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John Mitchell

A Thought for World Humanitarian Day

By John Mitchell on 16 August.

We humanitarians are a self-critical bunch. Independent evaluations, research studies, conferences and popular books on humanitarianism tend to focus on a bewildering array of failures, problems, challenges and frustrations. On the one hand this is a good thing as it shows we are open to changing and improving but, on the other hand, it can create a pervasive feeling of gloom and doom.

And as World Humanitarian Day 2017 approaches, it appears the demands for humanitarian assistance are greater now than in living memory. We are working in a particularly unstable world characterised by an escalation of conflict-related crises and mounting numbers and flows of displaced people, asylum seekers and refugees. And the challenge of meeting the needs of these people is heightened due to alarming decline in respect and adherence to international humanitarian law.

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Sophia Swithern

Humanitarian financing: where’s the system shift?

By Sophia Swithern on 21 June.

It’s been a busy year for humanitarian financing. In the midst of so many commitments, discussions, assessments, recommendations and appeals it can be hard to tell what’s really changed.

Despite international humanitarian assistance reaching yet another record high of US$27.3 billion in 2016, we now know that funding grew far less than in previous years.

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Neil Dillon

What does the UK election campaign mean for aid evaluation?

By Neil Dillon on 2 June.

Ahead of the United Kingdom's general election, the three major parties have now pledged to maintain at least 0.7% of gross national income on overseas aid. But in a world where anti-aid sentiment is growing every day, it wouldn’t be wise for the aid community to start counting its chickens yet.

As recent as April this year, the Government was rumoured to be divided on whether or not to retain the spending commitment. Some would argue that this reflects public opinion; a poll from late last year found that 57% of participants wanted to scrap the 0.7% target, whilst only 24% backed it. Similarly, the 2017 Aurora Humanitarian Index has shown an overall decline in support for humanitarian action globally.

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Philip Smith

Connecting the dots...

By Philip Smith on 9 May.

ALNAP's 31 Annual Meeting Visual Notes


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Roxani Krystalli

4 lessons learned from synthesising humanitarian evidence

By Roxani Krystalli on 25 April.

Many humanitarians find it hard to gather evidence of what we know and how we know it. For example, what is the impact of different mental health and psychosocial support interventions on populations affected by humanitarian crises? What do we know about the impact of protection interventions on unaccompanied and separated minors during humanitarian emergencies?

The Humanitarian Evidence Program has synthesised the available research to answer questions like these. As a partnership between Oxfam and Feinstein International Center at Tufts University, we have just published eight systematic reviews of the evidence in key areas of the humanitarian field, with the ultimate goal of improving humanitarian policy and practice.

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Alice Obrecht

New year, new you? What the WHS can learn from failed new year’s resolutions

By Alice Obrecht on 10 January.

It’s January, a time for new year’s resolutions and self-improvement regimens. Yet many of these resolutions are abandoned by February. For those that manage to succeed, what’s their secret? Apparently, one of the keys to a successful new year’s resolution (or ‘self-change’ as they are called by psychologists), is measurement: setting realistic and clear goals that can be tracked over time. The ability to monitor progress not only helps a self-changer understand whether the resolution is being achieved, but also acts as a source of motivation to continue.

Eight months ago, an unprecedented gathering of humanitarian actors laid out their own version of ‘self-change’ in the form of commitments at the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul. It will take some time before we know whether or not these commitments are being successfully achieved. But if we think that measurement is important for a successful commitment, then there is much work to be done to ensure that the Agenda for Humanity is a success. Currently, it’s unclear how commitments made under the Agenda for Humanity will be implemented, or how their impact on humanitarian action will be assessed.

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John Mitchell

What do Trump, Brexit and the humanitarian system have in common?

By John Mitchell on 23 November.

In 1965 Bob Dylan wrote a song called Ballad of the Thin Man about a Mr. Jones who was struggling to understand the changing world he saw around him. Dylan fans will recognise the famous line ‘something is happening here but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr Jones?’ In the wake of Brexit and the new US President elect, Donald Trump, I suspect many of us may well be feeling a bit like Dylan’s Mr. Jones.

But much of what is going on is understandable and we can see common features and patterns in recent events in the UK, USA and beyond - not least a growing group of people who, for various reasons, feel disenfranchised and disempowered and who believe that perceived elite groups, whoever they may be, are out of touch, lack empathy and are not serving their needs. People are frustrated and angry and above all they want change, even if they don’t have a clear idea of what this may look like. And the change they want has to be radical and transformative, rather than incremental. This new movement is gathering pace and is rapidly transforming the global political landscape.

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Leah Campbell

3 things urban humanitarians can learn from 6 blind men and an elephant

By Leah Campbell on 14 October.

There’s a common folk tale that paints the picture of six blind men who come across an elephant for the first time. Each of the men approaches the elephant and blindly feels what is in front of him. One finds the trunk, another the tail, another the foot, another the ear and so on.

Afterwards, the men discuss the elephant: “An elephant is like a strong pillar” says the man who felt the leg. “What are you talking about?” asks the man who felt the tail, “the elephant is clearly like the brush we use to sweep the floors. It’s thin and hairy – not at all like a pillar”. The others chime in with their own experience, all certain the others must be mad, for they each felt the elephant with their own hands – they know what an elephant is, surely!

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John Mitchell

Commitment gridlock at the WHS: a three lane highway for delivering change

By John Mitchell on 8 June.

At the first face-to-face meeting of the WHS thematic teams in 2014, a thematic team member posed the following questions: ‘Who was this Summit for? What was the change it was trying to achieve?’ The answers from the WHS Secretariat were: ‘Everyone’ and ‘Everything we possibly can.’ In the absence of an inter-governmental process, this Summit process opted for inclusiveness and participation over formal negotiations and binding agreements. As a result, several hundred commitments have been produced, but the security of a formal framework - like Sendai – has not.

A friend remarked to me on the way back from Istanbul that the Summit has unwittingly created an unmanageable load. He said it would have been better to have three big things to work on, all of which can bring about optimum change and improvement. Instead, he lamented, we have over-produced and created commitment gridlock.

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Thea Hilhorst

The other half of gender: Are humanitarians blind to the vulnerabilities of male refugees?

By Thea Hilhorst on 20 May.

In 1949, Simone de Beauvoir wrote that one is not born a woman (or man) but becomes a woman (or man) by upbringing and society’s differentiated space for men and women. Nearly 70 years later, when it comes to refugees, it is unfortunately still all too relevant. Perceptions of the social roles of men and women play a decisive, if not reductionist role in the way non-Islamic politicians and media deal with refugees from the Syria crisis.

In short, women symbolise innocence and deserve our compassion. Men, on the other hand, depict danger. They are a danger to their own women, who they beat, oppress or rape. And they are a danger to society, as they are associated with violence, or even terrorism. When people depict refugees as a ‘terrorist threat’, without being explicit, they are invariably referring to the male refugee.

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Kristin Bergtora  Sandvik

Insecurity in the Humanitarian Cyberspace: A Call for Innovation

By Kristin Bergtora Sandvik on 3 May.

Humanitarian practitioners and scholars are currently struggling with how to analyse the opportunities and challenges of technological innovation. This includes not only what technological innovation can do for humanitarianism but also what it does to humanitarian action. Over the last two decades, innovations have fueled the creation of a humanitarian cyberspace. It is now time for the task of addressing the challenges posed by the humanitarian cyberspace to be prioritised on the humanitarian innovation agenda.

The term cyberspace broadly refers to the realm of computer networks and the internet. The traditional notion that the ´virtual` world is a different social space than the ´real world` is by now obsolete, also in the humanitarian context.

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Alice Obrecht Paul Knox Clarke

The power of humanitarian evidence

By Alice Obrecht and Paul Knox Clarke on 20 April.

The World Humanitarian Summit agenda outlines several ambitious aims for improving the situation of those affected by crisis. To achieve these aims, there will need to be a great harnessing of power: a harnessing of political will, of financial resources, and of affirmation and support for core humanitarian values, none of which are small feats. Yet there is a further type of power that needs to be harnessed in order to deliver on the Secretary-General’s Agenda for Humanity, one that has received less attention than the principles, money or politics: the power of knowledge, and the power of having better data and evidence to support such knowledge.

Stronger knowledge, informed by better quality, access to, and use of evidence, is critical to achieving all five of the Secretary General’s core responsibilities. We cannot ‘prevent and end conflicts’ or ‘uphold the norms that safeguard humanity’ if we do not know what are effective ways of achieving conflict prevention, mitigation and response, and if humanitarians are unable to responsibly collect and share data in conflict settings. We will fail to ‘leave no one behind’ if we don’t know how many people are behind, where they are, and how to recognise them. And we certainly cannot ‘change people’s lives by ending need’, or competently ‘invest in humanity’ if we do not know what interventions are most effective, most cost-efficient and of highest quality from the perspective of affected people.

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Alice Obrecht

One humanity, many visions

By Alice Obrecht on 11 February.

A couple of days ago, Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon released his Report for the World Humanitarian Summit, outlining five ‘Core Responsibilities’ to improve the situation of those affected by crisis. The SG’s Report motivates a call towards these core responsibilities through an eloquent and compelling account of the current ‘challenges to humanity’: suffering, displacement and death caused by conflict and natural disasters exacerbated by political inaction, perpetual poverty and vulnerability, and malfeasance.


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Lotte Ruppert Elias Sagmeister

Are you really listening? How feedback mechanisms work (or not) in insecure environments

By Lotte Ruppert and Elias Sagmeister on 5 February.

Consulting people about the aid they receive is recognised as central to improving the quality of humanitarian assistance. This is particularly valuable in insecure contexts, such as Afghanistan and Somalia, where humanitarian staff have limited opportunities for face-to-face contact with the population. But are we communicating in an appropriate way, on the right issues, on a consistent basis and through the best channels? And what happens when aid agencies receive that information? These are the questions that the SAVE research project – a three-year study that seeks to improve aid delivery in volatile contexts – is trying to answer.

We consulted over 2700 people that had received aid in Somalia, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Syria. Only 400 of them said aid agencies had asked for their opinion.

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John Mitchell

A bucketful of UN reform

By John Mitchell on 18 November.

At the Global Forum in June the most popular recommendation by far was for the UN Secretary General to ‘reform UN agency mandates and roles to better meet the basic humanitarian needs of affected people’: 72% of all 300 participants strongly supported this suggestion, whilst only 5% strongly opposed.

Similarly at a session on Partnerships at the recent Geneva Consultation, the most popular question from the floor was about exactly the same thing. I noticed afterwards several disgruntled tweets from people fearing this issue was being swept under the carpet and, following a recent IRIN interview with the Emergency Relief Coordinator, one widely read blog gave voice to the same fears.

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Paul Knox Clarke

If it ain't broke..

By Paul Knox Clarke on 6 November.

More or less first thing this morning, my toaster stopped working. It wasn’t the fuse – I checked – and hitting it didn’t do any good. The bread sat there, stubbornly untoasted. No doubt about it: the toaster was broken.

In a parallel universe – one where I had listened when people explained basic electronics, and where built-in obsolescence wasn’t a feature of every electronic item – I would probably try to fix it. As it is, I’m just going to get rid of it. And such thoughts led me (as I’m sure they would lead you) to considering the World Humanitarian Summit, and the many discussions around our “broken” global system.

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Maurice Herson

Doing the thing right or doing the right thing?

By Maurice Herson on 19 August.

For World Humanitarian Day 2015, we asked two humanitarians, one at the beginning of their career and one with years of experience, what motivated them about humanitarian action. Here Maurice Herson looks back on his long career in humanitarianism; read if new starter Henry Ashcroft sees aid work differently in his blog.


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Henry Ashcroft

A job well done is the best possible humanitarian motivation

By Henry Ashcroft on 19 August.

