The Great Bargain in Geneva: A glass half full or half empty report ?

©Solidarités International

The “Independent Annual Report on the Great Bargain 2019” for the year 2018 was published last June on the occasion of the annual meeting in Geneva of the participants of the Great Bargain. This Report was produced by an independent organization, the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) as part of ODI (Overseas Development Institute) and funded by USAID for this edition.

Concerning the Great Bargain, we have published in the past an interview with Antoine Gérard d’OCHA in 2017 and an article “The United Nations under test” in September 2018. This year, we have chosen to present to you a debate organized in Geneva on 8 July by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) and the successor journal The New Humanitarian to IRIN.

This debate took place on the margins of the official meeting of the Great Bargain and brought together representatives of organizations that had signed or not signed the Great Bargain. Hosted by Ben Barker of The New Humanitarian, this debate was broadcast on YouTube.

The speakers are:

These interventions reflect a wide variety of views and assessments of the state of health in which the Great Bargain finds itself. Everyone will have their own opinion on this subject and you will find the Great Bargain in a prominent place in the Editorial of this 30th edition.

Ben Parker : Welcome everyone, thank you for coming for this early morning session, for hopefully a lovely conversation and a stimulating start to another day of gripping, meetings on humanitarian issues, here in Geneva.

We thank the International Comitte of the Red Cross. They kindely allowed us to use this venue, which is exeptionnaly appropriate and handy and also will hopefully get you accross the road into your meetings without delay. We also thank the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) with whom The New Humanitrian is organizing this event.

Our goal today is really to take a look at the Grand Bargain and where it could do better and what his priorities ought to be. And if there is things that isn’t doing what it should do and if there is things that it could stop doing and more profitability focus elsewhere.

Some of the panelists will be in the room later today, they are part of the Grand Bargain signatories and some of them are not. That’s deliberate. We don’t want that the closed room to be the only source of debate and we hope that this conversation will carry through and that many of you in the audience will participate.

We are going to start with a littler testing of the temperature. And Sarah please press the button. So go to this website and give us one word you think about the Grand Bargain and we will test your feelings. And at the end we will also test your feelings and the way you feel this conversation is landed in terms of priorities. So I’m just going to ask the panelist to really come with a short proposition of what they think is the most important or the most urgent issue.

So the Grand Bargain is now heading into its toddler stage and some discussion has been had on how long it needs to go on. The consensus seems to be two or three more years. Although others think otherwise. I had a quick flick through the document. I can’t say I’ve read it all. But the analysis of where it’s got to, provided by the Overseas Development Institute, is a mixed picture. It’s a glass kind of half full report, I think.

Localization ? No shift in practice.

Consolidated reporting : they are testing the premise of a single reporting form. It needs assessment. There is low trust. But some areas are doing quite well : cash multi-year funding and the report rather kindly says there are numerous positive examples of collaboration. Now for those of you who don’t work in the aid sector, you might expect that not to be news but apparently it is.

So we hope today to take a fair but critical view. Each of the panelists will come with their nugget and we will encourage them to challenge and question each other and then we will obviously include you.

So I’m going to stop there and I’m goint to go left to right. You tell us what is the most important or the most urgent issues. Thank you.

Bonaventure Gbétoho Sokpoh : Thank you Ben. I will put my focus on the people we are serving and I won’t surprise anybody here if I say that this is accountability to give people. It is where we are struggling in this sector, now. We have many many initiatives in place but when we look at the studies and everythink, we see that we are hearing. We really need to do more there and I think accountability to the people we are serving is something that is moral and ethical and really help effectiveness of our work. And we need to do it at the starting point of our work. And make sure that the way we are communicating and working with them is completely embedded in all our work. We have to demonstrate that. This is what I will say demonstrate that. And I will have time to talk a little bit more about the tools we have. The Core Humanitarian Standard (CHS) which is helping us to do it and this was one of the indicators for the Grand Bargain participation revolution workstream. So we really need to move forward.

