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Humanitarian issues in the spotlight

Humanitarian issues are going to be in the spotlight for the next few months, driven by events on the ground, like the refugee crisis in Europe, but also by the preparation of the World Humanitarian Summit, to be held in Istanbul in May 2016. This note is based on a reading of the key preparatory documents for the WHS, especially the Report of the High-Level Panel on Humanitarian Financing, and also the Secretary General’s Report, ‘One Humanity: Shared Responsibility’. There are many other things to read, including the report of the WHS consultation and the EU Position Paper on the Summit. It is notable that the UK House of Commons International Development Select Committee is running an enquiry on the global humanitarian system. There have been 25 written submissions, and some enlightening oral evidence sessions. The UK’s DFIDDepartment for International Development is also running a consultation in preparation for a new humanitarian policy, updating the 2011 policy. I will come back to that at the end.

The core document is the Secretary General’s Report. This picks up most of the recommendations of the High-Level Panel, including the call for more and more diversified funding, and for improved delivery of humanitarian aid. Let me, therefore, concentrate on that. It has attracted quite a bit of commentary, as one might expect (see, for example, here (by Christina Bennett from ODI) and here (by Heba Aly from IRIN)).

My own immediate reaction is to note that unresolved issues are still being discussed that have been on the agenda in some cases since at least the 1970s, sometimes presented as if they have just been discovered. I wonder whether there has been independent evaluation of exactly why so little progress has been made with issues like linking relief and development, or multi-annual funding of relief work, or Responsibility to Protect, or the work of the International Criminal Court. Maybe someone will tell me that the SG or the organisers of WHS have commissioned such analysis?

My more considered conclusions are:

  1. Of course, it is desperately important to improve humanitarian action.
  2. Though important to recognise that what the aid community means by ‘humanitarian action’ refers mainly to aid-funded action, not social safety net or emergency relief expenditure funded by countries themselves.
  3. And for that reason, with a strong focus on conflict and displacement.
  4. In this context, the limits of humanitarian action should be respected, and not too much should be loaded on their shoulders (for example, conflict prevention or even peace-making): discussions about peace belong in the Security Council and the General Assembly, not at a meeting of humanitarian aid actors.
  5. More, and more long-term, finance is certainly needed, but funds should not just be taken willy-nilly from existing development budgets, especially by donors who have not yet reached 0.7 and who are spending a rapidly rising share of aid budgets on housing refugees in their own countries. The WHS should highlight shortfalls from 0.7. Should it also call for in-country refugee funding to be additional to aid budgets?
  6. The development architecture should not be made even more complex by creating a new multi-purpose humanitarian fund
  7. Linking relief and development is very much to be welcomed and could be assisted by adopting a new humanitarian principle on livelihoods.
  8. The Grand Bargain proposed for the Summit, viz better funding in return for reform of the system, rather misrepresents the underlying power relations.

With respect to the DFIDDepartment for International Development humanitarian policy review, my main observation is to make sure important humanitarian principles pervade the implementation of the new aid policy, and of the bilateral, multilateral and civil society reviews about to be published.

The SG’s Report

The SG’s Report has a strong focus on conflict and displacement as the main drivers of the current humanitarian case-load of 125 million people and not surprisingly, as a result, a strong focus on the causes of conflict, the rights of non-combatants, and the long-term issues facing those affected. It identifies five core responsibilities of the international community, viz

  1. political leadership to prevent and end conflicts;
  2. uphold the norms that safeguard humanity;
  3. leave no one behind;
  4. change people’s lives — from delivering aid to ending need; and
  5. invest in humanity.

There is analysis of each of these themes, and a total of 122 recommendations for action.

The report underlines the high social and economic cost of conflict, citing research that the economic and financial cost of conflict and violence in 2014 has been estimated at $US 14.3 trillion, or 13.4 per cent of the global economy. It calls for much greater investment in risk analysis and crisis management, as well as a long-term commitment to stability. The main change required, however, is in the political sphere, not least in the Security Council. That is a recurring theme.

