Welcome to the Good Humanitarian Donorship club
by Ian Smillie and Larry Minear, Humanitarianism and War Project, Tufts University March 2005

The Good Humanitarian Donor Initiative is extremely important – perhaps one of the most important initiatives in humanitarian action in a decade. And it is important, not least, because it came from the donors themselves. It answers the criticisms of twenty years in five pages of resolutions, and it is a credit to all of the donors involved, but especially the Netherlands, Sweden and Canada which have had the stamina and the courage to push the initiative forward and to give it life. It has the potential to make major differences in your ability to reach more people in need, more quickly, more effectively, and more equitably.

These were our observations in a statement to the final session of the Ottawa meeting on 22 October 2004. There had been a discernible loss of momentum between the launch of the GHD initiative in June 2003 and the review of progress at the Ottawa session 15 months later. We felt it necessary to bring the discussion back to first principles and inject some urgency and enthusiasm into the languishing process. This article restates the importance of the GHD initiative, examines how the Asian tsunami has confirmed the urgent need for it and suggests some issues for the future.

The relevance of GHD

As independent analysts, we have had reservations about becoming GHD advocates. Yet that is precisely where the conclusions of our research on the current state of the humanitarian enterprise lead us. Our initial report, prepared for the Stockholm meeting, was entitled The Quality of Money: Donor Behavior in Humanitarian Financing. It identified structural weaknesses in the existing humanitarian system, concluding that ‘humanitarianism is not the main driver of donor behavior in financing humanitarian work’, and that the whole of the humanitarian endeavour is less than the sum of its multiple moving parts. Our subsequent book, The Charity of Nations, geared more to the general public than to policy-makers and practitioners, vividly illustrates the weaknesses – and the strengths – of the existing humanitarian apparatus.

The weaknesses we identify are addressed by a number of the essential principles and good practices of humanitarian donorship. The GHD platform framed at Stockholm, and reaffirmed at Ottawa, stipulated that humanitarian action should be guided by the central principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence. Funding should be allocated ‘in proportion to needs and on the basis of needs assessments’, within a context of respect for and promotion of international law. Funds should be less conditional and more predictable. At a more programmatic level, good practice included improved reporting and a preference for implementation by civilian over military institutions. The GHD platform endorsed ‘the central and unique role of the United Nations in providing leadership and co-ordination of international humanitarian action’. The fact that donors themselves were taking action to redress their own behaviour seemed to constitute a compelling claim for support. The thrust of their commitments squared with our sense of what is needed.

The tsunami experience

Set against the backdrop of donor government commitments to address the evident weaknesses in the global humanitarian apparatus, the 26 December tsunami lent its weighty imprimatur to GHD. In the aftermath of the disaster, the weaknesses in humanitarian action flagged up in Stockholm and Ottawa were on vivid display. Nor were they beyond the scope of what donors envisioned: the opening affirmation of GHD principles embraces not only man-made crises but also natural disasters. Moreover, the GHD framework encompasses not only life-saving interventions, but also strengthened prevention and preparedness strategies. Without doubt, the international response to the tsunami has provided dramatic confirmation of the costs associated with the failure in earlier years to implement ‘GHD-esque’ reforms.

Among the weaknesses in the existing humanitarian apparatus confirmed by the tsunami were the existence of too many moving parts (e.g., multiple governments and myriad NGOs) each with its own agenda; a weak centre, raising questions about the capacity of the UN system to lead and the strategy of some donors to create a provisional coalition to mobilise and orchestrate action; the involvement of military forces, both from the affected countries and from donor governments, in relief and also in political capacities; and the abysmal track record in other headline emergencies in converting pledges to operational activities on the ground within realistic timeframes. The initial month’s response to the Asian crisis highlighted both the need for GHD, and the distance that donors have yet to travel in improving the performance of the humanitarian sector.

The perils of inaction were also underscored. One of the missed opportunities that came to light was the effort by scientists to expand the existing early-warning network from the Pacific to include the Indian Ocean. Governments in the UN’s International Coordination Group had rebuffed the suggestion, voting in 2003 instead to ‘establish a sessional working group to prepare a recommendation to establish an intersessional working group that will study the establishment of a regional warning system for the southwest Pacific and Indian Ocean’. As if disasters can be expected to respect ‘the jurisdictions of scientific or political bodies, the schedule of the sessions into which they organize their work, or the fancy footwork of government representatives who attend such gatherings’.