For World Humanitarian Day 2015, we asked two humanitarians, one at the beginning of their career and one with years of experience, what motivated them about humanitarian action. Here Henry Ashcroft, a Logistics Analyst with the WFP in Lebanon talks about starting a career in humanitarianism; read what Maurice Herson thinks of aid work after years of experience here.


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Elysee Arequipa Nouvet Lisa Schwartz

Is palliative care in humanitarian crises a luxury?

By Elysee Arequipa Nouvet and Lisa Schwartz on 10 July.

If there is one thing the Ebola crisis has generated these past 18 months, it is widespread recognition that globally we could be better prepared for responding swiftly and ethically to complex pandemics. Ethical issues that surfaced in the panicked first months of the last Ebola crisis have ranged from debates on whether or not healthcare workers in non-Ebola affected countries have a duty to respond and assist their colleagues in other affected countries, to the absence of a standard of care for treatment of affected patients. As members of the Humanitarian Healthcare Ethics Group, we were surprised that another big question was not, and still is not, receiving the deliberation it merits: What are the responsibilities of humanitarian healthcare teams, if any, vis a vis the palliative needs of patients?


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John Mitchell

Transformational change or hot air? A personal reflection on the Global Forum

By John Mitchell on 3 July.

When giving my opening remarks from the Global Forum podium I was struck by something unusual. Looking out over so many people packed into the Grand Ballroom of New York’s Roosevelt Hotel, I realised that this was not only the biggest and most diverse humanitarian meeting I had ever chaired, it was the biggest and most diverse humanitarian meeting I had ever been to. I knew we had invited 200 different organisations from 54 countries, all of them carefully chosen to represent key constituent groups involved in humanitarian action, ranging from the biggest multi-lateral and bi-lateral donors to the smallest NGOs. But it was another thing to see them all in the same place at the same time. I felt positive and excited - but I also knew that the stakes were high and this meeting had to go well.

Two days later I felt very pleased and a little relieved. Feedback had been extremely positive, and the Forum had trended on twitter, demonstrating an unusually high level of global interest. It had been a rewarding and successful couple of days.

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Paul Currion

Tales of the city

By Paul Currion on 12 May.

You don't need me to repeat the statistic (because everybody knows it) but I'm going to anyway: more than half the world's population now lives in urban areas. Behind that simple figure are a host of other complicating factors – for example, the absolute number of slum dwellers is growing, but relative numbers are falling. The basic message is loud and clear however: the future is urban.

Although the message might be clear, the humanitarian community doesn't always have a clear idea about how to respond; as ALNAP's own Urban Humanitarian Response Portal says, “urban disasters differ in important ways from rural disasters, and force the humanitarian community to rethink fundamental tools, approaches and assumptions.” Many organisations are not clear about what those differences are, though, and the community is struggling to work out what “rethink” means.

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Bertrand Taithe Juliano Fiori Michaël Neuman

The critical role of humanitarian critique

By Bertrand Taithe, Juliano Fiori and Michaël Neuman on 14 April.

In November 2014, the Guardian published an article which considered the role played by Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) in response to the spread of Ebola in West Africa. Although complimentary of MSF’s reflective approach in response to a ‘new’ medical event, the article quotes a Reuters interview with Dr Jean-Hervé Bradol, in which the former president of the French section of the medical NGO bemoans his organisation’s delayed and inappropriate response.

A number of publications, in the scientific press in particular, had already presented criticisms of the treatment of patients affected by the virus but the naming of MSF by one of its own members caused consternation within the organisation. A fiery debate ensued. That this debate was taking place hardly filtered into the public domain until January 2015, when the French newspaper Libération published an interview with Rony Brauman, who spoke about it openly. Like Bradol, Brauman is both a former MSF-France president and a member of MSF-CRASH – a unit dedicated to promoting critical reflection on the practices of MSF in order to improve them.

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Thea Hilhorst

Is the Sendai framework a step in the right direction?

By Thea Hilhorst on 2 April.

Last week, I was in Sendai, Japan, for the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) organised by the United Nations. After two nights of negotiation, and as Cyclone Pam destroyed vast parts of Vanuatu, an agreement was reached that shows a much more structural concern for disaster than ever before.

Twenty years ago, in Yokohama, the first world conference of disaster risk reduction was a small event. It delivered a contested agreement mainly viewing disasters as a natural phenomenon, against the then already current theories of the social production of disaster and against the body of practice of NGOs exposing grassroots vulnerabilities as a major driver of disaster.

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Amjad  Mohamed-Saleem

Is Islamic charitable giving a promising resource for future humanitarian assistance?

By Amjad Mohamed-Saleem on 26 March.

We are all too aware of the number and scale of humanitarian crises facing our world today, not least in Syria where an estimated 220,000 people have died in the four-year conflict. It is important to remind ourselves that our collective humanity is taking on these challenges, with record levels of funding providing urgent assistance to millions of people affected by conflict, natural disasters and epidemics such as Ebola. Spiralling needs, however, mean that we have an unprecedented shortfall - last year US$7.5 billion of humanitarian funding requirements remained unmet. More than ever, we are having to seek better ways to meet the needs of those affected by humanitarian crises.

Faith plays a key role in international humanitarian response. Between 11% and 16% of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) listed in the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)’s Financial Tracking Service (FTS) as humanitarian funding recipients in 2013 are explicitly guided by faith-based principles. Seven of the 22 NGOs represented on the board of the Core Humanitarian Standard have an explicit faith-based ethos, as do five of the 13 NGOs that constitute the UK Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC).

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Elysee Arequipa Nouvet

The sharp edge of gratitude

By Elysee Arequipa Nouvet on 27 February.

It is relatively easy to see and raise a red flag on humanitarian programming where complaints roll in from those on the receiving ends of assistance. However, the dominance of gratitude in humanitarian relations might raise its own red flags.

“Beggars can’t be choosers!”

The man speaks these words through a smile, leaning on his homemade crutches. I am in rural Nicaragua, in a community of about 300 people and a month into a study of Nicaraguan perceptions of humanitarian healthcare missions. This community had hosted such a mission from the U.S. for 6.5 hours the week before. The one-day event had been a rare opportunity to see a specialist, such as a gynecologist or a pediatrician, without several costly, time-consuming and thus for most impossible trips to the city.

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Greta  Zeender

Data collection and urban displacement

By Greta Zeender on 24 February.

More than half of the world’s internally displaced people (IDPs) live outside of camps – many of these people have found refuge in existing urban communities alongside the urban poor, refugees and migrants. The majority of these are women and children, who often stay in makeshift shelters, are exposed to violence, and struggle to access basic services, education and employment, notably due to their lack of personal documentation.

More information about IDP numbers and needs in urban areas is not only necessary for the provision of effective response in an emergency, but is also essential for targeted support for durable solutions.

The average length of internal displacement is a staggering 17 years, and finding solutions to protracted displacement has become a major challenge for governments, and humanitarian and development actors alike, as a new comprehensive study by the Brookings Institution highlights.

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Lizz  Harrison

Why ‘walking the walk’ on partnering with local organisations is so important

By Lizz Harrison on 19 February.

By the time the current Ebola outbreak was recognised for what it is – a humanitarian disaster – local actors had already been responding to the crisis affecting their countries. Media in the UK and internationally was filled with photos and stories of the international heroes who were travelling to Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia to help fight the spread of the disease. They are heroes, without doubt, but what about the national and local organisations and actors who were also working to combat the spread of the deadly virus in communities across their own countries?

Among the lessons learned from the response to this Ebola Outbreak is how vital it is to work with, engage and empower local communities. As Margaret Harris, spokesperson of the World Health Organization (WHO) said recently “Community, community, community. Engagement, engagement, engagement. We need to listen more." UK Ebola Response Hub head Amanda Weisbaum also said recently that smaller organisations with strong links to communities, having earned the trust of locals, must be used in similar crises.

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Luz Saavedra

However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results

By Luz Saavedra on 12 February.

The title, a phrase attributed to Winston Churchill, illustrates some of the challenges and difficulties of the debate around working together in emergency and humanitarian responses. This is the theme for ALNAP’s 30th Annual Meeting which I have been organising in the past few months.

So what is it that we need to know about coordination at country level? To introduce what more than 200 participants from all over the globe are going to debate at our Annual Meeting, I imagined a dialogue between a cluster representative (Ms. U) and INGO worker (Ms. N) and a national NGO director (Mr. Z).

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Amanda Gray

Harnessing the potential of cities and refugees

By Amanda Gray on 4 February.

The devastating war in Syria has seen more than 3 million people displaced to neighbouring countries (with millions more internally displaced inside Syrian borders). These refugees have predominantly ended up in towns and cities. The international community’s humanitarian response has therefore focused on these urban areas – with varying degrees of success.

Given the scale of this crisis and the resources needed to address urgent needs, it’s worth taking a moment to ask: could we be more effective if we were armed with better evidence to support our policies for urban displacement? What benefits, for example, might there be for host communities if refugees had freedom of movement and access to work? What if operational humanitarians on the ground responding to these challenges were able to engage more in the development of policy?

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Paul Currion

The long road to 'Good Enough' needs assessments

By Paul Currion on 28 January.

“The best is the enemy of the good,” wrote Voltaire in 1770, quoting an old Italian saying. Unfortunately we had to wait for a couple of hundred years before Voltaire's aphorism started to be taken seriously in the humanitarian sector.

The Emergency Capacity Building (ECB) Project published the Good Enough Guide: Impact Measurement and Accountability in Emergencies in 2007. Why “Good Enough”? I was working with the ECB at the time, and we could see that field staff felt that existing impact and accountability mechanisms, while well-designed, didn't acknowledge the challenging reality of a sudden-onset emergency.

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John Mitchell

A hunter gatherers response to the Indian Ocean Tsunami; an aspiration for the international humanitarian system?

By John Mitchell on 12 January.

The recent anniversaries of the Indian Ocean Tsunami (10 years) and the Haiti Earthquake (5 years) have prompted the usual questions about whether the system has been able to make improvements on the basis of lessons learned. Much evaluative evidence suggests that many weaknesses in the Tsunami response were again repeated after the Haiti Earthquake and there are a growing number of people who believe that the intrinsic nature of the international humanitarian system itself is the problem. And they are probably right. But what exactly is this problem; how should we understand it; and what should we do about it?

A good place to start to answer this question is in the isolated communities who live in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. This remote chain of islands in the Indian Ocean has been home to many hunter gatherer tribes for between 3000 to5000 years. Anthropologists tell us that their intimate awareness of the movements of animals, the ocean and the earth allowed them to anticipate a tsunami was imminent after the Earthquake in 2004. When they saw animals moving to higher ground deep inside the forest they followed suit and escaped the full fury of the tidal surge. Almost all of them survived. As we know, on the mainland of Thailand and Indonesia, many thousands of people were not so lucky.

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Joseph  Guay

How digital humanitarians are improving the Ebola response

By Joseph Guay on 2 January.

By the beginning of October 2014, two full months after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared an Ebola outbreak emergency in West Africa, the international response was insufficient, uncoordinated, and unable to curb the spread of infection in the worst hit countries. In Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, WHO reports indicated nearly 10,000 confirmed cases and more than 4,800 confirmed deaths. The current WHO situation report from December 31 shows a total of more than 20,000 cases and nearly 8,000 deaths.

Amidst this worst-ever Ebola outbreak in modern history, the WHO has been criticised heavily for a less than adequate response. In an internal draft report leaked to the Associated Press in mid-October, the organisation itself recognised lack of communication between their field operatives and headquarters in Geneva, bureaucratic red-tape preventing thousands of dollars in aid from being delivered, and the inability to obtain visas for doctors to gain access to some of the worst hit areas led it to fail to see “some fairly plain writing on the wall”. Keen observers have pointed out fragmented funding and divergent interests within WHO’s member states.

