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The Grand Bargain at two: collapsing under its own weight?

Written by Christina Bennett


This week, nations gather in New York for the ECOSOC Humanitarian Affairs Segment. The agenda is ambitious and important, including resolving the crises in Yemen and the Lake Chad region, addressing the impact of conflict on children, and increasing accountability for sexual exploitation and abuse in humanitarian operations. But ECOSOC’s ambition of ‘restoring dignity and leaving no one behind in crisis settings’ will be difficult to achieve unless the sector gets its own house in order.

The Grand Bargain – one of the few tangible outcomes of the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit – was meant to do just that. The agreement’s 51 commitments aim to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of humanitarian action’s major players to give them the means, the tools and the relationships to better deliver aid to people in the aftermath of war and disaster.

A catalyst for change

Two years on, and the picture is mixed. Our independent review of the Grand Bargain finds important progress by aid organisations and donors against some of the clearer and more actionable commitments, including increased use of cash assistance, multi-year planning and funding and more proactive and coordinated community engagement.  

There is also evidence that the Grand Bargain has helped accelerate other changes. Its commitments are more gender responsive and are beginning to crop up in field operations, through work stream pilots and in multi-year planning and strategy initiatives. The fact that the number of signatories has increased from 34 in 2016 to 59 in 2018 (including ten national NGOs) reflects progress in achieving a broader base of support. 

What’s holding the Grand Bargain back?

Our analysis also points to enduring practical and political challenges that are preventing the Grand Bargain from turning many of its technical commitments into meaningful, system-level change.

The agreement itself is collapsing under the weight of its own bureaucracy: its 51 commitments, ten workstreams and multi-layered governance structure are proving too unwieldy to manage. Its architecture is over-structured, and its implementation under-governed, lacking the high-level political commitment and investment from signatories needed to encourage momentum, focus and prioritisation.

Inevitably, some of the more politically contentious and practically difficult areas of the agreement, including improving needs assessments and reducing overheads and earmarking, are lagging far behind. There is also a sense among signatories that the Grand Bargain’s ‘quid pro quo’ – the give-and-take between aid organisations and their funders that underpins each of its commitments – is not working, with misaligned expectations on both sides and each constituent group feeling that the other isn’t pulling its weight. Nor is there clarity or consensus on the Grand Bargain’s end-state, and what success might look like if its ambitions were realised.

Getting the Grand Bargain back on track

The Grand Bargain’s signatories need to engage with one another at higher levels around the changes they want to see, rationalising and prioritising its commitments accordingly. Higher-level engagement would also help to re-activate and re-articulate its quid pro quo foundation. In particular, the agreement needs more active senior-level political support to rebuild the sense of common purpose currently lost in the minutiae of its implementation.

If the Grand Bargain is to be more than a passing fad, it also needs to be integrated into and complementary with wider system reforms that have more momentum, higher profile and greater buy-in from a wider range of governments and institutions. These include the UN Secretary-General’s Sustaining Peace agenda and the global compacts on refugees and migration. Integrating the substance and spirit of Grand Bargain commitments into these broader agendas through intergovernmental processes and individual agency and organisation boards will help ensure that the Grand Bargain – not the document, but the vision it aims to achieve – remains live and relevant.