A findings' wish list for the next edition of the State of the Humanitarian System

Over the past year, ALNAP held conversations across the humanitarian sector and beyond on where the system is at and where it’s going.

At the end of this ten-month series of discussions about the SOHS, one of the participants in our last roundtable asked us:

“Knowing what you’ve learned from all these discussions, what would you write differently if you were writing the SOHS now?”

So, as ALNAP looks ahead to the next edition of the SOHS, the authors of the 2022 edition reflect on what are:

a) the approaches that the next edition’s authors should bear in mind, and b) the findings that we hope to see in the next report.

Six approaches to consider for the next SOHS

1. Look outside the system.

The State of the Humanitarian System project aims to provide a learning and accountability function for the international humanitarian system through a regular assessment of performance. While we heard repeatedly from audiences that this function still has value, thinking about crises and the wider world in terms of donors and recipients is increasingly outmoded and irrelevant and seeing the international humanitarian system in isolation limits our ability to understand the wider complex systems of support and strain that are vital for the people humanitarian action aims to serve. These concerns with the ‘systems outside the system’ have been growing louder since the 2012 SOHS edition. We tried to address this in the 2022 edition with a short chapter on what these other systems look like and what measures we could get for their size. But much more is needed, and ALNAP will need to re-think how to understand and reflect this wider whole and better situate the performance of the international system within it.

2. Find what’s working well.

We worried a lot about the ‘negativity bias’ of our research sources and how to avoid this in the report. Humanitarian response is by nature an imperfect endeavour that is bound to fall short in the face of the suffering it seeks to alleviate and its potentially expanded remit in protracted crises. Humanitarians are good at debating and documenting the failures and so we end up talking a lot about what isn’t working very well in humanitarian action. But we need to learn from the positives as well as the negatives – we heard a lot of requests for more specific examples of good practices and, if we could start the research over again, would do more to seek these out and analyse the factors for success , so they can be a beacon for others seeking change and improvement in the sector.

3. Strike a good balance between context and the global picture.

The SOHS is a report on the overall system, and attempts to draw together its core findings by abstracting from thousands of data points from the experiences of hundreds of organisation across dozens of countries. But the performance of humanitarian action is a story that plays out in real places and points in time, and is therefore always embedded in specific contexts that shape what happens. The in-country case studies have always been a core part of the SOHS methodology but we hope in future editions of the report ALNAP is able to bring the contextual realities of humanitarian action more to the fore, particularly so that its findings have more resonance for local and national actors, including crisis affected communities themselves.

4. Remember that the world won’t stand still while you write the report.

Every edition of the SOHS includes a small flexible research budget to take account of crises or events that occur late in the research process, to help the writing team reflect early learning from these events in the report. For the 2022 edition, the blockade in Tigray, the earthquake in Haiti, and the Taliban take over in Afghanistan came late in data collection and were reflected through a handful of key informant interviews, while the Ukraine conflict began 2 months into our write up of the report. There’s always a temptation to reflect these events, but it’s also important to remember that the real impacts and learning about what they’ve meant for the system will tend to come much later.

5. Keep trying to plug perennial data gaps, but be realistic about what you can achieve.

Outcome effectiveness, efficiency, the impacts of data and technology uptake on humanitarian performance, the role and scale of private sector engagement in crises: These are all common topics that audiences want more evidence on to understand the performance of humanitarian action, which suffer from a lack of available data. For the 2022 edition, we tried to plug some of these gaps - a big lesson learned is how much resource and time is needed to do that properly – so advice for the next edition is to pick fewer gaps and try to answer those more targeted questions really well.

6. Focus on the process as much as the product.

The last year has reinforced for us that the conversations are as important as the publication. Releasing a big report might feel like the end of the process, but in fact it’s a mid-point in an ongoing learning cycle. Events and briefings are often considered as tools for a one-way dissemination of findings, rather than the foundation for dialogue - but the richness of the engagement and debate over the past year with actors from multiple contexts and organisations has shown that they are a collective learning opportunity, including with the aid recipient communities we consulted at the outset of the research. We’ve had our findings challenged, substantiated, nuanced and reframed in these discussions. The insights from each conversation have fed into the next dialogue and have yielded different and sometimes surprising takeaways depending on where and when and with whom we are talking. We hope that the next edition will be a continuation of this cycle.

Five hopes for the next edition of the State of the Humanitarian System

Our hope as action-oriented researchers, is of course that our ongoing process of evaluating the humanitarian system will document some real change in that system. We don’t want better evidence for its own sake, we want a better system – and this was strongly echoed by the aid recipients we discussed the report with. So, we hope that as we discuss the next edition of the SOHS in three years’ time, we’ll be talking about some exciting evidence of radical shifts. Building on our last blog which highlighted the issues which we heard were – and weren’t- keeping our audiences up at night, here are six shifts we hope to be reading about in the 2026 edition of the SOHS.