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John Mitchell Ben Ramalingam

Responding to Changing Needs: Can the humanitarian sector adapt to the "new normal"?

By John Mitchell and Ben Ramalingam on 17 December.

CAR, Syria, Iraq and South Sudan, Gaza, Ebola… For some time now, humanitarians have been talking about the 'new normal': a more vulnerable, unpredictable world, more prone to shocks and crises. We will probably look back at 2014 as the year this stopped being new, and became all too normal.

At the Montreux XIII Retreat earlier this month the discussions resonated around this ‘new normal’. Heads of several major international humanitarian organisations as well as senior officials from peace-building, development and the private sector met to explore ‘game changers’ in humanitarian aid, to develop radical and innovative ideas for changing the way the sector works, all to better save lives and protect livelihoods.

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Bertrand Taithe

Humanitarian aid after Ebola

By Bertrand Taithe on 10 November.

The current Ebola crisis will end one day and we will have to think about its significance for humanitarian aid. There are many questions which cannot be considered at this stage when the emergency is rife but which will come to haunt the humanitarian system: Is the Ebola crisis a turning point? What does it reveal for the societies where it has run out of control and for the humanitarian aid which is struggling to match the needs it has generated? In what sense can a neglected disease, which flares up so regularly since 1976 continue being presented as a ‘new’ emergency? What are the consequences of taking a ‘security’ approach to a disease? Perhaps, crucially, has Ebola brought a new perspective on danger and risk for the humanitarian system? From a historian’s perspective, is it a great leap backwards?

Historians have long studied epidemics as disasters and the panic that they generated, from cholera to exotic diseases such as yellow fever which hit Northern America and Europe in the nineteenth century. Then, humanitarians and medical staff faced extreme personal risks while the medicine and relief they offered delivered little more than remedial care. These parameters have returned albeit mitigated by processes and equipment to the humanitarian world.

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Clay Westrope

Drones for Good

By Clay Westrope on 27 October.

Drones may not have a very good reputation but they’re trying to clean up their image. As Amazon considers drone delivery, and Facebook initiates plans to provide internet connection in remote areas via drones, can humanitarians benefit from them too?

As humanitarians, we are often confronted with challenging problems that must be solved rapidly with limited resources. Thanks to new and emerging technologies coming to the rescue, the potential to save time and resources is at our fingertips. Studies have pointed to the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or “drones” as having the ability to provide higher resolution and more targeted imagery of affected areas. The use of UAV-sourced imagery may be a solution to unlocking the potential power of crowdsourced damage assessments. These technologies hold huge potential.

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John Mitchell

50 years of humanitarian action: From best practice to best fit

By John Mitchell on 13 October.

Last week in Washington DC I had the privilege of making the keynote presentation below with Jan Egeland at OFDA’s NGO Partner Consultations. The meeting, which celebrated OFDA’s 50th Anniversary, reflected back on the last 50 years of humanitarian action and looked forward to what needs to be done to be prepared for the next 50 years. It was great to have the opportunity to engage with such a diverse and experienced group of OFDA Partners, including four previous Directors of OFDA.

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Luz Saavedra

Why engagement is not a one-size-fits-all matter

By Luz Saavedra on 7 October.

I remember ALNAP’s Annual Meeting in Addis fondly. As an INGO participant, it was a great experience to be part of the debates and to consider how they might be translated into action.

During the meeting I found myself imagining what would happen if I sat a Dunantist (Mr D) and a Rights-based representative (Ms R) to talk engagement. Now that the lessons from that meeting have been distilled in our new study out on 7 October, I thought I’d reproduce that discussion for you.

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Maya Angelina Kapsokavadis

Smart cars, and robots, and drones, oh my!?

By Maya Angelina Kapsokavadis on 2 October.

For the first time in recent history, the Red Cross gathered local community members in Seoul, Republic of Korea to discuss how they felt about emerging technology and innovation when coping with disasters. Here they found a space for conversation in which they could share what tools on the techie horizon most scared and excited them. This meeting, which took place on August 13, is part of a multi-sector effort to evaluate the views of urban communities on the humanitarian application of emerging technologies, using a human-centered design process and other participatory approaches.

From teachers and disaster managers to students and small business owners, the participants opened up about how they use technology and their attitudes and perceptions about living in a connected world. Many expressed that technology had a role in a disaster management context and could be used to better understand hazards and vulnerabilities, improve analysis of risk and planning, and advocate with local and national government authorities. A few, experienced with response operations, wanted to see how specialized trainings in the use of technological tools could be practiced, e.g., using virtual reality in contingency planning exercises for urban disaster preparedness.

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Sophia Swithern

What happened to humanitarian funding?

By Sophia Swithern on 10 September.

There is no let-up in the need for humanitarian assistance. Now more than ever. The Ebola outbreak, Ukraine, Iraq and Gaza have in the last few months added to an already weighty list of demands for funds and placed even more pressure on already stretched donors and delivery agencies. Resources were already challenged to respond to the four ‘Level 3’ crises in South Sudan, Syria, the Philippines and the Central African Republic – let alone new and ongoing needs elsewhere. It’s a far cry from 2012 – described as ‘the year of no mega-disasters’.

So what can we learn from recent trends in humanitarian assistance to inform the difficult daily decisions that donors and delivery agencies are currently facing? What was the financial response to the challenges of 2013’s crises? Did the budgets match the needs? In the Global Humanitarian Assistance Report 2014, released today, we’ve brought together the latest available data to shed light on these questions. Here are just a few of our key findings:

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John Mitchell

An increasingly dangerous calling

By John Mitchell on 19 August.

On 19 August I was among those attending a wreath laying ceremony at Westminster Abbey to commemorate World Humanitarian Day. This provided an opportunity to remember friends and colleagues that we have lost and also provided a space to reflect on the inherent dangers for front line humanitarian staff. With an unprecedented string of four “level 3” humanitarian crises happening simultaneously in Iraq, South Sudan, Syria and the Central African Republic (not to mention the difficulties in Gaza) there is an even greater need to draw attention to the dangers that field workers face in their day to day work.

A recent report shows that attacks on aid workers have tripled since 2002 with 308 violent incidents in 2011. Even when taking account of the numbers of aid workers on the ground, the incidence of violence, especially kidnapping, is shown to be increasing. It is also important to acknowledge that local aid workers are particularly at risk, and are likely to be targeted for reasons of ethnicity or religion.

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Leah Campbell

Working better with urban designers: Reflections from the DFUD Conference

By Leah Campbell on 18 July.

Humanitarians are increasingly recognising the challenges of responding to disasters in urban areas by hiring urban-focused staff, developing urban-tested tools and advocating for urban-specific policies within their own organisations and in the sector as a whole. Attention is shifting from ‘what makes urban different?’ to ‘what can we do about it?’ and ‘how can we improve what we know?’.


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Alexandra Warner

Halfway there! EHA Guide pilot so far: who is taking part and what we’ve heard

By Alexandra Warner on 2 June.

ALNAP has long been developing and piloting guides for humanitarian practitioners. There was the Participation Handbook for humanitarian field workers (ALNAP and URD, 2004), the guide on Evaluating Humanitarian Action using the OECD-DAC Criteria (Beck, 2006), and the Real-time Evaluations of Humanitarian Action - an ALNAP Guide (Cosgrave, Ramalingam and Beck, 2009), for example. However, with our Evaluation for Humanitarian Action Guide (EHA) is the first time that ALNAP takes on an active pilot for this type of guidance material.

The EHA pilot Guide, co-authored by John Cosgrave and Margie Buchanan-Smith, benefitted from the inputs and steer of an inter-agency advisory group that brought together evaluators and programme staff from donor agencies, INGOs, the Red Cross Movement, UN agencies, and academics.

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Katherine Nightingale

How to address disasters in the post-2015 development framework?

By Katherine Nightingale on 22 May.

People concerned to ensure the new post-2015 development framework helps reduce the impact of disasters on poor people and poverty eradication might have reasons to be cheerful.

The most recent Open Working Group 11 (OWG11) on the SDGs saw a significant increase in the states actively pushing for a disaster target under a poverty eradication goal, and for disaster-related targets and indicators to be incorporated into other goals on water and urban settlements.

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Juliano Fiori

What crisis? Taking time to reflect on humanitarianism between 'the global' and 'the local'

By Juliano Fiori on 9 May.

Poor old humanitarianism. People are saying it's in crisis. Again.

It's been found to be instrumental to a Western-led project of capitalist global governance that looks anachronistic in the post-colonial, illiberal societies in which it goes about its business, and this is bound to cause its demise as global power splinters and the world order inexorably tends towards multipolarity. It's become overly concerned with the construction of international coordination architecture, universal rules, and global frameworks for action, and is unresponsive to the aspirations of 'local people' on the run from war or starving during a flood. Indeed, it has come to epitomise the gulf between 'the global' and 'the local' that is symptomatic of the unipolar moment.<

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Chloe Stirk

Five things you need to need to know about non-state humanitarian funding

By Chloe Stirk on 30 April.

Humanitarian need around the world is increasing – but funding from governments and institutional donors is not keeping pace. Now aid agencies are looking to a mixed group of new non-state funders in both established and emerging economies to fill the gap.

The new report 'Humanitarian assistance from non-state donors: What is it worth?' from the Global Humanitarian Assistance (GHA) programme of Development Initiatives paints a detailed picture of non-state humanitarian funding within this changing context. It shows where the money comes from, how it is raised, and where it is spent.

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Maurice Herson

Rwanda, 20 years on: No right answers, no silver bullets

By Maurice Herson on 9 April.

 Twenty years ago this week international eyes were on the Serb attacks on the supposedly ‘safe area’ of Gorazde in Bosnia and the election of South Africa’s first post-apartheid president. Few outside the region took much notice of the shooting-down of a plane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi. When the massacres that followed did begin to get media coverage it was always prefaced with “The small central-African state of Rwanda”, a place few had heard of or had much cared about – apart from those who already knew that Rwanda was about to enter a new phase of troubles.

What became known as the Rwandan genocide was beyond even the imaginings of those insiders. As we all know now, the deaths and the mutilations and rapes were organised and systematic. They also led to a civil war that brought in a new government in Rwanda and to the exodus of many hundreds of thousands of Rwandans into Tanzania, Burundi and Zaire, as the DRC then was.

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John Borton

Twenty years on: the Rwandan genocide and the evaluation of the humanitarian response

By John Borton on 8 April.

This blog was published at ODI's Humanitarian Practice Network (HPN). Please find an extract below:

Twenty years ago in the first week of April, an ODI colleague and I were in Brussels to launch a new network for relief workers (what later became the Humanitarian Practice Network). It was there we learnt that ten Belgian paratroopers forming part of the United Nations (UN) peacekeeping force in Rwanda had been killed trying to protect the Rwandan Prime Minister. The Prime Minister had also been killed. This came just one day after the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi had both been killed when their aircraft crashed on its approach to Kigali. It later emerged that the plane had been shot down. These shocking events marked the start of a genocide that claimed the lives of an estimated 800,000 people and displaced three million – two million as refugees in Tanzania and eastern Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) and one million inside Rwanda. Read more.

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Jeremy Harkey

How governments are learning from disaster

By Jeremy Harkey on 27 March.

 When super typhoon Haiyan hit Visayas in the Philippines in November 2013, I review my report on national capacity building for disaster management to see if my analysis appeared to still be appropriate. Yolanda had exacted such extensive damage to life and property. How could a disaster like this occur in a middle-income country, with significantly strengthened capacity for disaster management?

The Philippines and other countries that I examined in this report (Mozambique, El Salvador and Indonesia), have indeed achieved significant progress in strengthening their national capacity for disaster management. Although the process within each of the countries has varied, most have strong legislation, clearly defined national and sub-national institutional responsibilities, and protocols for requesting and coordinating international assistance. Communities and civil society actors are integrally involved in the national system, and participate actively in local risk reduction, response and recovery. 

