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Humanitarians and the road to Busan

Steve Darvill

By Steve Darvill on 1 August 2011.

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One set of voices was noticeably absent from the recent Global Assembly of the Open Forum (OF) on CSO Development Effectiveness in Cambodia – humanitarians. The Global Assembly marked an important milestone on the road to the 4th High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Busan in November. The Istanbul Principles and the Siem Reap Consensus on the International Framework for CSO Development Effectiveness will now be tabled for endorsement by Ministers, Secretaries of State and other dignitaries.

Attempts to highlight humanitarian interests at the Global Assembly were diverted with comments such as "Oh, they have their Sphere standards and Red Cross Code of Conduct!" Unnervingly, neither of the Open Forum documents makes substantive mention of the likely repercussions for CSO humanitarian action. For its part, the humanitarian sector seems reluctant to engage with the critical opportunity offered in Busan to more firmly position its activities within the broader aid endeavor. As a result, the majority of ODA reported to the OECD DAC (development assistance) will continue to operate by one set of rules; the remainder (humanitarian aid) by a second set of rules! For public donations, these proportions may be reversed but there is little evidence that the linkages are any more robust. Little wonder then that aid recipients and others beyond our ‘industry’ look on with frustration as humanitarian action repeatedly fails to nest with development assistance and the latter appears oblivious to the humanitarian consequences of conflict-blind and disaster-blind development cooperation!

For sure, the Open Forum is concerned with ‘development’ and I am very familiar with the distinctiveness of humanitarian action. The reticence of humanitarian actors to allocate funds for developmental activities is understandable given the traditional reluctance of development practitioners for early engagement in situations where their investments are at risk. Equally understandable is the reluctance of development practitioners to invest in parallel or substitute service delivery systems that undermine national and local ownership. However, operating in two parallel universes like this is not in the interests of aid recipients. Nor is it likely to lead to policy and operational coherence between the two types of assistance.

Too often, conversations have focused on what is different between the two sectors. Isn’t it time to start talking about commonalities? Where do humanitarian principles intersect with development effectiveness principles and vice versa? Isn’t accountability to aid recipients the common thread that could serve to link the fractious twins? Isn’t it the shared beacon that can serve to guide both communities towards smoother post-crisis transitions, better disaster risk reduction practice and more demand-driven assistance? A starting point would be for humanitarians to become more involved in the development effectiveness dialogues later this year and, simultaneously, to extend a more willing hand of invitation to development counterparts to take part in humanitarian dialogues.

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Vansintjan Geert

Vansintjan Geert (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Belgium) 1 August 2011, 14:27

The Sphere standards are results based, for the ultimate beneficiaries. The criteria from the Paris declaration are "proxy indicators" for efficiency. Moving Humanitarian assistance to such a vague set of indicators would not improve the results in the field.

Steve Darvill

Steve Darvill (Australia Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade ) 5 August 2011, 01:50

Thanks for your response. Perhaps, I should clarify some of my remarks. First of all, I did not intend to suggest re-calibrating humanitarian assistance to development indicators. It is not a case of either/or. I was attempting to point out that the HLF4 (Busan) dialogue represents an important opportunity to locate disaster, conflict and other emergency responses within development effectiveness agendas.

The second point is that the distinction between humanitarian and development assistance rarely appears in conversations with aid recipients. The CDA Listening Project has conducted nearly 6000 interviews with people in aid recipient communities on their perceptions of international assistance. A few have referred to a distinction between life-saving and life-changing assistance. They are appreciative of the former but usually prefer the latter.

My third and, arguably, most important point was to suggest that the differences between humanitarian and development objectives be put aside for a while (not dismissed!) so that we can engage in a conversation with development counterparts on areas where humanitarian effectiveness indicators align with development effectiveness indicators. Shared commitments to be held accountable to the recipients represents 'common territory' as well as recognition that recipients are entitled to have inputs into decisions affecting their lives whether these be humanitarian or development in character. Guided by the recipient vision and views, humanitarian and development practitioners should then have a common goal for their principled but separate pathways.

Paul  OKumu

Paul OKumu (Africa Civil Society Platform) 30 August 2011, 13:21

Thank you all for these comments- I am aware that CDA was present at the Global Assembly and this is a welcome move. As someone who has engaged in the Open Forum process in Africa and the Global Level, I must admit that it is not just humanitarian voices that are missing from the document(s) and the discussions. Voices from CSOs working in situations of conflict and fragility are missing as well. If you look at both the Istanbul Principles and the larger International Framework, you will notice that they address development in stable situations-devoid of humanitarian needs and fragility-both of which are very careful about context and situation. And there is increasingly a thin line between humanitarian and development (the Horn of Africa is a casein point).

But I would not agree that CSOs were not ready to listen to the voices of humanitarian actors. My observation is that these voices came in too late. They were not there during the over 75 National consultations in all the continents, they were not there during the Regional Consultations that took place in all continents. I also saw very few of them in Istanbul, and those that were present were mainly represented by their "development" arms. This is not in any way to downplay the collective responsibiilty we all have. But because of their absence, CSOs working in humanitarian areas,as well as those in conflict and fragile situations, allowed the boat to sail too far with the "development" voices and lenses, that by the time they came to the arena, they could only watch with binoculars. This offers lessons to al of us. The first is that we should remove all the lenses that make us "box" development as either humanitarian or "long term". The second is that we should seek to engage collectively throughout a process. I noted how hard it was for CSOs to begin to listen to new voices so late in the day.

So where does that leave us. There is still considerable room. The Istanbul Principles, as well as the International Framework, is subject to contextualization and "domestication"-so we can still embrace them and then make them apply to our context. That is why you will notice they are fairly broad.

But there is even a bigger window. Can the humanitarian actors begin to engage with CSOs, especially at the local level, who will be leading the processes of implementation of the Framework and Principles? That is a much wider window and an excellent opportunity to work with what CSOs have developed.

Kozhaeva  Olga

Kozhaeva Olga (Open Forum for CSO Development Effectiveness) 14 September 2011, 22:50

For more information about the work of the Open Forum: - including on CSOs and Situations of Conflict:,059-.html

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