Humanitarian aid system in need of substantial reform

Migrants on the move in Serbia are among the world’s 125-million left destitute by war and natural disasters. (Marko Djurica, Reuters)

Migrants on the move in Serbia are among the world’s 125-million left destitute by war and natural disasters. (Marko Djurica, Reuters)

The world’s overstretched humanitarian system needs substantial reform, new sources of funding and greater efficiency to safeguard a global public good simply “too important to fail”, a new study says.

Nine specialists appointed by United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon produced the report on humanitarian financing to inform talks at the World Humanitarian Summit in May. Officials at the meeting will be tasked with devising ways to reinvigorate the aid system in a time of unprecedented displacement caused by man-made and natural disasters.

As well as providing concrete fundraising suggestions – including micro-levies on corporations, a voluntary solidarity tax and the increased use of Islamic funding such as zakat religious contributions and Islamic bonds – the authors had sharp words for a system often riven by turf wars.

The world already spends roughly $25-billion – 12 times more than it did in 2001 – to support the estimated 125-million people left destitute by war and natural disasters. But at least another $15-billion is needed, the report’s authors said.

“This is a lot of money, but not out of reach for a world producing $78-trillion of annual gross domestic product,” wrote the high-level panel, noting that the funds raised for humanitarian aid in 2014 amounted to just 0.031% of gross domestic product.

The European commissioner, Kristalina Georgieva, who co-chaired the panel, told reporters in Brussels that the number of people in need had almost quadrupled since the beginning of the millennium.

“If they were a country … this would be the 11th-largest country in the world – just between Japan and Mexico – and people in this country would most of the time be scared for their lives … They would be often out of their homes – 60-million of them – with an average duration of displacement being 17 years,” she said.

Should the needs of citizens of this “invisible country” remain unaddressed, the world will fail to achieve the sustainable development goals adopted at the UN in September, the report warned.

Georgieva said fixing the aid system was possible: “This is one problem that, if we muster the political will, we can solve. Why? Because not only is it morally right, but it is also in our own self-interest. We don’t have to look further than Europe’s refugee crisis to understand this.”

The report focused on reducing humanitarian needs, raising more money and improving efficiency.

Global political leadership was identified as key to achieving the first of these goals, with the emphasis on preventing conflicts and increasing investment in disaster risk reduction. To this end, the report recommended that official development assistance should focus on fragile situations.

The authors called for a threefold increase in funds for the International Development Assoc­iation’s crisis response window and an easing of eligibility criteria to allow middle-income countries to access grants and low-cost loans if needed. They also recommended that UN member states put 1% of core funding allocated to peace operations into the UN Peacebuilding Fund.

They advocated the creation of a voluntary solidarity levy at the May summit in Istanbul, although Georgieva said the panel was unable to agree on specifics. Some proposed an air ticket or gasoline levy, but others were “dead against” any tax.

Georgieva, a Bulgarian citizen and former vice-president of the World Bank, said the panel had also looked at micro-taxes on entertainment and travel.

Businesses must play a bigger role in the humanitarian system, helping to manage risk and modernise transparency, and there should be a greater use of social impact bonds, micro-levies on corporations and Islamic social finance.

“If you take one of the Islamic financing platforms – this is zakat, mandatory giving – zakat is somewhere between $300-billion and $500-billion a year. Just 1% of zakat will go a long way to closing the $15-billion gap,” Georgieva said, adding that concrete products would be piloted to show how to tap into this funding stream.

To address inefficiencies, the panel proposed a “grand bargain” under which “donors would not simply give more but give better, by being more flexible, and aid organisations would reciprocate with greater transparency and cost-consciousness”.

This pact would involve the use of more cash-based aid, give a greater role to local organisations, and prompt donors to give more long-term, predictable funding.

“Right now, we have ‘competitive inefficiency’,” said Georgieva. “Something happens and we are like eight-year-olds playing soccer – we are all chasing the ball.”

The report praised the dedication of thousands of humanitarian workers but had sharp words for the “wasteful” competition between aid agencies for funds.

“While the need for joint planning is often talked about, in reality every organisation is an island. Turf wars are a common occurrence, with each organisation trying to position itself as the best implementer,” it said.

The study was to be presented to Ban in Dubai on Sunday; the location was deliberate, Georgieva said. “Tragically, this is the region that is now the example of people in need. Three out of every four appeals that exceed $1-billion take place in the Middle East.”

The authors stressed change was urgent. If current trends continue, by 2030, when the sustainable development goals are due to expire, the cost of humanitarian assistance will have risen to $50-billion and 62% of the world’s poor could be living in fragile and conflict-affected countries. Despite the challenges, they said they were optimistic.

“The record sums being raised are a powerful signal that our collective humanity is a force to be reckoned with and can be harnessed to even greater effect. But we also need the political will to create change at scale.” ­– © Guardian News & Media 2016



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