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Robert Chambers

Who engages with whom? Who is accountable to whom? Can the development sector learn from the humanitarian sector?

By Robert Chambers on 20 March.

This blog was originally posted at the Participation, Power and Global Change blog from the Institute of Development Studies (University of Sussex).

Wow! The 29th Annual Meeting of ALNAP in Addis. This was memorable and eye-opening. But what is ALNAP? The Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action. Rather less memorable in full than as an acronym. But a vital orientation and a remarkable organisation. This annual meeting brought together for two intense days 170 people engaged in the sector. From a great range of over 100 organisations, with NGOs more than any other category, and international agencies, governments, universities, and the private sector in smaller numbers. An astonishing range of experience to have all in one room, and the largest ALNAP annual meeting so far.

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Anaïs  Rességuier

Feeling what the other feels - for a sympathetic ethics

By Anaïs Rességuier on 20 February.

Our capacity to share the other’s suffering - an emotion that has been called empathy, sympathy, compassion, or pity among many other names - contains something essentially paradoxical. The French philosopher Alain gives us a taste of its contradictory nature when he defines it as “a benevolence that casts a shadow over life” (“une bonté qui assombrit la vie”), a sort of goodness tinged with gloom.

Looking back, I think it is actually this “shadow” that we tried to understand better during a conference that took place last December at the University of Oxford on the theme “Humanitarian Workers: Personal Ethics, Psychology, and Lifestyle” convened by the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict (ELAC). Hugo Slim and I had brought together a group of humanitarian professionals and European researchers to explore the personal motives and lived experience of humanitarian actors at the interface of ethics, psychology, and anthropology. Recognizing the significant role that individual actors play in shaping the evolving practice of humanitarian aid, we thought it was essential to come to a better understanding of such complex, multifaceted and at times, ambivalent experience.

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Ian Davis

Seven golden rules of recovery management

By Ian Davis on 14 November.

Alongside the ALNAP Lessons Papers on Flood Relief and Urban Disasters we would like to offer a pithy summary of the essential golden rules of recovery management. We hope they will be of use to operational staff and policy makers alike. Please let us know if you agree with our pocket rule-book.

Rule #1: Trust survivors and avoid paternalism

The recovery process is totally demanding and all resources, international, national and local, need to be mobilised for the task. Relief and recovery agents must at all costs avoid paternalism: treating passive 'victims' rather than enabling active 'survivors'.

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John Mitchell

Aid on the Edge of Chaos - a new book by Ben Ramalingam

By John Mitchell on 30 October.

After reading Ben Ramalingam’s Aid on the Edge of Chaos I was reminded of the old maxim ‘if you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change’. As my grey hair will testify I am a man of a certain age and have been reading books about humanitarian aid for well over 30 years – and over this time there are a few gems that really changed my thinking and the way I understood the world. Up until last week I had three favorites’ which I will share with you.

The first was Robert Chambers' Putting the Last First, which came out when I was studying for an MSc in 1983. It described methods to allow us as ‘outsiders’ to listen to rural people and understand how they see and experience the world. I loved the deep humanity in this book and it had a big influence on my early work as an evaluator using participatory methods.  As you will no doubt know it also gave birth to a participatory movement that, in many ways, has become mainstream thinking.

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John Mitchell

CEO's salaries, attitudes and accountability

By John Mitchell on 8 August.

Recent news articles in the UK have reported that the number of bosses on six-figure salaries at 14 leading humanitarian aid charities has risen by nearly 60% in the past three years (here's how it appeared in the Guardian and Independent). Similar figures have been published by Charity Navigator in the US. Not surprisingly perhaps, a lot of public response from both sides of the Atlantic have been characterised by severe disapproval.

Amid the outrage some people have reminded us that today’s humanitarian aid charities are multi-million/billion dollar outfits that require highly talented and experienced leaders to get the most from the organisations they lead. They argue that a competitive salary is an incentive to attract that talent. Why is this so apparently disagreeable to so many people?

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Patricia McIlreavy

A Critical Change: what the humanitarian field must do to do better

By Patricia McIlreavy on 9 July.

The humanitarian field is highly responsive to its fiercest critic – itself. Constant improvements are sought and solutions offered on how to better assist those in crisis.We often focus these evaluations on ourselves since we know that through greater coordination we can do more.

The underlying question, however, is do these evaluations delve deep enough in the analysis of what needs to change? Our responses are often to develop new mechanisms and protocols, such as those of the IASC transformative agenda or UNHCR’s structured dialogue, and we market these processes as sufficient to resolve what ails the system. But are we treating the underlying problem or merely its symptoms?

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Paul Knox Clarke

Market assessment

By Paul Knox Clarke on 26 June.

Amid all of the discussion around tax avoidance that has been occurring in the UK (and many other places) recently, I was struck by a statement made by Google’s Chairman, Eric Schmidt. When asked why Google apparently worked so hard to decrease the organisation’s tax bill, Mr Schmidt replied that Google is “governed by US securities laws – in that scenario [following the ‘spirit’ rather than the letter of the tax laws] might be seen as incompetence”. Or – to put it another way – Mr Schmidt was claiming that US law obliges company directors to decrease costs and maximise profits by all legal methods, including tax avoidance: as US Senator Al Franken recently said: “it is literally malfeasance for a corporation not to do everything it legally can to maximize its profits”.

While Mr Schmidt and Senator Franken may be slightly overstating the case, it seems that in both the USA and the UK, company directors have a fiduciary duty to act in the best interests of the company. In the UK, the 2006 Companies Acts obliges directors to “promote the success of the company”, and establishes that, in judging this success, the interests of shareholders come before those of other stakeholders, including the environment and the general public.

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Ralf Otto

Decision-making outpacing evaluation processes?

By Ralf Otto on 30 May.

More than one year after the biggest structural, institutional and budgetary changes in the German humanitarian aid context for decades, I have been trying to unpick the role that the substantial evaluation process played in the seismic shifts. It would be hard to say how influential the evaluation was. Both ministries did say that they consulted the evaluation for the development of their strategies (see Strategy of the Federal Foreign Office for Humanitarian Assistance Abroad and BMZ Strategy for Transitional Aid [in German]). But to what degree the strategies take on the recommendations of the evaluation would need to be checked thoroughly. I believe that if more attention had been paid to the evaluation findings the restructuring would have looked different.

Prior to the restructure, the OECD/DAC Peer Review would come out every four years and point to a lack of coherence and accountability in the German humanitarian system. There was no overarching humanitarian policy. With two ministries in charge (Federal Foreign Office and Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development, BMZ), Germany’s humanitarian aid was fragmented.

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Paul Knox Clarke

Let's hear it for the monolith

By Paul Knox Clarke on 12 April.

As the humanitarian community worries about increasing fragmentation, perhaps it's time to think about the upside of a diverse and complex system, suggests Paul Knox Clarke.

Last week I took part in a consultation organised by OCHA on the topic of Humanitarian Effectiveness. We discussed what ‘effectiveness’ means in a humanitarian context: a fascinating discussion, but one which I couldn’t do justice to here. I would like, though, to pick up on one strand of the conversation – the relationship between uniformity and effectiveness.

It is very difficult to come up with a single criterion for measuring the effectiveness of humanitarian activities. Few would agree that effectiveness should be gauged purely by the degree to which we meet stated objectives: what if we had the wrong objectives in the first place? If they don’t take into account the real needs of the people, or of all the people requiring assistance? What if, in meeting these needs, we make people less resilient? This, of course, is why many evaluators use a broad set of several criteria, such as those produced by OECD DAC to judge if programmes have been successful, and why at ALNAP we use the OECD DAC criteria as the framework for the State of the Humanitarian System.

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John Mitchell

Avoiding 'evidence wars' in humanitarian aid

By John Mitchell on 22 March.

As I returned to my seat after presenting the ALNAP meeting paper on evidence I wondered what would happen next? Two distinguished and eminent thinkers, Mary Anderson and Anthony Redmond, were about to give their reactions. Mary of course is known to us all as the architect of ‘do no harm’ and, as our Chair (Nan Buzard) pointed out, Anthony’s list of accomplishments was simply was too long to read out. Yes, this was going to be interesting.

Slowly I began to relax. As Mary and Anthony spoke, I looked across the room (populated by 152 of the humanitarian aid system’s sharpest thinkers from 52 countries) and saw a sea of nodding heads. In fact, nods of agreement from two different camps - those who championed the use of randomised control trials in humanitarian response, as well as those at the other end of the spectrum who championed local knowledge. And the unexpected thing was that both groups were nodding at both responses.

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Nicola Murray

Why DFID is now funding innovation scale-up

By Nicola Murray on 28 February.

The last month and half has been a whirlwind induction into the humanitarian sector. For those who I haven’t met yet, I’ve joined the Research and Evidence Division in DFID to work on humanitarian innovation and evidence. As generalist civil servant with a background in climate and environment policy, this has been a steep learning curve but one which has been absolutely fascinating.

What has been particularly striking so far is how DFID is taking up the challenge to be more innovative set out by the Humanitarian Emergency Response Review (HERR). We've set our plan of action in the (punchily named!) document Promoting innovation and evidence-based approaches to building resilience and responding to humanitarian crises: A DFID Strategy Paper. Don’t be put off by the title, as I think it really clearly articulates our assessment in DFID of the problem in terms of humanitarian innovation and evidence, and where we are going to sharply focus our energies. On the innovation side, it sets out that we want to promote and support humanitarian innovation, particularly ensuring that innovations make it to scale.

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Patricia McIlreavy

Leadership - from lexicon to understanding

By Patricia McIlreavy on 4 February.

 Leadership is a concept that runs like an electric current through every evaluation, study and anecdotal criticism made about the humanitarian system and our ability to respond effectively. The word is charged with expectations. We qualify it, often negatively, demonstrating repeatedly how a strong aspiration can be weakened by the mere addition of an adjective. Poor. Ineffective. Controlling.

Glorified for its mystical promise of salvation, leadership is also a tawdry over-worn excuse for when something goes wrong. Yet we, the humanitarian community still seek answers for all our ills through chanting its mantra. Leadership. Leadership. Leadership.

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John Mitchell

The Trouble with Aid

By John Mitchell on 13 December.

I sat down to watch Riccardo Pollack’s BBC 4 documentary ‘The Trouble with Aid’ knowing that it was going to raise vitally important issues about aid neutrality. This is good news and it is healthy that such issues are brought to the attention of the public and also that the humanitarian community is seen to be held accountable by the media.

The film’s hypothesis was simple: aid agencies offer simplistic solutions to complicated problems and that aid workers are politically naive, are quickly out of their depth in difficult situations and end up feeling disillusioned, let down, angry and/or guilty. Cue several key shots accompanied by emotive music; an ex-SCF worker walking across a meadow, collar up; a well-known figure from MSF in existential pose in a French café; a lingering head shot of an ex-Oxfam nutritionist reflecting on being let down by his organisation after Cambodia; an ex-Care Country Director standing like a statue and staring into the distance; and another ex-MSF field worker alone on a landscape. The point is clear – aid has not delivered the solutions it promised and, in the face of defeat, agencies would be well advised to pack their bags and go home.

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Kim Scriven

The trust factor: humanitarian networks in uncertain times

By Kim Scriven on 17 October.

Last month I was immersed in the world of humanitarian networks, Bangladeshi-style. I’m interested in how national NGOs use networks to boost their capacities and improve preparation for, and response to, crises. Unpicking aspiration from action is always going to be tricky, and not just in the vibrant and diverse community of NGOs across Bangladesh.

