Aid sector reform must not be clouded by self-interest - experts

by Tom Esslemont | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 12 April 2016 16:57 GMT

Syrian refugees receive aid packages at Al Zaatari refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria, Jan. 20, 2016. REUTERS/ Muhammad Hamed

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International aid agencies must give local charities greater role in humanitarian crises, think tank says

(Adds comment from U.N. humanitarian chief)

By Tom Esslemont

LONDON, April 12 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The "self-interested" international aid system must give local charities a greater role in shaping responses to humanitarian disasters or it will fail to help those most in need, aid experts warned on Tuesday.

The remarks by a London-based think tank, the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), were aimed at United Nations agencies, governments and private-sector companies preparing to debate changes to the aid system at the World Humanitarian Summit in May.

Opinions are divided over the role of local charities in a reformed aid sector that has long been dominated by Western donors, the Red Cross movement and U.N. agencies, and is now struggling to fund assistance to a record 90 million people in need.

"We need a radical transformation with the big players acknowledging the role of local organisations and other providers, otherwise the Western-dominated aid structure will progressively become irrelevant," the ODI's humanitarian director, Sara Pantuliano, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

A report co-authored by Pantuliano, published on Tuesday, said the entire sector was too self-interested and preoccupied with growth, market share and output, rather than on achieving positive outcomes for beneficiaries.

"Despite the dedication of frontline aid workers, who work tirelessly and often at great personal risk,... these enduring, but outdated, assumptions compel organisations to be competitive, rather than collaborative," the report said.

Aid groups based in developing countries want the May summit in Istanbul to agree what proportion of global humanitarian funding should go to national and local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and a target date for this to be done.

Their share of the total funding pie halved to 0.2 percent in 2014 from 0.4 percent in 2012, and their share of the money received by all NGOs also fell to 1.2 percent, according to the Britain-based research group Development Initiatives.

"The more we can get to delivery through local NGOs, the better - huge amounts are happening in Syria today by that very method," said U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O'Brien.

"It is absolutely clear to me that we need to raise that proportion considerably," he told a debate in London by video link, adding that the international aid community would still have to ascertain people's needs were being properly met.

Under a separate "Charter for Change", 18 international charities so far, including Christian Aid and Islamic Relief Worldwide, have agreed to put into practice by May 2018 eight commitments to boost the role of national agencies.

They include passing 20 percent of humanitarian funding down to that level.

U.N. agencies and large international NGOs should also focus on "enabling" smaller, local organisations to respond in disaster situations, the ODI report said.

One of the world's largest humanitarian charities, Care International, said it largely agreed with the proposal, but said global charities had an important role due to their scale.

"We believe it's still essential for international NGOs to retain the ability to deliver services," said Gareth Price-Jones, Care International's humanitarian policy and advocacy coordinator.

"Being international means we can maintain a pool of skilled staff and supplies which can be deployed anywhere in the world as needed," he added.


Major government donors, including Britain, have shown interest in expanding the work done by local NGOs, but regulations and anti-terror laws often restrict who they can fund.

U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon has also made clear that world leaders must change the way they handle humanitarian crises, which are taking an unprecedented toll on civilians.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has estimated 88.7 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance in 2016, which will cost an estimated $20.1 billion.

"The scale of humanitarian needs at this time is just extraordinary and we must accept our shared responsibilities," the U.N. Secretary-General said in February.

U.N. aid chief O'Brien said on Tuesday that helping people "survive and thrive" and protecting them in conflicts such as the Syria war would require all available skills and experience.

"We need local, and we will continue to need the multilateral and the international, because the scale of human suffering and humanitarian need... is so huge," he said.

Pantuliano said attempts to overhaul the system and increase the role of local NGOs had so far looked like "tinkering", with smaller charities being used as sub-contractors rather than partners.

She said there needed to be changes to the underlying structure and culture on which the system operates.

"If we do not emerge from the World Humanitarian Summit with some clear and tangible commitments on how to reshape the aid sector, it will never deliver on its ambitions," Pantuliano said.

(Reporting By Tom Esslemont, additional reporting by Megan Rowling, editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, corruption and climate change. Visit

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