Keynote presentation: The State of the Humanitarian System 2018

29 January 2019

What are the key trends and findings of ALNAP's State of the Humanitarian System 2018? In this keynote presentation ALNAP's director, John Mitchell, shares key points from the report and examines what this might mean for humanitarian action in the future.

Click here to read the video transcript

Good afternoon everybody.  It’s my pleasure to present to you the findings of the 4th edition of the SOHS report. 

As with previous editions, this report provides a summary of humanitarian needs and an overview of the resources available to meet these needs.   It also describes the current size and structure of the humanitarian system and provides a detailed assessment of its overall performance.  

The findings cover a three-year study period from January 2015 to December 2017; and are based on a synthesis of 200 evaluations, 500 interviews with key informants, 5 field case studies, and surveys of both 5000 aid recipients and over 1170 humanitarian personnel surveys.  The analysis builds on the previous three SOHS reports to provide a longitudinal perspective.

As you may have noticed, this edition is very hefty, and I can’t cover all of it in this short presentation.  Instead, I would like to give you an overview of the three main areas covered by the report: humanitarian needs over the last three years; the resources that were available to address them; and some trends in humanitarian performance. 

Before I begin, let me explain what we mean by the humanitarian system.   You can see from this slide that it is made up of all the well-known organisations that are specifically funded to undertake humanitarian action, and these are shown in red in the diagram.  There are of course many other agencies involved in crises contexts which work alongside the formal system - and these are shown in yellow in the diagram.  We do not include them in the international system as they are not related to the same funding mechanisms, and their main aims tend not to be about providing humanitarian assistance and protection.  However, we know they are important and I will return to a discussion of some of them later.  

So, let us turn to our first topic: humanitarian need.

By the end of the  period, there were an estimated 201 million people in need of assistance, the highest estimate to date.  To put this in perspective, this means that the number of people in need was roughly equivalent to the combined populations of Germany, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and Spain.

The number of people forcibly displaced by conflict and violence increased over the period, reaching 68.5 million in 2017 and nearly two-thirds of these people were IDPS.   However, the biggest increases was in the number of refugees, which rose by 33% since the last report. 

Need was driven by protracted large scale conflicts, primarily in Syria, Yemen, South Sudan and Iraq - and half of all  international assistance went to these four crises.  This intensified the trend of funding being increasingly concentrated in large crises, and of an increased proportion of funding going to the Middle East, and decreasing proportions going to Sub-Saharan Africa.

A total of 80% of funding is now spent on countries experiencing conflict: most of these countries are also hosting refugees, or suffering from crises related to natural hazards, or both, 

At the same time, humanitarian action was challenged by new and unexpected emergencies like the European Migration Crisis.  The people entering Europe had a broad range of humanitarian needs – from the preservation of life whist crossing the Mediterranean; to help with dealing with bureaucracies when they arrived in Europe.  These needs occurred in, or off the shores of some of the richest countries in the world, and forced humanitarian agencies to consider their role in a context to which they were unaccustomed. 

The Ebola epidemic in West Africa created a similar challenge in as much as it was new and unexpected.  It was initially seen as purely a ‘health crisis’ and outside of the remit of most humanitarian organisations.  In the end however, humanitarians played an important part, but precious time was lost whilst they tried to clarify their role. 

Both of these situations underline the globalised nature of humanitarian emergencies: which are no longer confined to the margins; and which are increasingly occurring in large cities, and in middle and high income countries. 

Let us turn now to the second element of this presentation: the resources that were available to address these needs.

Against this backdrop of protracted conflict, new types of crisis and increasing need, international humanitarian assistance continued to grow, reaching a new peak at 27.3 billion dollars in 2017.

However, there are signs that the rapid increases in funding seen over the past decade might be tailing off:  After a sharp rise in 2014-15, funding has plateaued over the past three years with total contributions rising at around a modest 3% a year.

However, whilst overall humanitarian funding grew, so – as we have seen – did needs.  This meant that the gap  between requirements and contributions to UN coordinated appeals remained.   I should explain here that the red bars represent total funding per year; the pie charts below represent the percentage of requirements actually met; and the thin black line with the black ball illustrates the gap between funding and requirements.

The 2017 gap was the highest ever in dollar terms – 10.3 billion - but as a proportion of the request it is still the same as the previous study period.

