It’s time to invest for the 21st century and repurpose humanitarian bureaucracies

December 10, 2020
Hugo Slim
With Madagascar’s health system under strain from the COVID-19 pandemic and schools shuttered for the foreseeable future, the health, education, and overall wellbeing of the Malagasy people are increasingly at risk.

In the run-up to Christmas the big humanitarian bureaucracies have been busy asking governments for money. UN OCHA has appealed for $35 billion for the UN-led humanitarian response in 2021 (to reach 235 million people across 56 countries). UNHCR has asked for $8.6 billion to help 97.3 million people. The ICRC has asked for CHF 2.3 billion (about $2.6 billion) for its work in armed conflicts.

But will they get it? And should they get it?

Would it not be wiser for Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) governments – the main backers of the humanitarian system – to invest in the many civil society organisations, mutual aid groups and local government departments that have come to life in response to the Covid-19 pandemic? New reports from Carnegie and Oxfam suggest valuable new growth in local humanitarian networks during the pandemic.

Switching to new partners

Humanitarian financing by states peaked last year after two decades of high growth and looks likely to continue slipping. The hope of the big bureaucracies is that the Covid-19 crisis will leave states no choice but to step up funding once again. They all argue, of course, that this exceptional year is creating exceptional needs and that they are the answer to these needs.

But, surely, this is the moment for OECD governments to try something else to make their dwindling budgets go further. Switching their big stakes from humanitarian bureaucracies into national humanitarian platforms makes strategic sense in 2021 for three important reasons.

Vaccination, climate and social protection

  1. A fair global vaccination programme against Covid-19 is a priority for Official Development Assistance (ODA) funding from OECD states over the next two years. Success depends on donors working with national and local governments, religious and civil society organisations, trade unions, Covid mutual aid groups and billions of volunteers to ensure every person in the world can be vaccinated.
    This has never been done before and will require massive scaling up. But the resulting global humanitarian platform will be a phenomenal and precious asset. Its embedded infrastructure, both hard and soft, should be the global humanitarian infrastructure of the 21st century. This is where OECD governments need to invest most of their billions in 2021.
  2. Covid has given us an opportunity, just in time for the climate crisis. Despite their claims, humanitarian bureaucracies won’t play a determining role in climate action. Instead, the broad-based and community embedded vaccination platform will, if sustained and leveraged well, become the multi-purpose network the world needs as a climate action network.
  3. The Covid-19 crisis is making it increasingly clear that social protection will be the dominant model of aid for the coming recession and climate crisis. Humanitarian assistance and protection will be a vital niche but, again, the global vaccination platform will prove a better distributive network for social protection than expensive humanitarian bureaucracies.

Repurposing humanitarian bureaucracies

Humanitarian bureaucracies will tell you that they can do it all. In beauty pageant mode around this time of year, they smile at donors in bilateral meetings and whisper that they have ‘got this’. They want to make localisation happen. They are stepping up cash and totally understand social protection, and they are pruning staff to be better value for money.

In fact, they don’t get it, and their bureaucracies have a deep self-serving bias to stay as they are. Their record on the transfer of power and resources since their 2016 localisation commitments is disgraceful, and a Grand Bargain that agrees new ways of operating in disaster and conflict affected states without representatives of those states ever being in the room is a textbook example of white power hegemony.

The core values, laws and mandates of humanitarian bureaucracies are precious. Over the last 100 years, they have played a path-breaking role to establish the principle and practices of a global humanitarian safety net for everyone. But their operational footprint is now overblown and crowding out new talent, energy and organisation in crisis countries. They need to get out of the way and let other models and more local organisations flourish in pursuit of the great global goal that they have defined so well.

Great bureaucracies now need to adapt. They should repurpose as the convenors, niche responders and builders of the new humanitarian norms we will need on climate action, new war technologies, chronic violence and pandemics. This means reinventing themselves as enablers of national and local networks rather than their competitors and focusing more on their research and policy-making role with states.

Invest for the 21st century

It is clear this Christmas that the OECD’s priority should be to finance a global humanitarian network for the 21st century and repurpose the great humanitarian bureaucracies of the past.

The ODA of OECD governments should start this process in this new funding round. They must break their co-dependency with the large humanitarian bureaucracies, insist on repurposing and find new partners that are more genuinely embedded in the world.

This is a big change. It will take a decade but it needs to start now. Humanitarian financiers need to raise their eyes above and beyond their old partners to find new ones, and their old partners need to find better ways to partner their old financiers and the many new 21st century humanitarian organizations we need to vaccinate the world and survive the climate crisis.

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