The Mungote site has a school and various projects meant to strengthen the resilience of the people living there, including a bakery run and staffed by women survivors of gender-based violence. DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO, Kitchanga, 23 February 2016 Credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

Can One “Grand Bargain” Fix a Broken Humanitarian Relief System?

(World Humanitarian Summit, Istanbul) — Of the many aims of the World Humanitarian Summit, one at the top of the list is reshaping the way aid is funded and delivered. Part of this involves encouraging new actors such as the private sector and non-traditional donors to get involved, but more money alone will not solve the problems facing the humanitarian sector. Arguably the more important aspect of this goal is altering both the way traditional donors fund humanitarian projects and how aid agencies operate in the field.

This two-way approach – targeting both donors and service providers – is called the Grand Bargain, and it is driving much of the discussion here in Istanbul.

The need for this bargain was laid out starkly in a UN report by the High Level Panel on Humanitarian Financing released earlier this year. The panel found that a mere five countries make up almost two-thirds of all governmental funding of humanitarian aid and it is the alphabet soup of UN agencies – UNICEF, UNHCR, WFP, WHO – who manage half of that total funding. In other words, despite the seemingly crowded humanitarian aid field, the fate of the landscape rests in the hands of just a few on both sides of the equation.

There are many reasons for this limited engagement. UN agencies are the largest in the world at what they do, and often have capabilities and reach far greater than other aid organizations. At the same time, the growing bureaucratic requirements demanded by donor states makes it extremely difficult for smaller organizations, especially at the local level, to meet the burdens required to receive funding. But the end result is rampant inefficiencies throughout the aid chain as donors host even more requirements and aid agencies resist coordinating with each other due to their own self interest in their own funded projects.

While this may sound largely academic, the current situation has very real consequences.

One only has to look as far as Syria to see why this set up can create more problems than it solves.

A consistent problem since the start of the war in 2011 is the lack of access for international aid agencies to conflict affected communities within Syria. Even when access is granted, it is usually restricted by the Syrian regime such as when the WFP was finally able to access to the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus in 2014 and when multiple organizations were granted access to the besieged city of Madaya for a limited delivery of aid supplies earlier this year. As a result, inside Syria it is usually not the major organizations who are providing food, water, medical care and education to Syrians, but local organizations that you have probably never heard of.

UN Dispatch talked with two umbrella groups that coordinate many of these local aid organizations, the Syria Relief Network and the Syrian NGO Alliance. It is their members who are in the actually field in this conflict while several others are unable to operate inside Syria due to lack of consent by the government or security risks that are deemed too great for their workers to bear.

“We have around 85 actors in Syria but the problem right now is the border closure, they are completely stuck inside Syria,” said Dr. Kais, general coordinator for the Syria Relief Network. “They have no connection to the outside world so all the opportunities for funding, capacity building and training is compromised.”

Yet despite the difficulties these local NGOs face, a new report from Local to Global Protection found that in 2014, Syrian NGOs still delivered 75 per cent of the aid inside Syria. But even with this track record, these NGOs only received 0.3 per cent of direct and 9.3 per cent of indirect cash funding spent on the Syrian crisis. Globally, donors directly channel only 0.4 per cent of all humanitarian funding to local NGOs despite the fact that local actors are usually better positioned to engage with their communities and with far less overhead than outside international organizations.

In Syria, this means that local and national NGOs are often treated as subcontractors. By the time any funding reaches them, it has usually been through several other organizations first where layer after layer of bureaucracy slowly cleaves away much needed resources before it even reaches Syria.

“For the funding to be directed to the grassroot organizations and the national organizations that are actually delivering assistance, it would save a lot of overhead that would be used effectively for the response,” said Samah Bassas, the CEO of Syria Relief Network. “Knowing that the funds allocated in crisis has been decreasing over the last few years, by turning the funding directly to the national NGOs it will empower them and at the same time be more efficient and effective for the response.”

Given the real struggles the international community has had in financing the basic needs of people impacted by conflict and natural disasters, any gain in efficiency is to be welcomed.

The Grand Bargain aims to help with this, reducing these types of inefficiencies in the hopes of stretching available resources and improving the reach of aid in traditionally difficult settings.

One step on this path is the creation of the NEAR Network, launched on Sunday before the summit started. The Network brings together aid organizations from the global South to better address humanitarian emergencies in their own countries. Involving local and national NGOs is a key recommendation within the Grand Bargain, but even with this apparent success story there is a catch: while the NEAR Network gained €700,000 in seed funding, that funding is distributed with oversight from CAFOD, a British Catholic NGO. So one step forward, half a step back.

But it is progress. There is still a lot of work to be done on the Grand Bargain to take things from high level theory to practical changes on the ground. Any move in the right direction to empower those in the best position to help should be welcomed.