Last week, international medical humanitarian organization Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) released a hard-hitting report Where is everyone? outlining a number of severe shortcomings in the international aid community’s response to humanitarian crises.
Many of the issues raised in the report are uncomfortably familiar to anyone working at the frontlines of emergency responses: funding systems are too slow and inflexible, negatively impacting response times; small, local NGOs that are often best placed to respond to emergencies are excluded from the predominantly Western-based, UN-centred humanitarian system; and emergency response capacity is not the priority it should be in a humanitarian system that has grown to take on many other functions.
Bertrand Taith, a cultural historian of humanitarian aid and director of the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute at the University of Manchester, has suggested that the report is short on evidence and questioned whether MSF’s “headline grabbing” critique of well-worn concerns was the best approach “in an era when austerity is deployed throughout the world as the excuse to restrict aid budgets”.
However, Ed Schenkenberg, chief executive of DARA, an NGO that evaluates the efficacy of humanitarian responses, countered that while the methodology behind MSF’s report could have been stronger, “overall, they’re asking the right questions….
“Over the last 10 years, we’ve seen a huge increase in the number of actors and a huge effort to professionalize the sector, and when you look at those developments, I think it is very valid to ask what the outcomes are for people affected [by humanitarian crises],” he told IRIN.
So what are the key issues that the report raises and how has the aid community responded to them? IRIN takes a look.
Ever larger budgets have not led to more effective responses
The report begins with the assertion that “the international humanitarian aid system has more means and resources at its disposal… than ever before” and later notes that insufficiency of financing was not identified as a major constraint in any of the three case studies of emergency responses reviewed for the report (in South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo and Jordan), all of which were described as having major failings.
In an email to IRIN, Greg Barrow, director of the UN World Food Programme’s London office, responded that while the humanitarian community might have more resources at its disposal, “the scale, complexity and cost of responding to humanitarian emergencies is undoubtedly increasing”.
Simultaneous, large-scale displacements in countries including Syria, Iraq, Central African Republic and South Sudan, are putting an unprecedented strain on the international humanitarian system and, according to Jens Laerke, a spokesperson with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), “lack of funds continues to constrain humanitarian operations around the world”.
Wendy Fenton of the Overseas Development Institute’s Humanitarian Policy Group pointed out that while aid agencies may face funding constraints, “agencies have choices about how they operate and what they prioritize.” MSF’s main contention is that they often fail to prioritize emergency response capacity which the authors describe as the humanitarian system’s “core business”.
Augustin Augier, head of ALIMA, a French NGO that focuses on partnering with local actors to provide medical care in emergencies, agreed that emergency responses are not being sufficiently prioritized but blamed the overall humanitarian system rather than individual agencies.
“The system doesn’t provide enough incentive for local NGOs to develop strong humanitarian experience,” he told IRIN. “They all want to do development because you can get longer contracts that allow you to invest in infrastructure. They all say that from a business perspective, the incentives in the humanitarian system are not good enough for emergency response.”
From 2009 to 2013, local and national NGOs received 1.6 percent of the total aid given to NGOs as reported through OCHA's Financial Tracking System. This represented 0.2 percent of the total international humanitarian response over the period, according to Development Initiatives research.
Aid agencies are risk-averse
Perhaps the most damning finding in the report is that agencies are shying away from targeting the most hard-to-reach and therefore vulnerable populations, such as unregistered urban refugees in Jordan and internally displaced people living far from North Kivu’s provincial capital of Goma.
In all three emergencies looked at for the report, write the authors, “a principal determinant of the level of coverage and effectiveness was the level of difficulty (and conversely, convenience)”.
The report cites insecurity and logistical challenges as factors that can restrict access to populations in places such as North Kivu and South Sudan, but suggests that often not enough is done to overcome these constraints.
“We’re not saying [agencies] should take unnecessary risks, but we do feel that in some cases, a perceived lack of security becomes a rather defensive argument,” said Jens Pedersen, a humanitarian affairs adviser with MSF based in Johannesburg. “It can be addressed through negotiation with parties.”
Some aid community insiders have taken offence at the implication, not just in the title of the report but also in its conclusions, that aid agencies - with the possible exception of MSF - are largely absent from many of the hardest-to-reach places.
