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ALNAP review of humanitarian system

Summary of published report1

A recently published report, commissioned under ALNAPs2 Humanitarian Performance Project, set out to chart the performance and progress of the humanitarian system. It is based upon a respondent survey of 499 individuals and in-depth interviews with 89 humanitarian professionals. The report also benefited from views and feedback of the ALNAP Steering Committee and ALNAP membership.

The report set out to define key criteria for assessing system performance and progress and assess the system's performance over the past two years against these criteria. It presents new previously unavailable descriptive statistics and highlights some new initiatives in policy and practice.

The research team synthesised the findings of roughly 500 global survey responses, 100 recent evaluations, 89 interviews, staffing and budget information of over 200 aid organisations and a financial analysis of global humanitarian aid flows. The resulting report represents a pilot effort to broadly assess the 'state of the system' with the intent, if it is found useful, to repeat the exercise once every two years. The study was necessarily limited to assessing operational performance of the international humanitarian system, rather than taking the measure of beneficiary-level impacts.

The review focused on emergencies for which an appeal for international assistance was made and in which international aid agencies were involved. To do so, it examined three main categories of humanitarian actor: the major providers (non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the International Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement), the programme conveners/coordinators (the main role of United Nations (UN) humanitarian agencies and offices), and the official donors. The scope of the mapping exercise was limited to the 'formal international system'. Time and resource constraints did not adequately allow for a comprehensive survey of national, local and communitybased organisations or an in-depth examination of the evolving engagement of militaries and the private sector.

The review found that the international system has shown considerable growth in recent years. Global staffing levels have increased at an average annual rate of 6% over the past decade, and have now reached a total population of roughly 210,800 humanitarian workers in the field. In 2008, some $6.6 billion was contributed by donors directly to international emergency response efforts, a nearly three-fold increase since the start of the decade after allowing for inflation.

In terms of performance, findings indicate overall progress in areas having to do with the internal workings of the humanitarian system, such as coordination mechanisms, funding vehicles and assessment tools. At the same time, some fundamental issues, such as leadership and the system's engagement with and accountability to beneficiaries, remained weak.

Key findings against the review assessment criteria were:


Humanitarian funding has increased and is being distributed more equitably across sectors and emergencies, facilitated in large part by new pooled funding mechanisms. On average, total humanitarian contributions equalled over 85% of total stated requirements in 2007 and 2008, compared with 81% in 2006 and only 67% in 2005. However, the needs of affected populations have gone up as well and are still not matched by resources. The result is a nearly universal perception of insufficiency, despite quantitative evidence of progress. In a few contexts, humanitarian access is seen to be declining, owing to insecurity and/or host government restrictions. In the most contested environments, insecurity for aid workers has increased markedly.


The quality of needs assessments was seen to have improved. A majority of respondents indicated that interagency needs assessments were taking place in their contexts and were adequate. Despite improvements, however, humanitarian actors felt that needs assessment remained a weakness in the system. Evaluations and beneficiary consultations continue to note problems of multiple assessments without sufficient follow-up. Beneficiaries continue to be inadequately consulted and involved in assessments and subsequent programme design. Prioritisation has improved with the advent of new tools and methodologies based on assessment frameworks. An impressive amount of innovation has occurred in the past two years, in both inter-agency needs assessment methodologies and mechanisms for strategic prioritisation of allocations based on the assessments. (In fact, the glut of new initiatives has raised concerns of too many parallel processes potentially having a counterproductive effect, and the possible need for some consolidation). Relevance/ appropriateness was also seen to benefit from the array of new types of programming now under consideration, including cash transfers and new interventions to support livelihoods and promote market development.

Timeliness of response

Improvements were identified in the timeliness of response. Significant agency investments in standby capacity and new mechanisms, notably the UN Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF), and in at least one case the Cluster Approach, had enabled rapid action. Current efforts to increase humanitarian engagement and investment in disaster risk reduction (DRR) should reap future benefits in terms of improved preparedness and more timely, efficient and locally grounded responses. The need to focus on DRR has been highlighted by studies looking at the humanitarian implications of climate change.


