How is the humanitarian system performing? 10 key questions

05 December 2018

How well is the humanitarian system performing? Are we reaching everyone in need? Are we providing people in crises with the things they need?

At the heart of its analysis, The State of the Humanitarian System (SOHS) report assesses how well humanitarians are performing against a series of criteria (Find out more about these in the Components, Methods and Approach section of the report). The findings of this assessment are summarised below in 10 questions to help you understand the performance of the humanitarian system. 

Are resources sufficient to meet needs?

SOHS 2018 Criterion: Sufficiency

Despite concerns that economic and political conditions in major donor countries may lead to a fall in humanitarian funding, volumes continued to rise, albeit at a much slower rate than in previous periods. Requests for funding also increased significantly over the period, and as a result there was no improvement in sufficiency: available resources were still inadequate to meet needs. UN appeals were on average 58% funded over the period. Increased funding requests appear to reflect an increase in the number of people needing humanitarian assistance; the increased costs of providing a greater variety of services to people in crisis; and the higher costs of providing services to urban and middle-income populations and people in conflict areas.

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Does assistance and protection reach everyone in need?

SOHS 2018 Criterion: Coverage

Coverage is getting worse. In some cases, the humanitarian system has overlooked crises – generally because they are in countries with authoritarian governments that prevent access, or because the people in acute need fall outside the accepted scope of humanitarian action. Alternatively, the system might respond to a crisis, but particular areas or groups may simply be missed out. Coverage was particularly poor in remote, sparsely populated areas, areas where there was a high risk (or perceived risk) to humanitarian staff, areas under siege, and for displaced people outside camps and irregular migrants. Marginalised groups – particularly minority ethnic and cultural groups and the elderly – were most likely to be overlooked. There are also signs that some humanitarian agencies have become more risk-averse and less willing to operate in areas deemed to be high risk, and that a number of governments are becoming more confident in using bureaucratic delaying tactics to prevent humanitarian agencies from reaching areas in need of assistance.

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Do humanitarian activities address the most important needs?

SOHS 2018 Criterion: Relevance and appropriateness

The humanitarian system is generally able to identify and prioritise those activities most important in keeping people alive in acute crisis (health assistance, clean water and particularly – according to affected people themselves – food). Humanitarian agencies are generally less good at identifying and programming for the most relevant protection activities, or meeting priority needs once the initial phase of the crisis has passed. The system is also generally poor at understanding the specific vulnerabilities of particular population groups, and often fails to ensure that assistance is relevant to the needs of the elderly or disabled people. There have been some improvements – at a policy level at least – in making responses more relevant to women.

These weaknesses were mentioned in the 2012 and 2015 editions of the SOHS and appear to be unchanged. However, there do appear to have been some improvements related to relevance over the last three years. Assessments have improved (although monitoring remains very weak) and the increased use of multi-purpose cash grants has allowed some aid recipients to decide on their priorities for themselves.

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Are people involved in decision-making and able to hold humanitarians to account?

SOHS 2018 Criterion: Accountability and participation

Accountability combines a growing number of activities concerned with regulating the relationship and power imbalances between people affected by crisis and humanitarian agencies. The State of the Humanitarian System report focuses on two areas in particular: participation in decision-making by affected people, and the degree to which humanitarian agencies are held accountable for the decisions they make on behalf of affected people. The research strongly suggests that consulting people and enabling them to give feedback on programmes enhances their sense of dignity, and their perceptions of the quality and relevance of aid.

However, consultation is a limited form of participation, and the views of crisis-affected people do not seem to have influenced or changed humanitarian plans in any meaningful way. The focus on information collection systems also made many people feel that the issue was becoming bureaucratised and seen as a ‘box-ticking exercise’. There were more ambitious examples of ‘handing power over’ in humanitarian programming, but they were generally isolated, and did not lead to changes in the system as a whole.

The picture was similar with respect to accountability: reporting mechanisms increased, but on their own they are not enough to improve accountability. There was also some progress on making people aware of their rights and entitlements, but very little headway was made on mechanisms for redressing grievances or imposing sanctions. Despite high-level attention to the issue of sexual abuse and exploitation, movement on the ground was slow.

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Do programmes achieve their objectives, on time and at acceptable quality?

SOHS 2018 Criterion: Effectiveness

The humanitarian system was generally effective in meeting life-saving objectives in 2015–17. It appeared to have improved in this area since 2015, notably in its response to food insecurity. Progress on meeting protection objectives was mixed, although the system recorded some notable successes in this area. The system was less effective at addressing longer-term and resilience objectives.

The timeliness of responses improved, albeit not across the board. There was a much faster response to indications of famine in the Horn of Africa than previously, and responses were also timely in highly visible rapid-onset disasters, such as the earthquake in Nepal and the movement of Rohingya people into Bangladesh. Responses were slower in less well-publicised crises in countries with a long-term humanitarian presence. A final, and significant, area of improvement was in the quality of responses, particularly as perceived by aid recipients.

