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A call for regulation in humanitarian action and a 'high level panel'

(note: this blog was written by Maurice Herson and John Mitchell)

At yesterday’s meeting at the ODI, there surfaced some new perspectives on an old dilemma about managing the quality of humanitarian action. The meeting was called by ALNAP, under the title ‘The limits of humanitarianism’, with Hugo Slim and Tony Vaux presenting, and Randolph Kent in the chair.

Predictably there was a range of views expressed on how successful the current form of the humanitarian enterprise is. Tony Vaux sees the glass as almost empty, and sees no role for regulation of the system in improving it. Hugo Slim on the other hand, holds a more optimistic view, and is in favour of regulation as a means to help to keep the glass filling up.

The debate about the worth and the practicality of some sort of regulation of the international humanitarian system is of course not new, and the range of opinions given, and questions posed, both by the panel and the many people who took part in the discussion didn’t propose a magical resolution that will satisfy and convince us all. It was helpful, though, to consider the question against the background of a synopsis of recent performance, views of trends in the context within which we work, and thinking about what the limits of humanitarian action, if not humanitarianism, are.

One of the ideas that has been floated inside ALNAP, and particularly in response to the findings of last year’s Tsunami Evaluation Coalition reports, is the establishment of what has been called a ‘high level panel’ to which the elements of the humanitarian system would ‘report’ in some way on a regular basis. This is not exactly regulation; no doubt many people would dismiss it for having no teeth, at least not literally. It might however in time develop some political, if not procedural, teeth.

It’s certainly worth considering whether this is a viable and feasible idea. At the moment we are challenged to be accountable to various constituencies, and we all know that the ways that this is managed are not good enough, and, as Tony Vaux says, result in distortion of the system. What if there was a requirement to make an account of the performance, changes, improvements and challenges in international humanitarian action, that was in  turn required to reflect back to us what that should mean in terms of what we need to be doing next? Not regulation, but a way of both channelling the diversity of accountability and side-stepping some of the distorting effects, and thus with a regulating effect.

One of the challenges at last night’s meeting was about innovation and the inward-lookingness of the system. If there was to be such a high level panel, it would have to include both people with credibility within the existing system and also people who could bring other forms of discipline; Hugo Slim made some suggestions such as someone from the PR world who is used to methods of ascertaining the views of stakeholders. It could be an exciting way of breaking the introspective modes we often feel we are stuck in.

And what would be the nature of the regular report to such a body? It would have to draw on work already being done by existing initiatives and forums, for example HAP, People in Aid, Good Humanitarian Donorship and others. But it would also be able to push us to find ways of taking up other important issues that do not have such a dedicated focus within the humanitarian system yet, such as disaster risk reduction.

Given the incoherence of the international humanitarian system, such a high level panel would act as a semi-regulatory process, and in effect be a proxy for the people or group for whom and on whose behalf humanitarian action is intended. It would not supersede other accountabilities, indeed it couldn’t; but it could monitor those other accountabilities and give the elements of the existing system guidance, channel a measure of increased coherence, put some pressure on to reduce the causes of the distortions that Tony Vaux has identified, and help us to be clear about what the system is good for and good at, and what it’s not.

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