Moving stuff in difficult places, and what we can learn from this for Brexit

Over the past months I had the privilege to evaluate logistics responses in two of the major crises of our time, Syria and South Sudan. The experiences could not have been more different. While both regimes share a certain liking for imposing strict standards and rules, the effects are markedly different. In Syria, rules and regulations for the importation of humanitarian goods are applied consistently if strictly, and when actors make an effort to inform themselves they can use them to their advantage – as their strict application can be relied upon, favouring the prepared. In South Sudan on the other hand, rules and regulations appear to be used more randomly. The difference seems to lie in the application. While in Syria, it is consistent and therefore can be ‘relied upon’, in South Sudan it is inconsistent and not applied in an efficient manner. The result is obvious – while despite open conflict and international conflict in Syria humanitarian goods get into the country almost as easily as in any country at peace, in South Sudan it is even a nightmare to ship stuff within government territory. This goes to show that one cannot equal authoritarian regimes with diffiulties in providing aid – at least as far as getting things in are concerned. Rather, the deciding factor is the strength of the administration. So, to learn from this for Brexit which seems to slowly shape itself into a potential humanitarian crisis in Europe, rules are not the problem but how efficiently they are applied – and how well its subjects are prepared for them. Food for thought…..

Driving change, differently.

Very recently I have been venturing into corporate social responsibility work in agricultural products. While this is somewhat outside my core expertise I am thoroughly enjoying the experience and it gives me a lot of thought about aid systems (and development without aid). I have now spent some time training young extension workers in a Southern African country on two occasions and just have to write about how optimistic this makes me for the future of this region. I have encountered extremely smart individuals that think so easily outside the box that it is mind-boggling. They have no hesitation to say what they think, and come up with all sorts of good ideas and insights and perspective that are just so important to drive change in their country. They are genuinely committed to improving lives, and while they work for a commercial company which some of the more purist of my peers would put up their nose at, they will be as much drivers of change as those working in development ‘proper’. And you know what, working in the private sector, they actually represent the power to just drive such change. Their impact will be across the country on hundreds of farms, they will over the years change attitudes and practices, bit by bit and in line with corporate policy, but change they will them. So as far as I am concerned there is nothing wrong with that – this is as much development as is aid programmes – with the advantage that it is dynamic, responsive, and focused while never losing sight of the economic side of things – which the more purist development work sometimes does not so well. Because let’s face it – if a farmer can’t make good money from a harvest (s)he is unlikely to pay decent wages, unlikely to care about educating the worker’s children, and unlikely to invest in a healthy environment for workers and their families.

Aid, what Aid ?

I had a chat with someone at a party the other day, about work and careers. During this conversation I mentioned that I tend to have my fingers both in development aid as well as in humanitarian aid, and seeing the person’s surprise got me thinking. We still like to tuck things nicely into drawers, and play in pretty separate leagues – the humanitarians in one, and the development workers in the other – are we not ? We eye each other – sometimes somewhat suspiciously – across an artificial divide (what divide?). Even those that give the money are often still divided (several bilaterals come to mind), as is the UN, really (with one or two notable exceptions of agencies that do both). And then we wonder why exciting stuff like Resilience is so difficult to grasp. Because it happens right on the divide.

The world in 2016 really brings it home. Europe is desperately clutching at straws to find solutions for the refugee crisis, everyone is (again) calling for ‘addressing the root causes’ and quickly money is pumped into ‘new’ programmes to do just that. At the same time we are staring helplessly at some of the worst humanitarian atrocities of our lifetime happening in Syria, and generally don’t know what else we can do other than pouring more aid into programmes – humanitarian or development (whatever?)

But we are still not connecting the dots, we pour money from separate pots into separate endeavours and wonder why there never seems to be much progress. So why don’t we team up for real and make this one aid system, no matter what happens ? Let’s face it, at the end we are trying to help people to a better life. There are many ways to do that, but the worst of options is to save their lifes, then go away (because the drawer system makes us) when we have achieved that, only to come back another day (when things are normal again) and start development programming. Or the other way round, when things go haywire we pull out the development funding, only to come back with humanitarian cash some time later when things have really gone bad.