Pursuing this theme, the report emphasises breaches of human rights and international humanitarian law as being at the root of the current crisis faced by the humanitarian system. It says that ‘Member States must seize the opportunity of the World Humanitarian Summit to recommit to protecting civilians and the human rights of all by respecting the rules that they have already agreed upon. Ensuring the centrality of protection and preserving the humanity and dignity of affected people in all circumstances must drive our individual and collective action.’ It refers specifically to the bombing and shelling of populated areas, and the failure to respect and protect the safety of humanitarian and medical missions. It says that States must work in their spheres of influence to ensure that parties to armed conflict comply with international human rights and humanitarian law. And it recommends establishing a dedicated ‘watchdog’ to track, collect data and report on trends of violations of and gaps in compliance with international humanitarian law.

The consequences of failure will be to breach the decision enshrined in the new Sustainable Development Goals to ‘leave no-one behind’. This leads the SG to call for better response to protracted crises and for a new global commitment to the international protection framework for refugees and asylum seekers. It also leads to the fourth area of work, which is to ‘transcend’ the humanitarian-development divide.

The SG ‘urge(s) the international aid system, including the United Nations, non-governmental organizations and donors to commit to working in a new paradigm marked by three fundamental shifts: (a) reinforce, do not replace, national and local systems; (b) anticipate, do not wait, for crises; (c) transcend the humanitarian-development divide by working towards collective outcomes, based on comparative advantage and over multi-year time frames’.

Specifically, this means joint problem statements, a long-term outcome–focused approach, and coherent leadership at country level. There is a plea to strengthen the role of Humanitarian Coordinators. They ‘should be empowered to request and consolidate the data and analysis necessary to develop the common problem statement; moderate and conclude the setting of collective outcomes; and ensure implementation and monitor progress in securing the collective outcomes on reducing need and vulnerability. The resident/ humanitarian coordinator needs to be able to steer adequate resources towards the agreed multi-year plan and programme.’

On financing, the SG’s Report picks up (albeit in a judiciously watered-down version) the recommendations of the High Level Panel on Humanitarian Financing (and also the work of a previous Panel on the use of cash transfers). It calls for a larger percentage of humanitarian appeals to be covered (a minimum of 75%), for doubling the size of the Central Emergency Response Fund (to $US 1 bn), and for a new multi-window financing platform, capitalised to the tune of $US 5-7 bn. It also calls for more spending to be through local and national organisations. The Report mentions, but without great prominence, the Financing Panel’s recommendation for a ‘solidarity levy’ to meet humanitarian needs. It does not, I think, mention the High Level Panel’s recommendation that IDAInternational Development Association (of World Bank) thresholds should be revised to permit more generous funding to Middle Income Countries affected by displacement burdens; though it does endorse the call to triple the size of IDA’s Crisis Response Window.

Finally, the SG endorses the idea of a ‘Grand Bargain’, in which donors offer more and better funding, less earmarking and simpler, harmonised reporting requirements, in return for aid organisations offering greater transparency, better cost effectiveness, more work with national organisations, higher levels of participation by local people, and better gender awareness.

What to make of this?

What to make of all this? A few points.

First, there is obviously careful positioning on some topics which are much-debated within the humanitarian community, but not well-known outside. These include the role and membership of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), the functions and authority of country-level Humanitarian Coordinators, the working of the cluster system, the management of consolidated appeals, and financing mechanisms like the Central Emergency Relief Fund. There were nice exchanges on some of these during the evidence session the Select Committee held on 8 March with Desmond Swayne, Minister of State in DFID. See, for example, the exchange between Desmond Swayne and Jeremy Lefroy in Box 1.

Box 1

Extract from Select Committee transcript


Humanitarian action: what’s in, what’s out?

Second, I am often uncertain with respect to discussions of the humanitarian case-load – and thus the size of the humanitarian sector – about what is ‘in’ and what is ‘out’. One might imagine that the case-load includes all those who are in need of or in receipt of emergency assistance, from wherever supplied, but my sense is that this is not the case, and that when people talk of the humanitarian sector, they mainly refer to aid provided by international organisations which crosses international borders – and that mainly directed at developing countries. For example, do people in Northern England, affected by floods, count as part of the humanitarian caseload? And is the financial value of the assistance they received from the UK Government included in international databases? I imagine not.

