Issue 29 - Article 6

Good Humanitarian Donorship and the CAP

March 24, 2005
Andrew Lawday, communications and policy consultant

Humanitarians should expect much from the Good Humanitarian Donorship (GHD) initiative and the Consolidated Appeals Process (CAP). Both could significantly strengthen the world’s response to emergencies and natural disasters, thereby reducing mortality and suffering. Yet both are poorly understood in the wider humanitarian community, and largely unknown beyond it. Leading donors and agencies share a duty and an interest in developing communications to support these processes.

High hopes

Many within the humanitarian community misunderstand and mistrust the CAP and GHD. Hopes for both are nonetheless high among those involved. Humanitarian agencies hope that GHD will create a government donor funding system that works, so they can respond to crises more effectively. They long for reform to an arrangement that Ian Smillie and Larry Minear have called ‘dysfunctional’ and ‘hit-or-miss’ – akin to ‘trying to run a fire brigade in a big city on nothing but voluntary contributions’. Donor governments, meanwhile, hope that the CAP will bring United Nations, Red Cross and NGO agencies together to provide the best available humanitarian action in crises, consigning to history chaotic responses like those for the Iraqi Kurds in 1991, and for Rwandans in 1994.

Some humanitarians also expect GHD and the CAP to work together. After all, they have much in common: both are complex institutional processes with dozens of powerful and independent-minded stakeholders; both are designed to improve accountability among them; and both are already forging new consensus and dialogue. Yet neither wants to be too closely associated with the other.

The CAP, for example, has an interest in GHD to support its funding appeals. If the CAP reflects humanitarian needs, it offers a good opportunity for donors to fulfil their GHD pledges. Through GHD, all the main donor governments have committed to providing needs-led funding, through Consolidated Appeals (article 14); stressed the need to ‘allocate humanitarian funding in proportion to needs’ (article 6); and emphasised the need to ‘contribute responsibly, and on the basis of burden sharing’ (article 14). GHD also offers a useful definition of humanitarian action (article 1).

Wariness and mistrust

The Humanitarian Appeal for 2005, however, made scant mention of GHD. The Appeal, which summarised the year’s Consolidated Appeals, said: ‘Agencies … are working with donors to apply Good Humanitarian Donorship principles and good practices’. GHD was also invoked to remind donors of their commitments to meeting needs in crises like Burundi, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where only 31%, 38% and 51% of funding requirements were met. However, with GHD barely formalised or articulated by high-level officials, the Geneva Conventions and the CAP-focused commitments made by donors at the annual Montreux meetings are still just as useful as advocacy tools.

GHD donors are also wary of standing too close to the CAP. As the review of GHD notes, at field level the initiative faces ‘the challenge of ensuring that it has a life outside of the UN framework’, and highlights ‘the risks involved in pinning its fate entirely on the success or otherwise of the CAP/CHAP’. The recent pilot study of GHD in Burundi was misunderstood as a bid to bolster the CAP as a funding mechanism ‘with little reference to the wider programming environment or, more broadly, to whether donors were being guided by humanitarian principles’. As the Burundi study noted, ‘no consensus exists that funding by the CAP is the best route to principled and effective humanitarian response, and many NGOs are in any case reluctant to come under one consolidated appeal’.

Mistrust evidently lingers in the humanitarian community. Research in 2003, involving hundreds of interviews with donor and agency officials, found a ‘climate of mistrust’ and ‘lack of transparency’ in humanitarian financing. Donors doubted the capacities and bona fides of UN humanitarian agencies and NGOs, and perceived UN agencies as exaggerating needs and funding requirements, and lacking accountability. At the same time as humanitarian agencies were working to improve coordination, need assessments and prioritisation, overall aid dropped following the GHD commitments. Donors also continued to favour emergencies like Afghanistan in 2002, Iraq in 2003, Darfur in 2004 and the Indian Ocean tsunami, and ‘forget’ other crises in Africa.

Lack of trust is partly a sign of our more critical times. The quality, impact and professionalism of humanitarian action have rightly become of increasing concern among humanitarians. And few of these humanitarian ‘issues’ appear to be resolved: policy confusion, politicised decisions, dissatisfaction with UN agencies, NGO swarming, inadequate needs assessments, military ambivalence, flawed linkages between relief and development and insufficient capacity-building appear to persist, despite much discussion. Some donors, in particular, are frustrated with agencies’ inability to show how their projects meet objectively defined needs.

