Issue 61 - Article 9

Towards 'principled' humanitarian funding

May 28, 2014
Sarah Bayne and Joanna Buckley
Panel on donor commitments in London

Most humanitarian donors recognise the core humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, independence and neutrality as a foundation for action in situations of conflict and complex emergency. They are enshrined in the ‘European Consensus on Humanitarian Aid’ adopted by European Union (EU) donors in December 2007 and are a key component of the Good Humanitarian Donorship (GHD) principles, first signed by donors in 2003. In practice, however, donors are confronted with numerous challenges to the application of humanitarian principles. There is growing political pressure to portray humanitarian action as part of the crisis management toolbox, or to link it to counter-insurgency, stabilisation or military intervention strategies. Humanitarian aid is regularly perceived as tied to political and military objectives, and in countries such as Afghanistan funding for relief activities is often concentrated in areas of strategic importance.

Against this background, this article draws on research that critically examines the humanitarian policies and practices of eight European donors: Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Sweden and the UK. It considers how far their policies, decision-making procedures, funding modalities, institutional structures and relationships support or constrain their ability to address these challenges and translate commitments to humanitarian principles into practice. It asks whether the mechanisms and processes through which these donors provide humanitarian assistance enable them to do so in a manner that is independent, impartial and neutral, on the basis of humanity and thus independent from political interference and policy preferences. In essence, are donors providing principled humanitarian funding?

Global funding allocations

Donors split global funding allocations in three main ways: through core contributions to international and multilateral organisations and the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF); country allocations for protracted crises; and through a reserve for sudden-onset crises. Levels of core, and often un-earmarked, funding to multilateral and international agencies (and the CERF) have increased in recent years, and where earmarking continues, it is usually a result of restrictive legislation or guidelines (for instance in Germany, Italy and Poland), rather than donor preferences. From a principled funding perspective this use of multilateral funding mechanisms offers both advantages and challenges. Allowing recipients to allocate funds according to their own criteria enables the humanitarian system to respond more flexibly and effectively and insulates decision-making from the political preferences of donors. However, in the absence of robust oversight and monitoring mechanisms it is hard for donors to judge whether humanitrian principles are upheld once funds have been disbursed.

Funding allocations per country/crisis (protracted and sudden-onset) are informed by various assessments and processes, such as the Consolidated Appeals Process (CAP) and Flash Appeals. However, the lack of an objective measure of global humanitarian need and a tendency towards poor transparency in decision-making processes leave humanitarian funding decisions open to actual or perceived political interference and the influence of other criteria. Donors will naturally tend towards funding those crises where they have a comparative advantage or which reflect humanitarian policy preferences.

The impact of political influence in donor country allocations is shown in the disparity between the funding allocated to different crises, with geopolitically strategic areas receiving disproportionately more regardless of levels of need. Allocations to protracted crises are also often greatly influenced by what was provided the previous year, in part to honour donor commitments to stable funding flows. This raises an interesting potential inconsistency between donor attempts to avoid aid volatility and a commitment to make aid allocations more responsive to humanitarian needs. Some donors are developing more systematic mechanisms for ascertaining global need and determining geographic allocations and resources. There is a commitment among European donors to a greater division of labour, information exchange and coordination in global allocations in order to ensure a more even distribution. However, at the time of the research donors had yet to sign up to a formal mechanism for translating commitments into practice.

In-country funding allocations

Within countries donors identify need as the key driver for sector and regional funding decisions and rely heavily on third-party needs assessments to inform their choices. Although efforts are underway to improve the quality of these assessments they remain compromised by inconsistent methodologies, poor access and dependence on unreliable government assessments. Most donors have limited humanitarian staffing capacity, both at headquarters and in the field, to verify the accuracy of needs assessments and to adequately monitor projects and partners’ adherence to principles. Short project funding cycles, limited flexibility to adapt projects and burdensome reporting systems can inhibit a principled response. Similar challenges relating to oversight, monitoring and accountability are present where donors support common or pooled funds.

Principled partnerships

The notion of principled humanitarian funding also needs to be reflected in principled partnerships, whereby donors’operational partners are selected on the basis of their technical capability and commitment to upholding the principles of humanitarian action and formal mechanisms to provide strong oversight and accountability. Although humanitarian principles are implicit in donor considerations regarding choice of partners, the use of systematic or documented processes for identifying partners varies and is not formalised across donors. The quality of processes for partner monitoring and evaluation differs between donors, and the lack of field-based staff results in weak oversight of funding. Some donors are developing deeper relationships with fewer NGO partners via global framework partnerships which provide for more systematic quality control and lesson learning.

