The New Humanitarian | Rethinking Humanitarianism podcast


Interview clips, Sept 2021

Patrick Saez: It is probably time now for international actors to have a bit of a rethink as to what their role should be.

Annika Sandlund: I think the debate has been quite polarised, big actors versus small actors, international versus local. And I don’t think that’s a helpful sort of starting point.

Danny Sriskandarajah: It’s about understanding who’s got the lowest threshold to be an early mover. Where’s the least point of resistance? 

Alix Masson: All the different proposals that have been put forward, all of them require a significant investment on national actors themselves. And we have never talked about this investment. How do we provide them with the necessary skills to actually take their role?

Heba Aly: What will it take to truly reform the humanitarian response system? This question has been debated ad nauseam in recent years, since the aid world’s latest reform agenda was launched in 2016. And yet, in the eyes of many, progress towards more inclusive, efficient, and accountable humanitarian response has been slow. You just heard a few aid workers talking about what could change that – what would allow future reform efforts to have more success.

This week, the Center for Global Development is releasing a report that tries to get at that question. It summarises three years of research into humanitarian reform and lays out four changes – in the areas of accountability, coordination, financing, and governance. It argues these proposed changes could lead to meaningful reform because they challenge the underlying architecture of the aid system, something past reforms have failed to do. The research project is conveniently dubbed – for the purposes of this podcast anyway – “Rethinking Humanitarian Reform” and today, we’re delving into the findings. 

I’m Heba Aly, and this is Rethinking Humanitarianism. 

I know I promised you all an episode on the humanitarian sector’s progress towards Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion – and don’t worry, that’s coming up in our next episode. But I wanted to share this episode with you first because last week the Center for Global Development asked me to participate in an event about their research and I just found it so interesting. Because often when the humanitarian sector talks about reform, it does so in ways that are easy to agree with but then, kind of, dismiss without really taking action. But these recommendations are a set of really concrete architectural changes that, I think, force the players in the sector to take a real position. 

With us today is one of the researchers behind that Rethinking Humanitarian Reform project, Patrick Saez has had a long career with the UK development and aid arm – previously known as DfID, now FCDO – and is currently a senior policy fellow at the Washington-based Center for Global Development. As many listeners will know, CGD was our partner in Season 1 of the podcast, so it’s nice to be coming around full circle. Hi, Patrick. 

Patrick Saez: Hi, Heba. Thanks for having me. 

Aly: Nice to have you. Let’s just start with the backstory. What led the Center for Global Development to embark on this three-year research project?

Saez: Of course, the humanitarian system has been quite effective at dealing with humanitarian crises, and increasingly so because it’s constantly evolved. But in spite of decades of reform and changes, there are some really sticky issues that haven’t been reformed to those processes. Notably, this idea that people should be at the centre – not only in rhetoric, but also in practice. And that the sector should be much more accountable to them. And also that it should allow nationally and locally driven humanitarian action. And these require more architectural changes than voluntary commitments. Progress has been slow in those areas, because basically, the reforms haven’t been transformative enough. They haven’t fundamentally changed the architecture that organises power in the system. And the incentives that really are the heart of that architecture and the humanitarian business model.

Aly: Your research proposes four major changes to that architecture and business model. The first is an independent accountability mechanism. Walk us through how it would work. 

Saez: What we have at the moment is a lot of different feedback mechanisms, which is a good thing. But they’re owned by each organisation in the system. What we’re saying is that that feedback shouldn’t be mediated by those organisations, it should be managed as an independent function, and report its findings publicly. In a way that is already happening through Ground Truth Solutions, for instance, but it hasn’t really been institutionalised. We’re saying that this should be audited independently, a bit like financial management is audited. And the results of those audits should also be made public. 

Aly: Let’s move to the second one, which you call area-based coordination. And you argue that the current coordination model known as “the cluster system”, entrenches unhelpful funding practices, because it essentially encourages a supply driven programming model, right? So based on the mandates of various agencies, you know, that you’ve got the World Food Programme, it’s funded to hand out food. So even if that’s not necessarily the top need of a group of people in a particular area, that’s what they do. And in this cluster model, you argue that the needs and priorities of affected people are then intermediated through an architecture that’s more oriented towards the prerogatives of the major agencies rather than the people. So tell us what you’re proposing instead.

Saez: It’s about organising a response based on the geographical location and the needs of the communities there, rather than what humanitarian organisations are able to supply. We’re proposing that sub-national hubs should be responsible for coordinating and planning the response at that local level. And they would basically convene all the relevant humanitarian players that are active within that area of responsibility. And that would also allow to open that participation much more to local organisations to, of course, iNGOs and multilateral agencies, but potentially also involve local government much more. But we’re not saying that the clusters should disappear. They were created fifteen years ago. And it’s very clear that they’ve added a lot in terms of predictability, but also in terms of quality because of the normative functions that they’ve had, and we think that they should retain that function

Aly: And so this model of focusing on a geographic area, and what do people need holistically within that area that was used in Iraq, around Mosul, in 2016/2017. How well did it work in practice? 

