The humanitarian response must be fit for new crises – David Miliband, IRC

The humanitarian response must be fit for new crises
David Miliband, IRC
The Guardian: Poverty Matters Blog
Changing ‘aidscape’ demands humanitarian goals with clear targets as part of post-2015 development plan

There will be intensive brainstorming about the future of humanitarian action in the next two years. In March 2015, the third world conference on disaster risk reduction will take place in Japan. The UN development summit in September 2015 will establish the successors to the millennium development goals (MDGs) – the sustainable development goals (SDGs). And in March 2016, the global humanitarian community will meet in Istanbul for the first world humanitarian summit.

This kind of focus is essential because the “aidscape” is changing. On the demand side, the growth of the middle class in China and India means a higher concentration of poverty in conflict-affected states. Half of the world’s extreme poor, who survive on less than $1.25 a day, live in these fragile states. As a result, humanitarian crises are becoming more complex and more frequent.

On the “supply” side, the humanitarian community is characterised by fatigue and fragmentation. The fatigue is manifest in what Pope Francis has called the “globalisation of indifference”. The fragmentation can be seen among traditional humanitarian actors, where there are diverse approaches and priorities, and in the entry of new players, whether funded from Muslim majority countries in the Gulf or by the private sector.

This discrepancy between demand and supply explains why, in the face of an unprecedented four crises rated level 3 by the UN in 2013 (Syria, South Sudan, Central African Republic and the Philippines), the global response has been lacking. UN appeals are underfunded by governments; the public is dispirited; humanitarian NGOs are stretched as rarely before.

Humanitarian agencies like the International Rescue Committee are responding with a range of innovations to improve efficiency and effectiveness. There is more focus on and accountability to “beneficiaries” – the people we assist; more integration of social and economic interventions; and better partnerships with local civil society.

But the challenge for humanitarian action goes beyond the practice of individual agencies. Too often, the whole of our effort seems less than the sum of the parts. To me, that can only be addressed if we debate and decide clear goals to align our efforts. I’m pleased to have initiated a debate on this blog, it’s time to take the ideas further.

Humanitarian goals (HuGos) could help tackle four fundamental issues. First, they could focus attention and resources on what the humanitarian system is trying to achieve. Second, they could align diverse practical efforts on the ground in response to conflict and disaster. Third, they could establish accountability in and for the system. Finally, they could rally public opinion.

There are difficult questions about whether HuGos should be outcome-based (such as around health or education levels, or number of lives saved) or input-or process-based (such as around funding levels, or timeliness of response). Whether HuGos are separate from the SDGs or integrated within them. How they relate to existing standards (eg sphere standards, or the core humanitarian standard).

But the difficulty of the questions should not lead us to duck them – we should aim for outcome-based standards that are integrated into the SDGs, and articulated in the form of floor or convergence targets.
Floor targets have been developed in domestic policy around the world – health, education, crime – to ensure that overall or average improvements in performance of public services are not at the expense of attention to the poorest performance, which is often correlated with socioeconomic status. In improving health, for example, attention is paid to the health of the poorest as well as to the average age of mortality.

There is a clear and compelling parallel for the humanitarian system. Humanitarian floor targets could mean, for example, that education or health levels in fragile states or level 3 emergencies are given due priority by establishing minimum outcome levels alongside the aspirations for improved overall provision for the poorest. Aspirations for tackling gender violence or inequality could be accompanied by floor targets for the position of women and girls in humanitarian emergencies.

The purpose would be to ensure that the SDGs do not encourage “cream skimming” and a focus on those low-income states and people just below the target level. They should be a key part of the armory in tackling the gravest inequalities.

These outcome-based targets could be complemented by input-targets designed to maximise progress towards the agreed outcomes, and to guard against humanitarian priorities being seen as “second-tier” targets. This could be minimum funding levels for the UN Central Emergency Response Fund, or minimum standards for responses to level 3 emergencies.

The conversation about the SDGs is now at quite an advanced stage. So the case for floor targets needs to be made with urgency and purpose. Real progress would set the stage for the world humanitarian summit to address key issues relating to the performance and focus of the humanitarian system, from how it does prevention to the nature of local partnerships and the integration of economic and social concerns.

The debate about the future of the fight against poverty is important and urgent. But one danger is clear: that people in conflict states are the Cinderellas of the process, left in the “too complicated” box. That must not be allowed to happen.