Good donorship: how serious are the donors?
by Richard Blewitt, IFRC March 2005

Donor governments, like their NGO counterparts, have spent the 11 years since the Rwanda genocide in 1994 trying to strengthen the performance of humanitarian organisations and the humanitarian system. For both, the record is mixed. Overall, despite the increasing level of professionalism, performance systems and reporting, one still has to worry whether the lot of the humanitarian beneficiary has really improved. That said, donors have been right to press for greater accountability and transparency and improved performance. They have also been right, through the Good Humanitarian Donorship (GHD) initiative, to look at how their own behaviour affects humanitarian outcomes on the ground.

Signing up to the GHD principles, many of which have been borrowed from the Red Cross-Red Crescent INGO Code of Conduct, is a brave and important step. Donors’ endorsement of GHD provides an opportunity for governments to codify their commitments to humanitarian principles either in domestic law or in their policies. Yet formal adherence to instruments like the Geneva Conventions or the Refugee Convention has not necessarily guided governments’ humanitarian funding decisions. Will GHD fare any better? This article asks how serious donor governments are in their engagement with GHD, and examines some of the obstacles and challenges that they face.

Why is GHD so difficult?

It is possible to identify a set of recurring factors that seem to make it difficult for donors to apply and give meaning to the principles and good practice of GHD. Some are internal to donors themselves, others stem from the nature of the ‘system’ itself:

  1. Donors are highly susceptible to media and political interest. The pressure to act can override commitments to principles such as impartiality; donors’ reactions to the Indian Ocean tsunami are but the latest example of a lack of rationality and needs-based planning in donor decision-making. Despite commitments to GHD, the trend seems to be towards ever-increasing distortions in humanitarian funding.
  2. Overall, available resources do not match humanitarian needs across the world. One only has to look at Chad, the DRC or Somalia to see the gulf that exists between good intentions and principles and the actual levels of funding and response.
  3. There is a lack of strong advocates of GHD within government ministries, able to withstand competing policy and political pressures. In general terms, the people who work in the humanitarian sections of aid ministries or in foreign ministries are often under stress, with small teams handling huge resource flows and making decisions with limited information. These pressures clearly militate against the kind of work that would be required to turn rhetorical commitments into real programmatic change.
  4. The short-termism inherent in donors’ humanitarian decision-making makes rational, needs-based planning difficult. Timeframes are often artificially short – typically a year – even in humanitarian crises that have lasted for years, and look like lasting for years more. It is not by accident that GHD identifies the introduction of longer-term funding arrangements, along with predictability and flexibility of funding, as part of its good practice agenda.
  5. There is confused thinking within donor governments around the distinctiveness of humanitarian organisations and humanitarian work, as against activities like conflict mitigation and conflict reduction. This has obvious implications for the principle of independence, which states that humanitarian action should be autonomous from the political, economic, military or other objectives a donor might have. It may also compromise GHD’s commitment to the primacy of civilian organisations in the delivery of aid.
  6. Holding the purse strings is no guarantee of systemic change. This could be viewed as a good thing: the fact that the humanitarian system is not donor-driven is seen as an important characteristic. However, it is also testimony to how challenging it is to bring about positive change and improvements in humanitarian organisations or the humanitarian system. Donors may have reached a consensus on the need to strengthen the humanitarian system, but the actual impact of donors’ intentions on that system has been limited.
  7. Trust between donors and recipients is in many cases limited. Yet good donorship requires good receivership. Increased and effective communication between all stakeholders in the GHD process is likely to be central in this regard.

