Originally Published 2015-08-19 10:17:32 Published on Aug 19, 2015
Need to reform international humanitarian system 

"August 19 is World Humanitarian day - a day to recognize those who face danger and adversity in order to help others. It is also perhaps an opportune time to reflect on the broader international humanitarian system - its effectiveness in meeting humanitarian needs and the legitimacy of its governing structures. The international humanitarian system has saved countless lives and helped million others reconstruct a life of dignity and security amidst conflict and natural disaster. But, the system is also breaking up. Last year, more than $23 billion was spent on international humanitarian aid, but international humanitarian response was still unable to meet the needs of the most vulnerable in places like Syria, Somalia and eastern Ukraine. For many, the system suffers from a crisis of legitimacy and an uncertainty over the purpose. For others, the multilateral humanitarian response machinery urgently needs reform to make it more flexible, transparent, efficient, and accountable.

To this end, UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon has called for a World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul in May 2016 to introduce a set of transformative changes to the humanitarian system. A consultative process led by the World Humanitarian Summit Secretariat and UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has been underway since early 2014 and has since held numerous regional and stakeholder consultations to arrive at concrete recommendations and changes that the Secretary General will announce in Istanbul. I participated in the regional consultation for South and Central Asia held last month in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, which brought together a wide range of stakeholder groups, including government, UN agencies, national NGOs and civil society groups, academia, the private sector, and affected populations representatives. A number of critical recommendations emerged from the consultation, particularly around the need for localising response, the centrality of local NGOs and regional networks, and the need for a differentiated response to conflicts, natural disasters, and protracted crises. The Dushanbe consultation also recognized that transformative change could only come through a re-imagination of humanitarian governance structures and knowledge production mechanisms.

The majority of recent humanitarian crises are situated in the global south - Syria, Somalia, and Afghanistan are on-going examples. However, Southern states, organizations and people are absent from most international humanitarian governance forums and have hardly any decision making power in how funds are allocated, spent, or coordinated. Western governments defend this on the grounds that they make the largest financial contributions towards international humanitarian assistance and therefore have a right to hold decision-making power. This argument, however, is faulty on a number of grounds.

First, there is a mismatch between the values of the humanitarian system and the existing architecture. The legitimacy and legality of humanitarian action derives from its separation from political action through adherence to the principles of universality, impartiality, neutrality and independence. These values are not reflected in the current governing structures of the system. The appointment of the UN's Emergency Relief Coordinator that heads the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) is a case in point. The head of OCHA is a political appointee from one of the permanent five Security Council Members. Despite calls for an open process from non P-5 governments, the post has typically been reserved for a Briton. The recent decision to replace Valerie Amos with Stephen O'Brien, both Britons, was made at 10 Downing Street rather than through a consultative process. The OCHA Donor Support group that consults OCHA on how and where it should work is also composed of primarily western governments. Such political appointments and institutional arrangements seriously challenge the system's claim to impartiality, neutrality, and independence. They contribute to the perception among southern states and peoples that humanitarian assistance is an imperialistic tool disguised in a moral appeal to humanity.

There is a direct and important relationship between the effectiveness and legitimacy of the system, where the lack of the latter seriously comprises the former. The effectiveness of the system to adequately meet the needs is not only a technical question of how much money is on the table, the kinds of policies and programmes in place, or the coordination of humanitarian agencies. It is also a question of how much 'buy-in' is there for the system and how the system is perceived among those whom the system most directly affects. The current governance of the humanitarian system contributes to a growing 'trust deficit' between key stakeholders, impeding humanitarian access and security.

Second, the manner in which state contributions towards international humanitarian assistance are calculated do not reflect the amount southern states spend on refugee hosting. UNHCR's Global Trends 2013 report showed that developing countries hosted 86 percent of the world's refugees, and that nearly half of the refugees under UNHCR's mandate lived in countries where the GDP per capita was less than USD $5,000. Turkey is currently the largest refugee hosting country in world, with nearly 1.8 million refugees, with a total spending of approximately 1.6 billion on hosting Syrian refugees. Pakistan hosts 710 refugees for each US dollar of its per capita GDP, followed by Democratic Republic of the Congo and Kenya with 475 and 247 refugees respectively. By comparison, Germany, the industrialised country with the largest refugee population (594,000 people), has 17 refugees for each dollar of per capita GDP. If we consider these refugee hosting costs, it is clear that southern states are in fact contributing significantly towards international humanitarian burden sharing. At the same time, Southern states are marginalised in the allocation and distribution of funds, even while they have, under international humanitarian law, the primary responsibility for the welfare and protection of the population. Last year, total humanitarian assistance was approximately $24 billion, with only 3 percent allocated directly to affected governments

National and local NGOs also do most of the heavy lifting during humanitarian crises, but are similarly excluded from humanitarian governance arrangements and the allocation of international humanitarian funds. In 2013, donors provided 61 percent of humanitarian assistance to UN agencies and other multilateral organizations; NGOs received 19 percent, most of which went to INGOs. Between 2007 and 2013, the total resources provided directly to local NGOs averaged less than 2 percent annually. National NGOs received only an average of 8 percent of the resources that country-based Common Humanitarian Funds provided during 200-13.

The marginalisation of southern voices is also reflected in knowledge production systems. Humanitarian affairs is primarily a subject of research and scholarship in northern states; there are only few poorly funded institutes in the global south. Southern states and peoples are thus 'objects' of study rather than the co-producers of knowledge. Existing incentive structures around employment and career progress also produce a dysfunctional eco-system for knowledge production whereby graduate courses in humanitarian assistance are offered by universities in Northern America and Western Europe, attracting a number of young aspiring candidates from the south, who dream of a well paid UN or INGO job. Upon finally receiving employment in one of these international agencies, they then work on programmes for building local capacity or localising the humanitarian response!

Four key recommendations emerged in Dushanbe around these points: to reform the governance of the humanitarian system to include all states, to re-calibrate the methods through which humanitarian aid contributions by states are calculated, to invest in and strengthen regional and national NGO networks, and to create knowledge centres in the global south that could be a repository of southern knowledge and experiences. For these recommendations to translate to action however, the traditional gatekeepers of the humanitarian system will have to dramatically change how they do business, acceding some power, control, and resources to southern states, organisations, and peoples. Some changes will only be possible through negotiations at the inter-governmental level, but others can be realised at the organizational and attitudinal level.

This is critical for both future effectiveness and legitimacy of the humanitarian system. The effectiveness of the system in meeting humanitarian needs is not only a technical question about resources and coordination, but also a reflection of how the system is perceived, the amount of trust in the system, and an alignment between the values that the system apparently stands for and its institutional design. Unless such structural changes are introduced to the system, existing tweaks around transparency, accountability, and coordination, will only reproduce a broken system, reinforcing the very pillars that have weakened the system in the first place. "

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