Principles under pressure – safeguarding humanitarian principles in transition and stabilisation activities

Challenges to the application of donor commitments are particularly apparent in transition and stabilisation activities. Donor policy frameworks emphasise the importance of links and smooth ‘transitions’ between humanitarian action and early recovery and stabilisation efforts. At the same time, a policy agenda around building resilience is gaining ground. In practice, the overlap between the phases of transition, and the fact that it is neither a linear nor predictable process, can make it difficult to safeguard principled humanitarian funding. Humanitarian funds are often ‘stretched’ to encompass both humanitarian and early recovery activities, and many international NGOs are engaged simultaneously in delivering humanitarian and recovery/development assistance.

Adherence to humanitarian principles suggests the separation of humanitarian financing and action from other areas of policy. Yet ensuring a transition to recovery and supporting enhanced resilience requires greater coherence and sequencing between these processes and alignment with host government frameworks. Donors are increasingly co-locating the management of humanitarian and transition or stabilisation policy and activities within the same department, and are integrating humanitarian and development planning at country level. There is scepticism in some quarters about donors’ commitments to protecting humanitarian principles and concerns that they will be increasingly subsumed within transition and stabilisation priorities. Yet at the same time there is an evident recognition by donors of the need to safeguard principles within integrated planning and decision-making processes, and to navigate between the different sets of principles governing development assistance, humanitarian assistance and engagement in fragile states. Donors are beginning to approach these issues in a systematic way, for example within the framework of the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee (DAC) and the GHD forum. Donors will need to ensure that they retain an adequate humanitarian voice in these discussions and continue to emphasise consolidating best practice and ensuring that new guidelines keep pace with the evolving context.

Donors have established policies to counter the potential for infringement by military and security actors on principled humanitarian action and have signed up to the ‘Oslo Guidelines on the use of Military and Civil Defence Assets’ (MCDA) in disaster relief. Such policy frameworks help staff push back against overt political interference in humanitarian funding decisions and promote an understanding of humanitarian principles across departments. However, how far this advocacy penetrates to the field level is uncertain. Limited fieldbased donor humanitarian capacity may restrict the ‘humanitarian voice’, raising serious questions about the ability of donors to monitor and advocate for adherence to humanitarian principles (and the protection of civilians) at country level with political, military and stabilisation colleagues, as well as governments and other non-state actors.

Donor coordination and dialogue

Donor coordination and peer review mechanisms such as the GHD and the OECD DAC peer review provide a vehicle for holding donors to a standard regarding humanitarian principles. Although the weaknesses of the GHD (including donor commitment) have tended in the past to undermine its value as a coordination mechanism, progress has been made to create more robust processes for monitoring donor compliance to the GHD principles (for example a self-assessment questionnaire). The DAC peer review framework has been revised and is now more explicit about what donors have to do to comply with GHD and other related good practice.

As well as the GHD initiative and the DAC, the donors studied are actively involved in the European Working Party on Humanitarian Aid and Food Aid (COHAFA), the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Donor Support Group. There is potential for forums such as the GHD initiative, the OCHA donor forum and COHAFA to discuss key issues around burden-sharing and the division of responsibility. However, this is not being done effectively.


Although overarching donor policies outlining the humanitarian policy framework and commitments to the accepted principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence exist, they are only one component of the mechanisms and processes needed to enable donors to provide principled humanitarian funding. Challenges at the implementation stage are evident, and are being overcome by the donors studied to differing degrees. Systematic and robust approaches are required (and in some cases are emerging) to improve oversight of secondary-tier funding (including pooled funds), needs assessments and monitoring and evaluation of partners. This needs to go hand in hand with enhanced donor humanitarian capacity, for example by pooling information and expertise. Although donors are committed to a division of labour in global allocations, formal mechanisms to enable this are required. As humanitarian funds overlap and run in parallel with transition and stabilisation activities, there is a need for more systematic approaches outlining the safeguards that will be put in place around principled humanitarian space.

Sarah Bayne is an independent consultant specialising in peacebuilding and development. Joanna Buckley is a consultant at Oxford Policy Management (OPM) specialising in fragile and conflict-affected environments and private sector development.

This article draws on research undertaken in 2012 for the report Tools for the Job: Supporting Principled Humanitarian Action, co-published by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) and the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) at ODI, within the framework of a contract with the IDL group, a private sector development organisation. Research involved a review of key literature and interviews with officials responsible for humanitarian financing within donor capitals.


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