In Dhaka, networks fulfil a range of functions – from jointly advocating for change in national level disaster management policy, to sharing good practice and mobilising resources. This hasn’t always been an easy process: there are a number of instances of short-term successes failing to lead to sustainable networks in the longer term.

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Kate Burns

Whose needs did we meet? Disaggregating humanitarian data

By Kate Burns on 8 October.

Whose needs are being met in humanitarian action? Should be simple to answer, but in reality we just don’t know. Why don’t we know? The short answer: humanitarian actors are primarily output-focused people. How many latrines were built? Shelters constructed? Patients seen at a health clinic? These are our main success indicators. While we collectively move to try and measure the impact of our humanitarian action, we must also answer the question: whose needs did we meet? This requires the collection, analysis and use of sex and age disaggregated data (SADD) so we can say whose needs were met, and who fell through the cracks.

I am constantly mystified by an absolute unwillingness to collect SADD. “It’s too hard,” people say. It makes me upset but also angry because without the collection of SADD we cannot know the impact of our efforts in meeting the needs of the people affected by crises. A recent study – Sex and age matter by the Feinstein International Center and Tufts University – supported by OCHA and CARE, gives several powerful examples of how gathering this data early can make a real difference (Mazurana et al, 2011). 

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Saul Guerrero

Our vision of linking evaluations and learning: ACF Learning Review 2011

By Saul Guerrero on 18 May.

How can we effectively evaluate humanitarian programmes and use lessons learned to strengthen organisational policy and practice?

For the past two years, the Evaluation, Learning & Accountability (ELA) Unit at Action Against Hunger UK (ACF-UK) has been helping ACF International answer this very question. For us this process was completely new, and despite an initial hesitancy about potentially exposing ourselves in a learning review, we decided that we want to do more. Now we want to hear other organisations' experiences.

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Jay Narhan

Risk, expectation and humanitarian technology

By Jay Narhan on 18 April.

 Whether you are talking internal or external adoption of new technology, it’s very easy to present a technological solution to people and immediately have them think up additional improvements or new applications. One of the challenges with humanitarian technological tools is getting people to focus attention to what they already have as the starting point to broader use.
In reality, 'adoption' may actually mean that having to change operational practice, rather than a set of software changes. The challenge here is convincing people to be open to changing practices as opposed to buying new tools as a fix.

Beyond this, adoption of technology (like any innovation) requires leadership support and resources. Wider adoption implies wider user needs, training, new capital and so on. All of that needs to be funded. While donors and humanitarian leadership may espouse innovation, there can be de facto hypocrisy at work as the pressures of cost reductions, limited financing and risk controls drive innovation and wider adoption into the ground.

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Peter Medway

Value for money and the health sector

By Peter Medway on 11 April.

International Medical Corps was delighted to host the most recent meeting of the UK Emergency Health group, a community of practice made up of non-governmental organisations and UK based health bodies. 

As with any grouping of humanitarian practitioners, the issues of how we evaluate our impact and prove our ‘Value for Money’ (VfM) are never far from our collective attention. With this in mind, the group spent the most recent meeting in March considering the challenges of design, management and conduct of impact evaluations in humanitarian contexts. The discussion was led by ALNAP’s Francesca Bonino who presented on the steps needed to improve impact assessments in humanitarian contexts, including ALNAP’s 5-point conceptual framework for Humanitarian Impact Assessment.

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Paul Currion

Cutting the cake with CDAC

By Paul Currion on 27 March.

The one thing we know for sure about the information revolution is that it disrupts existing business models, and that we have just started to feel that disruption in the humanitarian sector. While it's difficult to predict exactly how this disruption will play out, it's increasingly clear that a primary source of that disruption will be increased participation of disaster-affected communities in preparedness, response and recovery; and that this participation will be facilitated by technology.

I used to think there was a clear distinction between information management and public information. At the time I may have been right, but the rapid development of communications technology, and the networks created and empowered by that technology, have made me realise that I was probably completely wrong. This cuts in two ways – both in our relations with affected communities, but also with our donor communities (say hello to Kony2012, by the way).

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Daniel Sparks

International spending on disaster risk reduction requires dramatic review: new report from GHA

By Daniel Sparks on 20 March.

The impending food crisis in the Sahel with an estimated 13 million people at risk of famine is the latest in a series of events which have highlighted the need for more strategic investments in disaster risk reduction (DRR). While there is widespread agreement that measures to reduce risk will lessen the impact of disasters, quicken recovery and result in lower levels of emergency assistance being required, uncertainty remains as to whether this is being reflected in practice. The current situation in the Sahel together with recent crises such as the Haiti earthquake, Pakistan floods and the Horn of Africa famine, taking place in countries which have consistently been amongst the largest recipients of humanitarian aid over the last decade, suggests a continued failure to prioritise efforts to reduce risk in many countries.

The Global Humanitarian Assistance (GHA) programme launches a new report today, Disaster risk reduction: Spending where it should count. The new report examines the levels of donor investment in DRR in the top 40 humanitarian recipients over the last 10 years (2000-2009). The top recipients of humanitarian aid are particularly relevant when it comes to examining investment in risk reduction. These are the countries that are most susceptible to the risk of natural hazards becoming natural disasters, and are the places where those natural disasters have a particularly significant impact. These countries account for the vast bulk of humanitarian expenditure each and every year: nine out of every ten humanitarian dollars go to them annually. The report provides a comprehensive view of the levels of international DRR spending, placed in the context of risk and vulnerability, and reveals the shockingly low levels of investment and inequities of funding to the top 40 humanitarian recipients. This is at a time when the need for enhanced focus on preparedness is paramount. Headline figures from the report, for the period 2000-2009, include the following:

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Philip Tamminga

HRI 2011: are more donor requirements part of the solution?

By Philip Tamminga on 13 March.


Last week, DARA launched the Humanitarian Response Index (HRI) 2011 report: Addressing the Gender Challenge. The report is based on field research in nine crises (Chad, Colombia, DRC, Haiti, Kenya, oPt, Pakistan, Somalia and Sudan) and assessments of donor governments’ humanitarian policies, funding and practices.

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Richard Blewitt

The global ageing mega-trend: let's all move towards ensuring longevity dividends

By Richard Blewitt on 8 March.

HelpAge International has been working to strengthen global attention to ageing and development for 30 years. Today on International Women’s Day - as HelpAge is grateful to receive the US$1.5 million Hilton Humanitarian Prize for 2012 -  we want policymakers to consider the aging of farming communities. Supporting these women and men across the globe will go a long way towards improved global food security.

HelpAge International supports the humanitarian community to address this ageing mega-trend in good ways that protect and support older people within the context of the communities within which they live.

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HariKrishna Nibanupudi

Hazards hurt most in societies that think being female is the real disaster

By HariKrishna Nibanupudi on 8 March.

“Women are not born vulnerable, but are made vulnerable to disasters."
- Ms Bani Saraswati, NGO leader from east India

"Fulfilling their roles made the women more valued in society because the completion of them suddenly became so much more important to the social order and the maintenance of societal stability”
- Alice Fothergill, Associate Professor of sociology, University of Vermont

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HariKrishna Nibanupudi

Dignity and risk

By HariKrishna Nibanupudi on 22 February.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and international humanitarian law maintain that human rights cannot be realised without dignity. Similarly, the Supreme Court of India has defined that the concept of right to life is no different from the right to live with dignity. However, the national and international human rights and humanitarian laws are never applied in the case of disaster affected people. For many people, dignity is as important as life itself. For others, dignity is more important than life. Over a quarter million farmers committed suicide between 1995 and 2010 in India. Almost all of them for the same reason: to escape humiliation in the hands of money lenders, whose loan they can’t repay after their crops failed. They found dignity in death instead of losing face in the community.

Some years ago, in a coastal village in South India, at a public meeting organised by a local NGO, the district administrator chided his seemingly polite subjects for not evacuating after a cyclone warning was given. In response, a woman got up and said:

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Kim Scriven

ADRRN and the future of humanitarian action

By Kim Scriven on 17 February.

Last week I was lucky enough to attend the General Assembly of the Asian Disaster Reduction and Response Network (ADRRN), which took place in Phnom Penh. This 10th General Assembly marked a decade since the network was established in 2002, and offered an opportunity to plot the progress of ADRRN alongside wider shifts in the balance of actors in the humanitarian system.

Statements about the changing nature of the humanitarian system are now so common as to be banal, so it was refreshing to witness a forum in which these shifts are taking place in reality. In the week that Oxfam published a report  which sought to highlight the increasing importance of national governments, local civil society and emerging donors, Dr Jemilah Mahmood presented a call to arms to the ADRRN members to seize the opportunity to embody a more local, flexible and innovative model of humanitarian assistance.

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Kim Scriven

Disasters Emergency Committee RTE of their East Africa Crisis Appeal

By Kim Scriven on 16 February.

Today sees the publication of the Disasters Emergency Committee’s (DEC) Real Time Evaluation (RTE) of their East Africa Crisis Appeal, an important milestone as agencies seek to evaluate and learn from their ongoing responses to this massive and multifaceted emergency.

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Paul Knox Clarke

Humanitarian quality and accountability - what's next?

By Paul Knox Clarke on 6 February.

The final day of this year’s ALNAP Annual Meeting included a stock take of the various approaches that humanitarians have developed to improve the quality and accountability of their work: standards – both externally certified and self assessed; evaluations; quality approaches; and work on professionalization. For me, the presentations and the discussion that followed were heartening, hopeful and confusing. Heartening, because the continued, even intensified interest in these issues speaks of a sector full of principled, innovative people committed to improvement. Hopeful, because there is so much useful work going on that humanitarians will build on... and confusing because – well, because there is so much going on.

The multiple approaches that the humanitarian sector has taken to improving quality and accountability (of which of course ALNAP, with our commitment to improvement through learning, is one) do not fit neatly together. They have developed organically and in parallel, and now overlap in some places, and leave gaps in others. They point towards broadly the same objective: Humanitarian aid that uses its (limited) resources to achieve the greatest impact by ensuring that all those with a legitimate interest are involved in, and have an overview of, how resources are used. But they come from different cultural backgrounds, and embody different assumptions about how individuals and organisations change their behaviour: sticks or carrots; external targets or internal growth; improvement as a personal or as an organisational endeavour.

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Randolph Kent

Aversion to risk - a humanitarian malady

By Randolph Kent on 27 January.

International risk aversion at government, inter-governmental and aid agency levels has in my estimation led to inertia when it comes to anticipating and preparing for future crises.
There is no doubt that risk-aversion leads to unnecessary high levels of deaths among the most vulnerable people in the world. And unless policymakers at all levels are prepared to take risks in future, it will lead increasingly to deaths which could be saved in more and more parts of the world.

I’ve been involved in consultations with representatives of some 22 governments over the past few months. So many of these governments in Asia - I’m referring to the ASEAN countries - in West Africa, represented by ECOWAS countries - and parts of Latin America, are saying that what they want from us is the technical expertise to enable them to plan strategically for events in their regions. The clear message I received from these government representatives, was that the traditional humanitarian sector – the West if you like – needs to understand it will have to adapt to the changes that are coming about through the rise of greater regionalism and through changing needs and demands of governments of vulnerable countries. We in the West will increasingly be measured by the affected, in terms of providing leading edge science and technology to support developing communities to become more resilient and able to cope better with new types of threat. The criterion by which the international humanitarian community will be measured in future will not be by boots on the ground. Support for prevention and risk reduction are ultimately true reflections of moral commitment to reducing suffering.

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Debbie Hillier

Managing the risk - not just the crisis

By Debbie Hillier on 24 January.

Why is the response to drought always too little and too late? This is the question that we have been asking ourselves at Oxfam. Whilst the humanitarian community seems to be learning many lessons and getting better at response in many areas, we – and I include Oxfam in this – often get it wrong for drought. Paradoxically, we’re better at responding to fast onset emergencies.

