Here are seven humanitarian policy issues that have our attention.
They may not be brand new, but they’re challenging old ways of working, raising new dilemmas, and maybe even nudging the aid sector to evolve – at least a little bit.
Two factors speeding up change...
The Ukraine effect
The grinding conflict in Ukraine is exposing double standards and challenging assumptions about how aid works. Could it be a tipping point, pushing the sector to accelerate progress on stalled reforms?
Why we’re watching: Mega-crises can jumpstart change across the humanitarian sector, and no crisis is dominating global attention and resources like the conflict in Ukraine. Responses to mega-crises can expose unfulfilled promises, and question long-held assumptions. They can also point to solutions that can be applied elsewhere.
The imbalances are hard to ignore. So much money has been poured into the Ukraine response in a short period of time that international agencies are scratching their heads over how to spend the cash – while scraping the barrel to provide basic support in other emergencies.
As in any crisis, pop-up volunteer groups, community networks, and neighbours took the lead in frontline response. How to support and fund these non-traditional humanitarians continues to challenge the defiantly traditional aid sector. Yet if the system can get cash support to these more nimble groups, perhaps it can also do a better job of it in other crises, where checks, balances, and red tape can tie up funding for months — or restrict it altogether.
Many analysts thought Ukraine would be an obvious place for localisation — the push to make aid more locally driven — to thrive. International agencies have failed the test for the most part, according to aid analysts and local groups, who say it has been yet another case of taking control rather than supporting. But the ingredients for change are still there, with a robust Ukrainian civil society and keen donor interest.
The Ukraine crisis is another challenge to traditional humanitarian concepts of neutrality. International aid groups stress their principles, but they also accept funds from donor governments who have open geopolitical interests – who may also support the Ukrainian military through different budget lines.
Next steps: For 2023, aid groups are being more realistic about what they can achieve on the ground; some are turning away funding that they suspect they won't use. For example, Oxfam UK chose not to take all of the funding available to them under the UK’s private fundraising network, the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC). Might others turn off the faucet for Ukraine in 2023? Aid insiders are questioning the ethics of DEC keeping the tap turned on for Ukraine, while not raising an appeal for countries facing acute hunger in the Horn of Africa.
As a counterbalance, the Gates Foundation announced $7 billion in funding for African countries, pointedly noting that the Ukraine crisis was shrinking the amount of aid available elsewhere. But that is the outlier: the more common picture last year was of donors diverting money from other crises towards Ukraine.
The climate crisis
How humanitarians grapple with climate change is shifting. A future of extreme heat, stretched funding, and unending emergencies is a clear disruptor, and the aid system is being pushed to plan accordingly.
Why we’re watching: The climate crisis has always been a humanitarian issue. But only recently has the emergency aid sector begun to embrace a more outspoken role. If UN relief chief Martin Griffiths has his way, 2023 will see humanitarians move from the backseat to steering the conversation. Humanitarians have often been slow to make their voices heard on climate issues, Griffiths said in year-end comments to reporters in Geneva, adding: “We will not be late in the future.”
But humanitarians also see a need to get their own houses in order – from retooling responses for a rapidly heating world, to shrinking their carbon footprints. More agencies are moving past “raising awareness” to examining their own policies and operations.
Changes may be as fundamental as re-thinking shelter materials or re-evaluating shelter strategies altogether. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is using climate data to predict shifting malaria peaks in South Sudan. Some humanitarian operations are adapting in ways that feel rather un-humanitarian: building new water supply sources or supplying drought-resistant seeds, for example.
Some aid groups are examining their own footprint, increasingly aware that it’s hard to preach when aid itself leaves a sizeable carbon mark. Many have signed on to climate charters and compacts to green their work. As 2023 begins, a handful are beginning to act on their commitments (or at least put hard numbers behind them). Having promised to halve its emissions by 2030, the Alliance for International Medical Action, born in Niger, became one of the first to show its math by publishing a strategy to do so. MSF’s Geneva operations centre released its own “roadmap” in October.
One of the clearest indicators that change is afoot: Aid groups are hiring for new specialist roles – climate advisors, heads of climate change, coordinators for planetary health, and climate experts for quick-deployment standby rosters. It’s always a sign that the system is moving when there’s money on the table.
