Aid groups need a major shake-up to meet the challenges of a fractured world
Humanitarian assistance is too siloed, inefficient and expensive to achieve lasting impact for billions of people in need
It is just over three years since the “Grand Bargain” was struck.
(theguardian)—-It was signed by the world’s major donors and aid providers, promising structural reform and committed to getting more money directly through to local and national organisations. But the deal has seen little change. The system remains dominated by a familiar group of UN agencies and international NGOs. Progress is at a glacial pace.
A lot of criticism for the lack of change is aimed at the UN system – much of it justified. But NGOs need to look at themselves too. Many carry out life-saving work often in some of the world’s most challenging places. This spectrum of aid organisations has sometimes been called an ecosystem , drawing resilience from its diversity. However, the world is evolving – not always in good ways – and so must our response.
Increasingly, poverty is concentrated in pockets of protracted crises and fragility – conflict causes 80% of humanitarian needs. The Democratic Republic of the Congo has more than 13 million people in need of aid. Syria has a similar number. Yemen, Iraq, South Sudan and Somalia are among the most unsafe places to be a human being – particularly if you are a woman or a child.
More than two billion people live in the most insecure and fragile parts of the world.
If we are to truly Leave No One Behind in delivering the sustainable development goals, these are the places we need to reach. To do this we must reform the aid ecosystem, which is out of balance
Humanitarian and development assistance is siloed, inefficient and expensive, falling short of achieving lasting impact at scale. There are often too many small to medium-sized NGOs that are too similar, competing with local and national organisations across too many geographies, rather than offering something different.
It has long been recognised that local agencies, embedded in communities and with lower overhead costs, are best placed to deliver aid and programmes where they can. Part of the justification for funding international agencies has been that donors have found it hard to monitor the results of such organisations. But sophisticated evaluation mechanisms mean the reasons not to fund those agencies directly are diminishing
But such evaluation is harder to achieve in fragile contexts. There are also likely to remain programmes of a scale that it may not be possible for local organisations to implement. It is here that international NGOs have a vital role: enabling impact at a greater scale, addressing the root causes of crises related to long-held grievances, weak governance and inequitable economic growth, particularly where local capacity has been undermined – and generating opportunities to replicate successful approaches elsewhere.
Crucially, NGOs need to be of sufficient size. Small to medium-sized agencies end up duplicating each other and competing for work if they lack resources to meet the operating costs of running complex programmes in volatile environments.
We need to move towards a situation where fewer, bigger international NGOs have the scale and resources to enable positive change and deliver services in the most fragile environments; they should also be complementary to national capacity. Not only would this reduce competition between international and national organisations and free up more resources for the latter, it would make it easier for organisations to break away from unhelpful labels such as “humanitarian” and “development”.
But donors will need to change too. Donors have increasingly tended to offer funding based on applications from consortiums. However, those consortiums, each comprised of NGOs with their own brands, logos, support functions and operating costs, are formed primarily to provide the best access to funding – not necessarily for reasons of efficiency or because they represent the best chance of achieving lasting impact.
Donors should set out a “Grand Challenge” for NGOs. Mindful of power imbalances and with the objective of freeing up resources for grassroots groups, they should provide a fund to encourage consolidation in a more permanent, structural way.
That would mean greater efficiency and effectiveness, enabling the direction of more resources towards innovation, longer-term funding and to local organisations. Consolidation would also drive a change of roles in the sector – getting international agencies out of the way of national organisations and creating NGOs that can deliver large, complex, catalytic programmes in the most fragile and volatile places, through a more efficient and coordinated overall aid architecture.
It is clear that the current pace is too slow for the people living in crisis. Consolidation could kickstart that change.