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Do programmes use the lowest possible level of funding and resources?

SOHS 2018 Criterion: Efficiency

A lack of budgetary information and valid comparisons with other service providers makes it difficult to say whether humanitarian aid is generally efficient or not. Available information suggests that the system is not inherently inefficient, but also that there are numerous areas where efficiency could be improved. In 2015-2017 modest progress was made, largely through the increased use of preparedness and early warning mechanisms, better integration of humanitarian activities into social safety nets, increased use of technology and cash programming and moves to establish common procurement mechanisms and supply chains. There was less progress on the systemic and structural barriers to efficiency – such as overlaps between agencies and multiple, often duplicated, reporting requirements to different donors.

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Does humanitarian action comply with and support humanitarian principles and international humanitarian law?

SOHS 2018 Criterion: Coherence

Coherence (in this report and summary) means the degree to which humanitarian agencies follow core humanitarian principles, and the degree to which their actions encourage support for IHL and Refugee Law. There is a sense among humanitarian agencies that this has become more difficult: increased security concerns have forced difficult choices between staff safety and the provision of assistance to people in need. Security and developmental agendas at policy level have also made it more difficult to provide humanitarian aid in an impartial and neutral way. Humanitarian actors are also concerned that they are becoming more closely involved in attempts by states to control flows of migrants and refugees. Humanitarian advocacy and negotiation have improved, and donor states – often supported or lobbied by other humanitarian actors – have created agreements to support IHL. However, these appear to have had limited effect on the ground, and there were numerous flagrant breaches of IHL and Refugee Law. While this is not new, there are signs that the situation has got worse, and states that previously supported the international legal regime are increasingly acting in ways that suggest this support is weakening.

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How well does humanitarian action address the causes of need, or link with activities that do?

SOHS 2018 Criterion: Connectedness

Connectedness has seen significant movement over the last three years, and the humanitarian sector is increasingly engaging with the underlying problems of poverty, vulnerability and conflict. These activities have been effective in some cases – particularly in work with governments to address vulnerability to recurrent ‘natural’ disasters – but in other contexts there is much less evidence of success and this is still the worst performing criterion in the practitioner survey. Some agencies and practitioners question the relevance of connectedness for humanitarian action, and argue that humanitarians should focus on life-saving activities. Beyond these concerns, the main constraints to success relate to links, relationships and coordination with development actors. While development actors are frequently present in crisis contexts, humanitarian counterparts have generally not been good at handing over programmes, and joint planning and implementation is difficult. Particularly in conflicts, this reflects a lack of development planning and structures within governments.

At the same time, the international community (beyond the humanitarian system) has begun to engage more robustly with the challenges of poverty and insecurity in fragile states. Humanitarians have complained for years that development actors do not involve themselves in these contexts. In the period 2015–17, this changed. Significant amounts of funding and assistance were allocated – bilaterally or through international funding institutions – to states experiencing conflict or hosting large numbers of refugees. It remains to be seen how humanitarian actors will adapt to these changes in the operational and funding environment.

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Does the international humanitarian system recognise and support the capacities of national actors?

SOHS 2018 Criterion: Complementarity

National actors (governments and civil society) are central to many humanitarian responses. In the five countries where the aid recipient survey was conducted, 45% of respondents received aid from the government or local/national civil society groups, and 34% from international organisations. The survey did not show any consistent difference between the quality, relevance or speed of responses led by international or by national actors.

Overall, relationships between international actors and crisis affected states are improving – although this varies significantly from one situation to another. In general the more the state takes a lead role in the response, the better the relationship with international actors. However, this is not always the case – particularly where the government is party to a major internal conflict and in refugee-hosting situations. Problems have also emerged in rapid-onset emergencies, where there is still a tendency for humanitarian surge deployments to ignore local capacity.

The 2015–17 period saw an increased focus on the role of national and local NGOs in humanitarian response. Various policy initiatives were given significant impetus by the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit and follow-up activities. In particular, there was widespread agreement on the need to increase the funding going directly to national and local NGOs, to help these organisations to develop their capacity and to build more genuine partnerships. However, while a number of donors and operational agencies have taken action in these areas, overall progress since the Summit has been limited.

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What are the long-term consequences of humanitarian action?

SOHS 2018 Criterion: Impact

Impact is at once one of the most important and least understood aspects of humanitarian performance. For years, academics and commentators have suggested that humanitarian action might, unintentionally, do more harm than good, particularly in situations of conflict. However, there is little hard data measuring the impact of humanitarian responses on wider populations or across time. Very few evaluations attempt to assess impact, in part because the short funding cycles of humanitarian action prevent consistent longitudinal research. There is also a lack of baseline data against which to measure progress. Overall, information on impact is scattered and largely anecdotal, and does not allow any overall conclusion to be drawn.

Click here to read more in the full chapter.