So what happened this time in the Horn of Africa? There were strong and clear warnings as early as November 2010 yet not nearly enough was done till after the rains failed in May 2011. By the time the humanitarian response really geared up – July-September - many people had gone into debt, many had lost their livelihoods, some irretrievably, many were suffering extreme hardship, particularly women and children, and some were losing their lives. This represents a systemic failure.

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John Mitchell

Time to redefine: urban aid sets fundamental challenge

By John Mitchell on 18 January.

Over the last two days I’ve been reminded, whilst participating in the 27th ALNAP annual meeting, that a shared professional language can be a hindrance as much as a help. This is especially the case when the topic is the challenge of urban disasters, until recently largely overlooked by (and therefore fairly new territory for) development and humanitarian NGOs and donors. Your mission, should you choose to accept: find a colleague working on disaster risk reduction or development and ask about ‘resilience’ or ‘vulnerability’. Does their definition tally with yours? These artificial gaps in our approach only serve to exacerbate problems in the complex, compressed environments of cities.

Meetings like this – with over 130 NGO and government participants from across the globe – are also a good chance to get a feeling of what the aid sector has on its collective mind. Most people here have their eyes very squarely fixed on how international aid agencies urgently need to work in new and different ways with government agencies and local CSOs. The words ‘demand-driven’, ‘collaboration’, ‘information sharing’ and even ‘disengagement’ have popped up more than a few times.

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Steve Darvill

Post-Busan reflections: Resilience - the mutual objective?

By Steve Darvill on 15 December.

The Fourth High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness was held in Busan, South Korea from 29 November to 1 December 2011. The Forum brought together political leaders, government representatives, parliamentarians, civil society organisations and private sector representatives to assess progress in improving the quality of aid. Steve Darvill, Executive Director of CDA Collaborative Learning Projects, reflects on the implications of the event and its outcome document for the ALNAP Membership and wider humanitarian community.

There has been much analysis and reflection on the outcomes of Busan for the development community (a good summary can be found in the blog of Owen Barder, for instance). There has however been much less thought given about what the post-Busan agenda might mean for humanitarians.

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Kim Scriven

'Zap it to me', or: the long-haul to innovation

By Kim Scriven on 7 November.

Back in 2009, ALNAP produced our first Innovation Case Study; ‘Cash Transfers through Mobile Phones: An Innovative Emergency Response in Kenya’. The case study looked at a Concern Worldwide emergency response pilot programme which had been implemented during the post-election violence that erupted in Kenya in late 2007. Concern had pioneered the use of 'mobile-money' (through the ground-breaking service M-Pesa, itself originally supported by DFID) to distribute cash to vulnerable groups using mobile phones. The programme partnered with the company behind M-Pesa, and included the distribution of mobile phones and efforts to minimise the potential for abuses or exploitation.

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Jess Camburn

When the Academic and Humanitarian Worlds Meet

By Jess Camburn on 26 October.

 For the first time, major academic institutions and international organisations from the humanitarian sector are meeting to consider the education and professional development needs of the humanitarian workforce.


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David Sanderson

Reflections on the future of the shelter sector

By David Sanderson on 20 October.

HERR and shelter: implications for practice

On 30th September, CENDEP with IFRC co-hosted a one day meeting ‘HERR and shelter: implications for practice’. Around 40 donors, practitioners, academics and consultants spent the day considering the question: what do we want the shelter sector to be like in five years’ time?

The catalyst for the meeting was the recent publication of the Humanitarian Emergency Response Review (HERR) commissioned by the UK Government’s Department for International Development (DFID). The HERR was especially critical of the shelter sector, which it acknowledged was ‘one of the most intractable problems in international humanitarian response.’ The Review thought that weak coordination in the sector was a problem; it also summarised the complexities of building transitional shelters, wherein temporary buildings, sometimes costly, too often become permanent. More generally, the HERR concurred with much recent ALNAP work suggesting that humanitarian response is challenged by a lack of innovation and poor leadership.

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Jenny  Vaughan

Understanding Poverty and Conflict

By Jenny Vaughan on 26 September.

A significant body of knowledge exists on the relationship between poverty, conflict, and state failure. In his influential book The Bottom Billion, Paul Collier shows strong statistical support for the claim that conflict is clustered in the worlds’ poorest nations. He also shows that unless economic growth takes place post-conflict, a nation has a 44% chance of slipping back into violence. Columbia scholar Macartan Humphreys confirms that as per capita GDP decreases, the probability of conflict increases [1]. Driven in part by these findings, donors and their partners are implementing increasing numbers of economic development programs in conflict and post-conflict environments, based on the assumption that these will contribute to both poverty reduction and conflict management.

To test this assumption and improve the quality of programming in conflict environments, USAID funded a series of research grants that explored the relationship between economic development, conflict, and state failure. The Evaluation and Assessment of Poverty and Conflict Interventions (EAPC) project is Mercy Corps’ contribution to this larger research effort. Over the 18 month life of the project, Mercy Corps worked with its field teams in Ethiopia, Indonesia, and Uganda to: 1) develop indicators and data collection tools, 2) field test these indicators and tools, and 3) begin to assess several theories of change that inform Mercy Corps’ programs.

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Kim Scriven

Field Level Learning - notes from Liberia

By Kim Scriven on 5 August.

I've just returned from Liberia, where I've been on secondment for five-and-a-bit weeks, working to support the Monitoring and Evaluation of an ALNAP Member's ongoing emergency response to the influx of refugees from Cote d'Ivoire. While there I conducted a real-time evaluation of the response, as well as working on monitoring systems and promoting accountability mechanisms.

It's been a fascinating experience, seeing first hand the challenges faced by ALNAP Members in the field; the 'simple' logistical and operational hurdles that must be overcome, as well as the wider policy and political factors that influence the overall response. It has also been a privilege to witness and assist the provision of life-saving assistance to people in real need.

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Steve Darvill

Humanitarians and the road to Busan

By Steve Darvill on 1 August.

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!

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Lydia Poole

Global Humanitarian Assistance report reveals how system is financed

By Lydia Poole on 20 July.

The Global Humanitarian Assistance programme at Development Initiatives launches the GHA Report 2011 this week, which provides the latest and most comprehensive picture of global humanitarian financing.

In 2010 international humanitarian response surpassed previous years, reaching US$16.7 billion and confounding expectations that the global financial crisis might seriously impact volumes of humanitarian aid. US$12.4 billion of this humanitarian aid was provided by governments (a preliminary estimate) and we estimate that private donors contributed US$4.3 billion.

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Paul Knox Clarke

Harnessing the Power of Evaluation in Humanitarian Action

By Paul Knox Clarke on 21 June.

Over the past decade, the humanitarian system has seen a steady improvement in both the quality and the number of evaluations of humanitarian action. However, the degree to which these evaluations are actually used to inform programming seems to have lagged behind: evaluations may be technically good, but are they useful? And are they used?

ALNAP has been looking at the question of how to get evaluation results out of the in-tray and into programming for some time. In 2006, we commissioned a study into ‘The Utilisation of Evaluations’. The following year, in our 7th Review of Humanitarian Action, we looked into the factors that impede and support ‘Organisational Change in the Humanitarian Sector’. A general theme that emerged from this work was that learning and improvement in humanitarian organisations are complex organisational processes, that are often influenced as much by personal relationships, organisational structures and external agendas as they are by objective ‘evidence’.

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Paul Knox Clarke

Reflections on the World Conference on Humanitarian Studies

By Paul Knox Clarke on 10 June.

Last week I attended the second World Conference on Humanitarian Studies at Tufts University in Boston. This biennial event, organised by the International Humanitarian Studies Association, brought together over 400 practitioners and academics to consider the changing realities of conflict and crisis and how they affect humanitarian action.

It’s almost impossible to find a single common thread connecting subjects as diverse as ‘Contextual Cash transfer Program Design’ and ‘Spirituality and Religion in Humanitarian Response’. That said, however, I was struck by how many of the presentations made the point that Humanitarian Action, far from being a simple and obvious response to suffering, is in fact an idea with a specific history, based on a series of assumptions about who provides what to whom; how; where; and in what circumstances. To take one of many examples (from the fascinating discussion on humanitarian action in situations of urban violence): The humanitarian system regularly responds to situations caused by armed conflict but seldom responds to situations of urban ‘gang’ violence, even though this violence may be causing mortality rates similar to a small war.

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Kim Scriven

Searching for the secrets of great leadership in humanitarian operations

By Kim Scriven on 8 June.

A survey of aid workers in ALNAP’s State of the Humanitarian System report confirmed that most aid workers believe that a lack of effective leadership represents the main challenge to effective humanitarian action today, and many of us will have joined in with anecdotal discussions about the leadership void that is said to exist in so many humanitarian operations.

Despite considerable research into leadership carried out by the private sector, there has been little systematic study of what operational leadership really looks like in humanitarian emergencies. ALNAP’s latest Study, ‘Leadership in Action: Leading effectively in humanitarian operations’, to be published tomorrow (9th June 2011), sets out to fill this gap by developing a better understanding of what effective leadership looks like, to identify the determinants of good leadership and suggest ways in which it can be fostered.

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Paul Knox Clarke

Disaster Risk Reduction- Lessons to be learnt from evaluations

By Paul Knox Clarke on 11 May.

First of all I’d like to say how pleased I am to be joining the ALNAP Secretariat at such an exciting time in its development and I look forward to participating in the lively discussions that exist here on the ALNAP blogs and forums.

John Mitchell and I attended the ISDR Global Platform on Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) this week, where ALNAP and the Swiss Agency for Development & Co-operation (SDC) co-hosted an event. The topic was ‘Turning evaluations into action – the case of DRR’ and I’d like to use this blog to share some of the insights that emerged from the meeting.

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Josh Harris

Haiti Earthquake Response- Key findings from ALNAP's Mapping and Analysis of Evaluations

By Josh Harris on 13 April.

As of January 2011, at least 45 evaluations are known to have been done of various aspects of the international response to the Haiti earthquake. Our latest report provides a mapping and analysis of these evaluations, to help support the ongoing efforts by agencies working in Haiti. ALNAP has worked with the OECD-DAC Evaluation Network, the UN Evaluation Group to produce this paper and this blog represents some of the key findings that may be of interest to ALNAP members.

Emerging conclusions

The aim of this report is to survey evaluation activity, rather than to synthesize the lessons from evaluations. Nonetheless, a brief summary of the principal conclusions emerging so far can be identified:

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Kim Scriven

Innovation in humanitarian organisations

By Kim Scriven on 8 April.

I spent a fascinating day on Tuesday facilitating a workshop on Supporting Innovation in Humanitarian Organisations. The ALNAP workshop, hosted by World Vision International in Geneva, built on research ALNAP has undertaken in recent years, and used this as a basis to focus on the challenges and opportunities of innovation for humanitarian agencies.

We in ALNAP have long been making the case that innovation can lead to improved humanitarian performance, and it is pleasing to see it firmly on the agenda for humanitarian actors. But supporting innovation in principle is very different from delivering innovations in practice – particularly for large operational agencies whose primary concern must always be their ‘bread and butter work’ delivering aid in difficult contexts.

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John Mitchell

Responding to DFID's Humanitarian Review

By John Mitchell on 29 March.

I was pleased to attend the launch of the Humanitarian Emergency Response Review (HERR) at the Houses of Parliament yesterday. The overarching conclusion that DFID has long been a key leader in the humanitarian sector is one that I personally recognise, not least in view of its role as a founding member of ALNAP. The report is particularly welcome because many of its findings and recommendations reflect key issues that the ALNAP membership and secretariat have been working on in the past three years. It was especially good to see ALNAP's work referenced throughout the report. Specific highlights for me included the following.