If aid was a listed company it would have gone out of business a long time ago. The efficieny losses we incur by separating humanitarian and development aid are enormous, both in human and in real capital. I know, it has been tried (do I hear ‘early recovery’?) and of course now there is resilience programming. But deep down inside the divide remains, and we will continue to have conversations where we discover that people we meet in our line of work are either development workers or humanitarians, very rarely both. Unless that changes, and unless that changes also between institutions we are not going to improve people’s lives for real. Really.

The thing about middle-income countries

So for the first time ever I get to work in a middle income country (MIC) on programming, and it is very interesting indeed to get my head around the differences to less developed countries. What I realised pretty much immediately is that the generally accepted MIC classification is pretty one-dimensional (it is based on GNI/capita) – it does not say anything at all about what the wealth distribution in the country is. And then, of course, there are also differences in what I would call the beneficence of the government. Where I am now, they are pretty generous, and get the money down to the people – there is very visible investment in schools, clinics, social protection programmes; and government staff get their salaries and all that. So very different from a lot of countries that classify as MIC but have less benevolent governments and do not invest as much in public services. So the numbers don’t tell the story. What I also find interesting is that with the rise in (monetary) status comes a withdrawal of international assistance. Donors and the UN reduce their budgets, and have to seriously think about their role in such countries (especially in those where the government is actually concerned about their citizens’ wellbeing). And with different roles also comes different capacity – you can’t have big offices when there is no big budget, and you will have to work very differently by much more subtly influencing government to further improve its social investment. Different skill set altogether, while having hardly any funds to actually pay for staff to work in these offices. This is really the point about aid systems, how do development partners work differently in MICs, and how do they work much more together than in those large programme countries where the burn rate dictates the work, and coherence and convergence are not really thought about? There is a very interesting article on this by Andy Sumner who has very much turned the concept of the “bottom billion” around to point out that increasingly the poor live in middle income countries and are the ones that are left behind by GDP growth. To reach these (or rather to help benevolent governments to reach these), as he argues, is an altogether different challenge that, under the circumstances of reduced resources for development partners in such countries requires a very different way of working. This certainly rings very true here, and it will be interesting to see if it is possible to have very different programmes in such circumstances that actually reflect this reality.

How do we measure performance of humanitarian funding?

I recently analysed the performance of humanitarian funding from the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) for a client. The CERF provides an interesting insight into performance monitoring of humanitarian money. It is managed by UNOCHA, who over the last years have gradually improved monitoring of its performance. All the data is publicly available and can be used by anyone to get a very detailed insight into the mechanics of humanitarian funding (CERF Performance and Accountability). This is important as the purpose of the CERF is to provide immediate, kick-start assistance to humanitarian operations, and its contributors should really be able to know whether this ‘spirit’ of the CERF is adhered to on the ground.

What is interesting, though, is the very specific focus on cash throughput (to be blunt). Which is important, as apparently a number of recipients are struggling with spending CERF money as fast as it is provided. The CERF itself actually excels in the fast provision of funding: I found that the time between the application for grants under the Rapid Response window reaching the CERF secretariat and disbursement of the funds is in most cases around a week. Which compared to other humanitarian donors is very fast. The recipients, directly only UN agencies, and indirectly NGOs, then have to use the funds as soon as possible, but within six months of disbursement. This is often a bottleneck, and there are lots of examples (as can be seen from the publicly available data) where agencies have not spent the funds anywhere near the speed they were approved and received. So, ‘burn rate’ monitoring definitely has a role until there is faster expenditure across the board.