Saez: What happened there is that the shelter cluster was tasked with taking the lead of that multi-sectoral coordination. And so… they would appoint a focal point assigned to coordinating various activities. And I think that worked really well in terms of adapting to a very changing dynamic and adapting to also access opportunities that we’re changing, opening, and closing quite rapidly. 

Aly: So I want to move on to the third proposal in your research, which is to finance humanitarian aid differently. And it’s got two components: One is more money towards pooled funds; and the other is direct funding for the core functions of UN agencies so that they don’t have to rely on overheads. What is it that’s kind of transformative about this proposal? 

Saez: What we have currently is a system, really, that’s completely based around discretionary grants from donor governments. And those grants are usually short-term and projectised. And that’s at the source of many of the inefficiencies in the system and some of the negative incentives. Because, basically, this model treats the majority of crises that are, as we know, either protracted or predictable,  as if there were unforeseen emergencies. We’re saying that since we know that we’re going to spend most of humanitarian finance in those crises that are either protracted or predictable, why not pre-arrange it in the same way that multilateral development banks are replenished to basically deal with development finance needs in low income countries, for example. Or the same way that GAVI is replenished for what we know we’re going to spend on vaccines. And this would also allow those crises to be financed based on objective data on the relative severity of needs and risks, which is something that we’ve heard from donors is quite important to them and that they’re struggling to do individually, based on the information provided by the system currently. 

Aly: So let’s go to your – in this whirlwind tour of your recommendations – the fourth recommendation in your research, which is perhaps the simplest: greater representation of effective people, and effective governments, host governments, on aid agency governing bodies. Where do you see the kind of revolutionary concept here?

Saez: Aid should be provided with people at the centre. But affected people in crisis have very little power over the decisions made on their behalf by international aid organisations. It’s not necessarily a straightforward thing to do; there’s a lot of concern that it could be tokenistic. But that shouldn’t be a reason for not changing the governance make-up. And we know from work on diversity, equity, and inclusion that diversity increases effectiveness, basically, in decision-making. We’ve heard from one NGO, for example, that’s created an advisory committee to the board – and on that committee sit representatives of civil society organisations or community groups that are in the countries where that NGO operates. And they’re not necessarily linked financially to that [international] NGO, which increases the independence of that committee, but they’re able to provide feedback to the board directly rather than through the operations of that organisation. 

Aly: And when organisations do have more diverse representation on their governance, what has that resulted in? How has that changed the way they operate?

Saez: What we don’t have at the moment in the sector, in any of the boards that we’ve seen, is representation of affected people that would basically guarantee increased accountability for quality outcomes for people in crisis. We only have, in the 15 governing boards that we’ve surveyed, two percent of board members with a lived experience of crises or being a recipient of humanitarian aid. 

Aly: You’ve just walked us through these  four proposed reforms: having feedback collected independently and directed to a governing board or publicly rather than being managed by the organisation that’s being critiqued; having a coordination model that is multisectoral meaning not just based on one mandate but really looking at the the needs in this specific area and responding to them collectively, through coordination at the local level; a different way of having the money flow through the system – in other words, less money going directly to UN agencies for field operations; and this last proposal of greater diversity on governing boards. 

I’m just wondering, when you look at all of that, how likely that is to come to be. How much buy-in do you think there is within the players in the sector? If any of this is to actually become reality? We’ve seen, as you mentioned off the top, a lot of reforms that look good on paper, but then just never really take hold. What would it take for this to take hold? And how likely do you think that is to happen?

Saez: We’ve heard from some that our proposals were too radical. But we’ve heard from others that they might not be radical enough. And what I found interesting is that those were not those you might think. We’re already seeing some organisations move in the right direction. [International] NGOs, looking at the governance structure, for example. We’re looking at donors increasing their funding to collective mechanisms. I think you’re right, we’re probably not reaching the critical mass required yet to do this. But interestingly, what we found as well is that most practice in the sector is discretionary. So nothing should really be off the table. Through our conversations with donors, we found that, you know, what is often branded as unsurmountable legal or institutional obstacles are not in fact unsurmountable. We’re not saying that all of these proposals should be implemented as such tomorrow. But what we’re hoping to show is that some change that goes beyond technical fixes is possible and shouldn’t take an extraordinary amount of political will. 

Aly: I guess the challenge is that a lot of these proposals depend on change at the systems level. So one organisation wouldn’t be able to do it alone, if you’re talking about, you know, coordination across the system, if you’re talking about changes to the way donors fund, if you’re talking about an overarching accountability mechanism. So how does it work when it’s not enough for one organisation to decide to be progressive, but actually, you need some kind of overarching change for others to be able to then plug into that?

