Issue 67 - Article 16

The Start Network European Refugee Response: trialling a collaborative approach to a regional crisis

September 15, 2016
Emily Whitehead
A refugee from Iraq rests with his family in an Oxfam shelter after arriving in Greece by boat from Turkey.
10 min read

In October 2015, the UK Department for International Development (DFID) allocated £16 million to the Start Network in response to the refugee and migration crisis in Europe. Seventeen humanitarian agencies were selected to implement projects in five countries along migration routes from Turkey to Germany and other European destination countries. The first phase, carried out over 5–6 months, consisted of a variety of humanitarian assistance and protection activities. Phase 2 ended on 31 August with an additional £5m from DFID. This article critically reflects on the response, explaining how it was established and the range of projects implemented, and concludes with the main findings of an independent evaluation.

The Start Network

The Start Network is a network of 39 NGOs focusing on crisis response and preparedness. Start Network members: Over the last three years, the Network has shown that aid can be channelled to those in need within 72 hours of an emergency for short 45-day life-saving responses through the Start Fund mechanism. In 2015, the Network began piloting an alternative funding mechanism designed to encourage greater communication, cooperation and coordination between members. Initial pilots of such ‘collaborative responses’ include supporting refugees in Cameroon and helping governments and communities in West Africa prevent and prepare for possible disease outbreaks.

A collaborative response to the European refugee and migrant crisis

On 29 July 2015, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) submitted an alert to the Start Fund after an assessment of the situation in Lesvos earlier in the month. The Start Fund was unable to approve funds due to a clause in its guidelines stating that the money could not be used in OECD countries, and the context demanded a larger-scale response than the Start Fund’s 45-day project cycle mechanism could support.

After consultations with DFID a £5m funding envelope was announced, shortly followed by an additional commitment of £11m. Although the funding came at a critical time, the consultation process was lengthy, with funding finally approved by DFID on 26 October 2016.

The Start Network European Refugee Response (ERR) used the ‘collaborative response’ approach trialled in Cameroon and West Africa. A call for proposals was released in early November 2015 and two project selection committees were convened. Start Network member and non-member agencies were represented at country and HQ level. The process for project design, locations, sectors, priorities and decision-making was completed in two weeks. Seventeen Start Network member and non-member agencies were selected to implement projects in Greece, Croatia, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), Slovenia and Serbia. Despite the challenges – including several adaptions in response to the decision to close borders along the Western Balkan route on 9 March and the EU–Turkey agreement on 20 March – the ERR implemented a wide variety of projects across multiple borders and countries along the Western Balkan route, addressing the needs of almost 1.2m refugees and migrants.

Evaluation of the ERR

The first phase of the ERR ended in April 2016, and an independent evaluation was commissioned. The evaluation, conducted by Groupe URD, is framed around the criteria of relevance, effectiveness, efficiency and collaborative advantage.

Relevance and appropriateness

Relevance. A substantial amount of funding came at a critical time to respond to the needs of migrants and refugees along the Balkans route just before the winter, providing ERR agencies and their local partners with much-needed resources to scale up their assistance. Nevertheless, advocacy with European donors, institutions and other stakeholders was a significant gap, particularly on protection issues.

Coverage. The range of programmes and agencies funded through the ERR meant that needs were broadly covered, including an innovative ‘communicating with refugees’ component. However, the lack of communication and coordination between agencies resulted in some overlaps and gaps, and there was no ‘whole of route’ vision or a regional approach to support cross-border coordination.

Adaptability and responsiveness. Given the fast-changing context, flexibility and adaptability were undoubtedly the main strengths of the ERR, and agencies rated the brokering role of the Start Network very highly compared to traditional modes of donor interaction (particularly the rapidity of the decision-making process). The relevance of ERR activities essentially relied on the professionalism and expertise of the individual agencies as far as programming and needs assessments were concerned. Despite attempts, the Start Network was not in a position to set up or promote any mechanism for joint needs assessments or coordinated programming.


The limited timeframe, as well as delays to the start of implementation and an inability to obtain no-cost extensions for activities, had a negative impact on the effectiveness of the response. This was particularly the case when agencies based their decisions on the criterion of rapid disbursement, rather than on the reality of needs.

Some efforts were made to work with local authorities and populations in the different countries. Coordination with local NGOs and authorities was particularly successful in FYROM, where NGOs provided local knowledge while ERR agencies contributed additional funding and skills. Some agencies invested significant amounts of money in camp maintenance and improving infrastructure in anticipation of a lengthy crisis.


Allocating funds through the Start Network allowed DFID to ‘outsource’ programme management and monitoring at short notice. This delegated allocation process lightened administrative procedures and allowed a high degree of flexibility in programme management.