It is instructive, in this connection, to read the World Disasters Report, which each year estimates the scale of technological and natural disasters (including floods, droughts, storms, heatwaves and earthquakes). There were 317 such disasters in 2014, occurring in 94 countries, and affecting over 100m people, including 58m affected by floods and storms in China alone. Many of these will have been dealt with by national Governments without outside help, and thus will not have added to the ‘humanitarian’ caseload.

That, of course, is a good thing. When I chaired the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Humanitarian Assistance, we published a number of papers, inter alia about moving countries from the ‘Haiti column’ (requiring a large amount of external assistance) to the ‘Chile column’ (requiring little). That requires serious investment in disaster risk reduction (DRR) and response at country level.

DRR is certainly referenced in the SG’s Report, as is the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction. I suppose I would have liked to see more systematic analysis of the Sendai recommendations. Perhaps there could have been an attempt to calculate the total case-load, including that handled nationally; and even set a target for a declining share of the total burden requiring global humanitarian assistance.

In this connection, it would have been interesting for the SG Report to pick up in more detail the Financing Panel’s recommendations about financing emergency work in middle income countries. For example, is the IDA’s Crisis Response Window, established in 2011, a lending instrument, the best or only way to provide financial assistance to countries affected by natural or economic shocks? It was only established in 2011, and has not yet been evaluated. I learn, however, that 100% of CRW funds allocated for IDA17 (to June 2017) have already been allocated: Ebola, $US420 millionSolomon Islands floods, $US10 millionMalawi floods, $US80 millionVanuatu cyclone, $US50 million; Tuvalu cyclone, $US3 million; Nepal earthquake $US300 million.

Or perhaps it would have been better at the WHS to focus only on conflict?

Don’t overload the humanitarian system

The SG Report is certainly correct to highlight the importance of conflict as a ‘humanitarian’ issue – and correct to emphasise the ‘outrage and frustration’ engendered by the growing number and ferocity of civil wars. It is also important that the SG points to the frequency of violations of human rights and humanitarian law, and that he calls on Sates to both behave better themselves and use their influence with proxies and clients. It is notable that he ‘join(s) others in urging the (Security) Council’s permanent members to withhold their veto power on measures addressing mass atrocities’. The proposal for a new watchdog on violations is interesting, though I do wonder whether this is an institutional innovation designed to overcome the politicisation and incomplete coverage of the International Criminal Court. Why not tie investigations to new powers for the ICC, including perhaps war-affected countries that have not formally ratified the Rome Statute?

The risk for Istanbul is that by making political issues central to the World Humanitarian Summit, the SG overloads the humanitarian system with responsibilities that it cannot, indeed should not, assume. Henry Dunant, the founder of the Red Cross movement, would surely have been very surprised to learn that his shock at the suffering at the Battle of Solferino in 1859 meant that his remit should not just have been to provide impartial relief of suffering, but also to resolve the conflict between Napoleon The Third and Emperor Franz Josef the First. Humanitarian actors are usually rigorously restrained in not entering the political arena – see, for example, Sir John Holmes’ excellent book, the Politics of Humanity, on his time as Head of OCHA and UN Under Secretary General, conscientiously fixing on humanitarian issues in his dealing with warlords around the world.  And this, from a professional diplomat, who must have itched to become involved in conflict resolution.

I guess the value of the focus depends partly on who is expected to be at WHS, and where else in the system these issues of peace-making and peace-keeping are being discussed. The SG Report itself refers to the ‘Report of the High-level Independent Panel on Peace Operations in uniting our strengths for peace: politics, partnership and people’ and the Report of the Advisory Group of Experts on the Review of the Peacebuilding Architecture, both published in 2015.  It seems to me that the Security Council and the General Assembly are the places to discuss these issues, rather than a conference of essentially aid workers.