Saez: If we’re talking about what changes can happen now, there are definitely some changes at the level of individual organisations that can take place. And then at the collective, this is definitely a discussion that needs to take place across the system, either through the Grand Bargain 2.0 process or anything that would come after that. 

Aly: And so, in line with the final question we ask each of our guests on the show, if an individual agency or donor does want to move in this direction, what is one practical first step that they could take today, regardless of what the overarching system is or isn’t doing? 

Saez: If I was a donor, I would probably look at the governance of my partners and check that the views of affected people are represented and that feedback is monitored independently. I would also seek to get views from affected people directly as part of my monitoring of the performance of my partners. If I was an aid organisation, I would probably look at what can be done at the level of my governing structures, and probably experiment with ways to represent affected people more directly.

Aly: Patrick, thank you. I know it’s hard to kind of communicate each of these ideas in detail in such a short time, but hopefully it gives a taste of some of what you have come up with and we will of course, give people more details if they want to dig them up. Thank you for your time.

Saez: Thank you very much, Heba. Pleasure.

Aly: Last week, Patrick presented this research at a public event that I moderated, and invited a few of the main players affected by these recommendations – the UN, international NGOs, and local NGOs – to react to them. And so today we’re going to do something a little bit different. We’re going to share an edited version of that conversation with you. 

I know there are so many panel discussions on what changes are needed within the aid sector. But what I tried to do in this conversation was to probe each of those recommendations to see: Are they practical? Are they too radical? What would make the relevant players ready to take them on board? What would get in the way? 

What stood out for me was that a lot of these proposed reforms were actually quite palatable to the players – at least the ones we spoke to – but depended on redefining success, in other words, a completely new way of imagining the role of international aid. 

You’ll hear from Patrick, who I just spoke to. But you’ll also hear from Alix Masson, the advocacy lead of the NEAR Network of local and southern NGOs; Annika Sandlund, the head of partnerships and coordination at the UN Refugee Agency; and Danny Sriskandarajah, chief executive of Oxfam Great Britain. 

Here are excerpts of my conversation with them. And I started by asking Danny why he thinks past reforms have failed.

Danny Sriskandarajah: It’s about understanding who’s got the lowest threshold to be an early mover, right? Where’s the least points of resistance? I think as a sector, we haven’t understood where each of us could lead by example, and not sort of leaning into it. Because there’s no shortage of challenges we’re all facing individually, institutionally, sectorally. And I think we’ve lost the confidence to say that we also have a responsibility to lead by example. And you just need to find where can we plough our own sort of furrow. And I think that’s, to me, that we haven’t sort of had the confidence to take the bull by the horns, if I can mix metaphors. 

Aly: Alix?

Alix Masson: One of the things that for me is quite interesting through all the different proposals that have been put forward is that all of them require a significant investment on national actors themselves. And we have never talked about this investment. And how to reinforce, today, national actors being national coordination mechanisms that are nationally led not international coordination mechanisms, for example, that are in countries. How do we reinforce them? How do we provide them with the necessary skills to actually take their role? Because at the moment, most of them are poorly funded, or not funded, or self-funded by organisations that don’t really have necessarily the funds to do that. But it’s the same around the funding issue. There is always the conversation that there is not enough capacity in the Global South – that’s really a motto that we have all heard. There is not enough capacity to lead. There is not enough capacity to manage funds. But when did we actually invest in those capacities? When did we invest in national funds?

Aly: Let me just jump in here to say that a representative of the US Agency of International Development was meant to give a donor perspective in this conversation but had to drop out at the last minute. So unfortunately, that angle of the discussion is missing, which you’ll note in this next comment from UNHCR’s Annika Sandlund, with her take on why past reforms have struggled to get off the ground. 

Annika Sandlund: I think the debate has been quite polarised – big actors versus small actors, international versus local – and I don’t think that’s a helpful sort of starting point, because I think it has made everyone a little bit defensive. There are actors that have tried to find a niche where they can lead – I’m thinking in terms of Oxfam, in terms of localisation, for example, in the Grand Bargain setting; other actors, including UN agencies on specific areas – but even jointly, they don’t really amount to a reform of the system. So those I think are a few of the sort of main obstacles that I can come to think of that have, I think, really held us back. And then the last one, I’m sorry to introduce that when we don’t have the donor with us. I mean, there is really an increase in humanitarian needs around the world. And I’m not sure that we have quite reached the level where we want to be, all of us, when it comes to multi-year funding, to flexible funding, to unearmarked funding that allows for that kind of experimentation. So if the money is projectised, it’s very difficult to find the money needed to experiment within the type of system we have now in terms of financing. And that I think is true for all actors around this table. 

Aly: Yes, I was waiting for someone to talk about political will, which usually is the first answer to that question….