The sources of humanitarian funding also remained stable and show little sign of change.  The largest 20 donors provided 96% of the total in 2017, the same proportion as at the start of the period. The three largest donors, the USA, Germany and the UK accounted for 59% of all government contributions in 2017, compared to 53% in 2015.    The two largest gulf donors the UAE and Saudi Arabia, who were important new entrants in the last report, have dropped off the list of the largest ten contributors of humanitarian assistance.

In terms of major operational agencies, and the distribution of funding, there have not been significant changes, either.   Most donor funds went to UN agencies, with WFP, UNHCR and UNICEF, the three largest in terms of expenditure. However, much of this was then passed on in the form of grants to NGOs.   And so – again, as in 2015, UN agencies and NGOs spent similar amounts overall.  NGO funding continued to be concentrated among a small number of international NGOs: the 6 largest NGOs spent 23% of the NGO total, while all national and local NGOs received 1.4% of the amount going directly from donors to NGOs - although they will have received more indirectly, from INGOs and UN agencies.  

So, let’s take a breath here to reflect on what all of this tells us.  There are many ways to interpret the data but at this moment I want to present four key points. 

Firstly, the shortfall between requirements and financial contributions is still running about at 40-50%.   And this gap is not getting any smaller. 

Second, the growth in global humanitarian funding has plateaued over the past three years. 

Third, humanitarian funds are becoming ever more concentrated in protracted conflict situations in the Middle East. 

And fourth, the financial architecture – in terms of who provides the money, and who spends it - remains constant. The picture is one of very little change.

I will come back to these messages later, as there is more to say about them, but before I do, let’s look at the third main element of the report: the  performance of the humanitarian system, specifically where things have got worse, where improvements have been made; and where things have remained static, In the time we have, it is not possible to take you through all the findings, or even all of the ten performance criteria considered in the report  -  so I will highlight some findings that I think are particularly important.

The first thing is that the geo-political landscape has changed and is markedly different now than in previous study periods.   The political shift away from multilateral cooperation and a rules-based order has had a serious effect on the operational environment in which humanitarian assistance and protection takes place.   Some states that have traditionally provided political and financial support to international humanitarian action appear to have become less supportive to IHL and refugee law. There are strong suggestions that this has emboldened some refugee-hosting  governments and governments engaged in internal conflicts to ignore their obligations and obstruct access to humanitarian agencies.  

But we just can’t blame this on politicians.  According to a survey carried out by ICRC, ordinary people in the P5 countries have also become less supportive of the principles underpinning IHL.

One consequence of this is that many agencies have found it harder to act in accordance with humanitarian principles.

It is no surprise therefore that the ability of people in need to access humanitarian assistance has got worse, with governments and armed groups pushing back against humanitarians and denying access, often using bureaucracy to hinder access,

And the ability to reach everyone in need appears to have been compounded by risk aversion on the part of many agencies. Interviewees and evaluations suggested that the attitudes and behaviours of many humanitarian organisations, were overly risk-averse and agencies were insufficiently prepared to move from one location to another. 

So overall, the report concludes that humanitarian performance in both coherence with international law and principles and in coverage – reaching everyone in need – has declined since 2014.

Moving from bad new to some really good news - when it comes to those people who can access life-saving humanitarian assistance, particularly in the short-term or in early phases of a crisis, activities are  generally effective, timely and of good quality.

It is in these situations, also, where humanitarian assistance is at its most relevant and appropriate and this may be partly due to increased flexible funding through pooled funds, and the use of cash transfers, both of which continued to grow over the period.    Improvements in effectiveness may well relate to better coordination.

In fact, the evidence suggests that the system seems to be getting better at saving lives, particularly in the short term.   And this is a considerable achievement.

The system may also be making some gains with regard to protection.  Agencies and donors are becoming more aware and supportive of protection activities and there are many good local examples positively affecting the behaviour of state and non-state actors.   But at the same time the system still struggles to prioritise the specific activities that produce the best results.  This is because there are so many areas that protection covers, including gender-based violence, child protection, the documentation of identity, mine action and many more.

Overall, however, the report suggests that the effectiveness and relevance of humanitarian action has improved since 2014

Of course, the period 2015-17 covered the WHS, the Grand Bargain, and a number of other, related initiatives that aimed to fundamentally change structures, processes and relationships with the system. I’d like to look at what the report says about progress on three themes that received particular focus: accountability and participation, localisation and the humanitarian / development nexus.

