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Parts of the aid system just don’t work – the dismal cycle of humanitarian response

Duncan Green's picture

Every now and then an email stops me in my tracks, reminding me that Oxfam is stuffed full of bright, motivated, altruistic people. Here’s one I got a few weeks ago from Debbie Hillier, one of our Humanitarian Policy Advisers, in response to my request for thoughts on the state of the aid business. Her views are fleshed out in ‘A Preventable Crisis’, a new report published this week:

"Hi Duncan,

Here is a current example of how the aid system doesn’t work.

El Niño events and other droughts are forecast months in advance.  There is of course some uncertainty in the forecasts, but nonetheless, there is often a high probability of a natural hazard.  And with major droughts/El Niño/La Niña, these can affect many millions of people.

So there are situations of high probability and high impact – like the current El Niño.  And these are situations where we know what the solutions are. There are far fewer complicating political factors than in conflict – we know what to do.

If this was the private sector, there would be a significant response at this point. However the aid system does not work like this.

Humanitarian funding is only available at scale when there is a serious crisis – eg major flooding or famine.  Humanitarian funding is not available at scale to respond early.

Public appeals only work when there is huge media coverage, and for food crises this relies on visual suffering – starving children, by which time we have collectively failed.

Institutional funding can be made available, but the amount depends on geopolitical factors, and some self-interest – which is often not present, and certainly isn’t there for this El Niño.  And currently is competing with the crises in Syria and elsewhere.

This is despite the humanitarian mandate to prevent suffering.  And despite the fact that there is unequivocal evidence that early response is much cheaper than late response, as well as reducing suffering and maintaining development gains.  Early response means rehabilitation of wells, rather than water trucking.  It means community care on nutrition, rather than therapeutic feeding centres.  It means commercial destocking rather than restocking after the drought.  The evidence is totally clear that early response is cheaper and helps to build resilience.

Humanitarian funding is generally for short term use – eg 6-12 months – and sometimes must be explicitly ‘lifesaving’ – which precludes early action.

Quite a lot of donors now have ‘Rapid Response Funds’ which enable a quick disbursal of funding for a quick onset crisis – eg Nepal earthquake.  But no donors – to my knowledge – have an ‘Early Response Fund’ to enable early response to drought to prevent deterioration.

Development funding streams are unable to respond at scale to drought.  Development programmes (of governments, as well as donor-funded) take a long time to negotiate (eg up to a year to agree a proposal, which clearly doesn’t work for crises) and are normally relatively inflexible over their lifespan (3-5 years).They are unable to respond to the changing context.  There are some programmes that are designed right from the start to be flexible (e.g. Kenya’s Hunger Safety Net Programme, which was designed specifically to respond to recurrent drought), to scale up and down, but this appears to be fairly exceptional.  And there are a few programmes which include ‘crisis modifiers’, where humanitarian funding is ‘tucked in’ to a long term development programme and can be accessed quickly – but again these are few.

So Early Response falls between humanitarian and development funding envelopes.  Oxfam went to a humanitarian donor last October for drought response funding for Guatemala and Honduras and was told it was ‘too resiliency’.  It was refused.  We took the ‘resiliency’ bits out and it was funded.  Ridiculous.

The lack of major funding available for early response to drought, and indeed to Disaster Risk Reduction which is also about preventing/mitigating the impacts of a natural hazard, means that people are much more vulnerable than they need to be and people suffer unnecessarily.  Only 0.7% of total ODA is spent on DRR, whereas Oxfam considers a figure of 5% to be more appropriate,.

More broadly, while it is brilliant that overall humanitarian funding has increased yet again in 2016, the appeal process is hardly fit for purpose. We would not be happy if a fire brigade has to pass the hat around before being able to respond to a fire, yet that’s precisely how the humanitarian funding system works.  In time-critical crises – eg Ebola – this was highly problematic.  And in situations where nobody cares – like El Niño now – we are stuck.’

Nothing to add.

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Submitted by Asif Dowla on

Similar ideas are expressed in Clarke and Dercon's new book Dull Disasters. Here is a review of the book by David McKenzie Also a link to the downloadable copy of the book (HT David McKenzie again)

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