Then the discussion turned to the specific research recommendations. Starting with the independent accountability mechanism… 

And it’s an interesting concept, of course because the status quo is that agencies are policing themselves for the most part. Over the last two decades, many kinds of self-regulation initiatives have been set-up: quality assurance, accountability, common technical standards. And I think many agencies are complying with that. But as Dorothea Hilhorst, who is a humanitarian aid professor, put in an op-ed, published by The New Humanitarian during the MeToo scandals, the problem is not a lack of standards. It’s a lack of third party enforcement and meaningful sanctions. And so I wonder, maybe we can start with you, Danny. Of course, Oxfam has had a very public battle with safeguarding issues, and that includes a lack of openness, initially, after information about abuse emerged. And so I’m imagining had that information been reported to a governance board rather than internally, would the response have been different? We’ve seen a number of initiatives, as I mentioned, the Humanitarian Quality Assurance Initiative, independent measurements against the [Core] Humanitarian Standards. How well have they worked, if what happened at Oxfam was still able to happen?

Sriskandarajah: When I travel around the sort of humanitarian sector, it’s sort of rare to have those affected populations anywhere near the top tables in our sector. And I think we have to, as a sector, sort of hold ourselves collectively responsible for failing on that front. And it can’t be the excuse, that we’re so distant from people, because we’ve got so much intermediation that we justify its existence, because we say, well, this gives us better quality outcomes. I think this is a great starting point. 

To your sort of framing of it, Heba, I think, yes, before we get to sector-wide initiatives, which I do, and independent initiatives, which I do support, I think each of our institutions also have to ask ourselves: Are we investing sufficiently in high quality feedback loops? Whether that’s around community perceptions on safeguarding and accountability, employee engagement. And you know, we have to do better at this, and it’s cheaper, and easier, and more effective than ever before using, especially digital tools, but not only digital tools, for us to do that. So we can’t even say any longer: “this is too difficult.” 

And part of what we’re trying to do at Oxfam is to invest internally around staff mechanisms, independent mechanisms. And I do think there is a role for more sector-wide initiatives that will be probably more cost effective, and hopefully increase trust. 

My only concern, when I read the recommendation, is that doing things at a sector-wide basis and with independence, might improve assurance for say donors, particularly institutional donors, but I’m not entirely convinced they will necessarily improve the quality of outcomes for the affected population. You know, we create these top down donor led mechanisms that might drive greater assurance. I know that’s not the point of what Patrick and colleagues are saying for why they’re suggesting this but I think we have to be extra careful because it’s almost the more aggregated something becomes, or more cross-sectoral, it becomes, the more susceptible it is to once again being top down. But I welcome both investment within our organisations and institutions, but also more independent sector-wide initiatives.

Aly: So if we take the sector wide initiative, staying with that level, the former UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, Mark Lowcock, had introduced a similar kind of idea, right – an independent commission for what he called voices in crisis conveniently introduced on his way out but anyway – that would issue public reports on the needs prioritised by people in a given crisis; that would then rate the humanitarian response plans on how well they responded to those needs; and then publicly evaluate the humanitarian response. And that proposal didn’t really pick up any steam, even coming from someone in such a position of influence. So Annika, maybe I can come to you, why do you think that didn’t work? And how would this need to be different in order to be palatable, including to UN agencies like yours? 

Sandlund: One was that it wasn’t really consulted. It wasn’t consulted internally with agencies. I’m not sure it was consulted with any of the affected populations themselves. It was top down. I think the other thing was that it didn’t really take into account the strides that have been made in the past five years. I mean, both globally under the IASC, and Results Group there, but also at country level. And I mean, clearly, we have a long way to go. But there are a lot of lessons learned already that could be built upon.

Aly: What are those lessons? 

Sandlund: So for example, we put in a results tracker in terms of accountability. We have, for example, in Iraq, we have a mechanism that is sector-wide, not agency, not sector specific, looking at complaints mechanisms. I think we’ve realised that these complaints mechanisms are actually also useful for safeguarding. Because if they are independent enough, people will report all kinds of issues into it. And that also needs to then be taken into account when it comes to how you design these mechanisms to make sure that they’re safe. I think there are quite a few things that have been sort of put in place by different agencies. And I completely agree that it needs to be system-wide. But still,we can and we should build on what is already there. And then the last one, and this is maybe more personal, I did read the proposal quite a few times. And what it proposed was a process to evaluate processes, right? To evaluate the process around the humanitarian response plan, and then it aggregated it at a higher level. And I’m not saying that’s not a good idea, but you know, will that actually help us improve our results? And again, you’re asking the intermediaries, and it doesn’t ask directly the people affected. So I think there were several reasons for why it sort of failed. The plus-side is that it shone a spotlight on the right issue. And finally, I would say if you open this up, which I really think we should, I think we need to be very prepared for the fact that many people will comment on things that are beyond humanitarian aid. In my experience, what people ask, especially from the UN, is accountability on a completely different level. They want justice; they want accountability for crimes committed towards them; they want us to fight for their rights – all of these things that are sort of beyond humanitarian aid, and the things that we also need to listen to them [about]. We need to make sure that their voices are heard beyond the humanitarian community and beyond what we’re able to offer there. And that also needs to kind of be part of the conversation because otherwise you are asking questions that are maybe not giving people the full experience of really getting their voices heard and being able to highlight what they think is the most important thing for them, and not what we can deliver.

