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The state of the humanitarian system

Summary of report1

A recent report by ALNAP presents a system-level mapping and analysis of the performance of international humanitarian assistance between 2009 and 2011 building on an earlier pilot report published covering 2007 and 2008. The method for the mapping involved a number of components:

There are now some 4,400 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) worldwide undertaking humanitarian actions on an ongoing basis. Yet the system is still dominated in terms of operational presence and resource share by the small group of United Nations (UN) humanitarian agencies, the International Movement of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (ICRC) and five international ‘mega’ NGOs whose combined humanitarian expenditure in 2010 exceeded 2.7 billion dollars. The population of humanitarian workers continued to grow in the past two years but not as fast as previously – combined growth rate of 4% in 2009-10. In 2010 there were an estimated 274,000 humanitarian workers worldwide. Controlling for the surge in funds for Haiti in 2010 and adjusting for inflation, the long-term upward trend in humanitarian funding continued at 1% on average for 2009-2010.

Although humanitarian funding has shown a ten year rising trend, the majority of actors surveyed perceived funding in their settings to be insufficient, especially for the sectors of protection and early recovery. On average, funding coverage against needs (as stated in appeals) stayed effectively static in 2009-10 compared to 2007-8, rising to 54% from 53%, with unequal growth across sectors. Most funding continues to go to a small number of protracted crises: Sudan, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan and the occupied Palestinian Territories, and to high-profile natural disasters, such as Haiti. The systems poor showing in coverage and sufficiency is largely a consequence of financial, human and material resources not growing fast enough to keep pace with rising needs. The growth in needs is due to a combination of factors including increases in climate-related natural disasters, agency efforts to account for the true total of affected populations, and appeals for the humanitarian system to take on more activities in recovery, preparedness and development.

Most survey respondents from the international system saw a moderate improvement in the quality of needs assessments in the past two years. Where operations were found to be less relevant, reviews cited the inability to meet the full spectrum of need and a weak understanding of local contexts as key reasons. Surveys clearly found that humanitarian organisations had failed to consult with recipients in their setting or to use their input in programming. This deficit could be addressed in the near future by technical advances in methods of needs assessment. Humanitarian organisations are increasingly focused on more comprehensive inclusive and participatory needs assessments, and this reporting period saw a serious drive from the centre of the humanitarian system in this regard. Examples include the Inter Agency Standing Committee (IASC)’s Needs Assessment Taskforce (NATF), resulting in a new set of tools.

Most interventions were found to be effective or partially effective in terms of achievement against projected goals or international standards, the avoidance of negative outcomes and/or the receipt of positive feedback from aid recipients. Where overall effectiveness has been questioned, the key reasons were time delays and poorly defined goals. Each major emergency during the reporting period had a mixed review in terms of effectiveness. In particular, the response in the Horn of Africa was found to be abjectly slow at a systemic level, with significant disconnects between early warning systems and response, and between technical assessments and decision- makers.

The key elements of humanitarian reform effectively came of age during this reporting period, as the cluster system, the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) and country- level pooled funding all underwent five-year evaluations. Each evaluation revealed that these instruments have become accepted as the new and generally improved means of operation. The lynchpin role of the Humanitarian/Resident Coordinator (HC/RC) continues to be a focus of attention. Questions remain about skills prioritisation and meritbased selection. Survey responses suggest the somewhat more nuanced finding that the greatest dissatisfaction within the system is with the lack of overall coordination at country level, rather than with the individual RC/HC. However, both aspects are found to be wanting by different actors in the system.

Most of the aid recipients surveyed felt that the foremost way in which humanitarian organisations could improve would be to “be faster to start delivering aid”. At global level, the CERF gets high marks for timeliness in funding disbursements, but the timeliness of donor contributions overall declined between 2007-8 and 2009-10. Response rosters have improved the capacity of agencies in operations and coordination to fill key posts in timely fashion. However, high staff turnover and the ongoing challenge for humanitarian agencies in preparing staff to understand the political and cultural context, often at short notice, greatly undermine success in this area.

The issue of monitoring, identified as a key weakness in the pilot study, has still received little attention and states are still notably absent from evaluating their own responses or participating in joint evaluations with counterparts.

A significant rise in capacity of National Disaster Management Authorities has reinforced the system’s engagement with governments of affected states and heightened recognition of the need to support their priorities more effectively in natural disasters. However, much practical work remains to be done to help strengthen host-country coordination structures and response capacities. The relationship between donors, non-government actors and recipient states can often be strained. For instance, the focus of some governments on sovereignty and self-reliance in the face of disasters has seen increasing refusals to issue the ‘standard emergency’ appeals that have traditionally triggered the international system’s response. For their part, host government representatives are frustrated by the ‘artificial’ division between relief and development aid in the international aid architecture.

Despite the increasing importance of local partnerships in highly insecure settings, there remains an underinvestment in the capacities of local operational partners. Interviews and evaluations noted that national organisations are often working at or beyond their maximum operational capacity and find the additional pressure to meet a variety of international standards challenging, if not impossible, given available resources and time. Yet local capacitybuilding remains one of the hardest areas to raise funds for in non-emergency periods. While there are increased opportunities for local organisations to apply for pooled funding, there is very little bilateral funding being directed towards them.

Initiatives by DAC and its members, such as Internews, Frontline SMS, BBC Media Action and others, have greatly increased engagement with the views of affected populations, as well as providing information as a vital form of aid in emergencies.

Clusters and country-level pooled funds are credited with bringing larger volumes of funding and contributing to stronger coordination, but at times can sacrifice speed for inclusiveness. Some major donors, facing budget pressures, became increasingly concerned with cost efficiency, or ‘value for money’. Challenges remain, however, in clarifying the concept and making meaningful comparisons between contexts.

Key innovations in humanitarian action including use of cash and mobile communications technology, reached a transformative scale during this period. The subject of innovation itself became a major area for action in the system, with new funds and mechanisms designed to study and support innovation in humanitarian programming.

The extent to which actors converge around shared principles and goals seems to have weakened. Many humanitarian organisations appear to have willingly compromised a principled approach in their own conduct through close alignment with political and military activities and actors. The internal coherence of the humanitarian system has increasingly been tested, as a gulf widens between strict ‘traditionalist’ humanitarian actors such as ICRC and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), and the rest of the system which is populated by multimandated organisations.

In cyclical and slow-onset disasters, the longacknowledged disconnect between development and humanitarian programming has failed populations at risk. The concept of resilience may offer a basis for increasing coherence.

Major recommendations in the report include the following:

  1. With the rise of the resilience agenda, it is critical that new financing instruments are considered to provide the long-term, flexible financing that these broader nonrelief interventions require.
  2. There is a need to deepen investments in contextual analysis and to engage aid recipients and local organisations more meaningfully in determining needs and programme design.
  3. Increased efforts must be made to collect and appropriate use data disaggregated by sex and age.
  4. To increase aid effectiveness, there is a need for more effective humanitarian leadership in crisis countries, preparedness and surge capacity for more rapid response as well as investment in monitoring and the need for greater engagement in evaluations on the part of host states.
  5. A focus on documenting good practice or achievements in collective, coordinated, principled approaches in crisis contexts would be valuable and would serve to support much-needed learning on the effective operationalisation of humanitarian principles.

Show footnotes

1ALNAP (2012). The State of the Humanitarian System. ODI, London, July 2012. For access to the report as well as video footage of the key report messages and the launch of the report, visit:

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Reference this page

The state of the humanitarian system. Field Exchange 44, December 2012. p31.



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