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Donors in humanitarian action: changing roles, trends and issues

changing roles, trends and issues

Summary of a published review1

The changing role of donor governments in the management of humanitarian assistance is the subject of a recent ODI2 Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) briefing paper. Based on field studies, documentary reviews and case studies of official donors in the United Kingdom (UK), Denmark, Canada and the United States as well as ECHO3, it identifies the implications of observed trends, and proposes an agenda to define 'good donorship' in the humanitarian sphere. The main findings of the study are summarised here.

In 1990-2000, official humanitarian aid flows doubled both in real terms, from 2.1 billion dollars to 5.9 billion dollars, and as a proportion of official development assistance, from 5.83% to 10.5%. Bilateral donors accounted for over 90% of official humanitarian aid spending. These data show a move away from multi-lateral methods of disbursing assistance in favour of bilateral channels. Multi-lateral aid refers only to aid which is not earmarked and is channelled through multilateral institutions such as the United Nations (UN) and the World Bank. All other aid, including earmarked assistance to the UN, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the Red Cross movement, and funds spent by governments themselves, is technically bilateral aid.

Factors accounting for the apparent bilateralisation of aid spending include:

The expansion in the range of potential partners through which official aid might be channelled has made the choice of partner more complicated. It is, however, unclear whether donors have sufficient capacity to appraise and monitor contracts, particularly given the increase in direct contracting with NGOs and in earmarked funding.

Issues of accountability are further complicated by the lack of universally accepted performance indicators, which means that donors are allowing their partners to define and monitor their own programmes. This will make it difficult to assess the overall effectiveness of a particular donor's humanitarian aid programming.

Donors have paid relatively little attention to how they, themselves, are held accountable for the impact of their decisions. Internationally, there is no mechanism of global governance to monitor and regulate the use of official humanitarian assistance, no concensus regarding what a good donor profile is, and no systematic documentation of good practice.

With the partial exception of the UK, the countries looked at in the study have paid little attention to humanitarian assistance, either through parliamentary questions or via committees. Audit reports have been confined largely to issues of financial probity and the conduct of specific operations.

Few independent evaluations of donors humanitarian aid programmes have included assessments of the policies and procedures of donors themselves.

Underpinning these problems of accountability and performance is the fact that the main objective of official humanitarian assistance has become increasingly unclear. At its simplest, it is about meeting life-saving needs. However, over the past decade additional, sometimes competing, objectives have emerged, including promoting development and conflict reduction. Thus, the idea of humanitarian aid as a distinctive form of assistance, governed by principles of impartiality and neutrality, is being eroded. In particular, its independence from the foreign policy of donor states is threatened.

There has been little discussion as to what constitutes a good humanitarian donor. Establishing such an agreement would be timely. Humanitarian aid flows are increasing, humanitarian decision-making is becoming more complex and sensitive and the framework for measuring donor performance is weak, undermining accountability and the trust necessary for positive relations between donors and their partners.

The authors of the study advocate three core principles which might provide the basis for such a discussion. These are:

Systems to measure humanitarian need and monitor the allocation of resources need to be more robust, and the predictability and adequacy of official funding needs to be strengthened. This could be achieved by a number of initiatives, including encouraging the development of multi-year funding arrangements, and ensuring that in major emergencies, additional and adequate funds are made available, and that funds are not simply reallocated from elsewhere.

It is also important to invest in systems to monitor adherence to good practice by, for example, strengthening the capacity and engagement of parliamentary committees and audit offices, and ensuring regular independent evaluations of donor programmes and policies and system-wide evaluations.

Show footnotes

1Macrae. J (2002): The changing role of official donors in humanitarian action; a review of trends and i ssues. HPG Briefing. Number 5, December 2002. Overseas Development Institute

2Overseas Development Institute

3European Commission-Humanitarian Office (ECHO)

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Reference this page

Donors in humanitarian action: changing roles, trends and issues. Field Exchange 19, July 2003. p7. www.ennonline.net/fex/19/donors