The humanitarian system on the high wire: a year on the road with The State of the Humanitarian System

On 7 September 2022 in Nairobi, ALNAP launched the fifth edition of our State of the Humanitarian System (SOHS) report, our independent longitudinal assessment of humanitarian performance that was first published back in 2008. Since then, at over 50 launch events and tailored briefings across the globe, we’ve been having conversations about where the system is at and where it needs to go.

This year-long discussion has been as revealing as the production of the report itself. It has allowed us to bounce insights within and between parts of the humanitarian system — a system that is constantly evolving, and that is contemplating its future.

Previous editions of the report have prompted reflection on whether the system is broke or broken (2015), and whether it is shifting quickly enough to keep up with a rapidly changing world (2018).

This time, donors and agencies alike were grappling with the consequences of maturing reform agendas amidst an ever more challenging geopolitical climate. The dominant theme of the discussion emerging from this backdrop was that the system was caught in a set of precarious balancing acts as it tried to prioritise resources, walk a tightrope on principles, shift power, and share the burden with others.

Balancing the age-old pull between reigning in and expanding the humanitarian remit

If there was one word we heard more than any other in our conversations, it was prioritisation. As the Ukraine war and global inflation placed enormous pressures on both the domestic and international aid environment and on operational capacity, a large number of agencies and donors we spoke to worried both ethically and practically about which people and which needs to respond to, and how to prioritise.

We saw familiar disagreements between those wanting to push back against the ever-expanding definition of ‘humanitarian need’ and those more willing to embrace an expansion of the humanitarian role. Some want to see more attention given to the responsibilities of the diplomatic and development sectors in tackling the causes of humanitarian need, while others see the expanding humanitarian remit as part of the job requirement for operating in the most difficult, protracted crises, where the priorities of crisis affected people often go beyond basic life saving assistance.

But regardless of their stance, most agreed that resources are stretched in ways beyond what the sector can handle in the years to come. This makes certain changes absolutely imperative: a more diverse funding base, smarter ways of working, and deeper thinking about prioritisation decisions, including those that are more inclusive of communities.

Walking the tightrope in an increasing hostile world

As attacks on aid workers increased and the space for humanitarian action shrank, the SOHS reflected a system that was questioning the meaning and application of its principles in conflicts and ‘politically estranged’ settings. At the start of the research we’d expected interest in these questions to be limited to specialists, but in fact delivery pressures have made humanitarian principles a critical operational issue for most of our audiences, including local and national actors.

Agencies and donors alike were keen to highlight their efforts to maintain principled action. They pointed out that the delicacy of these decisions, negotiations and advocacy meant that performance was perhaps more nuanced than the available evidence suggested. Nonetheless, the real-world meaning of ‘neutrality’ was hotly debated, particularly in the light of the Ukraine response and within approaches to localisation.

Shifting power: The failure of the humanitarian system to localise or make progress on putting people at the centre

As the international humanitarian system feels increasingly under pressure to deliver, at the same time it is also making little progress in shifting responsibility and power to local actors and communities. Unsurprisingly, AAP and localisation arose frequently at SOHS panel events and as a requested topic for tailored briefings.

Two statistics in particular gathered a lot of attention: that nearly 50% of all IHA over a three-year period went directly to just three UN agencies; and that direct funding to local and national actors declined over the same period, to 1.2%. Many international agencies we spoke with felt that the picture was more positive on indirect funding, and that their own agency was doing better than the average when it came to passing funding to local and national actors. At the same time, local and national actors confirmed our finding that the quality of partnerships, and equality within partnerships, were of equal importance to them in an effort to move away from a system of subcontracted internationally designed programming towards locally-rooted approaches that genuinely shift power.

Similarly, the SOHS found evidence of a mismatch between efforts to improve AAP and modest progress on meaningful accountability, reflecting a widening gap between the expectations crisis affected people have for their own agency in responses, and the opportunities afforded by agencies.

These topics more than any other provoked a wide range of discussions about the system’s ability to engage in transformative change. There were concerns from international agencies that increased donor reporting and compliance requirements conflicted with donor commitments on localisation, and many felt that donors were not walking the talk when it came to delivering on the flexible funding needed to be more responsive to communities. Advocates for both localisation and AAP also debated whether reform efforts were more effective when focused on country-level initiatives or in targeting prohibitive HQ policies.

