Stephen O'Brien, new head of UNHCR, told a conference in Geneva earlier last week that only 2% of humanitarian funding went to local aid agencies in disaster hit areas, despite in his words their being faster, cheaper and more culturally appropriate. It has re-awakened calls for the funding system which privileges large INGOs and agencies at the cost of local organisations, provoking predictable hackles to be raised in Northern capital HQs.
And although this is a humanitarian debate surely it speaks to the development sector as a whole. For years now some INGOs have understood that the days of top-heavy structures based in the North are over, while others have tried to recruit or transfer skills to the areas in which they operate. That has not been without cost, in particular to the jobs of those staff unable or unwilling to relocate, but if the sector is serious about investing in precisely the sort of long term sustainable ‘capacity’ it says is important, surely it needs collectively to embrace this trend. But it doesn’t. At least not uniformly.
And that’s a problem that can have catastrophic consequences. International aid agencies with very little contextual understanding make bad decisions in what can be dangerous environments where conflict intersects with calamity. The response to the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka arguably led to the re-ignition of that country’s civil war because those taking decisions did not understand the power dynamics they were dealing with and the likely responses of elites on both sides. Many thousands of people beyond those affected by the natural disaster paid for that with their lives.
|c/o Eric Garland: Haiti school earthquake|
But when you read the reactions of some of the larger agencies to this suggestion, and presumably these reactions feature in their donor lobbying, you begin to see why this never seems to happen every time we have the debate. Here’s Sean Lowrie, of the Start Network, which brings together international and national NGOs for humanitarian response. Its members include Save the Children, Oxfam and Christian Aid, speaking to the Guardian:
“We’re still working in an old-fashioned, centralised, top-down system, which believes in the fallacy of control. We’re stuck and we’re not talking about the real issue, which are incentives, behaviour and governance. What we need is a whole new eco-system of smart humanitarianism, which responds to what is needed, which is flexible and diversified, and which is financed in new, smart ways.”That sounds great. But part of the problem is that it sounds great to everyone because these are large statements that mean everything to everyone. When it gets down to the bottom line what we surely need to see are smaller, in-country based and more agile agencies that understand and are able to navigate the intensely political environments within which disasters take place while building community level resilience in between. I wonder whether we will actually see concrete moves towards such a structure, with the call for 20% of funding to go to smaller agencies having been made at the Geneva summit at which Mr O’Brien was speaking. Or will we need to wait for another catastrophe to have this recurring conversation again.