The need for communication

Mistrust will only deepen without good communication. While humanitarians lack knowledge about GHD and the CAP, the Burundi pilot study points out that neither process has developed a clear ‘marketing strategy’ for all stakeholders. With the Canadian government as chair, the GHD donors’ meeting in Ottawa in October 2004 emphasised the need to ‘increase communication at all levels and with all stakeholders’. Indeed, GHD lacks any recognisable spokesperson, publications that outline the Stockholm ‘conclusions’ and Ottawa ‘roadmap’, or a website of its own. There appears to have been no mention of the Ottawa conference in global or even humanitarian media. Consensus-building processes like GHD and the CAP can be introverted at first, but their managers have a duty and interest in developing proper communications.

Donors, taxpayers, humanitarian actors and beneficiaries need to know how GHD and the CAP affect them. Processes undertaken by publicly-funded institutions must provide information and advice about stakeholders’ rights, responsibilities, entitlements and opportunities, announcing significant new developments. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), which organises the CAP, understands its obligation to report on humanitarian needs identified through the process, explain collective plans to meet them and advise donors about what is required of them. Those committed to GHD, which itself partly reflects donors’ willingness to improve accountability and transparency, should recognise the value of clearly explaining to stakeholders GHD’s objectives, expected outcomes and progress.

Both processes also have an interest in communicating effectively to achieve policy goals. CAP planners, for certain, require donors to provide more adequate contributions (sufficient, timely and equitable funding across and within emergencies) and to seek greater agency participation in an ‘inclusive’ CAP. GHD implementers, meanwhile, require agencies to analyse needs better, collect baseline data, set out priorities, report funding, assess impact, show results and implement evaluation findings. By communicating well, the CAP and GHD will increase the likelihood that these goals are achieved.

Acknowledging this, OCHA took a strategic approach to communicating its Humanitarian Appeal (CAP) for 2005. The Appeal was based on an analysis of donor decision-making behaviour, when previously it had lacked a clearly-defined purpose and objectives. By setting out to ‘help major donors to contribute adequately’ to appeals, it sought to provide useful information to the key decision-makers through appropriate communication activities. The Appeal aimed to reinforce positive aspects of donor behaviour, recognising that it would not change their behaviour. Responding to a survey, donor decision-makers said the Appeal communication activities had been ‘helpful’ and that the publication was ‘professional’. An Appeal letter sent from the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, also drew supportive responses from donor ministers.

Both GHD and CAP planners would be wise to develop strategic communication plans for the immediate and longer term. Using professional communications help, they should ensure that communications plans support GHD and CAP policy priorities and take account of target audiences, before developing strategies and messages accordingly, and allocating responsibilities and resources. Research into audience behaviour, attitudes and knowledge will provide a basis for communication. Communications must also support planners’ international responsibilities, be objective and explanatory in tone, and cost-effective.

Communication must be understood as more than information provision. Good communication means getting appropriate information to relevant people in an effective way; it depends on understanding what they do, think and feel. Like traditional marketing, communication is a two-way process that should build trust. Both GHD and the CAP should develop proper and professional communication strategies to support their policy objectives, on the basis of information about audiences targeted. This will surely mean providing transparent information about humanitarian action and outlining how stakeholders can benefit, without exaggeration, cheerleading or propaganda. Good ways to reach most humanitarian actors will probably be by email, the web, direct mail and official channels. Mass media can reach segments of public opinion.

New audiences?

Some donors and agencies talk enthusiastically about reaching new audiences. Those who want to take humanitarian messages to the general public will be encouraged that many thousands of ordinary citizens worldwide responded to the tsunami appeals, and must wonder how to identify and develop that constituency. Available public opinion studies on humanitarian aid suggest poor overall knowledge among donor citizens, who must be all the more confused by ‘humanitarian’ actions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo, by doubts about aid’s effectiveness, and by general feelings of removal or powerlessness. Many, however, seem to respond generously when presented with a clear case of need, empathetic TV coverage and credible channels through which to respond.

Once GHD and CAP have communication strategies in place for main audiences, they can reach out to new ones. A joint campaign by donors and agencies could help them achieve collective humanitarian policy goals. For example, a campaign could expect to increase global public understanding and individual responsibility for impartial humanitarian action, stimulate dialogue about humanitarian principles, and mobilise humanitarians behind the common goal of meeting needs. Umbrella campaigns, using creative marketing and TV advertising, can over time change behaviour, raise awareness, and bring stakeholders together. A common banner concept might be ‘impartial action to meet needs’. However, until GHD and the CAP communicate effectively with key stakeholders, reaching out to new audiences should remain an aspirational goal. The priority must be to develop communications that support policy objectives and fulfil obligations to primary stakeholders.

Andrew Lawday is a communications and policy consultant. He has worked for OCHA (CAP Launch Coordinator), the World Bank, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the Norwegian and British Refugee Councils, Save the Children-UK and Taylor Nelson plc. His email address is


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