More so than in localisation circles, among AAP advocates there was a sense of renewed attention and optimism, perhaps prompted by high level leadership initiatives that were kickstarted or developed over the past year. A new window of opportunity to shift the balance of power could be emerging.

Spreading the burden and diversifying the funding base

Across the board, our audiences talked about the need to look outside the international humanitarian system for funding and capacity. The SOHS showed that humanitarian funding flows remained consistent in recent years despite cuts by individual donors such as the UK. But this funding base is increasingly reliant on a handful of donors, and is therefore extremely vulnerable to political regime change or other drivers of budget cuts. We were asked a number of times where the private sector was in all this: very good, pertinent questions that are difficult to answer with the data that is currently reported at a global level. And while we were able to offer a broad picture of other sources of financial support, such as global remittance figures, there was similarly little data to tell us how well targeted this is to the populations served by humanitarian agencies.

On looking outside the sector to address the capacity required to respond to escalating needs, there were many questions about the humanitarian-development-peace ‘nexus’: whether work on this major policy issue had ultimately failed, whether it was forcing humanitarians to compromise on principles, and whether humanitarian efforts to work with development and peace counterparts weren’t being repaid. In our briefing to World Bank Group staff, country-level examples of the mutual ‘illiteracy’ between humanitarian actors and the Bank came up frequently, as well as promising efforts to reduce this. At our launch events in India, the Philippines and Bangladesh, audiences noted that government-led disaster response systems were absent in our research. And many local organisations pointed out the huge volume of ‘mutual aid’ / community-led support that people affected by crisis engage in for themselves, which is rarely reflected in international aid narratives. While we made some effort to get a better picture of these wider systems of support, seeking a better balance between an assessment of the international humanitarian system and a better understanding of its place within, and connection to, a wider set of systems will be key to the next edition of the report.

What we didn’t hear about

While there was more than enough to talk about in our briefings and launch events, we were surprised by some of the issues that didn’t feature as prominently in the range of challenges and opportunities the system is trying to balance between.

We started our SOHS research in early 2020 just as the COVID-19 pandemic was taking hold. Deep in lockdown, we expected it to be a major episode that would frame our report’s findings and dominate the discussion for years to come. Instead, the humanitarian sector seemed very ready to move on from its pandemic response; there were few questions or comments about it, other than it being a missed localisation opportunity and a clear example of the decolonisation issue in terms of inequitable access to vaccines.

Similarly, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and subsequent global protests in the summer of 2020 we expected more interest in what our report had to say about the system’s work on diversity, equity and decolonisation. But there were very few questions about this, even in briefings focused on localisation. There is plenty of room for speculation on how the composition, consciousness, and comfort levels of our audiences may have inhibited such discussions.

There was also a clear divergence between the concerns of crisis affected people in our focus group discussions and the concerns of humanitarian practitioner audiences. Understanding whether humanitarian assistance was going to the right people, and the related issues of corruption and aid diversion were the biggest concerns for crisis affected people in multiple countries. But aside from discussing how fiduciary risk limits humanitarian operations and shapes decision-making, most of our audiences seemed less concerned with reflecting on these themes and how to address the perceptions of aid diversion we heard from communities. This lack of interest perhaps also explains the wider evidence gap in evaluating aid diversion.

Finally, the topic of climate change was noticeably absent in the briefings and launch discussions we held in many Global North capitals but was noticeably present in launch events and talks in Kenya, India, Ethiopia, Bangladesh and the Philippines.

What our discussions told us about where the system is at, and where it’s heading

Our briefings and launch events showed that the humanitarian sector is brimming with people concerned for the future and wanting to stand in solidarity with people affected by crisis: people who are trying to ask the right questions and learn along the way. Two aspects of these conversations stood out from the discussions after previous SOHS editions. The first was that we saw agreement that the system was on a more precarious high-wire than ever, but also a lack of consensus on what to do about it — what was needed to ethically and practically balance demands, and how humanitarians should be working with other social safety nets.

A second difference for this year’s report was the pronounced pragmatism. Across the sector we met and heard from people who are tired of haggling over definitions and change processes, and who are keen to get things done. Their vision for the future of humanitarian action may not be a uniform one, but they share the same energetic focus on what can be practically achieved. The next edition of the SOHS will report on the results of this pragmatic turn and what it means for a system in the balance. We have some guesses about where we might be going, and some hopes of our own, which we’ll share next week.