough understanding of the norms, interests and decision-making processes that inform their humanitarian engagement. Our research has since focused on the nascent humanitarian action of Saudi Arabia, India, Turkey, China, Brazil and the Gulf states.
Our work has informed the strategy of engaging new actors of the European Commission’s humanitarian aid office. We have also researched the role of business in humanitarian action. We found that while the policy debate focuses on the role of businesses as partners and donors, more attention should be paid to their role as implementers contracted by NGOs, particularly in highly insecure environments.
Protection of Civilians
Beyond the provision of material relief, humanitarian action involves protecting civilians from armed violence and other forms of harm, such as sexual abuse and forced migration. Humanitarian organizations try to help protect civilians by, among other things, promoting compliance with international humanitarian and human rights law, offering physical protection, and providing psycho-social support.
It is very difficult to prove the effects of humanitarian protection activities. In an era in which donors increasingly ask their partners to demonstrate that they provide “value for money,” humanitarian protection activities could therefore be under threat. We believe that where conclusive evidence on what works is not available, donors and policymakers should adopt risk ethics to guide their decisions. Another challenge is the coordination between humanitarian and development approaches to protection. Initial results from our research on child protection have shown that the gap is particularly acute in migration, where unaccompanied children fall outside existing humanitarian and development protection frameworks.
Many of today's worst humanitarian crises occur in places that are insecure or hard to reach. In the past, neutrality and impartiality usually allowed humanitarians to enter sensitive and controversial settings, but this has changed as humanitarianism has become more politicized. Several governments have shut their doors to aid, while aid agencies have withdrawn staff and tightened security in the face of targeted attacks and kidnappings. Under access constraints, implementers and donors have to make tough choices: What compromises should they be ready to make to help those in need and when is enough enough?
We believe there should be no absolute “red lines.” Rather, humanitarians should systematically consider: (1) how to avoid risk transfer to field staff, partners and beneficiaries, (2) how to build acceptance, (3) how to ensure that field staff have the necessary skills and experience, (4) what to do when access deteriorates, (5) how to adapt monitoring to remote management, and (6) how to deliver outputs as directly as possible and locate senior staff as close as possible to the area of intervention. Building on this analysis, we have completed a research project on monitoring and evaluation in volatile environments.
Funding & Clients
Our funders and clients include: The Danish Refugee Council (DRC), the European Commission Directorate-General for Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection (DG ECHO), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the German Federal Foreign Office (AA), the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA), the UK Department for International Development (DFID), the World Food Programme (WFP) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
Monitoring aid in insecure environments
In contexts where humanitarian organizations and communities are exposed to high insecurity, it is extremely challenging not only to deliver assistance, but also to assess its reach and effectiveness. The Secure Access in Volatile Environments (SAVE) research program aimed to improve monitoring of aid in such contexts. As part of this program, we have analyzed different strategies for monitoring aid in collaboration with 18 partner aid organizations in Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia and South Sudan. We found that current monitoring systems prioritize accountability to donors rather than to the people receiving aid. Crisis-affected communities rightfully demand more direct communication and participation in programming; something that aid agencies still struggle to deliver.
Where access for own staff is limited, Third-Party Monitoring can provide a valuable layer of verification, but we argue it should not replace implementing organizations’ own monitoring.
Based on our review of hundreds of pilots and applications, we are convinced that technology has great potential to enhance monitoring, but that serious risks remain neglected. The SAVE toolkit on technologies for monitoring provides a menu of options and suggests how to avoid potential harm.
Overall, we argue for more targeted and strategic monitoring of aid in insecure contexts, to avoid creating unnecessary layers at agency, cluster, consortium, donor and country levels. A briefing note with a summary of all findings is available here, or visit SAVEresearch.net for more detailed findings.
by András Derzsi-Horváth
by Rahel Dette, Julia Steets, Elias Sagmeister
by Elias Sagmeister, Julia Steets
by Lotte Ruppert, Elias Sagmeister, Julia Steets
by Lotte Ruppert, Andrea Binder
by Julia Steets, András Derzsi-Horváth