By John Mitchell, Director, Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance
Have you ever wondered how the international humanitarian system helps deliver life-saving aid around the world? For the first time, there is one report that captures the system’s progress and performance.
The State of the Humanitarian System (SOHS) report is an ambitious snapshot of the
entire humanitarian response system. It outlines what’s working, what’s not, and how the sector performed in 2009 and 2010.
After the launch of the SOHS report, a colleague of mine remarked: ‘You know, although we’ve heard a lot of these discussions before, I think there’s something different about this conversation. I’m just not sure what.’
I had the same impression and, after some reflection, I think I now understand that the SOHS discussions are different because we are having them against a background of the bigger picture, provided by the report itself.
It’s true that many of the issues that were raised at the launch, like disaster risk reduction (DRR) and humanitarian principles, for example, are well rehearsed. However, generally the discussions take place in a singular fashion. Those people who (rightfully) care about DRR and resilience usually make a compelling case for a more integrated approach backed up by data on cost effectiveness and lots of good sense.
In a similar fashion, another group of people complain (again correctly) that humanitarian agencies compromise principles too easily, often with very negative consequences. Such debates are important and have their own truth, but the terms are often constrained by the particular experiences and knowledge of one set of specialists about one particular issue—they are not delineated by a more complete system-wide picture. Debates constrained in this way tend to look inwards and fail to connect with what is happening on the `other side of the wall’, or even at the next desk.
The bigger picture is critically important because it provides a way of seeing the links and connections between different parts of the system and between different issues.
The OECD/DAC criteria (as the units of analysis in the SOHS report) break down the
interrelated elements of humanitarian performance into component parts. Good analysis can reveal how these different performance parts fit together and affect each other. For example, we may correctly argue that a renewed emphasis on DRR and a growing interest in resilience will bring about programming that is better connected with government policies and investments; can improve efficiency; and may well be a more appropriate intervention in some settings. But it may also reduce coherence with the humanitarian principles of impartial and needs-based work, and in some cases (particularly in conflict situations) it may result in insufficient resources to cover all affected populations. One gain in the system may result in a loss somewhere else—and this is hard to see without a connected big picture view.
This ability to make connections gives us the potential to understand why gains are made in one area while losses are experienced elsewhere. It helps us understand what works and why. It also gives us the potential to make more informed decisions about where to commit resources and what the impact (desired or undesired) may be. My hope is that these gains will not only inform colleagues at the next desk, but will ultimately translate into benefits for those affected by conflicts, natural disasters and other crises around the world.
About the author: John Mitchell
John Mitchell has been Director of ALNAP since 2002. In 2005, he oversaw the setting up of the Tsunami Evaluation Coalition. He has a background in anthropology and nutrition and began his career with the UK Department for International Development and the UN World Food Programme in Ethiopia 1984–86, where he worked as a field monitor.