And I will add to that something that is very important for us and we have seen that in many discussions. How do we shilft our culture ?  The culture in our organizations, the attitude that we are having with people. I was surprised when we were working with different people on the field. When I was talking to the people they were saying : « There is no power balance between uns and aid workers ». If you talk to the organisations in the field an they say ; « there is no power balance between us and international organisation ». And this is the same thing we are facing with the donors. So we all need at each level to transcend our power and go forward, do something concrete that will reach the field.

Ben Parker : Thank you very much.

Rachel Scott : Thank you. And that is very important what you’re saying. The one thing I would do. Well there is two actually but the first one is very short and it’s a bit concrete. And the second one that I would do is bring back workstream 10 « enhancing engagement between humanitarian and development actors but this time I would add the peace actors as well.

So what we believe is that changes to the humanitarian system, only make sense if they are actually making a difference in the lives of affected people on the ground. And this is why over the last couple of years we have been partnered with Ground Truth Solutions and next over here to survey people in seven different crisis situations, two times, asking them what they think about the quality of the aid they receive, whether what the changes in the international system are actually making an impact for those on the ground.

Here is what we found : first of all we found that humanitarian aid that people are receiving is never enough to meet the basic needs of the people on the ground. The people are, if they are lucky, turning to alternative livelihoods to supplement their humanitarian aid but a lot of them are turning to debts and negative coping capacities.

So we need to do something that’s going to be much more in-depth and dealing with the root causes rather than just humanitarian aid alone people receiving aid consistently say that there are people who are missing out form that aid and there are types of needs that they are finding and that they are not being covered. So in Haiti 45% of the people in that country still believe that aid is not going to people who need it the most and that’s an improvement on the results that we saw the first time around.

On the other hand, and this goes to what you were saying before, 80% of the humanitarian workers in Haiti believe that aid is actually reaching the most left behind. This is very interesting as a point that Jeremy might make later, is that actually the way that we’re working in terms of being a mandate based and target group based means that we think that we are reaching the peope in our mandate, the people in our target group. But those who fall outside, those who are undocumented, people groups like disabled for example, are falling outside of what we’re doing.

And the third one is that one of the key grievances of people who are receiving aid at the moment is that there is a lack of economic opportunities for them. That’s one of the key things that they are asking for. And most people agree that humanitarian aid is not a good tool for promoting resilience or promoting their own self-reliance. So in Iraq 71% of the people say that the humanitarian aid they received is not helping them shift to self reliance. In other context it raised from 48%, which is the best score in Afghanistan, up to 94% of people in Lebanon who believe that humanitarian aid is not helping them to move toward self-reliance. So all this shows that we need more than humanitarian aid to address the needs of people in crisis.

So if I had a magic wand, which I think is what Ben is asking us to do. So there is three things the Grand Bargain has to do :

  1. Understand and produce guidance on how to interact with development and peace actors while still respecting the humanitarian principles.
  2. Take a fresh look at vulnerability in crisis settings and understand that is not sector based necessarily or target based but it’s actually much more multi-dimensional than that.
  3. The thrid one is that I dropped the word humanitarian from humanitarian crisis. Because by calling a crisis « humanitarian », we are saying that humanitarian can respond to all the needs in that crisis whereas there are also political needs, development needs and peace needs amongst others in those places.

So those are three things I would ask the Grand Bargain to do. Thank you.

Ben Parker : So Jeremy, since Rachel did three that doesn’t mean you get four.

Jeremy Konyndyk : I just have one for now but I’ll have more later. So my pitch would be I think it’s time to move the Grand Bargain inout of committee rooms and into a set of maybe three pilot countries and just try and pilot the whole thing. All at once. And see if it works on the ground.

I have been really struck in recent months. So through my researches at CGD, I talked to a lot of aid agencies, and I talked to a lot of donors. I have been struck by the sense of pessimism about the proespects of the Grand Bargain over the past year. I have heard things like : « it’s running to the sand. It’s on life support. It’s about to go off life support. And that is a shame because the priorities in the Grand Bargain are good priorities. They are things that we need to be doing in the humanitarian sector. But there is clearly also a sense that it is now three years and it is not delivering on the change that we hoped to see. And I was one of the people who supporte it. It went back when I was in the US government. I was one who helped to negotiate it. It’s not delivering the kind of change that we had hoped to see when it was launched in 2016.

