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#InDevelopment: Investing Today for the Crisis Tomorrow- the Challenge from Istanbul

To celebrate the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit, we invited global experts to contribute to our #InDevelopment blog series and investigate cutting edge themes and the future of humanitarian assistance. In our final blog, Jane Cocking, a senior leader in the humanitarian sector, reflects on the Grand Bargain agreed at the World Humanitarian Summit and its implications for the international humanitarian community.

The yawning gap between the amount of humanitarian aid needed globally and what is currently provided needs to be filled by empowering and enabling national and local organisations to deliver it. Political commitments made at the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul must be turned into practical action.

World leaders and heads of state pose for a family photograph on the first day of the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, Turkey:

Today 125 million people are in need of humanitarian aid but very many of them will not receive what they are entitled to. Most funding is delivered through an overstretched international system while the potential of national governments and civil society is ignored - only 0.2% of international funds are channelled directly to local NGOs. At the World Humanitarian Summit donors and aid agencies agreed a Grand Bargain which included commitment to a target of 25% of humanitarian funding for local front line responders by 2020. Achieving this means supporting strong, practical organisational development for those who are closest to people in need.

The mantra of capacity building is good has echoed around the humanitarian sector for many years and so why have these good intentions remained unfulfilled and what needs to be done?

Seen from the national and local perspective
In the aftermath of a disaster, government and non-government, national and local organisations are often seized upon by the international community and offered funding. They know the environment and they have the contacts, however, they are often overwhelmed by the barrage of expectation. What the head of the National Disaster Management Agency or the manager of a local NGO needs is investment before the disaster happens. They need the chance to build their organisation, develop their identity and above all to pay their running costs when a crisis with its associated surge in funding is not happening. Too often the definition of capacity building has been endless workshops and mapping exercises imposed by well-meaning international actors. This approach needs to stop. It has to be replaced by realistic, coherent national disaster management plans with clear budgets and long term investment from both government and private sector supporters.

Rescue supplies delivered to Haiti during the 2010 earthquake:

Seen from the international perspective
National and local organisations are often seen as too small, too chaotic and especially during conflict-related crises, too sympathetic to one part of the community. In the heat of an acute humanitarian crisis good intentions are set aside in the intense desire to push through and get on with the important business of saving lives. There is also a subsidiary threat to some agencies as many of them are identified in their home markets as primarily emergency responders and if they are not seen to be in the news on the front line, then their supporters may withdraw their enthusiasm and their subscriptions. These international players need to take bold, context driven decisions. In complex crises driven by conflict their independence and capacity has significant added value and they should focus their efforts here. In vulnerable middle income countries they should invest in building partnerships outside of the moment of crisis. When a disaster happens they need to see themselves not as the first responders but as conduits for the generosity of their supporters; passing funds and technical support to their established partners in a way that appeals to their supporters because it is fast, efficient and – to modify the old development phrase – lets those affected by disaster save themselves.

What everyone needs to do
Even with these new approaches, the international, national and local communities will still be running down parallel tracks if they are not bound together more strongly by common humanitarian principles and standards - and are seen to be so. There is still an assumption by many that localising response means accepting lower quality and that international agencies embody top notch standards - although sometimes little could be further from the truth. The recent Core Humanitarian Standard (CHS) was developed to be demonstrably achievable by humanitarian agencies of all origins and sizes. The community needs a light touch, simple means of measuring and communicating performance against the CHS so that national and local players can hold their heads up and say we are just as good as they are - and we do it with fewer Land Cruisers!

UN Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon during a press conference at the World Humanitarian Summit:

The target set by the Grand Bargain is an ambitious one and deserves applause. The agreement made in Istanbul recognises that just sending money to national and local organisations is not enough and that those closest to the ground need to be stronger to deliver the help that is needed. This means realistic plans and long term investment to back them up so that they can be sustainable whether there is a current crisis or not. Nobody would imagine that all an ambulance service needs is money for the times when vehicles are rushing down the road with blue lights flashing, and the same is true of national and local humanitarian agencies. The international humanitarian community will need to change to be more aware of when it needs to step forward to respond to people in crisis and when a lighter touch approach is called for, enabling and supporting from the sidelines. This new approach has to be bound together with a strong commitment to high quality assistance, whoever is offering the aid - it is only then that we can truly say that the humanitarian system has been transformed in the way the world in the 21st century demands.

Investing in local and national humanitarian capacity means changing the international humanitarian community; but if bold decisions are taken now, then in the coming decades there will be many fewer people left desperate and without help when disaster strikes.


InDevelopment May contributor: Jane Cocking is a global humanitarian expert.

Jane Cocking is a senior leader in the humanitarian sector – serving most recently as Oxfam’s Humanitarian Director. She has been at the heart of many of the initiatives to improve the quality and accountability of the sector and has successfully influenced Governments, the UN and national and international bodies. Prior to her 19 years with Oxfam, Jane worked with Save the Children and in the UK’s Overseas Development Administration (now DFID).


InDevelopment is Palladium’s blog series exploring emerging, cutting-edge and profound themes in global development. You’ll hear from our global experts and guests every two weeks. For more from Palladium’s International Development work follow us on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and at #InDevelopment.