Next steps: Climate change is a major factor fuelling skyrocketing humanitarian needs. One of the answers, from big donors and aid leaders at least, is anticipatory action. The move to better predict and respond to crises before they spiral has gone from buzzword to policy in a few short years.
There’s a lot riding on this: Aid leaders believe anticipatory action will reduce needs and ever-rising costs over the long-term. They want to scale up anticipatory action projects in 2023, but there’s a long road ahead. Many responses are in a pilot phase, and adaptability to some of the world’s toughest emergencies – conflict, famine, harder-to-predict hazards – is still on the drawing board. Anticipatory action seems tailor-made for floods, but new anticipatory financing responses failed to activate for recent disasters in northeast Bangladesh or for Pakistan’s historic floods.
New steps forward on three old promises...
Chipping away at locally led aid
Humanitarians are taking tiny steps to move forward with localisation on their own terms. Change is happening organically, not as part of big-splash reforms first envisioned in 2016.
Why we’re watching: Fed up with years of incremental sector-wide progress, individual humanitarian groups – local and global – are drilling down on what it means for their organisations to localise.
Local groups are demanding better and more equitable relationships, setting terms on how they will accept international funding or partnership. Groups like the START Network have served as brokers, helping local organisations find direct funding – most recently in the response to Pakistan’s floods.
INGOs are getting on board. They face a reputational risk if their local partners – vocal and connected – say they’re failing to meaningfully engage. Five of the largest and most influential INGOs have adopted new commitments, known as the pledge for change, that include setting metrics for when they will show up to a disaster or when they will stay home and support local leaders. Mid-sized, faith-based organisations, which are generally more used to working in networks and in partnership, have doubled down on localisation, promoting survivor and community-led responses and being strong advocates and allies. This has meant tangible changes, such as local partners receiving equal overhead costs.
Donor governments are also shifting. The US, the largest humanitarian donor country, has promised to spend half of its aid funding on programmes in which local groups are in the driver’s seat. Finland and Denmark have tightened funding requirements, asking NGOs to demonstrate how they help build local skills. The UK’s Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office’s Rapid Response Facility instructs grantees to include overhead costs for local partners. Aid analysts say the EU’s humanitarian aid arm, ECHO, is coming along too – looking for workarounds to the legal blockages that have restricted direct funding in the past and drafting a localisation guidance note. Sweden has recently undertaken an evaluation on its localisation commitments as well.
The elephant in the room remains the UN, where the majority of aid money is consolidated. Agencies make nods to localisation, but haven’t budged much when it comes to action – still taking up most of the space in how aid is coordinated, and in the share of funding.
Next steps: Localisation sceptics remain, and their questions are more persistent: How can you get economies of scale with smaller local groups at the helm? Where’s the proof that local actors – often elites or members of diaspora groups – are really better connected to communities than staff of international outfits? Is localisation more about equity or effectiveness? Are the two mutually exclusive?
The Grand Bargain – a set of commitments initiated in 2016 to make aid, among other things, more equitable – chugs along. A version 2.0, which honed in on local leadership and better funding, is set to expire in June. Whether or not there is a 3.0, change seems to be happening anyway, outside of the original reforms. Where the sector lands on localisation in 2023 and beyond may look quite different, and more realistic, than it did when the Grand Bargain first left the station.
A more pervasive nexus mindset
The nexus may have failed to hit its lofty targets, but its influence on policy and thinking is increasingly evident. Humanitarians are baking nexus DNA into their work – even if the jargon has become stale.
Why we’re watching: The nexus – aid-speak referring to bridging humanitarian, development, and peace-building efforts – is long on rhetoric but short on tangible progress. Just look at the soaring number of people in need as evidence of its failure. But a host of examples suggests that a nexus orientation is more infused into humanitarian response planning.
The UN’s humanitarian coordination body, OCHA, increasingly collaborates with its development counterpart, DCO, and for the first time organised a session at a senior-level retreat on how the two sides would work together to reduce need. It has become de rigueur for humanitarian response plans to acknowledge how they will link with development projects.