What so far seems to be lacking though is the output-level and outcome-level performance monitoring. Not so easy to achieve and measure, as it begs harmonisation of indicators, it basically comes down to what each agency reports for each grant. So for one grant the individual agency reports can differ markedly, both in level of detail and degree of quantification. One reason for this is that the CERF due to its limited volume only contributes a very small proportion of an agency’s total funding for a particular response, and is often mixed with other funds to support one joint response. So it isn’t quite so easy to isolate the contribution of the CERF to a particular part of the operation.

Standard indicators would be an option, i.e. on application an agency would have to commit to which indicators they would report against (they could ideally be SPHERE indicators). But this needs prior agreement, there may be negotiation, and this will delay the currently very fast disbursal. Also, some agencies cannot in their systems isolate the contribution of a particular grant if it is mixed in with others, effectively rendering them ‘blind’ to what a particular pot of money bought in a particular operation.

There is a long way to go therefore, in the process of humanitarian evolution, and the harmonisation of systems for managing emergency response, to allow a better understanding of what humanitarian money actually and specifically achieves on the ground. For now, we only really know what each agency achieves (which is good and valuable), but not whether the ‘spirit’ of the CERF was preserved and its funds were really spent on the most immediate and pressing needs in any particular emergency.

How to not coordinate

This is a little piece of fiction – based on true events but for all involved it is better not to name the location or the actors. There is this smallish, pretty aid-dependent country that has always been somewhat of a darling of the international community. Lots of aid coming in, and all the good stuff being done – supporting government to do things themselves, strengthening systems, building capacity. There is this particular sector in this little country that has really made progress in improving lives. The numbers of those in need in this sector are going down steadily, and it looks like our little country is on track to get rid of one major problem bogging it down in a few more years. All good, until one looks at how this is all going down. It turns out there is a bit too much coordination going on – to the extent that the lay person may get the impression that coordination is the main occupation for everyone. Let’s see – there are 8 sector committees – one for all, one for the Executive, one for Parliament, one for the donors, one for the donors and government, one for the NGOs, one for. . .  ?  (forgot that one). As one can imagine there are many many meetings that – surprisingly – the same people go to all of the time. Especially the government people who are running all these actually very productive activities hardly get any time to actually do any running – besides running from one meeting to another. Is this what we call aid effectiveness? Certainly not the most efficient way of getting things done. And i have this sinking feeling that my little country is not the only one down there? Dare I ask if things could go even better if people had the time to do their job? I wonder. . . 

Disaster Risk Reduction at the community level

I am going around rural communities (they are agropastoralists) looking at DRR programmes they were part of. It strikes me that there is a lot of enthusiasm from those that had the benefit of preparedness training. Talking to one village disaster risk management committee I could see clearly that it moved them to a new level of forward thinking. They now manage the pasture for their livestock well before it runs out, set up a grain bank, and plan ahead for potential food shortages at the end of the dry season.

All good. But then I spoke to people in a place where they had already lost pretty much all of their coping mechanisms. Meaning, when they had the trainings they learned about managing their options – but they didn’t have any options left to manage. Which makes a disaster risk management committee little more than a talk shop without real impact on the community.

What does this mean for those planning DRR programmes ? Most importantly, giving people skills to handle their own situation can’t just happen anytime. When the shocks have already depleted the options, they first need to be put back on a steady footing with traditional humanitarian assistance. When they have some resources back is the moment to learn how to plan better for next time.

This makes a lot of the funds available for DRR difficult to use, if they come on the back of humanitarian funds, or are even integrated in humanitarian funds. It almost forces organisations to come in with DRR work when communities have barely recovered. It looks like this makes a case for standalone DRR funding, either more from the resilience perspective, or as additional portfolios from humanitarian donors that can be timed more sensibly, when shocks are over and people back on their feet.

So, having said earlier that humanitarians have a big role to play in Resilience – a large part of it being their knowledge of what preparedness means – I think that the when is very important. Which at the end of the day points to the old realisation that separating humanitarian and development money really doesn’t make that much sense, and that humanitarians and development workers should be working together much more closely to really make things work.

