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The changing role of official donors in humanitarian assistance

This area of research assesses the ways in which official donors' roles in the provision and management of humanitarian assistance have changed.

Donors have become increasingly involved in the definition and organisation of humanitarian response - the so-called 'bilateralisation' of humanitarian response. Via case studies of major donors, HPG has sought to describe the nature and implications of this trend, and to propose an agenda that might be used to define 'good donorship' in the humanitarian sphere.

The research concludes that the increasing involvement of donors in humanitarian decision-making is both legitimate and appropriate. There has, however, been little discussion as to what constitutes a ‘good’ humanitarian donor. Establishing such an agreement would be timely. Humanitarian aid flows are increasing, humanitarian decision-making is becoming more complex and sensitive and the framework for measuring donor performance is weak, undermining accountability and the trust necessary for positive relations between donors and their partners.

Three core principles might provide the basis for such a discussion:

• a commitment to international humanitarian law and principles;

• a commitment to needs-based programming; and

• predictable and adequate funding.

In operationalising these principles, donors should commit themselves in domestic law to the impartial allocation of official humanitarian aid, and should reaffirm the independence of humanitarian decision-making from wider foreign policy. Systems to measure humanitarian need and monitor the allocation of resources need to be more robust, and the predictability and adequacy of official funding need to be strengthened. It would also be important to invest in systems to monitor adherence to good practice.

There is also a need for humanitarian organisations to maintain a critical dialogue with the official aid community, demonstrating their legitimacy as independent humanitarian actors, and the inherent value of organisational autonomy.

In taking forward this agenda, it will be important to recognise both its modesty and its significance. It is modest in that it is concerned with a relatively tiny proportion of global wealth. It is significant because the definition and management of these funds says much about the relationship between the most powerful nations and some of the world’s most marginalised people. The question is not whether donors should be involved in the management of humanitarian assistance, but why and how they exert their influence.


Sarah Collinson