Photo credit: Yemen Humanitarian Team
The evolution of DFID’s humanitarian financing in Yemen
by Helen McElhinney April 2014

Humanitarian financing has come a long way in recent years. The most notable innovation – multi-year humanitarian financing – has the potential to be as transformative as the UN Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF), and could influence the future direction of humanitarian funding globally. Alongside other country offices, the UK Department for International Development (DFID) in Yemen is piloting this new approach. This article outlines the evolution of DFID’s thinking on humanitarian financing in protracted complex emergencies, the assumptions underpinning the shift to multi-year funding and the expectations and challenges in Yemen.

DFID Yemen’s shift to a multi-year approach

DFID’s humanitarian funding in Yemen has risen in line with escalating needs and the growing ability of partners to meet those needs. In 2010–11 DFID provided £7.5 million of assistance, rising to £20m in 2011–12 and £33.2m in 2012–13. In 2012 and 2013, the UK was the third largest humanitarian donor to the Consolidated Appeal (CAP) for Yemen, behind the US and ECHO, contributing around 10% of all funds received.

DFID agreed single-year humanitarian strategies and programmes, which were appropriate given the escalating humanitarian crisis and the uncertain political, economic and security situation. However, single-year programming also has severe limitations. Short planning cycles are inadequate for restoring livelihoods that have been steadily eroded over several years or for building community resilience to continuing or future shocks. Single-year programmes also increase the likelihood of staffing shortages and delivery problems in between funding cycles as one-year projects close and new ones start up, and can make it more difficult to align humanitarian programmes with development interventions. They can also hinder systematic information and knowledge sharing amongst partners and potentially stifle innovation and experimentation.

With a more stable environment and a more mature humanitarian presence, DFID Yemen has moved to a multi-year humanitarian strategy and multi-year programmes of 24 months minimum.+Outlined in the DFID Yemen Humanitarian Strategic Framework 2013–2015. This support, up to £70m between 2013 and 2015, will provide emergency food assistance, shelter and clean water, as well as assisting people recovering from conflict. The aim is to support experienced partners to meet persistent assistance and protection needs; respond more effectively to emerging crises; help displaced families return to their homes; support livelihoods to help people graduate from emergency assistance where possible; and build resilience to shocks, thereby enabling vulnerable communities to cope better with the impact of future crises.

The potential benefits of multi-year humanitarian funding

Challenges will remain whether annual or multi-year humanitarian funding is provided: recruiting staff willing and able to work in insecure and challenging locations is difficult; carjacking happens, kidnapping risks are high and local politics are complicated. Recently community leaders fighting over resources threatened the staff of one organisation. The organisation was unable to continue in that area and new plans had to be made. DFID’s hope is that more predictable funding will allow partners to better manage the risks, plan better and focus on critical delivery priorities while helping communities to prepare for and anticipate what may come in the longer term. The shift to multi-year planning and programming could help recipients of DFID’s humanitarian aid to recover and transition to more sustainable programmes more quickly, while also helping them to plan for how to cope with future shocks.

Multi-year funding should also provide value for money through procurement efficiencies. Staff and assets can be maintained over a longer period, and some partners have been able to negotiate lower rental costs on offices. It may also allow partners to build stronger relationships with communities, deepen understanding of their needs and improve access. This is turn should improve quality and cut costs by reducing the administrative burden of designing consecutive annual programmes. Staff should have more time to undertake monitoring and evaluation.

Building national capacity within humanitarian response could also finally become a priority. Capacity-building should be at the heart of humanitarian response, particularly in complex environments such as Yemen which rely heavily on the implementation capacity of local actors. Yet it is often deprioritised, particularly in the face of short-term lifesaving funding. Multi-year funding offers opportunities to build up partnerships between international and national humanitarian actors strategically over time. As part of the bidding process, DFID Yemen’s partners were asked to demonstrate how they would be building Yemeni capacity during the next two years of funding. Many focused at the household, community organisation and local authority level given the ongoing political transition, though in time we hope to support greater links and capacity-building with the future national government.

There is also scope for transition to more sustainable outcomes, including graduating beneficiaries from emergency support to longer-term programmes to improve their livelihoods. Unlike many other countries, Yemen already has a social welfare fund and distribution system, although it is in need of reform. Improving social protection provision by interlinking humanitarian and development strategies to increase investment in chronically vulnerable areas will also be a future focus for DFID. As part of this approach, in 2012 DFID Yemen developed a three-year nutrition programme in recognition of the fact that under-nutrition is a widespread development crisis in Yemen with humanitarian consequences. DFID’s project combines funding from the Humanitarian and Development streams, and is designed to tackle both the immediate and underlying causes of nutrition.

Multi-year humanitarian financing on its own is of limited use

Humanitarian programming, by its very nature, needs to be flexible and adaptable to changing circumstances. This was highlighted midway through 2012–13, when humanitarian needs spiked and the UN Humanitarian Appeal was revised upwards from $447m to $585m. A separate UN flash appeal of $96m was announced in August 2012 in response to the crisis in Abiyan sparked by conflict between government forces and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). On both occasions, DFID reallocated or rapidly mobilised funds to meet urgent needs.