Financing humanitarian action

When it comes to aid, and to funding, the SG Report is right to highlight under-funding of humanitarian action overall, and might have made more of uneven funding of different emergencies. There are donor darlings and orphans in the humanitarian field, as more generally. However, the specific recommendations with regard to financing need to be seen in the context of development funding overall, and in relation to overall aid architecture.

With regard to overall funding, the share of humanitarian aid in total oda has more or less doubled, from 5% in 2000 to 10% today. The share is likely to rise, as Syria claims larger amounts of funding and more countries hosting refugees charge the first year costs to their aid budgets. In Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, the share of aid being spent on first year refugee costs is expected to be about 20%; similar figures are cited for the Netherands. Overall, DACDevelopment Assistance Committee (of the OECD) donors spent nearly $US 7bn on first year refugee costs in 2014, a number which will surely rise. This figure is additional to the $US 20-25bn classified as humanitarian aid.

No-one is going to argue that humanitarian needs should not be met, though there are arguments to be had about charging first year refugee costs to aid budgets; and the SG is surely right to call for greater burden-sharing, including new initiatives in the area of Islamic finance. However, it is equally important that the humanitarian community express solidarity with the recipients of non-humanitarian aid who may lose because of humanitarian spending. It would be tragic if primary health care for the poorest or climate finance had to be cut because of the growing cost of humanitarian operations.

In that connection, overall oda flows should be a primary target of the WHS. As the chart below indicates, DACDevelopment Assistance Committee (of the OECD) countries are providing less than half the UN target of 0.7% of GNI, with many large and important countries falling way behind.

Should the WFS also call for a halt to funding in-country refugee costs from oda budgets?


With regard to aid architecture, the SG’s Report proposes a new multi-window financing platform:

‘To ensure predictable and adequate resourcing of collective outcomes in protracted and fragile situations and meet the need to provide a full range of financing options to a more diverse set of actors, the United Nations and international and regional financial institutions should consider co-hosting an international financing platform. The platform could have different windows for different purposes, actors and time frames and would help to avoid fragmentation by catering to the wide array of constituencies involved in delivering collective outcomes, each based on their comparative advantage. The platform would offer finance instruments beyond traditional grants, including loan guarantees, risk insurance and technical assistance.’

Frankly, I am not an enthusiast for further complexity in the aid system. This sounds to me like a version of the Green Climate Fund for the humanitarian sector. There would be large transactions costs. Is a new fund being proposed because agencies feel unable to reform the existing system? And would their efforts at reform be abandoned if a new fund were created?

Linking relief and development

It is also worth saying that a new fund might make it more difficult rather than easier to secure an integrated approach to the emergency-development interface. The whole issue of linking relief and development has a long and somewhat unhappy history. I wrote a long piece about the humanitarian dimension to this in June last year. I do not want to repeat the whole analysis, but I commented that

‘. . .  I find the observers of crisis situations still fretting about the lack of attention to resilience, or what we used to call ‘linking relief and development’ – and that they attribute the problem, at least in part, to institutional blockages and poorly structured incentives. These are completely plausible conclusions. However, I think that (a) the development community has moved a long way, (b) the core of the problem may lie in the reliance on under-resourced humanitarian actors in conflict areas, and (c) an extension of the principles might just help to ‘shock’ the system, by clarifying accountabilities and responsibilities, including those of donors.’

I then recommended the adoption at WHS of a new humanitarian principle, alongside humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence, viz Livelihood:

‘Humanitarian action must wherever possible protect livelihoods and promote sustainable development, in its economic, social and environmental dimensions. This includes supporting health and education systems and markets, and otherwise contributing to long-term sustainable development goals.’

A vote on this on the website showed 69% in favour. Could we not have it on the WHS agenda?

The Grand Bargain

Finally on the SG’s Report, the Grand Bargain. This offers humanitarian actors better and greater funding, in return for reform of the system. It is reminiscent of the kind of bargain in other international negotiations, for example when the Rio Summit agreed that developing countries would do more for the environment in return for greater funding, or when donors agreed to provide $100bn in climate finance in return for more action on climate change by developing countries.

