Today, humanitarian organizations are repeatedly faced with situations where their staff cannot directly reach those they intend to help, or only under severe constraints. At the same time, the humanitarian imperative demands that every effort is made to reach those most affected by conflict, natural disasters, or a combination of both.
As a consequence, staff of aid organizations are putting themselves into harm's way. Every year, aid workers are abducted, injured, or killed in the line of duty. Worsening this trend is an increasing humanitarian dilemma, where aid organizations find it harder to remain neutral and
objective in their assistance. Intent to provide aid to those in need no matter what, organisations may get pushed into alliances with parties to the conflict and loose their neutrality. Military forces mix security and aid, and are often required to provide protection for non-military aid missions.
This blurs the lines between parties and non-parties to a conflict and heightens the risk for aid workers. While this has triggered a global debate on the role of aid in conflict zones, no clear solution has been found for the dilemma faced by many organizations, to either meet the humanitarian imperative and put staff at risk, or not fulfill this fundamental obligation to safeguard neutrality and protect their workers.
Increasingly, remotely managed humanitarian operations are seen as a solution to maintain the humanitarian imperative while shifting the direct risk towards local organizations. While a shift to remote management at first may seem as if the lives of expatriates are valued over those of local staff, there is sound reasoning behind the re-allocation of risk.
Firstly, locally based organizations are often linked to strong community structures and hence in a much better position to protect their staff and their interests. Secondly, harming foreign aid workers has additional incentives, an example being the increase in kidnap-for-ransom or for political gains in a number of countries in recent years. Targeting local or community-based organizations does not provide the same gains. As a consequence, local organisations are generally less at risk and therefore an altogether safer option to provide assistance.
However, removing well trained and experienced staff that can access funds, make high-level financial and operational decisions, and can mobilise assistance, from direct aid delivery has consequences for quality. It has been observed that the mind-set of aid workers changes when they are removed from direct involvement. They are more likely to prioritize process over results when they are not directly in touch with what the needs are on the ground. Also, if aid workers because of a remote management set-up cannot even get to understand the local environment and the operational details on the ground, they are more likely to make bad decisions or unnecessarily avoid manageable risks and hence reduce the effectiveness of their assistance. Remote management, while allowing organizations to remain engaged in crises, has therefore severe consequences for the quality of assistance.
While the immediate risk of harm to staff is reduced, other risks therefore increase. Being removed from their implementing partner on the ground significantly reduces the opportunity for quality assurance and timely corrective action for aid organisations. This can lead to bad results (i.e. the risk of programme failure, of not reaching those in need or, in the worst case of doing harm instead of good), or the inefficient use or even loss of financial and other material assets. It also removes the crucial interface between experienced global aid staff and staff of locally based organisations, restricting learning and knowledge transfer. This can hardly be substituted.
Quality assurance, however, is usually substituted through a variety of remote monitoring or verification measures, replacing direct monitoring visits by organisations ' staff.
Using third parties who are not involved in delivering aid but have the same advantages as locally based organisations is one option. Such third party monitoring or third party verification of delivery can be overt or covert, depending on the sensitivity of the situation. The use of third parties can also be appropriate in politicised situations where international aid organisations are concerned about political affiliations of local partners. They can make use of third parties to validate the aims and institutional ties of new partners before entering into a relationship.
Remote management situations often bring up the discussion about humanitarian accountability. In traditional aid delivery there is a theoretical interface between those who provide aid and their beneficiaries. It may not necessarily be used to express the beneficiaries ' view on the suitability and timeliness of the assistance, but can be explored for this purpose. In remote management situations this relationship is severed. To counter this, the use of technology is increasing. Mobile phones have revolutionised communication in developing countries, and are an excellent tool for those who receive humanitarian aid to feed back to those who are providing it. Several initiatives have been successful in providing such channels that can ensure better humanitarian accountability and better targeting and design of aid based on real rather than assumed needs.
Other channels that have been tried in traditional development assistance can also be useful for remote management situations. For example, schools are a usual centre of organisation in rural areas and often attract a group of interested residents who manage and supervise their proper operation. Teachers and school committees are therefore a organisational structures that have an interest in the development of their community and could take up a role of quality assurance of other assistance to the community.
Remote management situations are clearly a disadvantage for all concerned. However, they have triggered a more focused thinking on how to ensure quality of aid delivery under very restrictive conditions. The discussion about humanitarian accountability has certainly benefitted from attempts to include additional sources of verification into monitoring systems and thus opening up direct channels for beneficiary feedback. Therefore, while they should be avoided whenever possible, they breed innovations that will benefit the quality of more regular aid operations.