The tendency of governments to delay action in the area of natural disaster preparedness recalls the difficulties encountered at the Stockholm meeting in getting decisive action on GHD itself. Following an extended and diffuse discussion, a unanimous vote of the donors present ‘endorsed the Principles and Good Practice outlined in this document [the Meeting Conclusions] as a common platform of understanding of good humanitarian donorship, to assist them in forming their response to humanitarian crises’. As is often the case in moving from broad affirmations to pesky particulars, the GHD plan itself was rather more vague, committing consenting donors, for example, only to ‘explore the possibility of reducing, or enhancing the flexibility of, earmarking, and of introducing longer-term funding arrangements’. Membership in the club seemed on offer at bargain-basement prices.

These twin examples depict governments engaged in decision-making at fourth remove. The dilution of the action element at each successive remove hardly inspires confidence in fundamental changes in dysfunctional policies. The timidity of governments, however, underscores the importance of solidifying the positive elements in the GHD undertaking and holding donors to their pronouncements. The increase in the number of GHD participants, from 16 donors at Stockholm to 22 at Ottawa, is positive. Also encouraging are the references to GHD principles by some governments and UN officials during the Geneva donors’ meeting on the tsunami on 11 January, and the willingness of several donors to offer their policies for scrutiny in the next round of peer reviews by the OECD-Development Assistance Committee (DAC).

A look to the future

The nascent GHD effort involves a number of areas of continuing concern. One relates to the voluntary nature of commitments to GHD principles. At Stockholm, some questioned whether membership in the GHD club should perhaps be limited to governments that had made a commitment to implement GHD principles. The consensus among governments, however, was that more inclusive membership represents a means to improve behaviour over time across a wider group. A non-binding GHD process, the reasoning goes, enables broader engagement and buy-in. There is thus a need to monitor developments in this area and keep the pressure on governments to adopt national humanitarian policies and approaches consistent with the GHD framework.

Questions have also been raised about the role of the DAC in encouraging improved donor behaviour. The DAC has reportedly played a positive role in the initial round of peer reviews, which examined humanitarian policies and practices in Australia and Norway. Discussions are proceeding which may well extend the pilot period for another two years, allowing for additional peer reviews to proceed beyond the ones currently under way. While the DAC’s focus has been on development policies and programmes, there is no inherent reason why it cannot now direct more attention to humanitarian issues. However, the situation bears monitoring and the discussions need to be widened to include non-traditional donors and non-Western funding sources. At a time when the Western nature of the humanitarian apparatus is increasingly an issue, the DAC donors’ club has its own limitations. The roadmap offered by the Chairman of the Ottawa sessions also identifies a number of other implementation vehicles to help spur forward movement.

A third area of concern involves the disappointing role played by NGOs thus far. As it often does, the NGO community has lamented that it was not consulted adequately in the GHD process. While hand-wringing has become an NGO stock-in-trade (‘the donors made me do it’ is a frequent response to criticism), the lamentations obscure the reality that GHD principles are ones that the NGOs themselves for years have been pressing on governments and the United Nations. It is time for NGOs to step up their involvement and throw their considerable weight behind GHD. In fact, many NGOs themselves, meeting at the time of the Ottawa conference, concluded that they ‘cannot afford to stay out of the GHD process’. Like it or not, they have a dog in this fight.

In the interest of strengthening their own effectiveness, NGOs can also take some necessary steps independently of the GHD process. One would be to establish in countries such as Canada and the United States a coordinating group of major NGOs for headline crises, comparable to the Disasters Emergency Committee in the UK. Such a vehicle would not only provide a common front for dealing with individual donors and governments on funding issues. It would also be an indication of NGO willingness to address the free-for-all image of the sector, donor government unease about NGO capacity and competence, and public concern about NGO accountability.

What if donor governments threw a GHD party and nobody came? The issues are too important not to rally round. Donors need to be applauded for their initiative, but also held to measurable results. NGOs should continue to be advocates of a truly needs-based humanitarian enterprise, but should themselves make a more disciplined contribution to such a regime. UN humanitarian personnel can play a more assertive role. Independent analysts will have their own challenges in continuing to monitor and evaluate the approaches adopted. In short, don’t break open the champagne just yet, but at least keep it on ice.

Ian Smillie is an Ottawa-based consultant to the Humanitarianism and War Project of Tufts University. Larry Minear directs the Project. Their most recent work is The Charity of Nations: Humanitarian Action in a Calculating World (Bloomfield, CT: Kumarian, 2004).