Aly: It is very interesting that some of these processes are so insular, that sometimes they miss the point. But I will note that both of you have kind of said, ‘well, let’s come back to our own agency specific processes’. What’s different about this proposal is that the feedback from affected communities doesn’t go back to the same agency that they are feedbacking on. It goes to an independent body or a board of governance. So I just wanted to clarify: is that something that you are both open to?That really external kind of oversight?

Sriskandarajah: Yes, and I’m saying it’s not either or – it’s both. Depending on why you want feedback, you will end up with very different looking mechanisms. If this is about needs assessment, it might look one way. If it’s about complaints, it needs to look a different way. If it’s about measuring quality of outcome, it might look a third way. And so I think we just have to be clear about why we’re pursuing feedback and I keep coming back to the institutional point because of where I started around paths of least resistance. Working as I have now for three years inside an [international] NGO like Oxfam, for us the vision is how do we lead by example in a realm of control that we have, which is our own governance, our own structure, the way that we work. And can we evolve into something that’s much more interesting, more accountable, more 21st century. And so I’m not saying we don’t need sector-wide initiatives -we almost certainly do, especially around collective assurance and trust and all of those sorts of things – but that shouldn’t stop us from improving our own practice within our own organisations.

Masson: Heba, just to follow up on what Annika was saying: I think her last point was actually exactly the point that I wanted to make based on a lot of feedback we got from our members who feel that they are often put in very difficult situation, where they are asked to collect feedback from communities, because often they are the national implementers. Right, the partners as they’re called. But then the feedback doesn’t have any impact. Because exactly as Annika started to point out, the feedback is usually not confined to what the donor wants to hear. It’s confined to this situation of people, and how they see their future, how they see what they need to be provided with, be it funding, be it expertise, be it support, be it investment. And then the usual response is that ‘Yeah, but that’s not what we do. This is not the programming we do.’ We are saying if we really want to change the aid system, we need to look at triple nexus, not as a way to patch and create bridges between systems, but really as what the system should be. The aid system should look at people and communities and their needs in a holistic way. Not in a way that is sort of boxed-in depending on when and where during your crises or before or after you are seeking, you’re in need of support. And that’s really fundamentally the question. The other question is, again, around power. So having a system-wide element would be great. But is that going to change something? Whether it is internal to agencies, or whether it’s outside? Is it going to change the will to shift the power and to give powers to the community and to listen to what they want. 

Aly: The second proposal in CGD’s research is what they call area-based programming. So, the current coordination model breaks aid up into clusters like shelter, food and so on. And each cluster is then led by the agency mandated to deal with that specific issue. And that agency then identifies people who need that specific type of aid. But the CGD research argues that this model essentially encourages a supply driven approach, based on whatever a specific agency is mandated to do, produce, give. And it leads to separate lists of people who need aid, people who need shelter, and so on – rather than an approach that looks holistically at people in a specific area and what they actually need. And to be frank, at The New Humanitarian we’ve seen in a lot of our reporting a territoriality and competition when it comes to UN agencies because of their mandates. So I was particularly interested in hearing Annika Sundland’s thoughts on this because UNHCR is currently mandated to coordinate situations of displacement. So I asked her if it would be ready to step back, or limit, its coordination role and let others coordinate at the local level instead.

Sandlund: The sort of area-based approach makes a lot of sense. And I think that’s definitely something that it’s worth looking at, and looking at across population groups. So refugees, IDPs, vulnerable host communities, etc. Our greatest revolution in the past five years is the Global Compact on Refugees. And that’s very much about also an area-based approach and making sure that the refugees are supported alongside the host communities – so not specifically the refugees – and looking at bringing in a wider set of partners, not only local actors, but also faith-based organisations, or entities that might have a lot of power and on a different level than we do: private sector, academia, research institutes, etc, etc. So on the refugee side, the Global Compact also does speak to a kind of area-based approach. I do think the cluster system has brought a lot of clarity when it comes to including who coordinates who. Some of that predictability in coordination I actually think is one of the good sides of the clusters. And I think limiting protection cluster in Afghanistan or Syria, Myanmar to a technical normative setting role, I think that just doesn’t get to the heart of protection.

Aly: So Alix, are local NGOs ready to take that kind of role in coordinating a response within a certain area, instead of having UNHCR coordinating refugees and WFP coordinating food?