Turning initially to accountability and participation - the first thing that the report showed us is how important this is.  In the recipient survey, people who were consulted or were able to give feedback were over three times more likely to say they had been treated with dignity and respect, than those who had not. 

They were also two to three times more likely to give positive responses about the relevance and quality of aid they had received.  In short, accountability and participation have a significant effect on the quality of aid and the dignity of the recipient.  This is something that most of us have implicitly believed to be true but taken as a matter of faith – but now we have evidence to back it up. 

So how did we do?   Well – the report shows that there are more feedback mechanisms, and that crisis-affected people are more engaged in assessments and needs analysis:  a much higher percentage of aid recipients were consulted prior to an aid distribution and were able to give feedback on programmes than in previous reports.

But there is also a growing level of cynicism amongst many we spoke to.  Despite more people being  consulted, it is also the case more people feel this has become a box-ticking exercise and increasingly mechanistic, with little sign that consultation actually results in concrete improvements.

A second area of focus was that of localisation. Once again, the recipient questionnaire provides some interesting background to this important discussion. First, it demonstrates the importance of national governments and civil society groups – just over half of recipients in the survey reported receiving assistance from government, or local civil society organisations.

Alongside this, aid recipient surveys show that those people who receive assistance did not see any difference in quality or relevance between aid  delivered by an international agency or by a national agency. There are of course different ways one could  interpret this finding – and I will leave that one for you to decide!

In terms of performance on localisation: relations between international actors and governments of affected states continue the trend of improvement seen in the last two editions of the report.

But there was less movement with respect to local and national NGOs. On the positive side,  the issue has definitely risen up the agenda, and there appears to be more understanding and support at the policy level, but the facts on the ground have not – so far – changed significantly.  As I mentioned earlier, only a tiny proportion of funding  went directly to these organisations in 2017 – although they will have received more indirectly.

And the third areas was about the relationship between humanitarian and development activities, and the ways in which humanitarian activities contribute to addressing underlying causes of need.  In this study period we have found some areas that are not changing – but also some areas that are.

In terms of successes, the report suggests that humanitarian actors have been effective in building resilience where they have been part of a larger government led initiative.  However, elsewhere resilience programmes  have struggled to impact on long term, underlying drivers of crises. There do seem to be more programmes addressing this area, but they are not that successful.

When we look at other, more ‘developmental’ areas, we also see very little progress. In particular, the improvements in the provision of immediate assistance have not been mirrored in meeting long term needs in protracted crises.   

But, if the humanitarian system has been slow to change,  significant changes in meeting longer-term needs are happening elsewhere.  It would appear that a big shift is taking place and substantial changes related to protracted and refugee environments  have been happening outside of the traditional humanitarian system.   This is partly due to the political visibility of asylum seekers and irregular migrants which has contributed to increased developmental funding – through the world bank and a series of new bilateral compacts aimed at providing both aid and support to economic growth. 

New funding instruments are also being trialled in crisis setting including Forecast based Financing, the European Investment Banks, Economic Resilience Initiative and Humanitarian Impact Bonds.   It would appear that development actors are beginning to move into this space and, although the linkages with humanitarians are not evident yet, new development work is now taking place.  We will have to wait and see how the humanitarian system will accommodate itself to these changes.

To summarise, during the period 2015-17 we have seen significant, rapid and unexpected changes in the context in which we work: the emergence of a new global, geo-political landscape, a more difficult operational environment and new types of crisis,  for which the system did not seem prepared.

Set against this, we saw a formal architecture that changed very little: the same donors, the same key actors, the same inability of funding to meet all needs.

We did see changes in performance, which were very important particularly around the quality and effectiveness of life-saving assistance.  But with regard to accountability, localisation and links to development, changes were fairly limited, at least so far. This was despite a real focus on change over the period, exemplified by the WHS and the Grand Bargain.

At the same time, we saw several important new actors entering what has traditionally been ‘humanitarian’ space: international finance institutions, for example. We also saw new types of humanitarian organisation, not fully part of the formal system: Indian and Chinese NGOs involved in the Kathmandu valley response, and civil society groups working with informal migrants in Greece and Calais.

So, in conclusion, a gap is opening between the rapid rate of change in the world, and the slow rate at which the humanitarian system adapts to meet these changes.   And in all probability this gap is likely to widen and it’s not hard to imagine a variety of possible futures for humanitarian action between now and 2020.   But whatever path the system takes, it is certain that big challenges and hard questions lie ahead.