A programme in South Sudan fuses violence reduction with humanitarian, development, or peace-focused projects, and there has been a steady rise in the number of country-level responses applying collaborative planning and programming, according to a recent evaluation. There are also stronger links between government-run social protection schemes and humanitarian cash programmes, especially in disaster settings.
Importantly, donors like Switzerland are integrating their humanitarian and development funding streams; Sweden and others are rethinking how they can follow suit and actively bring together agencies from across the divide.
Other funders like the World Bank have stepped in as a central partner in displacement crises (and disaster responses), and the EU-funded Nexus Response Mechanism in Myanmar supports projects that work across the three sectors.
Next steps: The nexus has shown the most progress in refugee crises, where donors and partners that usually focus on longer-term development aid are playing a greater role. The responsibilities of development-focused aid groups and donors in refugee crises have been more clearly defined since the adoption of 2018’s Global Compact on Refugees, an agreement that tries to strengthen international cooperation. Progress and ways forward will be hashed out at the next refugee forum, set to take place in late 2023.
Moving from a few examples of good practices to a wholesale strategic shift is still far off, and country-level research, such as that in the Middle East, points to serious lags. The usual concerns remain, especially about overreach – that spiralling costs should mean paring back and focusing on the basics. Insiders say many who work in the system still find the nexus an elusive and abstract concept that, despite the proliferation of guidance, is still hard to programme. They say humanitarians are often left holding the bag, as development-focused work is slow to materialise in difficult environments.
The nexus goes hand in hand with other policy priorities, like being accountable to affected people (also on our list below). If the system is committed to listening and responding to what people say they need from aid – jobs not cash, schools not makeshift classes, seeds and land not food distribution – it will have to figure out how to better provide longer-term support.
The UN’s development arm, UNDP, launched an entire academy dedicated to the nexus in 2022. Its first cohort of aid workers has graduated and will return to work fluent in the trilingual humanitarian-development-peace jargon.
Betting on pooled funds
Humanitarians are finding workarounds to an inflexible funding system, using pooled funds and other emergency stockpiles to power the programmes they need now. Could it be a proof of concept for how the system can be more nimble?
Why we’re watching: Desperately searching for flexible funding but shackled by a rigid system, humanitarians are increasingly relying on unearmarked funding pots like the UN-run Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) and country-based pooled funds. This option is seen as a way to programme the stuff they can’t find enough money for in an ocean of restricted donor funding: direct support to local actors, anticipatory action, and addressing the things that people say they need. This is not new money; it’s digging out the loose change wedged into the cracks of the sofa (roughly $1.9 billion out of some $25 billion in humanitarian donor funding in 2022). But it’s the lever humanitarians have at their disposal.
The growing reliance on these funds is a stopgap for an inflexible system. Donor funding is not agile enough for the sector’s reform promises – it doesn’t give much money to local organisations, it’s mostly reactive, and it doesn’t quickly address what people in crisis say they need.
Next steps: With no quick fix for the humanitarian sector’s funding woes, donors also appear to be leaning on these more flexible funding pots as a workaround for their inability to recalibrate. A sign of where policy is headed: The so-called humanitarian resolutions that countries adopted at the UN General Assembly in late 2022 stressed the use of more flexible ways to direct money, including to CERF and other pooled funds. The text framed flexible funding as a matter of “transformation” for a cash-strapped system.
Recent commitments to CERF have been underwhelming. Donors promised about $400 million at a December pledging event. It’s less than what was raised a year earlier, under half of the $1 billion target humanitarian leaders were hoping to reach, and a fraction of the $51.5 billion emergency response bill in 2023.
One under-the-radar issue...
The problem of data consent
High-profile hacks and data mismanagement scandals have dragged data security from the humanitarian fringe to the mainstream. But there’s an even thornier issue at play: Can people genuinely consent to handing over their data when it’s so closely tied to the aid they need, and when it can be repurposed and live on indefinitely?
Why we’re watching: Data privacy and the right to be forgotten shouldn’t only apply to citizens of countries covered by strict regulations. Humanitarians haven’t grappled with the inherent power imbalance that comes with demanding sensitive data from some of the world’s most vulnerable people.
Are refugees, migrants, and others who are asked to hand over their data fully aware of the many ways in which their data could be used? Do they feel empowered to say no? There’s often a vast gap between policy, practice, and what people who use aid perceive.