Masson: If that would be the new way of operating, then here we would actually [be] talk[ing] about [a] shift of power, and we would [be] talk[ing] about localisation. Finally, we would have an international support system that is embedding itself in existing mechanisms, and not coming in and setting up a system disregarding anything that exists already in the country. That will be one example of really what it means to be complimentary, and what it means to trust local leadership. We have seen in a number of countries that, yes, local and national NGOs do have this capacity. And they do it. When there is a crisis, when there is a need, they do coordinate themselves. They are not usually waiting for international actors to come in. Especially in the areas where the needs are. So whether they are ready everywhere, I am not sure. Whether they have the capacity to manage the influx of international agencies coming in their country, that’s also another conversation. And here, I’m referring back to the investment aspect. But where then the investment is on their mechanism to actually help them to grow those mechanisms, with the support of international NGOs and international actors, generally speaking. And not the other way around, where you have international agencies that are coming in and owning the space. So that would be a complete shift. 

Aly: The third proposal focuses on financing humanitarian aid differently, and it suggests that more money should go towards pooled funds at a local level that can be distributed based on objectively identified needs without passing through so many intermediaries. So I asked Danny Sriskandarajah what a shift towards significantly more pooled funds would mean for the future of an organisation like Oxfam GB, which is in fact one of those intermediaries.

Sriskandarajah: So I think it’s the same implication for us as I hope it is for every actor in this system, which is: are we clear about how and where we’re adding value in this system? The issue is that we have created an ecosystem that has far too many intermediaries, there’s too much duplication, and too many links in the chain, which involves some form of extraction, either of overhead resource or of power. And we’re in a deeply sub-optimal system. And so I like the direction of travel in this recommendation. 

When I was a member of the high level panel on humanitarian financing, we ended up coming up with the Grand Bargain. But really what we wanted to do was call it a grand reset, right? We ended up [with] the ‘Let’s make incremental change, get buy-in from the key actors, and then make change’. And here we are, maybe we should have gone for something much more bold, which is around a fundamental reset. We have to see this as a dynamic system that we’re influencing, right? 

What are we doing now – not just to respond to current needs, whether that’s through a cluster system, or an area system, or whatever you want to call it – but what are we also doing to build more resilience into that system, which I hope involves supporting local actors, identifying exactly what form will fit that function, and leaning into that. We’ve all instrumentalised all sorts of actors and say, ‘okay, you’re important because you’re currently doing this’ without paying sufficient attention to saying, ‘well, in 10 years time, how might we want this system to look and what should we be doing now to invest or sort of maximize the chance of that coming to fruition?’ 

Aly: But again, I’m hearing you saying: ‘Yes, we are ready to get out of the way and instead of channeling money, we will focus on other things, i.e. building the resilience of local actors.’

Sriskandarajah: Yes, I think from an Oxfam GB point of view, we’re trying to write ourselves into the picture in a very different way. And we have a responsibility around collecting resources in the UK, from our supporter base. We have a role [in] amplifying voices on global advocacy. But I don’t think we really have a role in local delivery or local interventions. We should be facilitating others. And we’re busy trying to get out of the way in some of those areas. And happily in the Oxfam case, we have a global confederation that I hope will allow us to do that more effectively. 

Aly: I guess where I’m confused is that each of you are kind of saying yes, all these reforms make sense. And yes, we’re happy to do them. And in fact, yes, we are already doing them. And yet, we started the conversation by saying the reforms haven’t had an impact. And we haven’t made as much progress as we should have. So where’s the disconnect? Is it just that you are the – I’m not being facetious, but – the shining stars that are enlightened and seeing things the right way? Or, what am I missing here? Or is it just that it takes time, and we haven’t yet seen the fruits of these efforts?

Masson: We need to change our business model. And the reality is that I’m not convinced that the majority of international actors are ready to change their business model, and are ready to decrease the ecosystem that they have created. If we are talking about efficiency, that will also mean that their ecosystem needs to become much more aid focused, and not humanitarian, development, peace building; and then having one branch for everything, but that they really start looking at their role from a broader aid perspective. That’s a lot of changes for a lot of people. 

At least based on our experiences, there’s a lot of willingness to tweak and to adapt. But the radical change that Danny is talking about, I think this is much more challenging. And this is where it also links to governance, and to have much more diverse and inclusive governance. Where you would have global boards with individuals that are also able to lead that change. And when I say more diversity, it’s also more diversity involving the Global South. I’m not saying, necessarily, affected populations directly, but Global South leaders and actors that are able to bring forward why it makes sense for these organisations to actually change their business model and where they can support investments. 

It’s a shift in this big ecosystem. And then, in parallel, you need to have a shift to start investing in the new phase of that ecosystem. You can’t expect that it will happen overnight. And this is where – for example, we have been talking quite a lot about the Grand Bargain – but this is where imagining that in the next two years we’re going to move things within the Grand Bargain is questionable, right? Because what are we going to be able to move in two years when we see what has moved in five years? And this is where even if we are in the humanitarian sector, where things are supposed to move very fast, reforms are not moving fast. 

