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Accountability Should Be About Delivering the Right Outcomes for People, Not About Completing a Predesigned Project

18/08/2015 23:29 BST | Updated 18/08/2016 10:59 BST

World Humanitarian Day provides us with an opportunity to think about those who work tirelessly around the world to ensure people in crisis have food, water and shelter. It is also a moment to reflect on how we, as a sector, can do better.

Our international humanitarian system is designed to do a particular job. Specifically, to respond with urgency, at scale, to large disasters - particularly natural disasters. An example of this is the response of Mercy Corps and others to April's devastating earthquake in Nepal. The system responds with immediate, life-saving aid and in theory, comes in quickly, delivers emergency assistance, and then leaves.

The problem is, in the today's world, we are faced with a plethora of diverse crises, emergencies, disasters and conflicts. Population growth, political and power structure changes, urbanisation, resource scarcity and climate change mean the humanitarian system is creaking under the strain - overstretched and underfunded. Most crises are not 'straightforward' disasters. They are long-term protracted crises that have been ongoing for years, sometimes decades - Somalia, eastern DR Congo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria.

This presents new challenges, for which we need new approaches - and yet, the humanitarian system is not currently designed for them.

The international aid system was built as part of the post-World War II settlement which centred on the creation of new United Nations (UN) institutions focussing on children, food security, health and refugees. Following world events at the time, most notably the Gulf War, the modern emergency response system was established in 1991 and put in place additional institutions and bodies which have formed the basis of our humanitarian system architecture.

This reliance on pre-established architecture has meant several things. Firstly, that the siloing and separation between short-term 'humanitarian' aid to respond to emergencies, and long-term 'development' aid to reduce poverty, is embedded within the international system. Simplistically, these two parts of the aid system have different institutions, different funding streams and different cultures.

This makes sense if an earthquake hits an otherwise stable country - the humanitarian system comes in, does its job and leaves. But, it has long-since been established that crises are not somehow divorced from the rest of society. An effective response to crises builds for the long-term, while an effective development approach includes building resilience to crises. At Mercy Corps we believe that opportunities can present themselves from the new relationships and power dynamics that emerge during a crisis which can enable communities to build back better. And yet, we still see short-term emergency projects being repeated over and over in long-term crises, like in DR Congo, which may help short-term symptoms but they do little to resolve underlying problems. Separating humanitarian and development aid has made it much harder to tackle the root causes of crises and help the most vulnerable people long-term.

Secondly, the established humanitarian system is too centralised and too top-down. Not enough focus has been placed on helping the local community themselves to respond. They are inevitably on the ground immediately and are best placed to understand the needs of their communities - those affected.

Finally, there is little room for flexibility. Organisations receive funds to deliver particular projects and then, understandably, are held to account for delivering what they said they would. But crises are invariably fluid contexts, circumstances change and humanitarians learn more as a project unfolds. Rather than being bound into delivering something come-what-may, humanitarian organisations need the flexibility to adapt what they are doing if it becomes clear that a different approach would work better. Accountability should be about delivering the right outcomes for people, not about completing a predesigned project.

Many of these issues have been known for a long time, and change may be on its way. Hot on the heels of the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be announced in September, the UN Secretary General will host the first ever World Humanitarian Summit in May 2016, designed to look at how to make the humanitarian system fit for the 21st century.

Although humanitarian aid has been seen as a side-line to the ultimate goal of international development, increasingly, crisis is taking centre stage. The SDGs will, among many other things, set out the goal of eradicating poverty in all its forms, everywhere. Increasingly, it is in crisis-affected countries that the poorest are concentrated. Currently, the 50 countries classified as 'fragile' by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) account for 43 percent of people (over 400 million) living on less than $1.25 per day. By 2030, this concentration could rise to 62 percent. Far from being a side issue to development, tackling the problems of conflict-affected and fragile states is becoming central to international development as a whole and engagement in crisis-affected countries must be built around long-term strategies that transcend 'humanitarian' and 'development'.

Donor governments need to take a longer-term approach to crisis-affected countries, providing multi-year, flexible funding to enable more appropriate assistance. We, as a sector, must also explicitly target the root causes of crisis alongside the symptoms. This means more investment in peacebuilding and conflict reduction work, a greater focus on approaches that stimulate local markets and more emphasis on strengthening governance. We should also reassess the role of the centralised UN system in crisis-affected countries. There are many other groups that can help people in crises - governmental, civil society, private; local, national and international. The UN will continue to occupy a unique and vital position, but it should not necessarily be the default mechanism for responding to crises.

Increasingly, we understand what is needed to help people effectively in crisis-affected places. What is needed now is for the international system to catch up.