GLOBAL: Humanitarian system gets a “B-minus”




Photo: Sophia Paris/UN PHOTO

The aid sector: richer, more professional and better coordinated, but slow to learn, still top-down and poor at thinking ahead (file photo)

DAKAR, 8 February 2010 (IRIN) – The emergency aid industry has improved but must try harder, according to the broadest ever assessment of its performance.

Reviewers from the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in humanitarian action (ALNAP) assessed how well donors, UN agencies, the International Organization for Migration, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent movement and NGOs were meeting humanitarian needs worldwide and coordinating. The review involved interviews with hundreds of aid workers, analyses of financial data and agency evaluations.

While past inter-agency reviews have addressed individual emergency responses – notably the Joint Evaluation of Emergency Assistance to Rwanda (JEEAR) and the joint Tsunami evaluation (TEC) – ALNAP said it was time the strengths and weakness of the whole sector were analyzed to identify its future direction.

“You can’t ascertain the performance of a national health system just by reviewing individual hospitals,” ALNAP head John Mitchell told IRIN “We needed a review because over the past 20 years the humanitarian sector has become bigger and expectations have grown; the sector is [higher on political agendas] and receives more media scrutiny; and in principle there is agreement that the way aid is delivered should be more coherent.”


The first surprise for reviewers was that the system is actually improving, Mitchell said. The JEEAR painted an ugly picture of uncoordinated, inefficient assistance and the TEC an operation where competition among agencies supplanted cooperation. 

Aid snapshot
Official donors gave US$6.6 billion in humanitarian aid in 2008 (lower than previous estimates of $18 billion)
94 governments gave humanitarian aid in 2009, up from 67 five years ago
UN agencies receive 85 percent of emergency funding from government donors
Humanitarian agencies increase staff by 6 percent per year on average
Roughly 210,800 humanitarian workers are currently in the field
95 percent of international NGO staff are host country nationals
International NGOs employ 53 percent of field staff
Source: ALNAP

The latest analysis showed that aid on the whole was becoming “more efficient, better coordinated and timelier,” said Mitchell. The cluster coordination system, while far from perfect, has improved response and the UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) has sped up first-phase funding, ALNAP found.

“There is more money and it is being distributed more equitably [among aid sectors],” said Mitchell.

Aid staff are for the most part better trained and more professional – though this still needs to improve and turnover is still too fast. The report says accountability to beneficiaries is rising.

Finally the sector continues to innovate – for instance by adopting new technology; changing response approaches, such as adopting community-based treatment of acute malnutrition; or governments shifting mind-sets such as preparing for disasters by taking out weather insurance.

Plus ça changeBut many shortcomings remain intractable. A number of aid sectors continue to be neglected year in and year out, among them: protection, early recovery, emergency preparedness and disaster risk reduction, said respondents.

While some agencies are more likely to seek beneficiary feedback they do not necessarily act on it, the review found. And when evaluating programmes the emphasis is still more on the strengths and weakness of the aid given rather than on to what degree needs were met. “There is still no clear way to identify unmet needs,” said Mitchell.

Building local capacity is a much-used phrase and while it has increased in most regions, most international agencies and donors still neglect to do it well, says ALNAP.

“When 13 NGOs expelled in Darfur, nobody [asked] why after three, four five years was there no local capacity? What were the NGOs doing all those years?” One aid worker complained.

ALNAP on assessing needs
Needs assessments were highlighted as a weakness in the system, with a lack of coordination on assessments leading to duplication
A mayor in Sharma, Lebanon, during the 2006 crisis said he met with 50 international NGOs “most of whom talked and never delivered anything”
But most interviewees said coordinated assessments had improved in recent years, citing as examples of best practice the DRC 2009 Humanitarian Action Plan; the multi-cluster rapid assessment mechanism in Pakistan and the Post-Nargis joint needs assessment in Myanmar
Source: ALNAP

Perhaps the most fundamental indication of a need to improve is the fact that humanitarian needs still outstrip the ability of the system to respond, Mitchell said.
On average 30 percent of needs in UN consolidated and flash appeals have gone unmet in the past three years. 

Next steps

It can take years – decades – for humanitarian aid lessons to change behavior, Mitchell said. “The learning curve is agonizingly slow…but the drivers for change, including a stress on value-for-money, accountability and transparency, are stronger than they used to be.”

Mitchell said he hoped this review would be the first of many, with more feedback from beneficiaries and closer scrutiny of cost-effectiveness and waste in aid spending in future reports.

“ALNAP’s intention is to help all humanitarian partners set shared goals for improvement, and create a more transparent, vibrant, confident sector.”

He added: “The industry has grown up and changed a lot over the past 10 years…but there is a long way to go. Overall, the system gets a B minus.”



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