While responding rapidly to sudden spikes in crises is essential, the timeliness of a response can be improved by identifying early warning triggers. Several of our partners are now working with communities to identify triggers in their local areas, such as steep rises in the price of certain goods, an increase in the number of people looking for work or unusual rainfall patterns. Early warning only works when it generates action and decision-making in response. As seen in the crisis in the Horn of Africa in 2011, excess mortality often happens early on in a crisis, particularly when it comes amid a protracted situation. We must avoid inertia in the face of consistently high emergency indicators. Often donors, DFID included, can become fixated on needs assessments being undertaken before they commit funds. We need to improve this and work towards a ‘no regrets’ approach to the early and rapid release or reallocation of funding in case of emergency. It is hoped that these local-level approaches to humanitarian forecasting may enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of our responses to future spikes in need.

Initiatives such as crisis modifiers – which allow ‘development’ programmes to switch into ’emergency’ gear in response to certain triggers in the Horn of Africa – have encouraged innovative programming approaches in Yemen. Pre-approved contingencies have been incorporated into some of DFID’s new humanitarian programme designs. A pilot crisis modifier with one partner in Yemen is under development that may help beneficiaries to maintain their purchasing power in the event of dramatic changes in food prices, for example. If successful, this approach could be scaled up within other parts of DFID’s portfolio.

Resilience – a rallying principle?

A combination of conceptual and practical innovation offers new opportunities to reduce the risks facing people living in difficult environments, including Yemen. The concept of ‘resilience’ is proving a powerful organising principle around which different actors – national, international, public and private – can define common problems and solutions. The increasing concentration of aid finance in fragile and conflict-affected states like Yemen, combined with the prospect of multi-year financing through humanitarian windows, provides a practical opportunity to shift programming decisions from the short to the longer term.

A fundamental challenge to the resilience agenda is the humanitarian origins of policy and leadership for the process. Innovation in humanitarian financing approaches to try to increase resilience must be mirrored by and aligned with new interpretations of development financing. Scalability and switch-ability are needed in development programmes to make them adaptable and resilient to protracted fragile contexts where risk is a reality and a probability. Indeed, achieving change on the development side is the real big win with most official assistance situated in this category. However, challenges are posed by the international architecture; mandates and insufficient coordination across financing mechanisms remain and require more attention.

By the end of 2015, DFID aims to have embedded disaster resilience in all its programmes, both ‘development’ and ‘humanitarian’.+For more information, please refer to DFID’s minimum standards for this process: Moving to multi-year humanitarian financing and trying to build resilience in this way is just one part of this process. In Yemen, some progress has been made within the wider international community. Multi-year humanitarian planning now exists. The international community has developed a resilience strategy endorsed by both the UN Humanitarian Country Team (UNHCT) and the UN Country Team (UNCT). The European Union (EU) has designated Yemen a ‘flagship’ country for joint programming under its resilience initiative and is bringing donors together in the coming weeks to identify common analysis and plans. At the global level, new Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) guidance on risk management is soon to be forthcoming and should be piloted in Yemen. Thought leadership from the World Bank’s 2014 report on risk management has the potential to positively shape longer-term future plans.+World Development Report 2014 – Risk and Opportunity: Managing Risk for Development.

Alongside the increased emphasis on resilience, there remains a critical place for principled humanitarian response aimed at saving lives. DFID’s humanitarian policy, the Humanitarian Emergency Response Review (HERR) and reports on DFID’s humanitarian response capacity by the UK government’s Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) all reiterate the primacy of that work. Parts of DFID’s humanitarian portfolio therefore focus solely on lifesaving assistance, and will continue to do so. If the context demands and in lieu of other funding, partners may reallocate funding or suspend resilience-building activities to meet lifesaving needs in dialogue with DFID.

Building the evidence base

As the first donor to move to multi-year humanitarian financing in Yemen, DFID has commissioned extensive evaluations of its programmes to test the assumptions underlying them. We will focus on whether multi-year humanitarian funding can indeed improve the impact and quality of programmes and whether it can provide value for money and efficiency. We want to know more about how to manage the trade-offs identified, what the most important shocks and stresses for different communities are in Yemen and what may successfully build resilience to these risks. Much is anecdotal, with little evidence as yet. We are working on this. Yemen will be at the forefront of efforts to generate evidence.

This will be an important period in Yemen as humanitarian partners and DFID move away from ‘business as usual’ and show what can be achieved with the certainty of multi-year humanitarian funding. The contextual challenges remain and this will still be a difficult environment to operate in, but this can be factored into how we measure success. Solid monitoring and evaluation will be needed. As we face a future of competing global crises, shifting to multi-year humanitarian funding in protracted emergencies has yet to prove its worth, but could prove vital to maximising the impact of overstretched resources.

Helen McElhinney is Humanitarian Advisor, DFID Yemen. This article was written in a personal capacity.