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Rising to the challenge? DFID’s successes in the Horn of Africa relief response.

Written by Simon Levine

The 2011 humanitarian crises in Somalia and across the Horn of Africa may be a distant memory to those outside the region, but last Friday the Department for International Development (DFID) received its report card for its response to the crisis from its examination board, the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI). DFID, and the British public which paid for DFID’s response, should feel some deep satisfaction in a B+ (or ‘green/amber’), especially considering that this was perhaps the hardest test set for many years (at least in Somalia), and because standards, the benchmarks by which emergency relief aid is judged, have been rising in recent years.

Although the ICAI report is short and clearly written, it will not be read by many, which is a pity. There is much for the taxpayer to celebrate. At a time when some sections of the media constantly stir up dissent about the aid budget, it is important to be reminded about the generosity of the British people who, despite our own economic hardships, added nearly £80m of private donations to the Government‘s spending – the UK alone provided almost a sixth of the total humanitarian needs of the Horn in 2011. It is even more important to celebrate the fact that tens of thousands of people are alive today because of money sent from the UK. Anyone who complains that in a recession this money should have been spent at home has either never seen real suffering or is devoid of human sympathy.  Sadly though, media attention has moved on to new crises, and the message of achievement will go largely unnoticed.

The report is an important reminder that DFID not only funded lifesaving activities, it also gave important political leadership, both in advocacy with governments in the region (to ensure they took responsibility for their own citizens) and with other donors, to achieve as coordinated and coherent a strategy as possible. There is a critical role that other countries would struggle to fill – the United States because it does not contribute to ‘pooled funds’, and the European Union because it channels emergency aid through a system, Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection (ECHO), that only gives short-term funding. It is to be hoped that DFID’s political masters read this report carefully, and join up the dots between the need for DFID advisors to play this role, with the passages in the report highlighting how much of their time is taken up with bureaucratic arrangements for grant processing and reporting – and with feeding their head office with information, because all spending has to be signed off by the Secretary of State in person. 

Of course, B+ is not a perfect score. There has already been much discussion and analysis of the delays in the international response, which the Humanitarian Policy Group has also criticised this time, as so often in previous crises. ICAI repeats that though the crisis was first predicted in August 2010, and developing by early 2011, DFID did not scale up response until June 2011 – much destitution could have been avoided, and lives saved, without this delay.

Some oversimplification is inevitable in a report such as this, and it is unsurprising, if disappointing, to find an account of the crisis still phrased in terms of drought and failed rains, with no mention that the delayed response was also because agencies on the ground did not ask for more money until too late – and no analysis of why they failed to do so.  Simplistic recommendations, though, are more worrying; and it is to be hoped that the UK’s new Minister for International Development, Justine Greening, pays more attention to the main contents of the report than to the recommendations section.

The Minister is told that the solution is better early warning – though in fact this was clearly the strongest link in the response chain, as the warnings from 2010 testify. The conventional wisdom in the region is repeated by ICAI, that the answer lies in predefined triggers for early action: hopefully DFID’s staff will be able to explain how a pre-defined trigger for action only works if a crisis follows exactly a predefined path. Pre-defining triggers undermines forward-looking analysis and flexibility: by the time humanitarian bells are ringing (read: young children are dying of starvation), response can only be too late to prevent destitution and to be best value for money.

The ICAI wants DFID to lead an overhaul of the humanitarian response system. Such a process is much needed, as I have argued before, and several initiatives are already ongoing in the region. Someone needs to explain to the Minister, though, that ICAI is hopelessly unrealistic in expecting DFID to achieve this in six months, when engagement is needed over several years in order to achieve the require political, administrative and cultural changes (eg attitudes to risk, accountability).

It is most worrying of all to read ICAI’s criticism that ‘sustainability and building resilience are not yet adequately considered in humanitarian programming’, and that DFID should work with ‘the wider humanitarian community to address structural issues, particularly on infrastructure’. The ICAI use the independent Humanitarian Emergency Response Review (HERR) as the standard here, but in doing so it was surely the examiners who failed their comprehension test. Building infrastructure, building resilience, making sure that a crisis does not occur every time rains fail, cannot be achieved with the funds, response mechanisms and skill-sets of humanitarian action.

The argument of HERR was that crises need to be prevented through long-term efforts, and that this is the responsibility of everyone involved in development, not just ‘the humanitarians’. There is much worth reading in the ICAI report, but on this key lesson, let us hope the Minister studies the HERR more carefully than did the authors of this report.