Too good to be true? US engagement in the GHD initiative
by Abby Stoddard, Center on International Cooperation, New York University March 2005

For many observers, a particularly promising aspect of the Good Humanitarian Donorship (GHD) initiative has been the supportive and active role played by the United States in its drafting and adoption. No small matter, considering that the US accounts for over a third of the total humanitarian funding provided by the OECD-DAC donors. The GHD has gained the endorsement and support of the senior leadership of the two main humanitarian arms of the US government, the State Department’s Bureau for Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM) and USAID’s Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance (DCHA). This engagement ostensibly signals to their bureaus and the rest of the government the seriousness with which the US has entered into this initiative. Moreover, for all the administration’s emphasis on its prerogative to act unilaterally, the US under GHD has committed to a multilateral process that aims to harmonise its policies and practice with those of its counterparts, potentially subject them to peer review and ground them more firmly in objective humanitarian principles, regardless of national interests.

Reactions among humanitarian practitioners at the prospect of the US fulfilling the commitments of the GHD range from the hopeful to the highly sceptical. How ‘good’, by the criteria defined at Stockholm, is the US truly prepared to be as a humanitarian donor? Might this all seem too good to be true? In fact, comparing US participation in the GHD process with recent developments in US aid policy reveals some stark contradictions. Unless resolved, these threaten to derail US engagement in the GHD process, or render it meaningless.

Contradiction 1: GHD aims to reinforce the principles of neutrality and independence, but the US is linking humanitarianism with its political agenda as never before

An informal European Union (EU) conference on GHD in March 2003 reinforced the core principles that underpin the initiative: ‘assistance should be provided impartially, on the basis of, and in proportion to, humanitarian need alone. The independence and the neutrality of humanitarian agencies to deliver humanitarian assistance should be respected unconditionally’. Despite committing to these ideals in the GHD process, the US has increasingly stated in policy documents the idea that foreign aid, including emergency aid, must be seen as integral to the nation’s broader political and security interests.

A year ago, the State Department and USAID issued the first ever ‘Joint Strategic Plan’, which laid out the goals of US foreign policy and assistance for 2004–2009. The stated purpose of the plan is to ensure that US foreign policy and development programmes will be ‘fully aligned to advance the National Security Strategy of the United States’. Development aid has long been presented as in service to US interests. However, the new strategic plan undeniably ratchets up the relief aid–politics linkage, particularly in the context of failed states, where, it notes, most US humanitarian efforts take place, and from which arise the ‘most significant security threats’ to the US.

The line between development aid based on national interests and emergency aid based only on need, never clearly drawn in official US policy, now seems much less visible. Even while the GHD initiative was being launched, complaints were intensifying about the US military co-opting humanitarian roles in Afghanistan, and NGOs being pressured to display the USA logo. USAID, like some other major donors, has also become more deeply involved in programming, second-guessing needs assessments and earmarking within projects. When interviewed, US officials did not allow that these inconsistencies represent serious impediments to implementing GHD. Some were frankly dismissive of the possibility of disinterested donor giving. No bilateral donor is neutral, said one. On the contrary, the funding differentials for emergencies across regions render donor neutrality ‘a ridiculous concept … you take care of your own backyard’.

The discussion of humanitarian principles in US donor structures is still embryonic, albeit the term has now entered the official lexicon. The US traditionally prefers to speak of humanitarian aid as an expression of ‘American values’, which does not distinguish between government and non-governmental provision of aid. Even so, to some in USAID the principles component of GHD ‘raises a number of interesting issues’. In particular, the withdrawal of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) from Afghanistan in June 2004, on grounds of insecurity due to compromised neutrality, caught the attention of some senior government officials, and spurred new cross-donor efforts to raise awareness of humanitarian principles among the military and other parts of the government.

Contradiction 2: GHD calls for more predictable and flexible funding based on needs, while the US is touting the ‘privatisation of aid’

Despite contributing the greatest amount of official foreign aid in real terms ($16.3 billion in 2003), the US ranks last in terms of official aid as a percentage of national income. Stung by accusations of stinginess (accusations levelled well before UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland’s comments after the Asian tsunami), the US government responded by enlisting Carol Adelman of the Hudson Institute (a conservative think-tank) to reassess the ‘totality of US foreign assistance’. Adelman’s group emerged with a figure of $44.5 billion for US foreign aid in 2000, and $57.7 billion in 2003. Using official US reporting to the OECD-DAC as a starting-point, the Hudson Institute added billions in ‘other government assistance’ (including State Department buildings and operations); private contributions (based on loose estimates and including flows to industrialised nations); and – most controversially – an estimated $18 billion in remittances sent by foreign workers in the US to their families back home. The Center for Global Development has publicly disputed this new accounting. Although the Center and many other economists acknowledge that remittances are an important and neglected phenomenon in global development economics, they do not agree that this can be counted as US aid.

These higher figures have nonetheless been publicised by USAID and Adelman in public documents and the US media, purporting to show the ‘true measure of US generosity’. Furthermore, they stress that their estimates for private giving, through churches, private charities and other channels, are on the low side. The message has been that the privatisation of foreign aid is both a fact, and something to be actively encouraged. Smaller government and market solutions are bedrock principles of conservative politics, but the Bush administration has gone further than its Republican predecessors in stressing individual and faith-based charity as key to US foreign assistance.