Although a variety of products and communication channels were used, the information circulated by the Start Network did not reach the vast majority of operational staff in ERR agencies (this is probably linked to the lack of a permanent field presence by Start Network staff during most of the programme). The wide range of monitoring, evaluation and learning (MEL) products (situational reports, learning workshops, monitoring visits, case studies, peer reviews) provided a good overview of the projects, but did not include crisis management or situational analysis, which could have guided crisis response and strategic positioning.

Communication and coordination were strengthened at a later stage of the response (around February–March 2016), thanks to field coordination meetings and closer ties between ERR agencies. No formal mechanism for coordination among the ERR agencies was set up, with priority given to ‘all agency cooperation and coordination’ rather than specific collective action among ERR agencies.

Collaborative mechanism

The use of the term ‘collaborative response’ raised expectations. There was no clarity or consensus about the principles and practical feasibility of a collaborative approach, and no joint programming (agencies were unwilling to agree an overall framework of outcomes and outputs). Among the key ingredients of a collaborative response are the presence of Start Network focal points in the field and the decentralisation of selection processes.

Recommendations for future collaborative responses

Groupe URD proposed six key recommendations to the Start Network at a time when the Network was evaluating the collaborative response mechanism as a whole. In collaboration with member agencies, the Start Network team facilitated the development of standard operating procedures for a modified collaborative response model, putting the recommendations from Groupe URD into practical solutions for the future. The recommendations are outlined below, with responses to explain how they will be addressed by the Network.

Recommendation 1: Before the implementation of any collaborative response, the Start Network and the agencies involved should build a shared and collective vision

Start Network response: Collaboration will be facilitated at three key stages: crisis alert and donor negotiation, programme design and programme implementation. There will be a particularly strong focus on collaboration during programme design.

After the initial crisis alert and negotiations with donors, Start Network members will work with other stakeholders to map out gaps in humanitarian provision and collectively design a response plan to form the basis for the call for proposals. The process from needs assessment to the call for proposals will include member representatives, donors and other relevant external actors (UN agencies, local NGOs, sectoral experts). This will involve active engagement in person, through a collaborative mapping and strategic planning workshop of 1–2 days in country.

Recommendation 2: The Start Network should identify the appropriate set-up (in terms of processes, structure and outputs) in order to achieve collectively defined objectives

Start Network response: Member representatives will agree the model and degree of collaboration at the collaborative mapping and strategic planning workshop. Once member agencies have received confirmation of funding, a ‘start-up workshop’ will be held in country to provide an opportunity for organisations to agree collaborative activities. Not all partners are required to be involved in all collaboration initiatives; collaboration should only be pursued where appropriate, and where it will add value to the response.

Recommendation 3: The Start Network should review the current structure of ERR management and MEL services, including field presence, to inform future collaborative responses

Start Network response: For each response, a Programme Management Unit will be established with clearly defined and communicated roles and responsibilities. The Unit will consist of at least three people: a Programme Manager, Finance and Awards Officer and a Monitoring, Evaluation, Accountability and Learning (MEAL) Officer/Coordinator.

Recommendation 4: The Start Network should review and design an optimal coordination system, taking into account the number of agencies involved and the context

Start Network response: The dedicated Programme Manager will be based in country and will coordinate in person with implementing agencies, as well as within wider humanitarian coordination mechanisms. Internal coordination systems will be designed during the start-up workshop, based on the context.

Recommendation 5: Strengthen the operational benefits of MEL services

Start Network response: MEAL will be carried out by a Start Network member selected by open tender every two years. Each response will have a MEAL framework, with an increased focus at the project/agency level, standardised indicators and clearer guidance on sources of information and frequency of collection. MEAL will also identify issues of common interest (strategic, operational, advocacy) to be further addressed through commissioned studies or during workshops and coordination meetings.

Recommendation 6: The Start Network should establish a robust communication and information management system

Start Network response: As soon as a Start Response alert is triggered, a Box Folder (a cloud-based platform) will be opened to ensure that information is available to participating agencies. All proposals and reports should be uploaded to the Folder, with documents saved in a specific format. Each response will also include a coordination/collaboration envelope within response budgets for communication and information management, covering costs such as online or mobile technologies, workshops and meetings.


The ERR provided an alternative model for NGOs to respond collectively to a regional humanitarian crisis. While the approach was innovative and ambitious, the evaluation has highlighted some of the obstacles that continue to plague attempts to create more collaborative responses. However, there is the appetite amongst humanitarian organisations to create processes which allow resources to be utilised in a more effective, collective and collaborative manner. The Start Network does not claim to have found the key to revolutionise the humanitarian sector; rather, we are trying to open up a space for experimentation and learning, building on examples of good coordination and collaboration. Both the successes and challenges of the ERR will now be reflected on and will be fed into the processes and practices implemented for the Network’s next major humanitarian response.

Emily Whitehead is Collaborative Responses Programme Manager at the Start Network.


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