Aly: What unlocks that because there’s, from this conversation, a clear willingness to be open minded to different ways of working to these very specific proposals saying ‘yes, that makes a lot of sense’. And yet, we don’t necessarily see that follow on movement. So what’s the blockage there that needs to be unblocked? 

So you made the point about diversity in governance boards that that could be one way of unblocking, because then you have champions at the governance level. And that’s, of course, one of the recommendations. But what else needs to happen for whatever’s holding it back to open up some space? Patrick, did you want to jump in on that?

Saez: We probably need to move from a model that basically measures humanitarian effectiveness in terms of your own capacity to directly deliver to: how good are you at partnering with local actors and empowering them to respond? And I think there’s actually – even though this plan is very, very like-minded – there is a lot of nervousness in the sector around this, and in particular, from humanitarian donors as well, and from the humanitarian part of NGOs or other agencies. Because this is a strategic rethink as to what it means to be humanitarian. 

The sector has spent the past three decades, ever since the Rwanda genocide, improving its direct delivery, improving that quality, making sure that what it was delivering was producing quality outcomes. And now we’re asking the sector to basically stop and rethink: what is actually your unique added value as an international organisation? And making sure that you’re not displacing whatever capacity and power varies at the local level. And that challenges basically the current definition – although there isn’t one officially – of what humanitarian action is, it’s quite fundamental. 

And I think that change will also need to come from donors who, because actually, there’s no funding that’s labeled, capacity building or working with local actors at the moment, because that’s not seen as delivering immediately visible humanitarian results. So there needs to be a shift there. 

And I agree with Alix, that maybe the next two years of the Grand Bargain are not going to produce change. But if we could at least reach an agreement on this, basically, that it is probably time now for international actors to have a bit of a rethink as to what their role should be – not everywhere, because as Annika was saying there are places where you will still need that excellent international humanitarian capacity. So how do you maintain that while at the same time not applying that as a one-size-fits-all? Building your capacity to analyse, where you will need to step back a little bit and work much more with local actors, as opposed to working more directly because basically you are in a country where that’s the only solution. 

Sriskandarajah: For me, I’ve been three years in this job, I think probably the single most important thing we’ve been able to do at Oxfam, which we’re trying to do now still, is change the key performance indicators of success at Oxfam Great Britain. And we’ve been working with our trustees on measures where we start with what sources of funding are we most legitimately and credibly placed to secure. Are we crowding others out by going in and bidding for funds? And so we’ve come to focus largely on unrestricted income from the UK, which is where we are and where we are credible. Then proportions of money that have been moved, but we’re adding other metrics to that. 

So in our own dashboard here, we’re starting to build in measures around the quality of that funding to local partners. Is it long term? Is it flexible? And, right back where we started, what are the feedback scores? Are we collecting net promoter scores from the partners that we’re working with, so that we’re getting qualitative indicators of the nature [of our work]? Now, if we do that well, and more organisations like ours roll that out, eventually, that’s the sort of stuff that I hope will have more profound implications or changes. It’s just not going to be particularly visible, and it’s not going to happen overnight.

Sundland: I do think we have to recognise there has been some progress made. It’s not all bleak. And it’s not all completely just tweaking around the edges. I realise a lot needs to be done but I don’t think we would have got here without the Grand Bargain process. So just, Danny, for those who started it in the beginning I think don’t be completely disheartened because I do think that progress is being made.

Aly: I want to come to your point Annika that actually there are changes happening. And often, when we talk about reforming the humanitarian sector, there are two points of view. One is these top down frameworks and mechanisms, the Grand Bargain being one of them. And then the other is looking at where grassroots organic examples of change are happening and how they can be supported and scaled. So I wonder if just reflecting on what has worked and where there has been progress you could give some insights on what will be the most effective engine for humanitarian reform moving forward? Will it be Grand Bargain 2.0, which, in my sense, doesn’t have the same momentum as its predecessor? Or will it come from elsewhere? What’s working, that will be the future of reform in the coming years? Annika, maybe we can start with you.

Sandlund: I think that the Black Lives Matter movement and MeToo movement actually shows the power of the grassroots in a way that we haven’t maybe fully understood within the aid industry. So my hope is really that it would come from the beneficiaries – that the push for change will come from them, and that we would listen to them. But I realised that’s not going to be enough, there also needs to be a push from above and from our governance systems. At least for the UN agencies, we do have the same Member States and our governing board, so it shouldn’t be so difficult. I realise that’s not the same for all actors around the table. 

Aly: Alix, what do you think will be the main engine for humanitarian reform moving forward?

Masson: I want to believe that more voices from the Global South are also what’s going to change and having them more present in the conversation and not in the Global North-led conversation, but in having their own conversation. And we see that this is happening more and more. 

Aly: Danny? 

