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Humanitarian aid system must undergo radical change to respond to modern-day crises

Written by Sara Pantuliano, Christina Bennett

Resistance to radical change is preventing the Western-dominated humanitarian aid system from best helping victims of conflicts and disasters, warns a new report by the Overseas Development Institute published ahead of the first World Humanitarian Summit in May.

Pressures for organisational growth, increased visibility and growing risk aversion have led to the exclusion of smaller, more local and specialized organisations that may be better placed to help in crisis zones.

As humanitarian emergencies become more frequent, more complex and last longer, the sector must undergo a radical transformation to respond effectively to the challenges of modern day crises, the report says.

Report co- author Christina Bennett, Research Fellow at the Overseas Development Institute, said: ‘Recent attempts to improve humanitarian response have not tackled the unhealthy power dynamics and incentives at the heart of the struggling aid system. It has amounted to nothing more than rearranging the deck chairs.

‘It is now time for the humanitarian sector to let go of the outdated behaviours and incentives that prevent it from becoming a more open and effective system.’

The report notes how humanitarian crises are affecting more people, with conflicts lasting longer and climate change putting more vulnerable societies at risk. However, organizational insecurity and financial uncertainty have led aid agencies to compete against one another, rather than cooperate.

While funding is highly centralised, local and specialised aid groups have proven to be some of the most important aid providers in many crises.

In 2014, local and national NGOs directly received just 0.2% of total humanitarian assistance as reported to the UN.

The report concludes though that international aid agencies have little incentive to hand over power and responsibility to other organisations that could serve as competition for funding.

At the same time, those affected by crises have limited influence over how humanitarian aid is delivered.

Sara Pantuliano, Director of Humanitarian Programmes at the ODI, said: ‘For three quarters of a century, the formal Western-dominated system of donors and NGOs has seen itself as the essential core of humanitarian response, but our research shows this does not describe the reality on the ground.

‘The humanitarian landscape is changing. Countries like Turkey and China are some of the most important growing humanitarian donors, and diaspora groups, businesses and regional organisations are crucial players in aid responses. The aid system needs a radical paradigm shift to adapt to the demands of the changing world.’

The report recommends a number of fundamental changes to the international UN-led system in order to meet the demands of modern day crises:

  • For the UN and large international NGOs to let go of power and resources, to enable national and local aid organisations to lead crisis response.
  • Place the needs of people affected by crises above organizational drives for greater resources and visibility.
  • To develop a more honest, realistic and ethical humanitarian response which acknowledges that it is not only humanitarians who can provide effective relief in crises.

Notes to editors

  • The report ‘Time to let go: remaking humanitarian action for the modern era’ will be published on Tuesday, April 12
  • The paper draws on four years of research from the Humanitarian Policy Group at the Overseas Development Institute and insights from humanitarian actors around the world
  • In 2014, local and national NGOs only directly received 0.2% of total humanitarian assistance as reported to the UN Financial Tracking System. 
  • The first-ever World Humanitarian Summit will be held in Istanbul from 23-24 May 2016.

For more information or to arrange an interview please contact James Rush on 07808 791265 or [email protected]