Issue 50 - Article 10

The Consortium of British Humanitarian Agencies: a new initiative for NGO collaboration

May 9, 2011
Sean Lowrie and Marieke Hounjet

The Consortium of British Humanitarian Agencies (CBHA) was founded in 2010 in response to a proposal by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) to form a consortium to address some of the challenges facing the humanitarian system, especially around speed, coordination and efficiency. Comprising 15 of the leading UK-based humanitarian agencies, the CBHA’s mandate is to ‘pioneer new approaches to funding and resourcing humanitarian responses which strengthen the coordination and capacity of the “third pillar” – the NGO sector – to deliver appropriate, higher quality, more effective and quicker humanitarian responses over the current decade 2010–2020’.[1]

Formation and first year

The CBHA was a result of the right people coming together at the right time. Initial discussions around programmatic strands and governance structure were long and detailed. Members emphasised that they did not want to create a large or complex organisation, and the Programme Management Unit of the consortium is therefore quite small, consisting of three members: the CBHA Director, CBHA Coordinator and Finance and Grants Manager. It was also agreed that, at least at first, the CBHA would be limited to the UK.

One of the main principles from the beginning has been equality: all CBHA members are equal in the statutes and every member has one vote. The CBHA board, which comprises senior representatives (mostly humanitarian or emergency directors) of each of the 15 agencies, elected one member as the chair (currently CAFOD) and another as the vice-chair (currently Concern Worldwide UK). Several sub-committees handle the day-to-day management of programme activities, and agencies are jointly responsible for programme implementation. The relationship with DFID is much more reciprocal than is typically the case between donor and recipient, and the consortium only has to report annually, meaning that time is not spent meeting frequent reporting deadlines. The agencies themselves, not DFID, decide when and how to spend their funds.

In its first year the CBHA has focused on five areas: financing systems, human resource systems, logistics and supply chain systems, surge capacity (the ability to quickly scale up operations) and interagency collaboration. The largest component is the Emergency Response Fund (ERF) of £4 million, upon which members can draw whenever an emergency occurs. The CBHA board collectively decide when to release grants, which cover a period of 30 days; recipient agencies must be up and running within seven days, and are not allowed to use the grants to cover set-up costs. Access to the fund is not restricted to the 15 UK members of the CBHA, reflecting the consortium’s ambition that it should function on behalf of the sector at large. All of the CBH agencies are part of global families, and many work with partner agencies, all of which are eligible to apply to the fund via their UK counterpart.

The objective of the ERF component is to demonstrate that the rapid and reliable release of funds increases the speed with which humanitarian aid is delivered on the ground. In the first year, the ERF was established, tested and deployed in six humanitarian crises, disbursing over £2m to 27 separate agency projects with over 360,000 direct beneficiaries. In all these cases funds were transferred within 72 hours, and in all cases agencies reported that this funding had made a difference. For example, it helped agencies to quickly start up operations and respond to under-funded emergencies, or helped them source further funding by virtue of being operational and present on the ground. Proposals are selected through peer review, which ensures impartiality and appropriateness and drives up the performance of all members. Allocation processes are transparent, and allow grass-roots contextual understanding to be applied at an early stage. Another positive side-effect of this model may be that it reduces competition for funds by creating a more level playing field, where those that are best placed to respond are able to do so.

A second priority of the CBHA lies in the field of capacity-building within agencies. Here the CBHA is testing two complementary approaches to staff development. One approach, led by Save the Children, aims to bring new talent and potential leaders into the sector. The other approach, led by Oxfam, attempts to develop the core humanitarian and leadership competencies of national staff in four pilot countries. ActionAid has led the development of a core competency framework based partly on existing agency and sector material, and partly informed by further research and consultation. The humanitarian competencies were agreed in the summer of 2010, and since then ActionAid has been promoting adoption of the framework through the human resource systems of the CBHA member agencies.[2]

In addition to these training programmes, the CBHA also provides individual agency surge grants to strengthen humanitarian response capacity. Some agencies find it very hard to support and sustain an improved level of rapid response, especially because such response systems are supported by precious unrestricted funds, which agencies often use to cover core running costs. Evidence suggests that the surge funding has had significant impact; CBHA members use their surge funding in ways that support their operational philosophy, for example through additional technical expertise or national partner capacity-building. The CBHA is also involved in an interagency effort to pilot supply-chain logistics software developed by the Helios Foundation, and joint learning and evaluation, led by Action Against Hunger.