In a blog entitled Where is everyone? We’re standing right next to you, Bob Kitchen, director of the International Rescue Committee’s emergency preparedness and response unit, pointed out that the IRC was among many other aid groups that “continue to stand and deliver in the face of chaos and mounting humanitarian needs” in places like Somalia, “a country so violent that MSF itself has withdrawn”.
Augier of ALIMA noted that operating in the most hard-to-reach places comes at “a huge cost” that is not taken into sufficient consideration by donors. “I would not accuse the NGOs but look at the reasons why they can’t go to these places,” he said.
The UN is at the core of many of the system’s dysfunctions
The report claims that the triple role of lead UN agencies like UNHCR as coordinator, implementer and donor in places like South Sudan leads to conflicts of interest. “I think that’s problematic in the sense that there’s an incentive for there not being enough critical questioning,” explained Pedersen. In the South Sudan case, for example, where UNHCR was responsible for disbursing funds to implementing partner agencies as well as being an implementer itself, those agencies were reluctant to raise concerns about problems with implementation, “not wanting to bite the hand that feeds it”, said Pedersen.
Arianne Rummery, a spokesperson with UNHCR, said the agency would look at MSF’s criticisms and “see what learning could be drawn from them”. She noted, however, that “the key findings of the report are over a year old (the interviews and data and site visits are from 2012 and 2013) and the considerable time gap between research and publication may not do justice to the efforts made to address the challenges in the three situations of the report.”
Fenton of ODI agreed that some positive steps have been taken since the report’s research was conducted. “There have been developments since these were done, although many problems are being replicated in places like Central Africa Republic,” she told IRIN.
“A system as big as the UN takes a long time to turn around.”
Funding systems are too slow and cumbersome to respond to emergencies
“Emergency response requires flexible, rapidly disbursable and unearmarked funding to be effective,” notes the report, adding that current emergency funding mechanisms fail to provide this, often taking as long as three months to reach the field.
Augier confirmed that three months was typical for the majority of donor funding which is disbursed through UN agencies. “We lose a lot of time because of this,” he said, adding that donors were partly to blame for channelling the majority of humanitarian funding through the UN rather than to individual NGOs.
Outside the UN system is the START Network, a consortium of 19 major NGOs which share a dedicated pot of emergency funding (the Start Fund), donated by the UK Department for International Development (DFID). The Fund, launched in April 2014, aims to address gaps in fast responses to rapid-onset crises as well as responses to small and medium-scale emergencies that often receive little funding.
“The Start Network is an important and interesting development because until this came about and some donors decided to invest in it, there was no alternative to the UN in terms of managing large amounts of pooled funding,” said Fenton.
The Network also seeks to address another of the criticisms raised by the MSF report - that small, local NGOs are often sidelined in emergency responses by the big, international agencies. One of the aims of the Start Network is to grow the capacity of these local actors and involve them more in decision-making.
Moving the debate forward
The report does not end with a long list of recommendations and MSF has made it clear that it is intended as a trigger for critical discussions in the aid community rather than as an attempt to provide any easy answers. Whatever the views about how MSF has presented some of its findings, there appears to be widespread agreement that there is a need for such discussions, particularly at a time when so many pressing emergencies require urgent humanitarian responses.
Who will take responsibility for moving the debate forward is less clear. Schenkenberg of DARA argued that, having raised these critical issues, MSF has a responsibility to “invest in a process that would give organizations the time to engage more deeply”. But both he and Augier also called on UN agencies to participate in more open discussions of their shortcomings.
“I think more or less everybody agrees that we should do more and we should do better, but the solutions can only come from the people who have the power to implement them and that’s the UN and the big donors,” said Augier.
Further debate is likely to take place as aid agencies prepare for the World Humanitarian Summit, due to take place in Istanbul in 2016. One of the stated aims of the summit, which will be convened by the UN Secretary-General, is to find ways of making humanitarian aid more effective. Regional and online consultations have already started taking place to help identify some of the humanitarian challenges that will be tackled.
“I think what MSF has done is put some old issues back on the table to highlight the need to try to address them, maybe at the World Humanitarian Summit,” said Fenton.