The Humanitarian Sector Gets Graded: B-

ALNAP – the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in humanitarian action – just released a pilot study on the humanitarian system. The study was very ambitious – it looked at the humanitarian system’s performance and progress, defining key criteria, assessing system performance and progress, and present new statistics. Their conclusion? The system gets a B-.

In reading the study, a few things stood out for me. First of all, the humanitarian sector is huge. 210,800 people are employed (a little over half of those by UN agencies) and overall donor support for 2008 was 6.6 billion US dollars. I had no idea the sector was so huge. There were 52 major humanitarian emergencies in 2007-2008, and the funding provided to the sector met 85% of the expressed need.

Another surprise was the discussion on respect for humanitarian principles. As expected, there were complaints that warring parties do not respect humanitarian ideas. However, aid agencies also complained that government donors did not respect humanitarian neutrality.  They also saw the increase in humanitarian aid provided by Western militaries as a serious risk factor.

Overall, the report’s conclusions match my own gut sense of the humanitarian sector. I’m not an expert, but it does match what I have seen. Accountability to beneficiaries is very weak. Coordination is getting better, but not enough better. Assessment is getting better, though results are seldom shared. There is never enough funding, and that funding is too often earmarked by sector.