Overall, coordination was seen to improve with the introduction of the Cluster Approach. Although it remains a subject of debate, positive views about the value of clusters outnumbered negative ones. Beyond these improvements in sectoral coordination, however, overarching leadership for coordination was a noted weakness. In particular, the strengthening of the Humanitarian Coordinator (HC) system is seen as vital but still a work in progress, with too many HCs lacking sufficient knowledge of the humanitarian system to coordinate and advocate effectively. Other coordination trends highlighted included a growing role for regional bodies such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and increased investments in consortia approaches, promoting greater collaboration between NGOs.


Monitoring continues to be consistently identified as a particular weakness within the system in many evaluations, although survey respondents did feel that the quality of monitoring was improving. Beneficiary consultations have stressed a desire for greater follow-up and monitoring from donors and implementing agencies. Stronger monitoring of pooled funding arrangements is also seen as a critical issue. Many agencies have made real efforts to increase investment in operational capacity and quality of human resources. The survey and interviews did note improvements in the professionalism of humanitarian staff. However, evaluations continue to identify problems with high staff turnover and a need to invest more in human resource management systems. There continues to be widespread acknowledgement of the need to invest more in national staff development. There are also growing capacities on the part of national governments to meet the needs of their own citizens in times of disaster in many contexts, which should be considered in advance of launching response efforts.

Local and national capacity

The paucity of investment in local and national capacities was a repeated concern, as were the top-down orientation of the system and the risk of undermining local capacities. However, there are also signs of improvement in how international agencies work with local humanitarian actors. A solid majority of survey respondents indicated that efforts at capacity building had increased in the past two to three years. There is also clear momentum around the need for greater downward accountability and participation. Investments in feedback and complaint mechanisms and greater transparency are becoming more commonplace, which benefits programmes.


Efficiency issues, including the risks of corruption, continue to be relatively unaddressed in the literature and evaluations of humanitarian action, although Transparency International is developing an anti-corruption toolkit. There has been widespread concern about agency overhead and programme support costs, particularly in relation to new financial mechanisms. People also noted, however, that the constant drive to minimise administrative costs was leading to chronic underinvestment in key capacities that could serve to improve performance. Efficiency therefore seems to be neglected in terms of analysis, and has arguably too great a focus on driving down administrative costs. In terms of the transaction costs of coordination (staff time and resources required to participate in new mechanisms and common processes), a consensus of reviews and survey respondents was that the benefits of coordination exceeded the costs of these new administrative burdens.

Humanitarian law and principles

The sum of interviewee comments, survey respondents and recent research findings does seem to suggest a growing concern about the lack of respect for International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and core humanitarian principles in many recent conflicts. Humanitarian aid agencies identify a lack of respect for principles on the part of warring parties, but also on the part of donor governments and their militaries. This is a result of comprehensive and 'whole of government' approaches (integrating humanitarian action with broader foreign policy goals) on the part of Western governments. Aid agencies also noted, however, that collectively they themselves were not doing enough to maintain principled approaches or to advocate effectively for respect for humanitarian principles and IHL vis-à vis governments.

Integrated missions continue to cause concern for some agencies, regarding the challenge they pose to humanitarian independence. However, there is a more nuanced perspective on their role and impact as compared with previous years. In some contexts, integration is seen to present real opportunities. Overall, the role of UN integrated missions and UN peacekeeping forces was considered to be significantly less threatening than the growing involvement of Western militaries in providing aid in conflicts in which they are involved.

Recent years have seen an increased focus on the issue of protection within the humanitarian system. Guidelines and policies have been developed, and unprecedented numbers of humanitarian organisations now undertake protection activities. However, confusion over what protection is and which actors have responsibility for it continues to be an issue. There has been criticism of the quality of protection work, including the deployment of inexperienced staff, breaches of confidentiality of affected populations and inconsistent knowledge and application of relevant laws.

Cross-cutting issues

Regarding the crosscutting issues of illness, age, gender and disability, there is an evident tendency within the humanitarian system towards sudden bursts of attention to particular issues, such as that given to HIV/AIDS in the early 2000s or to gender mainstreaming in the 1990s, followed by a relative lull. Several interviewees noted that it was a challenge to maintain sufficient attention within organisations on these issues that need to be mainstreamed.

Show footnotes

1Harvey. P et al (2010). The state of the humanitarian system. Assessing performance and progress - a pilot study. ALNAP

2Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance.

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Reference this page

ALNAP review of humanitarian system. Field Exchange 39, September 2010. p13.



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