One recommendation states that DFID should, “Promote national response capacities of governments and civil society in at risk countries”. The 26th ALNAP Meeting recently brought together up to 20 representatives of National Disaster Management Authorities to discuss changing models in international humanitarian response and our recently published Meeting Paper contained recommendations for all multilateral and bilateral donors which resonate strongly with the HERR.

The HERR devotes a chapter to the importance of nurturing innovation ‘in dealing with and preparing for humanitarian emergencies’. Following a major report and meeting in 2009, ALNAP has worked closely with ELRHA, DFID and the Swedish Government to establish the landmark Humanitarian Innovation Fund, and have just launched the first very successful call for expressions of interest - watch this space for more.

A further recommendation is to ‘Promote the development of improved needs and robust impact assessments.’ In 2009 ALNAP led case-study research on ‘improving humanitarian impact assessment’ and provided the system with a conceptual and operational framework for undertaking impact assessments. This work has informed a forthcoming ODI Briefing Paper.

The report also highlights the importance of improving operational leadership. ALNAP is just completing a research study on this topic which I believe will illuminate exactly what operational leadership means in humanitarian situations, and should be of great interest to the whole community. This report will be published in May.

Perhaps most importantly, the HERR represents the start of a process of strategic change and operational adaptation - the challenges of which were explored in ALNAP's 2008 study on organisational change in the humanitarian sector. Doing so will require leadership, effective communication and convincing arguments. As our work found, such change is never straightforward - instead it is best seen as a process of negotiation about the future of an organisation, about what it means, and what it stands for. The HERR is a solid first step, and there are important messages here for DFID and all of the ALNAP network members too. In particular it is welcome to see the idea of placing accountability and impact at the heart of humanitarian efforts. I am sure the whole ALNAP network looks forward to working together towards this vital shared goal.

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Katherine Nightingale

Disasters, poverty and vulnerability

By Katherine Nightingale on 28 March.

Christian Aid will today participate in a Guardian webchat on Disasters and Poverty at 1pm BST. This comes at a pertinent time, in a week when the Humanitarian Emergency Response Review (HERR) challenged the UK government to put resilience and disaster risk reduction into their core business.

The third of six issues addressed as part of Christian Aid’s Poverty Over campaign, the webchat aims to unpack the cycle of disasters, poverty and vulnerability for a general public that often see natural disasters as unavoidable.

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Kim Scriven

Japan and its implications for the international humanitarian system

By Kim Scriven on 18 March.

Like many people, the reaction of the ALNAP Secretariat to the unfolding events in Japan has been, along with shock, an urge to find ways to provide help. As with any sudden-onset emergency, our immediate response was to check whether ALNAP research would be helpful to those mounting the emergency response.

For ALNAP to act in this way is established practice. We have a range of Lessons Papers and other material based on learning from our Members, and our networked structure allows us to get the appropriate information into the hands of those responding on the ground.

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Cait Turvey Roe

Exploring the Challenges of Urban Response - Learning from DEC Members in Haiti

By Cait Turvey Roe on 11 March.

Here in the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) office we have been getting pretty excited about the “Urban disasters – lessons from Haiti” report from David Sanderson and colleagues which we have just published.

While the DEC is primarily viewed as a fundraising body – we bring together to UK’s largest humanitarian agencies to fundraise after major disasters – raising the standards in humanitarian responses is also central to our joint mission. Drawing in independent eyes to look at, and extract common lessons from, the work of our members is one of the tools we employ to this end.

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Jan Kellett

Global Humanitarian Assistance and the importance of information: new country profiles

By Jan Kellett on 28 February.

We all have an interest in the effective implementation of humanitarian aid – as taxpayers and beneficiaries, as governments and implementing agencies, as advocacy organisations and spending watchdogs – particularly in today’s humanitarian contexts, where needs seem to be growing each year with little sign of slowing down. The finances available to manage those needs, whether in the treasuries of donor governments or in the pockets of ordinary people, are increasingly under threat. Value for money, accountability, and transparency have become the key words in humanitarian discourse.

We need a clear picture of global humanitarian assistance if we are to be able to demand better value for money – where it is spent, who it is spent by and how it is prioritised. In a climate where improved humanitarian performance is one of our highest priorities, clarity and transparency is critical. We all need to work together to consolidate and improve.

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Kim Scriven

Innovation in humanitarian action

By Kim Scriven on 15 February.

Anyone that has followed ALNAP’s work in recent years will be aware of the importance we’ve been placing on the issue of Innovation in Humanitarian Action. At the same time there has been a groundswell of interest in this idea, both from established humanitarian agencies looking for new ways to address the challenges they face, and from a new breed of ‘humanitarian entrepreneurs’ bringing new ideas and technologies to bear in humanitarian contexts. The nature of innovation can be complex and ephemeral, but the argument for more innovation in international humanitarian response is simple: innovation has the potential to stimulate positive change through new and improved ways of delivering assistance to those who need it most.

With this in mind ALNAP has been keen build upon our 2009 Study on ‘Innovations in international humanitarian action’. This includes work with ALNAP members to better understand the dynamics of innovation and risk in humanitarian agencies, which we’ll be exploring at our forthcoming workshop. We are also continuing our series of Innovation Case studies, with Groupe URD’s ‘Observatory of Aid Practice in Chad’, also published today.

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Joel Charny

Confronting new realities in Washington: InterAction Foreign Assistance Briefing Book

By Joel Charny on 10 February.

InterAction, the alliance of U.S.-based non-governmental organizations involved in international relief and development, prepares its Foreign Assistance Briefing Book (aka the FABB) bi-annually to coincide with the January arrival of a new Congress. The second version was released last month into a radically different environment than the first. The potential for transformation represented by a newly elected President Obama backed by clear Democratic majorities of both houses of Congress has vanished in favor of houses preoccupied with reducing government spending, with the Republican leadership vowing to return all discretionary spending to 2008 levels at best and to abolish the U.S. Agency for International Development at worst.

The FABB tries to take the high road and largely ignores this political transformation. To the extent that we at InterAction bowed to the new environment, the clues lie in arguments for aid based on national interest and security rather than moral imperatives. But especially when it comes to humanitarian action, we have historically found bi-partisan support for life-saving assistance, and the hope is that a moderate consensus will develop around maintaining significant levels of U.S. support for emergency assistance to vulnerable people affected by conflict and natural disasters.

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Christiani Buani

Brazil floods and mudslides - A Brazilian perspective

By Christiani Buani on 2 February.

In early January 2011, a series of flash floods and mudslides struck the Brazilian Serrana mountain region near Rio de Janeiro and the states of Minas Gerais and São Paulo, destroying buildings, roads, houses, among other facilities. Rescue teams from the Brazilian National Civil Defense, the army and other institutions made their way to remote towns with aid and transportation.

These events have encouraged efforts for better equipped rescue teams, more community awareness and mobilisation regarding disaster prevention along with dialogue regarding risk management, resilience systems and nationwide preparedness.

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Elias Sagmeister

Lessons from Haiti beyond polemic criticism: Addressing the blind spot of humanitarian reform

By Elias Sagmeister on 18 January.

As the world marks the one year anniversary of Haiti's devastating January 2010 earthquake, daily papers, news programs and blogs are all full of accounts of the Haitians' predicament and the failures of the international humanitarian community. Ploughing through all these reports, one might start asking whether the average affected Haitian would today be worse off, if on January 13th 2010 the international aid circus had failed to show up in Port-au-Prince.

Don't get me wrong, I cherish the notion of international solidarity. I think the humanitarian system has improved a lot over the past ten to fifteen years and is one of the most dynamic and innovation friendly areas of international politics. As a humanitarian evaluator, I try to contribute to the further improvement of the system. And yet, the anniversary of the Haiti earthquake raises some tough questions, which the humanitarian community should not avoid from confronting.

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Josh Harris

Communicating with Haiti: Where the Response Failed, Where it Succeeded, and How we Move Forward

By Josh Harris on 18 January.

Last night I attended a meeting, hosted by Thinking Development, which set out to examine how the international humanitarian sector has been communicating with communities and individuals in Haiti that were affected by the January 2010 earthquake. Imogen Wall, the former head of Communications for UN OCHA in Haiti, observed, the issue of beneficiary consultation comes up in every evaluation following a large scale humanitarian disaster. But on the evidence of last night’s presentations, Haiti might be the beginning of a paradigm shift in the way the humanitarian system and affected people communicate with each other.

CDAC Haiti was a multi agency project, hosted by Internews, initially set up for three months to improve how the humanitarian sector Communicates with Disaster Affected Communities (CDAC). One year later, the project is still running and is recognised as having made an invaluable contribution to the overall humanitarian effort. Imogen shared some of the activities they have delivered, including:

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John Mitchell

Haiti and the Media

By John Mitchell on 12 January.

As we approach the one year anniversary of the Haiti earthquake many of us have been anticipating an examination of the humanitarian system from the media. And this is a good thing. There is an entirely legitimate, indeed essential, role for journalists to play in reporting on the challenges and failures of rebuilding Haiti, particularly given the generosity of the public in donating to the Haiti relief effort (£103 million donated by the British public through the DEC appeal alone). Members of the public who contributed hard earned cash to the relief effort have a right to know what worked well and what went wrong and, most importantly, they have a right to know that the agencies that comprise the humanitarian system are open to learning and committed to making improvements.

A responsible media have a role to play in this process. On the anniversary of the Indian Ocean Tsunami various media inquests took place and, with a couple of exceptions, I think the debate that emerged was a positive thing. However, this time it looks as though the agencies are in for a particularly rough ride.

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Linda O'Halloran

Haiti - Collected Reflections

By Linda O'Halloran on 11 January.

Marking the 1st anniversary of Haiti's earthquake, Thinking Development launches a short collection of anniversary statements from a diverse group of organisations. Contributors include DG ECHO, Internews, CDAC-Global, and The Haiti Support Group, among others.

Collected Reflections is available at

Articles highlight some of the failures of the international community & Haitian government:

Christophe Gadrey of DG ECHO: “The absence of structured communication to the population in spontaneous settlements on what could realistically be expected from humanitarian assistance (and what cannot) probably increased the magnet effect of assistance in camps which the humanitarian community was trying to prevent.”

Jacobo Quintanilla of Internews: “Haitians are still not being sufficiently consulted or informed about the humanitarian and government response.”

Relief Worker Quote, P Wearne of Haiti Support Group: “All our problems are rooted in the housing issue – security, gender-based violence, health, disease and sanitation,” says one relief worker. The lack of housing gets to the heart of it all: the government’s refusal to declare eminent domain over land, to tackle land tenure issues, to enact rent controls. No government movement on housing, no development.”

The Haitian disaster response did, however, succeed in many respects:

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Peter Walker

Are Masters degrees valid qualifications for humanitarian workers?

By Peter Walker on 10 January.

Last year, myself and Catherine Russ from REDR led a study for the UK’s Enhanced Learning and Research for Humanitarian Assistance consortium (ELRHA) entitled “Professionalising the Humanitarian Sector”. As an afterthought, we built into the research a survey of universities providing Masters degrees in the humanitarian area, and added some questions into our survey of over 4,000 aid workers, on their attitudes to Masters qualifications.

46% of the universities we surveyed said that more than three quarters of their Masters students had gone on to find higher level posts within the aid sector, a further 23% of institutions recorded at least half their students had found better jobs as a result of the degree. This is a really high success rate! Our sample was a small one, some 17 universities responded. We catalogued in the research at least 80 universities, worldwide, where one can get a Masters degree related to humanitarian assistance.

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Kim Scriven

Urban Disasters- A Conversation Starter

By Kim Scriven on 9 December.

I have been following with interest the unfolding violence in Rio de Janeiro, as government forces confront the drug gangs that have for years dominated and controlled the cities favelas, the sprawling slums that make up large parts of the otherwise glamorous city.