1. The humanitarian system is an effective part of a collective global effort to tackle the effects of climate change.

The 2022 SOHS report notes the rise of the climate crisis up the humanitarian policy agenda, but also found that current approaches are fragmented and that humanitarians generally lack a more strategic engagement with multi-layered risk and new ways of working. Climate mitigation, adaptation, disaster risk and humanitarian response too often remained in technical and institutional bubbles. The discussion on how it fits with funding and action on disaster risk and losses and damages was still live. Anticipatory action, was gathering momentum, but while the idea of acting ahead of a crisis was increasingly mainstream, the funding was marginal. In the next edition of the report, we hope to see the sector rising to the immense challenges of the climate crisis, working closely with other local, national and international institutions involved in disaster risk and response to share evidence and approaches to address the impacts of accelerating and complex risks.

2. Humanitarian action is routinely connected to longer term support and solutions

The 2022 edition documented how there had been some policy progress on the now triple nexus (humanitarian-development-peace), but that putting this into practice was hindered by obstacles in institutional thinking, funding and operating, particularly in politically constrained settings. In the 2026 edition, we’d like to see evidence of country strategies and programme portfolios which think long-term by default in countries experiencing protracted crises. When the next SOHS is published it will be seven years since the ‘triple nexus’ was agreed, so we’d like to see some evidence of the ‘collective outcomes’ that its signatories sought to achieve and greater engagement with local approaches to nexus programming (?).

3. The system is more diverse in both who gives, and who receives, humanitarian funding.

We hope to see a more global responsibility sharing, where funding for humanitarian action comes from a more diverse group of sources – both public and private – and is channelled to a more diverse group of organisations. Our findings for the 2022 SOHS painted a worrying picture of increasing funding precarity in the face of a growing financing gap. Global response was reliant on a handful of institutions: around a half of funding came from just five donors and the same proportion went to just three agencies. A system balanced on such a small and concentrated base has little resilience, especially in the face of financial downturn and escalating crises. We’d like to see a wider base of support and action being enabled, incentivitised and embraced, including by reframing the narrative of humanitarian action from discretionary overseas aid, to a necessary global public good.

4. Decision-making power is being shifted to local actors and to crisis affected communities

The role of local actors and voice of crisis affected communities have been on the radar of the humanitarian system since the first edition of the SOHS in 2010 – but recent years have seen a significant rise in ambition, which the international system has failed to meet. After initial improvements between the 2015 and 2018 report on aid recipient responses to questions on communication and feedback, the 2022 report saw a backsliding of these results. Qualitative data revealed a growing frustration from communities that when they do provide feedback, agencies are not responsive to their inputs. Meanwhile, direct funding to local organisations has fallen since the World Humanitarian Summit and many local actors expressed dismay with the version of localisation that international agencies were pursuing, which kept decision-making concentrated in the hands of few and relegated local actors to sub-contractors with little influence.

Yet, since the publication of the last report we have seen increased high-level rhetoric on the importance of putting people at the centre of humanitarian action, and new efforts by donors to put their localisation efforts into policy and address stubborn barriers. There are a number of win-win solutions that can simultaneously support more locally led humanitarian response and accountability to affected populations, including flexible funding and adaptive management systems, working across the HDP nexus in more holistic ways to meet the priorities of people in protracted crisis, and engaging with difficult questions of racism that hold the system back from respecting the knowledge and agency of local actors and communities in their own context. We hope to see efforts in all of these areas in time by the next edition of the report having a tangible impact on power structures in the system.

5. The system is able to track the outcomes of its actions, and learn from this.

The transparency and quality of data on efficiency and effectiveness has improved significantly, enabling better decision making on how resources are allocated. The quality of evidence and data in the humanitarian system has certainly improved since ALNAP first released the pilot SOHS study in 2010 – but there is plenty of room for improvement, particularly when it comes to the absence of collective, comparable measures on efficiency and outcome effectiveness. Recent efforts to monitor commitments for reform, such as the Grand Bargain monitoring process, have placed a greater focus on data but have not addressed issues with comparability or quality, which has potentially led to competing narratives within the sector on how well agencies are doing against a range of issues, particularly localisation. There’s value here in focusing on quality over quantity and streamlining large sets of reporting indicators, while also encouraging reporting to system-wide repositories like FTS.

The five hopes/findings we’ve outlined above may be familiar – many were long and well rehearsed even before they made headlines at the World Humanitarian Summit. The next edition of the SOHS will come a decade on from the WHS, and the imperative to realise them for increasing numbers of people in need of humanitarian assistance is only getting greater. In the 5th edition of the SOHS we asked: is the system fit for the future? We suggested that making it so would take both deep humility and high ambition on part of the international system - a fierce commitment to upholding and delivering on the promise of effective global support for the people most impacted by crises, but a radical openness to what that looks like as part of a 21st century international social contract. We’ve seen in our conversations over the past year that there are many individuals and organisations who have the appetite and the ideas to drive this change. We’d invite you to continue engaging with ALNAP in our dialogue and research about the next edition of the SOHS, to share the ways of thinking, the evidence and your hopes for the findings you would like to be reading in it.

Explore the findings from our last State of the Humanitarian System report

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