What is the role for humanitarian aid in the Resilience Agenda?

The “Resilience Agenda” is increasingly dominating the discourse in both humanitarian and development circles. Some argue that resilience is simply another term for sustainable development, while others see it as a distinct and crucial element of disaster risk reduction that is not necessarily addressed by conventional development approaches. In essence, it describes the ability of people (individuals, communities) to resist or recover from sudden shocks to their livelihoods. Tempting as it may be, it can nevertheless not be equated with livelihood capacity, and it is a mistake to narrowly define resilience with livelihood indicators. Rather, resilience has as much to do with skills and individual / communal capacity as it has with economic and food security parameters of people’s lives. This explains why it bridges the still existing divide between humanitarian and development approaches – humanitarians can enable and equip those potentially or actually affected by disasters with a set of skills and tools, while development workers can support the right components of complex livelihood systems that are needed to resist and recover from shocks.

Humanitarian aid clearly has a role to play in strengthening resilience. Firstly, humanitarians are best placed to understand shocks and the impact they have on individuals and communities. Secondly, they understand best how essential services can be maintained even in adverse conditions or during forced migration. Thirdly, they know what skills are needed for individuals to deal with the first hours and days of an emergency, before outside aid arrives. Finally, they are at the forefront of recovery efforts , therefore knowing best how livelihoods can be restored as quickly as possible.

This translates into concrete action that a humanitarian organisation can support in (potentially) vulnerable communities and areas. With a good understanding of the impact of typical shocks in a particular environment, development and humanitarian programmes can jointly identify the most likely threats, their likely impact, and how people and services can be cushioned from them. This spans across the first three points listed above, i.e. understanding impact, understanding resilient services, and understanding resilient people (i.e. skills).

The area of skills is particularly interesting and remains less of a priority in typical resilience programmes. A recent study on disaster risk education in schools shows that while some countries have commendable school curricula where children are taught the locally relevant skills to deal with the impact of typical disasters where they live, globally this is an under-utilised area of strengthening resilience. There is value in early and widespread civil protection training. If children grow up knowing how best to respond when disasters typical for their environment hit, their communities are more resilient for it, and likely less lives or property are lost. No matter how good the outside response is, by the time they arrive a lot already has to be done by the communities themselves. Coping starts immediately, and it makes a big difference when there are people around who can deal with the basic challenges until outside aid arrives. There is clearly a strong case for investing into education and training, as relevant, to advance the Disaster Resilience Agenda.

The second key area where humanitarians can clearly contribute to better resilience in vulnerable communities is the resilience of essential services. This is where the resilience agenda is very close to the development agenda, and closely correlates with the wider Disaster Risk Reduction investment. Essential services that work well under ‘normal’ circumstances are a good start, and this is a task very much ‘owned’ by development programmes. However, humanitarians, with their understanding of what makes services resilient to shocks, must work closely with development programmes to e.g. ensure medical stocks can be maintained, water sources are protected against e.g. flooding, or schools can operate in adverse weather conditions or as mobile schools in situations of displacement. Ensuring this close cooperation, essentially bridging the development-humanitarian divide, is like skills a key and very worth-wile area of contribution.

What happens to sustainability when donors don’t trust the government anymore?

I am trying to get my head around to what happens to a cooperation programme when donors refuse to give direct funds to the government. One big argument of funding government to do good things is that it builds capacity and hence leaves something behind – in theory at least.
When donors refuse to do that, and insist that development funds can only go to NGOs, it becomes really difficult to continue to support government capacity – and how is that going to leave government more capable to handle services by itself down the line (at one point)? Funding NGO projects can easily just get everyone into a cycle of aid dependency, and certainly won’t build better government.
Is this the moment where one should go all the way down to the community level? And where does government start, i.e. where does support have to stop not to violate donor conditions? It certainly is not a very straightforward situation, and needs careful – and some really good creative – thinking to not make blocked aid a more serious problem than it already is. . . .