Humanitarian Aid’s Shortcomings

humanitarian aid
A report released by Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) last week has shocked the humanitarian aid community. The report, entitled “Where is everyone?,” took a hard look at areas where aid has been falling short, especially in regard to emergency responses.

The three main issues the report finds are: funding is too slow and inflexible, NGOs operating at the grassroots are shut out of the UN-dominated system and emergency response is not prioritized in the humanitarian aid system.

Responses to MSF’s report have not all been favorable. Some, such as Bertrand Taith, a cultural historian of humanitarian aid and director of the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute at the University of Manchester, have criticized MSF’s methodology. Taith called the approach taken by MSF “headline grabbing.”

However, despite the controversy over MSF’s methods, the overwhelming response has been appreciation for the debate it has sparked. The MSF report’s website states: “We intend this paper to start a real discussion with our colleagues in the aid community…to make us all improve how we respond.”

One contribution to the debate has taken the form of a blog entitled, “Where is everyone? We’re standing right next to you.” Bob Kitchen, director of the International Rescue Committee’s emergency preparedness and response unit expressed in the blog that his agency and others “continue to stand and deliver in the face of chaos and mounting humanitarian needs.”

Kitchen’s comment is in response to the report’s finding that humanitarian aid agencies are not targeting the most vulnerable areas, because they are too dangerous and hard to access. One such population being unregistered urban refugees in Jordan.

“We’re not saying [agencies] should take unnecessary risks, but we do feel that in some cases, a perceived lack of security becomes a rather defensive argument,” says Jens Pedersen, a humanitarian adviser with MSF.

Kitchen, however, cites the work his agency is currently doing in Somalia. “A country,” he describes, “so violent that MSF itself has withdrawn.”

Funding is another issue that the report addresses. Not lack of funding in general, but lack of flexible and easily accessible funds. The report begins by saying, “the international humanitarian aid system has more means and resources at its disposal…than ever before.”

The issue is that the money is often inflexible and earmarked. It is also slow; on average, it takes three months for donor funds to be disbursed through UN agencies and reach their target. Three months that emergency response situations cannot afford.

To combat this delay, certain networks have been established. One is the START network, which operates outside the UN. It provides a shared source of emergency funding for 19 major NGOs.

The report effectively sparked debate in the aid community. MSF “has made it clear that [the report] is intended as a trigger for critical discussions in the aid community,” reports IRIN. And, in that regard, it has succeeded.

Humanitarian aid agencies across the globe are preparing for the World Humanitarian Summit, which will take place in Istanbul in 2016. The stated goal of the summit is to “find new ways to tackle humanitarian needs in our fast-changing world,” and the summit will provide space for the conversation about aid effectiveness to continue.

– Julianne O’Connor

Sources: IRIN, MSF, World Humanitarian Summit
Photo: NewInt