Issue 29 - Article 5

Promoting Good Humanitarian Donorship: a task for the OECD-DAC?

March 24, 2005
Henrik Hammargren, OECD

Good Humanitarian Donorship (GHD) addresses the first set of challenges in providing effective humanitarian response, namely how donors’ policies and procedures relate to meeting humanitarian needs, providing timely and flexible funding, and respecting International Humanitarian Law and humanitarian principles. The Objectives and Principles of Good Humanitarian Donorship define commonly recognised benchmarks and identify preferred donor practice. They therefore provide a basis for harmonising donor practice, making humanitarian donorship measurable.

Although GHD depends mainly on commitments at national level, the initiative provides common ground for collective efforts to improve donor performance. Since it is a donor-initiated process, it makes sense that its implementation should be followed up through existing systems for donor coordination. As such, the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) of the OECD has in principle agreed to take on an active role in promoting GHD.

The role and limitations of the DAC

The DAC holds a unique position in monitoring Official Development Assistance (ODA) and donor performance, and fostering harmonisation and alignment among donors. While the DAC has not taken a leading role in the implementation of GHD, since policy-related work and methodological issues in relation to humanitarian action are pursued within the UN system and elsewhere, the DAC is well-suited to playing a constructive role in promoting GHD through some areas of its work, specifically donor Peer Reviews and efforts to improve the collection of data on humanitarian action.

There are also limits to what the DAC can achieve. It is a membership forum of 22 OECD states, and it operates by consensus. This means that one or more members could delay or even block attempts to move the GHD agenda forward. Since neither the DAC nor its Secretariat has in-depth experience in the area of humanitarian action, it will need to develop relevant expertise and adjust some of its working methods if GHD is to be properly addressed. The DAC will need to establish new, informal relationships with key multilateral and international agencies, and it will have to improve its statistical reporting directives. The DAC statistics on Emergency and Distress Relief cover a narrower category of assistance than humanitarian action is commonly understood to encompass. Data includes three broad items, ‘emergency assistance’, ‘relief food aid’ and ‘other emergency and distress relief’. The data does not provide information on sectoral allocations, does not distinguish natural disasters from complex emergencies and is not comparable with other data on humanitarian action. The existing reporting directives make it difficult to monitor donor performance and validate observations, measure trends and make comparisons among donors. The present system for data collection on humanitarian action is not sufficient for the needs of comprehensive statistical analysis. Work has started on improving DAC reporting directives, but this has yet to be agreed by the members.

It should also be recognised that GHD does not primarily focus on challenges related to the implementation or delivery of humanitarian action: this is the domain, not of donors, but of the UN, international organisations and NGOs. Implementation is regarded as a separate discipline, and evaluation will remain the key tool in efforts to improve delivery in the humanitarian system. The DAC will explore the possibilities of so-called ‘Joint Country Assessments’ to address implementation questions. However, for some issues related to the delivery of humanitarian action, such as military and civilian cooperation and the involvement of beneficiaries, donor policies have significant impact, and can be included in assessments of donor performance.

Covering GHD in DAC Peer Reviews

One condition for acquiring DAC membership is that members agree to have their development programme scrutinised by members on a regular basis (presently every four years). Two members are selected to review another member, and the process is managed by the DAC Secretariat. The goals of the Peer Reviews are to: (1) monitor the member’s development cooperation policies and programmes, and analyse their effectiveness, inputs, outputs and results; (2) assist in improving individual and collective aid performance in both qualitative and quantitative terms; (3) provide comparative reporting and credible analysis for the wider public in OECD countries and the international community; and (4) foster coordination among members. The comparative advantage of DAC Peer Reviews rests on the policy level, and the strengths of the Peer Review procedure come from its collective learning methodology and systematic approach, which builds on commonly recognised principles.

Although GHD covers a complex set of issues, the 23 principles are structured and distinct, which allows the principles to be translated into sets of questions that can be used to monitor performance. For this purpose, the DAC Secretariat developed a GHD assessment framework to be used in the Peer Reviews. The advantage of using such an assessment framework is three-fold. First, it ensures coverage of the 23 GHD principles. These principles should be read as a whole, while recognising that some can be immediately acted upon, while others may take more time and investment. Second, it ensures that humanitarian action is covered in an equal way in all Peer Reviews, avoiding an arbitrary approach. Third, it provides guidance for the DAC and the Peer Review team members.

Analysis of members’ humanitarian action has not to date been an area of priority for the DAC. Although part of a common system, humanitarian action constitutes a distinct dimension of ODA separate from development cooperation by virtue of its context (natural or human-made emergencies) and its systems of delivery (often outside the framework of a recipient state). Whereas the purpose of development cooperation is to eradicate poverty, the objective of humanitarian assistance is, first and foremost, to save lives. While humanitarian action is included within ODA and has been referred to occasionally in Peer Reviews, the scope of this coverage has differed widely and there has been no systematic approach.