The politics of donor action and its implications for Good Donorship

To start with the obvious, and this may seem a strange statement coming from a Red Cross worker, politics is a good thing, or at least it can be a good thing. Serious political engagement in humanitarian settings can help tackle the underlying causes of disasters. Donors exerted successful pressure for peace between the Sudanese government and rebels in the south in January 2005. Conversely, there was a distinct lack of political engagement with Rwanda during the 100 days of genocide in 1994, despite evidence of a massive humanitarian disaster. Afghanistan under the Taliban is another instance of damaging neglect, where the level of resources – up to $200 million a year – was totally inadequate in terms of needs. Times, of course, can change, and the country has received a significantly larger amount of assistance since 9/11 and the Taliban’s fall. Clearly, there are first division and second (and third) division contexts. Depending on the context, donors are affected by their own predispositions and political interests: the French in Côte d’Ivoire, the British in Sierra Leone, the Americans in Liberia. In circumstances where a donor may be particularly engaged, for instance because of previous colonial links, decisions may be especially vulnerable to foreign policy or other concerns apart from the needs of the population in question.

Political engagement can have perverse effects for humanitarian aid programmers. The mixing of mandates can erode humanitarian space and affect the security of humanitarian aid workers. The Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) in Afghanistan, though in some instances successful on the ground, may well have blurred the distinction between military, security and ‘hearts and minds’ activities and humanitarian and rehabilitation support to affected people. In the long term, this can pose a challenge to independent, neutral humanitarian action. Donors’ increasing operationality also has obvious implications for humanitarian action. In some circumstances, such as the immediate response to the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami, operationality through the deployment of military assets can save lives. However, such interventions need to take place within a set of guidelines and rules of engagement. They must not be linked to other objectives, or be perceived as such, beyond the imperative to save lives. Mixing donor and operational roles must remain an option of last resort.

Donors and accountability

The growing pubic scrutiny of donors has resulted in increasing levels of transparency and evaluation of humanitarian action; this is a good thing. However, the current system has some fundamental accountability weaknesses that limit the utility of the Good Donorship initative:

  • There is still no open accountability to, and room for redress for, humanitarian claimants.
  • Mistakes made by humanitarian agencies, which can sometimes have serious consequences for affected populations, are rarely censured.
  • Despite efforts to increase learning, the system finds it hard to address its weaknesses in an effective and meaningful way.
  • There is limited public scrutiny of the effectiveness of humanitarian aid programming. Recent moves by GHD donors towards peer reviewing their humanitarian aid programming through the OECD-DAC are a positive development.

All donors are different

Like NGOs, all donors are different. Broad generalisations risk missing some very positive donor practice and some very good donors. Some examples of good practice include:

  1. ECHO has, in the past eight years, moved from a being a donor heavily influenced by political interests and considerations to being a donor that has positioned itself as responding mainly to forgotten contexts.
  2. The US remains strongly committed to supporting organisations like the ICRC in a way that protects their neutrality and independence.
  3. DFID has been developing long-term partnerships with major international aid organisations working in humanitarian settings. These partnerships encourage predictability and enable humanitarian agencies to strengthen their core work.
  4. The Dutch government has been working to win a commitment from international NGOs to strong country-based common humanitarian action plans. It has done this by linking funding decisions to evidence of participation in joint planning exercises in the field.
  5. Although currently outside the GHD ‘club’, new actors are emerging, who will bring fresh and different thinking to the humanitarian enterprise.

The final frontier: some breakthrough thinking

Solid progress has been made in Good Donorship. The race has started, but there is a long way to go. We have just passed the first mile of the marathon. Further steps might include:

  1. Donors need to work hard to get GHD into their legislation and policy-making agendas. They must ensure that their commitments are turned into predictable and defensible positions.
  2. Donors should find more dynamic ways to share best practice; moving towards more good donorship and less operationality would be a positive development, albeit the trend is currently in the opposite direction.
  3. Donors should follow through on their commitments to make much greater investment in disaster preparedness and support to local capacities in humanitarian settings. The dependence on international humanitarian actors should be reduced.
  4. Although not part of GHD, donors should aim to fund 100% of humanitarian needs by 2010. A global humanitarian index should be used to inform funding decisions.
  5. Donors should continue to press for reform across the humanitarian system, pushing for principled, efficient and well-coordinated humanitarian response and higher levels of accountability to affected populations. This may well involve some rationalisation in the humanitarian system.

Richard Blewitt is Director of Movement Cooperation, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent.

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