But the people at the table here are not all countries. On one side of the table, yes, there are donors. On the other side, however, the UN bodies and NGOs are in an important sense agents of the donors. So what is the problem that needs to be solved? If donors want agencies to behave differently, for example in producing single needs assessment reports, why do they not just say so? Desmond Swayne rather made the point at the Select Committee, in the quote cited earlier, when he said that ‘the consensus in the Department is that we need to provide incentives in the form of the financing—the way that we finance the system—to get it to behave more in the way they want, rather than to secure institutional reform.’

The new DFIDDepartment for International Development Policy

To end, a quick note on the new DFIDDepartment for International Development policy on humanitarian action, and the consultation underway. As noted, the new policy will update the 2011 policy, itself produced following the Humanitarian Emergency Response Review, led by Lord Paddy Ashdown (and, declaration of interest, I was a member of the Senior Advisory Board). I wrote about the HERR at the time.

The consultation asks six questions, as in the box below. These are all good questions, and

Questions asked in the DFIDDepartment for International Development Consultation on the new humanitarian policy


the SG Report touches on many of them. Actually, so did the 2011 Policy, which set seven goals for the UK:

  • strengthen anticipation and early action in response to disasters and conflict;
  • build the resilience of individuals, communities and countries to withstand shocks and recover from them;
  • strengthen international leadership and partnerships;
  • protect civilians and humanitarian space;
  • support improvements in accountability, impact and professionalism of humanitarian action;
  • invest in research and find innovations; and
  • reinforce the British Government’s own capacity to respond to humanitarian crises

I wonder what DFIDDepartment for International Development thinks worked and did not work with respect to these goals, and why change is needed. It is a pity there was not a discussion paper to accompany the consultation. Perhaps they want us to work it out for ourselves!

A general point, however, is that the new humanitarian policy will need to be written in the context of HMG’s other policies. These include the new Strategic Defence and Security Review and the new UK aid strategy, both published in November.  The latter, remember, identifies four new strategic priorities, viz


  • Strengthening global peace, security and governance: the government will invest more to tackle the causes of instability, insecurity and conflict, and to tackle crime and corruption. This is fundamental to poverty reduction overseas, and will also strengthen our own national security at home.
  • Strengthening resilience and response to crises: this includes more support for ongoing crises including that in Syria and other countries in the Middle East and North Africa region, more science and technology spend on global public health risks such as antimicrobial resistance, and support for efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change.
  •  Promoting global prosperity: the government will use Official Development Assistance (ODA) to promote economic development and prosperity in the developing world. This will contribute to the reduction of poverty and also strengthen UK trade and investment opportunities around the world.
  • Tackling extreme poverty and helping the world’s most vulnerable: the government will strive to eliminate extreme poverty by 2030, and support the world’s poorest.

Many specific commitments relevant to humanitarian policy are made in the aid strategy, including spending 50% of the aid budget in fragile states, and greatly increasing the funding available to the cross-Government Conflict, Stability and Stabilisation Fund. It will be important to ensure that humanitarian principles pervade the implementation of these commitments.

In addition, DFIDDepartment for International Development is about to publish three other, hopefully linked, reviews: a Bilateral Aid Review, a Multilateral Aid Review, and a Civil Society Partnerships Review. It is important that humanitarian issues are fully addressed in these exercises, and that there is consistency across the piece. There will be spin-off implications for the allocation of funding, between countries, but also between agencies, including across the multilateral system, especially the UN and the EU. We know from evidence to the Select Committee, including an oral evidence session with Mark Lowcock, the Permanent Secretary, in December 2015, that there is likely to be a shift from multilateral to bilateral spending, and that within the multilateral system, there will be more competition. Will this apply to the humanitarian sector, where DFIDDepartment for International Development has so far been mainly a wholesale rather than retail provider of humanitarian aid, and a heavy user of the multilateral system? And will it be part of the Grand Bargain?

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