The Pakistan floods

Following the Pakistan floods the CBHA released £750,000 in August 2010. Subsequently DFID approached the CBHA to distribute an additional £1m for flood-affected people in Sindh and Punjab provinces. At the end of October, DFID approached the CBHA to see whether it was interested in forming a consortium for early recovery work, with a grant of £20m for agricultural recovery in Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan. However, a smaller alliance of four CBH agencies was already discussing this opportunity with DFID. Their proposal followed a looser alliance model, as opposed to the consortium model, under which projects are aligned and some services shared, but responsibilities remain separate. Although the alliance model was initially preferred, after some discussion the CBHA members agreed to discuss the grant with DFID and a further two agencies were added to the four-party alliance, forming the ‘CBHA ad hoc consortium for early recovery’. In doing so the agencies went significantly beyond the initial agreements underpinning the CBHA. As the midterm review of the CBHA notes: ‘while the Pakistan recovery programme has the potential to sign-post an expanded role for the CBHA in the future, the experience also revealed a dissonance between those who view the CBHA as adding value in the UK and those who consider that it may have a wider, global remit’.[3]

Replicable design characteristics

As mentioned, there are several characteristics of the CBHA which could potentially be replicated by other networks. First, equality of membership within the consortium transcends traditional operational and knowledge-sharing barriers, enabling smaller CBHA members with a niche specialty to leverage their knowledge so that it can be used by other larger agencies. Second, peer reviewing project proposals and the allocation of emergency response funds is driving up the quality of project proposals, and collective stewardship of the ERF is generating strategic dialogue between the CBHA members around identifying, evaluating and responding to humanitarian need. Third, the principle of subsidiarity applied in the Pakistan early recovery grant has enabled the CBHA to form a temporary consortium in Pakistan. No decision-making power was drawn away from practitioners. Fourth, peer expertise is a feature of the Pakistan early recovery consortium, whereby members provide expertise and knowledge to the other members. This is expected to enhance the quality of the programme. Finally, the diversity of the CBHA membership has the potential to stimulate innovation within the consortium, for example in logistics software and capacity-building training tailored to the needs of the different agencies.

Emergent strategy versus predictable strategy

Some of the challenges the CBHA has faced in its first year are generic to partnership working, while others are more specific. Member agencies differ in their reasons for collaboration, and there is a tension between those agencies that prefer an evolving strategy and those that prefer a certain level of predictability. This tension is closely related to trust, because trust is more likely to emerge in contexts where expectations about collaboration and partners’ behaviour are met.[4] The CBHA has been grappling with this issue. As our annual report explains:

The practice of leading commercial and multilateral organisations suggests that opportunism and agility are appropriate strategic approaches to uncertainty. Yet at the same time, the CBHA is a relatively large consortium of 15 members, of which some are large organisations that require predictability in their partnerships.[5]

The humanitarian sector is highly fluid, and predictability is difficult to come by. Nevertheless, we believe that trust can be built through making good decisions. This became evident in the CBHA’s experience in Pakistan, as discussed above. Here, in the context of a large-scale emergency, the consortium had to take considerable risks. This goes against the conventional wisdom that young consortia should build trust through low-risk initiatives, in order to increase the chances that everyone’s expectations will be met. A further complication in the Pakistan response was that trust had been built through the CBHA experience in London, which by implication was then extended to different people and parties in Pakistan. This brings us back to the question of the CBHA’s role outside of the UK.

The experience of the first year presents the CBHA with important questions. Should the CBHA’s remit extend beyond the UK, and what would the CBHA do if it was asked to form another ad hoc consortium in a different context? Over the past year we have learned that our sector is not likely to provide the kind of small-scale and low-risk environment conducive to a young consortium. As a result, CBHA members have come to the conclusion that the consortium needs to develop a strategy. Furthermore, whilst the CBHA’s activities are innovative (for example the Emergency Response Fund, the capacity-building training programmes and the Helios software), they constitute incremental improvements to existing organisational routines. Much more could be done to build capacity to respond to humanitarian crises in the future. A strategy could provide the consortium with a predictable framework in a turbulent world, enabling it to fulfil its potential. This process should commence in April 2011, and external expertise will help us with this strategy formulation.


Sean Lowrie is the CBHA Director. Marieke Hounjet is the Coordinator for the CBHA.

[1] The 15 members of the CBHA are ActionAid, Action Against Hunger UK, CAFOD, CARE, Christian Aid, Concern Worldwide UK, HelpAge, the International Rescue Committee, Islamic Relief Worldwide, Merlin, Oxfam GB, Plan, Save the Children, Tearfund and World Vision.

[2] The CBHA humanitarian competencies report is available at

[3] Andy Featherstone, CBHA Midterm Review, 2011, p. 11, available at

[4] Galuti, 1995, as quoted in Huxham and Vangen, 2005, p. 154.

[5] CBHA, Annual Report to DFID, March 2011, available at


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