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This blog is part of an AlertNet special report on humanitarian aid: futureofaid.trust.org
Abby Stoddard, co-author of the ongoing “State of the Humanitarian System” study, reflects on the findings of AlertNet’s survey on the future of humanitarian aid.
The Thomson Reuters Foundation poll on the future of humanitarian aid provides a window into aid agencies' concerns over the expanding scope and complexity of needs that the international humanitarian system will be called upon to meet – and the limits it faces in doing so.
According to the 41 major humanitarian agencies surveyed, the three biggest drivers of need will be the effects of climate change, urbanisation and rising food prices. Thinking strategically about these problems, aid practitioners increasingly agree that disaster risk reduction measures - including heavy investments in preparedness and building populations’ resilience to cope with emergencies - are crucial.
Such measures, unfortunately, are not in the traditional remit or budgets of humanitarian actors, and are often difficult to fund. As survey respondents put it, these activities are not ‘sexy’ to donors.
The problem is more complicated than lack of sex appeal for fundraising, however.
The findings beginning to emerge in the latest “State of the Humanitarian System” study, to be released later this year, suggest that the humanitarian system is under pressure to expand into ever widening pre- and post-disaster spheres of activity - from preparedness and risk reduction to recovery and rehabilitation. At the same time, it is hamstrung by its funding modalities and longstanding operational principles.
One of the primary reasons major government donors keep their humanitarian and development funding windows separate is to protect the independence of humanitarian response from political interests and conditions. This independence, of course, is something that humanitarians themselves must continually defend, particularly in cases of war where perceptions of political association with a belligerent can have deadly consequences.
The humanitarian tap flows faster and more copiously than the development one, and so far at least has been less affected by recessionary cutbacks in foreign aid budgets. Yet the short-term nature of humanitarian funding means it is also lacks the longer programme horizons required for risk reduction, prevention and recovery activities.
Meanwhile, national governments in many recipient countries have become more capable and more assertive in crisis management and response coordination.
To the newly emerging and strengthening national disaster management authorities in these countries, the walls between humanitarian and development aid are artificial and unhelpful. They are frustrated by what they perceive as their international partners’ inability or unwillingness to support them in the proactive prevention and mitigation of disasters, rather than simply reactive response.
Many of the more capable recipient countries are turning to regional bodies, such as ASEAN’s humanitarian coordination mechanisms in Asia, and non-traditional sources of funding from emerging public and private donors.
If the ‘traditional’ international humanitarian system is not able to stay in the loop and effectively engage with these new actors, it risks new tensions and obstacles and the loss of hard-won coordination gains over the past seven years of humanitarian reform.
The 2012 “State of the Humanitarian System” study tracks these and other developing trends as part of a broad effort to measure and assess the entirety of the international humanitarian system.
The research for the study - conducted for the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action (ALNAP) by consultancy Humanitarian Outcomes, with wide participation and support from other institutions and humanitarian agencies - includes additional survey instruments to capture the opinions and perspectives of humanitarian practitioners, policymakers and recipients.
The surveys are active now, and accessible through the web links below. All field-based staff of international agencies, national and regional agencies, and their host government representatives, are encouraged to contribute their perspectives by clicking on the relevant link:
International aid practitioners’ survey
National and regional aid organisations’ survey
Host government representatives’ survey
Abbey Stoddard is senior programme advisor at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and a partner at Humanitarian Outcomes.
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