The past fifteen years has seen humanitarian response enter into a new and challenging phase characterised by heightened risk, reduced humanitarian space, multiple highly-politicised, conflict-driven emergencies, and increased public and donor scrutiny. These accumulating obstacles are causing a growing number of organisations to turn away from traditional humanitarian action, particularly in difficult or insecure environments (see MSF’s damning 2014 report, Where is Everyone?). Yet global humanitarian spending has continued to rise, increasing threefold since 2007 and accounting for a higher percentage of global aid flows (see OECD stats online). The numbers of humanitarian actors in each theatre of operations has also increased substantially, albeit not in the most difficult to reach or dangerous contexts (see MSF report).

The scale of protracted crises such as those in Syria and Yemen have been instrumental in spurring the international community to upscale the overall response to crises, close funding gaps, build resilience to shock, reduce duplication and increase humanitarian collaboration. A major scheme embodying this ambition was set out in the 2016 humanitarian action initiative known as the Grand Bargain, with 51 commitments divided into nine workstreams. There are now 61 Signatories (24 states, 11 UN Agencies, 5 inter-governmental organisations and Red Cross Movements and 21 NGOs), representing 73% of all humanitarian contributions donated in 2018 and 70% of all aid received by humanitarian actors in the same year (see IASC website). There is a particular emphasis on localising humanitarian aid (see Charter4Change) and encouraging a ‘participation revolution’, where national aid organisations are principal responders and aid recipients have key agency in decisions which affect their lives (localisation and participation are encapsulated in workstreams two and six). Fundamentally, the nine Grand Bargain workstreams have created major pull factors re-shaping how humanitarian aid is delivered.

The Grand Bargain has delivered change in some core areas. For example, donors’ increased understanding of risk in terms of aid diversion, theft and corruption and the well-evidenced effectiveness of other modes of assistance has led to a shift in aid strategy towards on-the-ground programmes that empower local beneficiaries and actors. Schemes such as cash programming,[1] a Grand Bargain workstream in its own right, have been shown to strengthen local markets and provide greater agency to people in need (see Cash Transfer Platforms in Humanitarian Contexts). They may also have reduced the need for traditional service-oriented humanitarian action (e.g. medical clinics and schools run by international aid organisations), which have become increasingly difficult to sustain in high-risk, fragile environments.

Donors have moved towards multi-year programme funding in order to deepen sustainability and provide continuity to humanitarian endeavours. There is promising evidence of a collaborative approach to needs assessment and purportedly good progress in the localisation agenda (see Grand Bargain annual independent report 2019). However, while better dialogue between development and humanitarian actors has been achieved, each workstream remains unhelpfully siloed and the Grand Bargain’s structure and reporting/compliance requirements remain over-bureaucratic and burdensome. Furthermore, its governance and membership remain highly Northern-centric: of 21 NGOs that endorsed the Grand Bargain, only the NEAR Network (a movement of civil society organisations in the Global South) is actually Southern-led. There is still a sector-wide reluctance to look beyond the ‘usual suspects’ in directing humanitarian aid, even if more grassroots organisations are involved in delivery (the localisation workstream aims to channel 25% of funding through national partners – a target that has been reached by only one third of the endorsing NGOs, according to the Grand Bargain annual independent report 2019). Fundamentally, the approach to both localisation and the participation revolution lack meaning if all decision-making power continues to reside in the Global North.

The World Humanitarian Summit in 2016 and the associated Grand Bargain were explicitly designed to address uneven power relations, corrosive competition and perverse incentives, which together have held the humanitarian sector back from innovating and adapting to meet the needs of some of the world’s most vulnerable people (see ODI Director Sara Pantuliano’s blog, May 2016). However, three years on, significant barriers remain. Competition for funding and resources between humanitarian agencies remains as high as ever, major changes to policy and practice are required to fulfil many of the commitments, and there is a stark disparity in the level of effort the 61 endorsers of the Grand Bargain have invested in living up to their pledges. Power remains embedded in Northern institutions and overarching leadership is lacking. Ultimately, without addressing these barriers, the Grand Bargain runs the risk of undermining the spirit of collaboration it was built upon and failing to deliver the successful transformation on which the humanitarian system depends.

Photo: ©2018 European Union (photographer: Louiza Ammi)


[1] Cash Programming (also known as cash transfer programming or cash-based assistance) is where humanitarian funding is given to people in need directly in the form of vouchers or money allowing them to make decisions about their immediate priorities and needs. There is a solid evidence base for the effectiveness of this approach (see Idris, I. (2017). Cash Transfer Platforms in Humanitarian Contexts (GSDRC Helpdesk Research Report 1416). Birmingham, UK: GSDRC, University of Birmingham; and, the Cash and Learning Partnership website).