Nonetheless, there are obvious advantages in linking the monitoring of GHD with existing and well-established procedures, rather than setting up a separate structure for humanitarian Peer Reviews. The role of the DAC and the Secretariat in conducting Peer Reviews is well recognised, and procedures are respected by members. Furthermore, the DAC is able to address GHD perspectives on both an individual donor level and a collective system level. The objectives of DAC Peer Reviews have equal relevance for the promotion of GHD and for advancing development cooperation. A methodical inclusion of humanitarian action also contributes to a more complete overview of all dimensions of a DAC member’s ODA. It would also promote dialogue on the relationship between humanitarian action and development cooperation, and link with other issues of relevance to the DAC, such as conflict prevention and peace-building, donor engagement in failing states and transition situations.

Improving data collection on humanitarian action – moving towards a common definition

The lack of policy-relevant DAC data on humanitarian action is a serious concern. Accurate data is a prerequisite to monitor that funding is allocated according to need, to follow up pledges and commitments and to improve burden-sharing. The main value of DAC statistics is as a comprehensive long-term record of aid flows, which could provide a useful ex-post check on the UN-OCHA Financial Tracking System (FTS) and pledged funding. But DAC statistical reporting directives on emergency and distress relief need to be improved. Creating a new category of humanitarian action within the current system could serve this purpose. For this to work effectively, donors would need to agree on a common definition to be used when reporting on actions relating to humanitarian response. The need for such a definition is well recognised, and was identified early on in the process of improving humanitarian donorship. The purpose of establishing a common donor definition would be to ensure accountability, transparency and comparability in reporting, which is in turn essential to efforts to harmonise donor policies.

GHD contains a definition of the objectives of humanitarian action:

The objectives of humanitarian action are to save lives, alleviate suffering and maintain human dignity during and in the aftermath of man-made crises and natural disasters, as well as to prevent and strengthen preparedness for the occurrence of such situations.

However, this definition is not completely operational for reporting purposes. It does not provide an indication of when a situation becomes an emergency, nor is it clear what is to be included under the concept of ‘prevention’ and ‘transition’ – ideas which figure in the GHD goals and in DAC work. The GHD definition will need to be adjusted to suit the purposes of DAC statistical reporting. Any definition of humanitarian action will be subjective and include limitations. No one definition can embrace the demands of all humanitarian actors, implementing agencies, donors and the UN system, nor can it be expected to cover all aspects of humanitarian action. A common definition will have to build on a combination of an accepted compromise of practices and the inclusion of the basic humanitarian principles. In order to be inclusive, a definition should cover the following criteria: it should define the situation and specify the objective of aid according to that situation; it should identify beneficiaries and activities; and it should provide guidance on delivery in line with international law and agreed principles.

A common definition would allow donors to report humanitarian action as a separate type of ODA, and then use the DAC codes which better correspond to UN or ECHO reporting structures. It would also contribute to improved transparency and provide an important tool for monitoring and evaluation. But DAC statistics will never be better than the data reported by individual donors. Again, national commitments to advance GHD are essential.

Ways forward

In 2004 the GHD assessment framework was applied in two DAC Peer Reviews (of Australia and Norway). The benefits of doing so, in terms of advancing GHD, were identified in four areas:

  • Policy: Identifying strengths and weaknesses in policy frameworks. Aligning donor policies with GHD and monitoring the implementation of existing policies. Assessment of coherence with development cooperation and other non-aid policies.
  • Management: Assessing procedures regarding decision-making in relation to humanitarian principles, management of transition situations, humanitarian coordination.
  • Funding levels and systems: Addressing issues such as contributing to international burden-sharing of funding humanitarian action, providing timely and flexible funding, donor ‘earmarking’ of funds, allocating funds to multilaterals and NGOs.
  • Identification of good practice and identifying emerging issues: For example, regarding prevention and preparedness for natural disasters, creating and preserving humanitarian space, civil and military cooperation, and transition support.

The DAC has agreed to apply the GHD assessment framework in all forthcoming DAC Peer Reviews. At the same time, however, the limitations of this approach need to be recognised, and goals must be realistic. It might be useful to reflect on where the DAC could take GHD in the next five years. By 2010, all DAC donor policy could be harmonised around GHD principles, and all DAC members Peer Reviewed under a GHD framework. The DAC might have improved reporting structures providing data on humanitarian action. The much-debated relationship between humanitarian action and development cooperation may have been further explored, and GHD promoted in the DAC’s engagement with emerging donors.

GHD is a multipurpose tool – a humanitarian Swiss army knife, with principles and practice guidelines covering most of the controversial issues related to how donors finance humanitarian action. But like all multi-purpose tools, its comprehensiveness may well be a source of weakness. But it is the best – indeed the only – tool there is to address donor performance in this field. It should be put to use, and its performance monitored. The DAC can contribute to advancing GHD, but it will be just as important that implementing agencies and researchers refer to the principles and good practice in their interactions with donors.

Henrik Hammargren is Analyst – Humanitarian Action, Review and Evaluation division, Development Cooperation directorate, OECD. His email address is The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect the official views of the OECD, or of the governments of the OECD member countries.


Comments are available for logged in members only.