Private aid can certainly be staggeringly generous. The New York Times reports that Americans gave $342 million in private contributions for tsunami victims in the two weeks after the waves hit in December 2004. Save the Children US reported receiving $10 million over the internet alone. However, even using the most generous estimates of private giving, the US still ranks towards the bottom of the 22 major donor nations in terms of aid as a percentage of income. Moreover, beginning under the Clinton administration USAID has been progressively weakened and trimmed down. A number of missions have closed and the agency has been stripped of its autonomous status. While the Bush government has pledged new aid money through its Millennium Challenge Account and the African HIV/AIDS initiative, neither programme has yet received its planned allocations. A minority in Congress has loudly criticised these shortfalls, as well as the general trend towards lower levels of funding.

The government’s emphasis on leveraging private money with public funds runs directly counter to the predictability and even-handedness in funding across emergencies that is stressed in the GHD initiative. As agencies and donors alike have noted, private money tends to follow public money to the higher-profile emergencies. Greater reliance on private-sector funding for humanitarian aid will lead to more, not less, inequity and unpredictability in response.

US perceptions and performance in the GHD process to date

In the run-up to the Stockholm meeting, the US delegation helped to refine the language of the agreement to produce a document they were comfortable with. Most officials involved in the process believed that, for the most part, the US donor mechanisms already adhere to this good practice, but needs to become more consistent, systematic and policy-driven. Unlike some other GHD participants, by the end of year one of GHD neither USAID/DCHA nor PRM had incorporated GHD into any formal policy or operational guidelines for officers. Beyond attending the Stockholm meeting and expressions of support, senior staff have not been directly involved in or seized of implementation activities, and to the extent that general staff are aware of the initiative, it is seen as primarily a Geneva-based exercise. This lack of substantive high-level engagement in the US was discernible by observers at the Ottawa meeting at the end of year one. On the peer reviews and other areas, the US government remains cautious. Concrete US action on GHD in year one was mostly limited to work on the launch of the GHD pilot in the DRC. The US government’s priority going forward is using the agreement to push for greater accountability and transparency, especially among its UN agency grantees.

OFDA’s humanitarian action, notwithstanding

Any cognitive dissonance created by the contradictions between GHD principles and trends in US assistance policy cannot be altogether new to US humanitarian officials. DCHA/OFDA, the frontline entity of US humanitarian donorship, has over the years managed to carve out an independent operational space that its personnel perceive as neutral humanitarianism in practice, or its closest approximation. When an emergency occurs, OFDA decides whether to respond, based on needs, without direction from the White House, the State Department or Congress. Although their resources wax and wane with Congressional decisions on supplemental funding, an initial OFDA response has been seen to focus government attention and create momentum for further US policy responses. The ‘notwithstanding clause’ that applies to OFDA grants in many cases frees its implementing partners from adhering to the US government’s restrictive and cumbersome grant regulations and procurement policies, such as the ‘Buy America’ regulations, which promote the purchase of US-made vehicles and pharmaceuticals in US-funded aid programmes. (The ‘notwithstanding’ clause of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, Section 491, states that no statutory or regulatory requirements shall restrict USAID/OFDA’s ability to respond to the needs of disaster victims in a timely fashion.)

OFDA has tried to be faithful to its mission, and realistic in regard to US policy goals. It is possible that, by steering clear of political issues and focusing on operations, the humanitarian wing of USAID has safeguarded its autonomy, and by extension the integrity of its humanitarian action. OFDA staff, including those working on GHD, acknowledge the distance between principle and practice, and adopt a pragmatic approach; the agency, after all, can do little if its legislature decides it wants to contribute vast sums of money to a particular country or emergency. It must simply endeavour to deliver the aid in a neutral and impartial way.

The bifurcation and compartmentalisation of US humanitarian assistance has been cited as the reason for the US refusal to exercise decisive leadership in the global humanitarian system proportionate to its influence. Yet at the same time, it may be that the autonomy of the US humanitarian response vitally depends on this configuration, in order to preserve to the greatest extent possible a sphere of apolitical humanitarianism within the US donor machinery. The GHD progress review found that European humanitarian bodies see GHD as a useful tool to educate their governments on humanitarian principles, and to advocate for them. Their US counterparts are likely to feel ambivalence at the prospect, or are hoping to achieve the same thing in a much quieter, indirect way.

Abby Stoddardis an Associate at the Center on International Cooperation, New York University.

References and further reading

Carol Adelman, ‘A High Quality of Mercy’, New York Times, 4 January 2005.

Carol Adelman, ‘The Privatization of Foreign Aid: Reassessing National Largesse’, Foreign Affairs, November–December 2003.

Adele Harmer, Lin Cotterrell and Abby Stoddard, From Stockholm to Ottawa: A Progress Review of the Good Humanitarian Donorship Initiative, HPG Research Briefing 18, October 2004.

Steve Radelet, ‘Think Again: US Generosity with Foreign Aid’, Center for Global Development, January 2005.

USAID, ‘Taking the Full Measure of US International Assistance’, Foreign Aid in the National Interest, 2002,

USAID/DCHA/Office of Food for Peace (FFP), ‘Concept Paper for Its Strategic Plan for 2004–2008’, Final Draft, 10 September 2003.

US government, ‘FY 2004–2009 Department of State and USAID Strategic Plan, Security – Democracy – Prosperity: Aligning Diplomacy and Development Assistance’,