On 28th November, as part of the ongoing cycle of violence, the gangs unleashed a wave of attacks on the city’s streets, and authorities responded by deploying 2000+ police and military personnel, heavily armed and moving in tanks and APCs, with armed helicopter cover. This has brought international media attention to what has been an ongoing problem.

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John Mitchell

A Small Step towards the Fundamental Reorientation of the Humanitarian System.

By John Mitchell on 29 November.

Like many who read the final report of the evaluation of the tsunami response, I had mixed feelings. As the manager of the Tsunami Evaluation Coalition Synthesis, I knew what was coming in the main recommendation – namely that the humanitarian system requires a fundamental reorientation away from ‘northern based’ agencies towards local organisations and capacities. But in the cold light of day, the recommendation seemed to raise more questions than it answered. It was not that I disagreed with the principle, which clearly needed to be stated emphatically. The challenge was, what practical steps would need to be taken for such a far reaching recommendation to come to fruition?

Over 4 years later, with the 26th ALNAP Meeting in Kuala Lumpur behind us, the humanitarian sector may have come up with at least some of the answers.

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Josh Harris

Next steps from the 26th ALNAP Meeting

By Josh Harris on 18 November.

As the 26th ALNAP meeting draws to a close, we have heard from national government representatives and humanitarian agencies, engaging in a new dialogue that has been really refreshing to be a part of. We have also heard some new perspectives, from the private sector Johan Raslan, Chairman, Price Waterhouse Coopers, Malaysia urged humanitarian agencies to reach out to companies that have experience of operating across borders in collaboration with national governments of all types.

Aik Cheng Heng of Mercy Malaysia reported back on their participation in establishing guidelines for foreign militaries operating in disaster affected countries during times of crises, through the Asia Pacific Conference on Military Assistance in Disaster Related Operations.

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Josh Harris

Marriage counselling at the ALNAP meeting

By Josh Harris on 17 November.

The 26th ALNAP meeting is well underway and we’ve been delighted to welcome many friends and familiar colleagues, some new faces from our members’ South East Asian regional offices and of course the national government representatives that we have invited from across the world. The collective commitment to improving relationships between National Disaster Management Agencies and international humanitarian organisations has been both evident and encouraging.

More than one of our keynote speakers has compared the typical relationship between national governments and humanitarian agencies to a dysfunctional marriage. Whilst I’d say that optimism is the defining mood of the meeting so far, I doubt anyone underestimates the challenges, many of which were outlined in the background paper, of redefining that relationship, particularly given the vast range of humanitarian actors that now exist and amongst governments of differing capacity and political complexion. However, as our guest from the government of Costa Rica Marco Saborío Mesén, commented, “We should not only diagnose and identify challenges and flaws. We should aspire to finding solutions.”

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Ahmad Faizal Perdaus

Message from Faizal Perdaus, President of Mercy Malaysia

By Ahmad Faizal Perdaus on 16 November.

Dear colleagues,
It is perhaps not too late for me to welcome everyone to the 26th ALNAP Conference in Kuala Lumpur. MERCY Malaysia is indeed honoured and privileged to co-host this important meeting at a crucial time for the humanitarian world.

MERCY Malaysia took up the challenge of co-hosting this conference as we firmly believe that there is a strong need for Southern representation and active participation in international humanitarian conferences and meetings. The theme of this year's meeting focusing on the role of national governments is also a key point of discussion which is relevant currently as well as for the future as governments in both the developed and developing world become more engaged and active in humanitarian aid and disaster relief.

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John Mitchell

The Limits of Humanitarian Action- A cautiously progressive view

By John Mitchell on 15 November.

I am speaking today at MSF’s XII Humanitarian Congress in Berlin and I wanted to share with you some of the ideas I will be discussing on ‘The Limits of Humanitarian Action’

The very first book I read on humanitarian relief was when I was a student and it may well still be my favourite – Warrior Without Weapons written by Marcel Junod tells of his experiences as a medical doctor working for the ICRC in the 1930’s and 40’s. The book covers a dark period of world history – but the point that stuck in my mind was what Junod called the ‘spirit of the thing’ – which was like a kind of guiding light that seemed to give him a certainly in what he was doing.

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Kim Scriven

Countdown to the ALNAP meeting- National governments and humanitarian action

By Kim Scriven on 12 November.

As always it’s been a hectic few days in the run-up to the 26th ALNAP Meeting, but as we in the secretariat prepare to head off to Malaysia, there is a real sense of excitement around the agenda and participants that we have brought together for the Meeting, as well as the conversations that are already beginning to take place.

As many of you will know, the impetus behind this work is part of a larger stream of ALNAP work to broaden the reach and scope of our network. I’m constantly impressed by the breadth and depth of the work carried out by individuals and organisations in the ALNAP Membership, who at any given time are delivering sophisticated and effective assistance across the world’s most challenging contexts. Within the ALNAP secretariat we see bringing these actors together to collectively approach some of the most challenging issues constraining improved humanitarian performance and accountability as an essential part of our role.

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Evaluation Conclave- food for thought

By YUKA HASEGAWA on 5 November.

The Evaluation Conclave in India last week was a great opportunity to relate the issues in evaluation of humanitarian action to those in a wider evaluation field. There are five main areas of food for thought I would like to share.

1. Evaluation and Accountability: It was interesting to hear that the national governments of South Asia as aid recipients felt it was necessary to show the effectiveness of their policies to their constituents by conducting regular evaluations and, in this regard, linked the function of evaluation to a democratic process. Some talked about that in some instances, the distinction between what should be part of audit and what of evaluation has become increasingly blurred. The pressure has certainly been on to use an evaluation to show the ‘value for money’ for donors. This is also related to us in the humanitarian sector: how do we see the limits of evaluation for the accountability purpose?

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Jane Keylock

The domestic humanitarian response - significant, yet uncounted and ignored?

By Jane Keylock on 3 November.

When a crisis hits, the main thing we hear about is what the international community is doing to help. But how about what the people from the affected country are doing? If you are affected by crisis, often the first, most visible, lifesaving and sometimes only response you will see is from people and organisations close at hand. At the Global Humanitarian Assistance (GHA) programme we believe that no analysis of humanitarian assistance can be complete without taking into account this domestic humanitarian response, yet it is rarely, if ever, considered. We wanted to understand this more and so in collaboration with Development Research and Training (DRT), carried out a study looking at domestic response in Uganda.

For me, one of the most striking findings comes from discussions we held with affected communities about how they rate the impact of the various responses (both international and domestic). Bearing in mind, these communities had suffered a protracted conflict, they rated efforts to improve security most highly and crucially these come from largely domestic sources - the Ugandan government, local leaders that have helped in peace negotiations and men from affected communities volunteering to guard the population. From what the communities said, they certainly perceive international actors to have greater capacity and to be more equitable, but interestingly, it seems the national government, and domestic civil society, do have a particularly important role to play when the level of international response is low. For example, at the onset of a drought before the threshold to appeal for international assistance is reached, or in very insecure environments which are no-go for most international actors.

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Evaluation Conclave- questions for the future

By YUKA HASEGAWA on 29 October.

I have now reached the end of my time at the Evaluation Conclave in India and I would like to share some of the ideas and questions that I have seen raised this week.

Robert Chambers from the Institute of Development Studies presented the question, ‘Who Should Evaluation Serve? Whose Voices Matter?’ His engaging talk was questioning how much local people, have been heard in evaluation practice. He urged all of us as evaluation professionals, to internalise two phrases – ‘ask them!’ and ‘shut up’, which I can’t help but feel is fantastic advice.

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Kim Scriven

Crisis leadership or leadership crisis?

By Kim Scriven on 31 March.

The devastating Earthquake that struck Haiti in January sparked huge generosity and inevitably led to intense media interest. But almost as inevitable were the subsequent claims of a slow, badly coordinated response. These criticisms varied in their targets and validity, but many related in one way or another to the issue of leadership, and the influence that it (or the lack of it) was having on the coordination of the response (see for example here or here).

As the Haiti Learning Portal on the ALNAP website catalogues, there are a number of initiatives under way to ensure that the performance of the humanitarian system in Haiti is evaluated and the appropriate lessons are gathered, and hopefully learnt. Furthermore, it is unwise to draw conclusions from afar, especially considering that the leadership of the UN Mission in Haiti were themselves among the earthquakes victims.

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Ben Ramalingam

The scope for humanitarian-private sector collaboration: Innovation as the way forward

By Ben Ramalingam on 4 December.

Yesterday saw the RedR-HFP conference ''Hard Realities and Future Necessities: The Role of the Private Sector in Humanitarian Efforts'. In his keynote, U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator and head of OCHA John Holmes highlighted the lack of a systematic and productive engagement between the two sets of actors, pointed to innovations as a key area for working together going forward, and made mention of a number of innovations including some that were showcased at the ALNAP Innovations Fair (see a Reuters Alertnet article on his speech here).

Anne, Princess Royal, President of RedR, spoke on the importance of having a broad understanding of what constituted the private sector, and in particular to not exclude national and local actors.

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John Mitchell

"Local is more effective, say disaster relief experts"

By John Mitchell on 26 October.

A recent article on Alertnet echoes a key finding of the Tsunami Evaluation Coalition:

"When a disaster strikes, international relief agencies receive the bulk of media attention and donor funding but experts say it is actually the people living in the damaged areas who save the most lives and help survivors long after foreign aid workers leave."

The article goes on to highlight a number of improvements that international agencies should try to put in place.

- "International aid agencies can... support local relief efforts better. They could work more closely with the local government and NGOs to avoid duplication and waste"
- They should "maintain a good relationship with local officials who have the power to determine whether or not foreign aid workers can be present in crises"
- They should run meetings in local languages, and "hire more local staff who have better connections and understanding of the local culture"
- They should "share contingency plans with local organisations and do joint simulation exercises to make sure they can work smoothly together when a disaster strikes"
- They should [develop a] "good overview of what problems the local government and NGOs can deal with themselves and what will require outside help."

All of which makes an interesting comparison with the findings of a 2005 ALNAP study on capacity building in humanitarian action, which suggested that at that time, international agencies were failing to live up to their commitments to build the capacities of their local partners:

  • "Headquarters’ declarations of the importance of developing and utilising local capacities were being quietly forgotten in field-level operations. With some notable exceptions, there are few indications that the ‘business as usual’ of humanitarian operations led by international staff, is actually in question. Local institutional            capacit[ies] are not a central feature of humanitarian action today because, although local capacities are useful, they are generally not thought to be essential."

I wonder if this has changed significantly in the past 4-5 years? Are international agencies who do make the effort still 'notable exceptions'? Are effective local capacities restricted to natural disasters, or do they also play a role in complex emergencies such as Sudan, DRC and Somalia? And are there any good examples of the kinds of improvements called for in the Alertnet article? It would be good to know.

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Kim Scriven

Field Level Learning

By Kim Scriven on 9 September.

There has been an interesting debate started over at the blog of Chris Blattman, a Yale academic, about encouraging learning for field workers. Chris’ partner Jeannie Annnan is the new Research Director at IRC and they’ve been discussing the best way to bridge the gap between research and field practice. Chris noted that “Cost, bandwidth, and logistics of education materials are all big barriers. But these barriers are falling in the information age, even in Africa, and it seems to us there’s room for something new.”

He suggests three “more human barriers” prevent greater learning:

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Ben Ramalingam

What priorities for a better humanitarian evidence base?

By Ben Ramalingam on 13 July.

Last week in the new DFID white paper, the UK government committed to four actions to ensure the international humanitarian system and national governments can meet growing global needs. These were:

1. Strengthening ongoing efforts to reform and improve the system, focusing on the UN reforms around the CERF and UN leadership.

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