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Review of NGO engagement with the humanitarian reform process


Summary of report1

Women wait for a WFP general food distribution in Kabul

A recent report analyses the current state of global humanitarian reform efforts from a non-governmental organisation (NGO) perspective. This involved synthesis of a series of mapping studies carried out between November 2008 and February 2009 that looked at humanitarian reform in five countries: Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Ethiopia, Sudan and Zimbabwe. The research was commissioned by a consortium formed by six NGOs - Action Aid, CAFOD, CARE, International Rescue Committee (IRC), Oxfam and Save the Children UK - together with the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA).

The United Nations (UN) humanitarian reform initiative was rolled out in 2005 following poor performance of the international community to the crisis in Darfur in 2004. It had four pillars:

  • Improved humanitarian leadership (through humanitarian coordinators (HCs))
  • Better coordination of humanitarian action (through the cluster approach)
  • Faster, more predictable and equitable humanitarian funding
  • More effective partnerships among humanitarian actors

Limitations of the reform process included the limited focus on accountability to affected populations and involvement of national and local actors.

The mapping studies emphasised the interlinked nature of the different elements of humanitarian reform, and found that the individual elements work best when all elements are working in concert.

Key findings

The study found that progress has been patchy. Financing has seen the greatest progress with the creation of the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF), although there remain challenges to get CERF funding to NGOs in a timely manner. There are also challenges with transparency concerning destination of Common Humanitarian Funds and Humanitarian Response Funds.

Gaps were found in humanitarian leadership with four out of five study countries lacking strong and experienced humanitarian leadership. The UN has continued to appoint unqualified HCs who do not adequately understand humanitarian action, who underestimate the importance of NGOs, who do not understand the critical importance of partnership, and who do not understand how even small amounts of funding can have a strategic impact in humanitarian response.

The study also found that involvement of NGOs in the reform process has been inconsistent. Where NGOs engage with the clusters, they often feel overwhelmed by meetings, and not respected as equal partners. Furthermore, they do not see reform grounded in accountability to the crisis-affected communities. While many NGOs will engage with clusters at the global level, they are finding that in several country situations, their staff continue to be frustrated by the inefficiency and inequality demonstrated in many clusters.

There has also been a failure to involve local and national NGOs in the process, especially with respect to accessing funds or meaningfully participating in coordination mechanisms. There are also questions about what role (if any) clusters should play in allocating funding. There is a perception that in some circumstances, priority is given to the cluster lead agency's projects. There is also concern that cluster lead agencies source funds with the aim of sub-contracting to NGOs who have already put forward projects for funding.

A striking feature of the mapping studies is that they found no hard evidence that UNcentred humanitarian reforms have improved the provision of humanitarian response thus far. The failure to establish benchmarks for overall system performance, as well as the failure to integrate accountability into the reform process, makes it hard to gauge the true impact of the reforms on affected populations.

Key recommendations


The Emergency Relief Coordinator (ERC) should apply Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) standards for the appointment of HCs and only appoint people with substantial humanitarian experience.

UN agencies in the IASC should abandon the dual RC/HC model as the norm and separate the roles to allow for strong humanitarian leadership.

The ERC, UN agencies, global cluster leads and donors should ensure clusters have dedicated cluster leadership, accountability of the cluster lead to the HC and a collaborative approach following the Principles of Partnership.


The role of co-leads or co-chairs of clusters at field level needs to be clarified and donors should ensure financial support for NGO cluster co-leads or co-chairs.

By the end of 2010, the ERC, together with HCs and the IASC, must ensure that Humanitarian Country Teams are formed and involve NGOs in a meaningful way, in line with the Principles of Partnership.

International NGOs and UN agencies should identify ways to better involve their national partners in humanitarian coordination and reform mechanisms to promote more effective humanitarian responses.

Through their position on UN agencies executive boards, donors should hold UN agencies to account for applying the Principles of Partnership as endorsed by the Global Humanitarian Platform in 2007.


HCs, Humanitarian Country Teams, clusters and donors should ensure that funding procedures enable aid agencies to consult with, and respond to, feedback from crisis-affected communities, as well as ensuring projects reflect their priorities.


Donors should ensure flexibility and diversity in funding mechanisms, especially pooled funds, so as to facilitate access by NGOs - particularly local and national NGOs.

International NGOs should be transparent about documenting onward funding to national or local NGOs and should provide adequate overhead costs.

By the end of 2010, UN agencies receiving bilateral funds or donor funding via the CERF and pooled funds should be required by donors to provide evidence of the speed and transparency with which funding is passed through to NGOs.

UN agencies should standardise their procedures for funding NGOs to reduce transaction costs. This is to increase the access of national NGOs to these funds and to avoid the negotiation of overhead costs on a case-by-case basis.

Direct bilateral donor funding to NGOs should also be reformed to promote adequacy, responsiveness and timeliness. In particular, flexible and predictable funding should be provided to build NGO humanitarian capacity over the longer-term and enable speedy response in fast-breaking emergencies - neither of which are comparative advantages of the UN pooled funds.

1Humanitarian Reform Project (2009). Synthesis report. Review of the engagement of NGOs with the humanitarian reform process. Based on five country studies and commissioned by the NGO and Humanitarian Reform Project

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