At one extreme, data can be exposed in cyber-attacks and compromised amid regime change and political upheaval. Few who collected humanitarian data in Afghanistan foresaw the implications of the Taliban sweeping back to power, for instance.
Seemingly benign info can be reshared, repackaged, and repurposed. Some governments are eager to build databases to track internal displacement. Others use shared data to tighten their borders and crack down on migrants. Data can be merged, aggregated, and analysed to “re-identify” individuals, revealing info no one ever intended to be exposed. Metadata from SMS messages or cash transfer payments can be sliced and sifted, leaving a trail of digital breadcrumbs.
The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, said that Rohingya refugees provided consent when it packaged registration in Bangladesh’s camps with a question on sharing data; a Human Rights Watch investigation found otherwise.
Similarly, displaced people in northeast Nigeria told researchers examining how humanitarians use data that they had no idea why their info was collected and how it would be used. In South Sudan, several displaced people said they gave their data “because complaining about it may affect the assistance they receive”.
Internal audits at the World Food Programme have consistently flagged problems with consent. A recent evaluation of how the agency uses technology found “beneficiaries … do not fully understand the risks” of sharing their data: “Despite the ethical implications, WFP appears to be insufficiently concerned with ensuring that the people from whom they collect data are sufficiently informed to provide meaningful informed consent”.
Next steps: To begin addressing the issue, researchers say data ethics conversations must take place at all levels – from the donors pushing for more data, to the aid groups asking for it, to the aid workers who collect it. The problems with informed consent dovetail with the sector’s unfulfilled promises to be more accountable to people in crises (more on that below). If humanitarians have trouble listening to affected people, let alone including them in making decisions, then it’s no surprise that meaningful consent is glossed over as well.
Informed consent means people who use aid need to know how their data may be used, and crucially, have a real right to refuse. Feedback showing how the data is used can go a long way in building trust, the researchers in South Sudan found. This requires time and funding – something humanitarians say is always in short supply. And while aid groups say they have strict rules on sharing and storing data, far less discussed is whether much of it needs to be collected in the first place.
And one for the wait-and-see pile
New traction for making aid more accountable
There’s new momentum behind long-stalled promises to better listen to people at the heart of crises. Humanitarian leaders say they will prioritise meaningful relations with people who use aid.
Why we’re watching: The accountability agenda – a decades-long push to respond to what people who use aid say they need – is being stoked more aggressively. There’s pressure and muscle coming from the very top: Humanitarian leaders say people in crisis need to be able to give feedback, and the aid system must be able to act. The Inter-Agency Standing Committee, the highest-level humanitarian policy-setting forum, struck a task force intended to make responses more “empowering, accountable, and inclusive” (although neither the task force nor the IASC itself includes affected people).
There are signs of progress. For example, humanitarian operations in northwest Syria are upgrading shelters after receiving repeated feedback that tents were inadequate. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has full-time staff dedicated to engaging affected people in Ukraine. Opinion surveys of people who use aid are finding their way into the yearly process of determining humanitarian needs. And for the first time, the key report evaluating the humanitarian sector was modified to include what affected people said were their priorities, as opposed to criteria defined by the system itself.
Next steps: Some of the biggest roadblocks to accountability include other long-standing challenges: inflexible funding, the nexus, and top-down planning. There’s little point in asking people what they need if the system isn’t set up to respond.
Agencies have dragged their feet when it comes to acting on feedback in part because it will take an overhaul of the supply-driven system, aid workers say. Armed with hammers, aid providers search for nails: They deliver food aid after asking how often a person eats, because that’s what they’re set up to do. The more complicated questions – like what will help people get back on their feet – open the door to things that fall outside a traditional aid package.
Accountability doesn’t stand a chance unless the nexus conundrum is addressed – no one wants just a sack of rice, but a chance at self-sustainability. And a truly accountable system also requires change in other parts of the house – among donors in particular. Donors earmark most of their funding early on for specific sectors and programmes; that doesn’t leave much room to spend on what people say they need.
But aid insiders who have seen the so-called “participation revolution” languish for years say a genuine reckoning is happening at the highest levels. We’ll be watching to see whether this push from the top leads to progress on the ground in 2023.