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David Miliband's aid goals ignore evolution of humanitarian industry

Written by Sara Pantuliano


David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee, has returned to his idea of humanitarian goals (HuGos). His diagnosis of the problems confronting the industry address core issues and some of his suggestions for how things could be improved are valid. He is right in saying that "too often, the whole of our effort seems less than the sum of the parts". However, Miliband fails to take account of the evolution of humanitarian action in recent years.

His recommendations are grounded in the discourse of the traditional, western-dominated humanitarian system. He lists ways in which the HuGos would help: by focusing attention and resources on what the humanitarian system is trying to achieve; by aligning diverse practical efforts in responses; by improving accountability; and by rallying public opinion. But is it that simple?

Miliband's arguments have many limitations. First, focusing attention and resources on what humanitarian assistance is trying to achieve. This overarching aspiration is already the essence of humanitarian action: saving lives and alleviating suffering, even if agencies have different opinions on how to go about this.

Second, aligning response efforts. This is a laudable objective, but there are already enormous efforts being put into achieving greater coordination and coherence in responses through new UN structures and NGO consortia. However, fundamental differences of ideology, outlook, institutional cultures and working practices make this difficult.

With no single authority governing humanitarian action, it will be impossible to get a critical mass of agencies to cede their independence of action by simply setting aspirational goals, not least because of the enormous institutional changes required. Even single federations find it difficult to align their constituent parts – trying to impose it across the system through the HuGos just won't work.

In any case, "official" humanitarian agencies are only one element in a diverse array of responders, including the military, private businesses, local governments and disaster survivors. The HuGos would have to apply to them too, but how would they be enforced?

Third, it is not clear how setting goals can help with collective accountability, unless the plan is to hitch it to some kind of HuGo scale of hit or miss.

In theory, this sounds appealing, not least for the donors whose money agencies are spending, sometimes not too well. But, in practice, who decides what these goals should be and whether a particular aid agency has met them? How are they to be monitored and measured, and what happens if they are not met? Where is the threshold between meeting and missing the goal to be set?

If, say, the goal is to vaccinate 10,000 children in Helmand, Afghanistan, but the money runs out or insecurity means that half of these children cannot be reached, does this constitute failure? And should someone be held accountable for their part in that?

One of Miliband's suggested outcome-based goals is lives saved. While it is sometimes possible to make educated guesses as to how many lives have been saved by assistance, tracing the causal link between aid and survival, or knowing whether they would have survived without the assistance, is virtually impossible.

Even where outcomes can be physically measured, this says very little about the quality, efficiency or appropriateness of the work.

Another of Miliband's suggestions – that the HuGos could act as a rallying cry for humanitarian action – may serve some PR purpose. For an industry that is increasingly in the news for what it does wrong rather than what it does right, that may be no bad thing. But established agencies are already heavily invested in trying to persuade politicians and the public to part with their cash for the greater good, and invest massive resources in telling the world of the benefits they believe their aid is bringing. Inserting another level of rhetoric may only further confuse the babble of noise.

Any ideas on improving the efficiency and effectiveness of humanitarian action should be welcomed. There are persistent and probably intractable problems with the way humanitarian aid works. Miliband is right to warn against inaction in the face of complicated and difficult issues – but setting arbitrary and artificial goals based on an overly simplistic view of humanitarian crises and the aid system will do little to fix the problems.

The global challenge is to find ways of harnessing the diversity of actors in today's changing humanitarian landscape – and meaningfully engaging them so that they can provide lifesaving humanitarian aid in complementary ways to the traditional system. Miliband's overly technocratic HuGos are not the solution to this challenge.