Sriskandarajah: Disintermediation, everywhere we look in all aspects of our life, systems are being disrupted. And yet if you take the official development assistance system, we’ve got taxpayer money going through development ministries, through international organisations, through international NGOs, and eventually to local actors. And it’s just cumbersome and nonsensical in so many ways. And, wherever we look, people are innovating, or claiming or reclaiming power. We can’t put this genie back in the bottle. So we just need to quickly adapt and evolve our system, so it really delivers impacts for the people we’re trying to serve. We can’t stick our head in the sand because every other system around us from the way we book travel, to the way that we watch entertainment – the sort of legacy institutions that we once thought were all powerful and could never change are being dismantled; and my worry is the big institutions of this relatively new built sector are at risk of being dismantled very quickly if we don’t adapt.

Aly: We’re going to leave it there but you can hear the full conversation and read more about each of the recommendations on CGD’s website. We’ll put the link in our show notes, visit You’ll also find our own article summarising the reactions to these proposals. 

I know it can be hard to make sense of these wide-ranging conversations, but my take-away, for what it’s worth, is that for international aid agencies and donors to take steps towards some of more architectural changes to the way humanitarian response takes place, they have to redefine what success looks like – that it’s no longer about how much money you raise or how big your operational delivery is, but how you set those at the local level up for success. 

Before we close, I want to invite our podcast producer Marthe van der Wolf into the studio to share some of the feedback from listeners. Hi Marthe! 

Marthe van der Wolf: Hi Heba. 

Aly: So, in our last episode, we heard from Joel Charny and Ashley Jackson that international aid agencies in Afghanistan had positioned themselves too closely to one side of the conflict – the NATO forces. And I’m curious how listeners reacted to that? 

Van der Wolf: For the most part, it seems they agreed. A listener associated with Chatham House said “belligerents to the conflict funding international NGOs had harmed their ability to deliver impartial and neutral humanitarian aid.” 

Nick van Praag, director of Ground Truth Solutions, said the discussion was really helping move forward the debate about how to do humanitarianism better. 

Another aid worker wrote in saying “I hope it spurs some proper reflection in NGOs.” 

Yet another described the contemporary aid architecture of UN agencies, NGOs and private contractors as ‘simply the soft power manifestation of neo-imperialism’. 

Aly: It’s so interesting to see how often conversations in the sector come back to questions of power, and whatever you want to call it – imperialism, colonialism, etc. And actually that links to some of the more critical feedback that we also received. Tell us about that. 

Van der Wolf: Yes, we were essentially challenged on centering the voices of the Global South. Rosemary Cairns wrote in to say she wanted to hear the perspectives and experiences of community-based organisations in Afghanistan. Themrise Khan, an independent researcher and policy analyst, tweeted that “we only hear what the West thinks about what went wrong for itself. Not what Afghanistan or other countries perceive the West’s wrongs against them.”

Aly: I think that’s a totally fair point and a reminder that we as journalists have our own work to do in representing as wide a range of voices as possible. And actually that’s some of the work we’re doing internally now in reflecting on how we can decolonise our journalism. So thank you Themrise for that feedback.

And thank you Marthe!

Van der Wolf: Thank you. 

Aly: If you’ve got thoughts on this episode, we’d love to hear them. Are these recommendations for humanitarian reform practical? Do they move the conversation forward? Do they address past blockages in humanitarian reform? And what else should future humanitarian reform efforts keep in mind? Write to us or send us a voice note at [email protected]

On the next episode of Rethinking Humanitarianism, we look at progress made in the humanitarian aid sector towards greater diversity, equity, and inclusion, more than a year after the worldwide movement for racial justice. We’re releasing new episodes every two weeks. You can subscribe to this podcast on all the major podcasting apps. Please share it with your networks and friends and colleagues to help others find it. 

This podcast is a production of The New Humanitarian. This episode was produced by Marthe van der Wolf. And I’m your host, Heba Aly. 

Today, we leave you with some spoken word by Palestinian poet Dana Dajani, who – with these words – summed up the discussions Humanitarian Leadership conference earlier this year aimed at reshaping the humanitarian eco-system. 

Thank you for listening to Rethinking Humanitarianism. 

Dana Dajani: Be a mediator, not a rescuer. Share stories of resilience, not images of destruction. Pay respect to leaders, future, past and current. Preserve and share Indigenous knowledge. Passed down through oral tradition, over generations of living in close contact with nature, specific to local environments. It will improve living conditions there. Indigenous knowledge is no oxymoron, informal XX alternative, ancient, inapplicable. Quite the opposite, it is dynamic, emergent. It is the ongoing process of learning to adapt new ways, and innovative solutions to current issues based on data we have collected through our lived experiences. 

Ubuntu, collaborative, collective, working mindset, improvisational and inclusive to challenge development, transform it. 

Keep in mind, those with the problems are usually a few steps ahead in identifying solutions. So let go of quick fixes, let go of orders given, top down. The voices to lead us are present on the ground, they understand the landscapes of their issues. We honor their intelligence, their dignity, their agency, and wisdom and pledge to support them by providing the assistance desired, to implement their own solutions.


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