And you are reading through the 2019 ODI report. I have a sense of deja vu. It feels very very much like all of the emergency director group meetings I sat in from 2013 to 2016, where we would talk and talk and talk about process and commitments and change and process and process and process and guides, guidelines and standards and norms. But it didn’t translate to change. So when reding through the Grand Bargain report, it is glass half full, like you said, but it’s a glass half full of process. And the empty half is impact. I’m just saying what the reports says, Ben. No, the report says very clearly : « it’s diffucult to accurately assess what tangible progress is being made ». That is not me speaking, although I’ll say it.

So it feels very much like the point we got to in the donor and aid agency discussions in 2014-2015 where we were several years into the transformative agenda and there were reams of new guidance documents we had killed many forests with all the new guidelines that had been produced through IASE working groups. And yet we are not seeing thar translated into changes pratice on the ground.

And it is time, I think, to shift the center of gravity on the Grand Bargain rom the committees and the processes and the creation of standars and just pick three countries and get a core group of five donors and a core group of the major aid agencies and say look : « we are going to commit. Itis going to be hard but we commit in these three countires. We will change reporting requirements. We will consolidate audit requiremens on the donor side agencies. We will find a way to share common admin systems and so on we will do all these things. And let’s see if we can actually pull it off. Because if we can’t pull it off in three countries, what hope do have globally ?

And if that works then that will give, I hope, the momentum and the shot of political will and optimism that would be needed to then take it global.

©Solidarités International

Ben Parker : Thank you. Katie, our host of course, we particularly welcome you.

Katie Sams : Thanks. Good morning everyone. You are kind of witnessing me in my debut as the ICRC Sherpa. ICRC has been involved in the Grand Bargain and in part of the process that you’re describing since the beginning. For us I think I should just say this represents the best way to move forward to unlock some of these issues. And we said that at the beginning and I think our conclusion is still four years and that remains. Now we do take also from the report this line about the process being over managed and under governed. And it links up to what all of you said at different ways. But that is for us the key issue to move forward. We are part of that process and we definitely agree that we need to be delivering results for people affected on the ground. So it is through pilots. It is through keeping people at the center. It’s through coming back to the bargain we made to try to improve effectiveness and efficiency of humanitarian response.

Now how do we go about doing that in the process and as the ICRC is co-convening one of the workstreams tried to answer that a little bit through the workstream prism. Still taking the point about the process by the way and the workstream that we are co-convening is the merged seven and eight on quality funding. And for us we have of course had enough difficulty moving forward in that one.

But then the question becomes : how do we not just see that in vacuum ? But we link up questions of quality funding to understanding of how that links with transparency and workstream work ? How that links with questions of reporting requirements ? How that links with questions of management efficiencies and to try not to get bogged down into the detail of all of that. But how can we elevate those discussions, keep those discussions ? The bottum up testing. Of course. Getting results on the ground. But how can we also nudge and push the political level to keep it there and not get drowned into the 51 commitments and all of the work that goes underneath that. So our plea would be :  let’s keep deliver the results on the ground, but let’s also keep this elevated at the political level and push the political level to deliver on the commitments that have been made. Thank you.

Ben Parker : Than you very much. Welcome. Brigitta from the government of Netherlands is here. You are representing the governors in Netherlands but also Sigrid Kargh has been appointed as the new eminent person. So we are interested if anything you can tell us about her stratefy as well as the Netherlands position. Thank you.

Birgitta Tazelaar : Thank you very much Ben. You mentioned the glass half full. When I read the report. That is exactly the feeling that I had. Not only the glass half full but I think that it is still sparkling. It is not all gloom and doom. I think real progress has been made on a number of areas and it would be a shame if the perception is that it is all too negative. There are celebrations to be made. But of course still challenges there and I think what worries me about the report and the screen that I just saw, which I hope you can put it back bacause I want colleague Christine to take a picture and we will show it to the minister before the meeting starts, that it is us. I mean this Grand Bargain is a vehicle to discuss issues and to improve the system but if we don’t know what the vision behind it is, as the report says. Or if we don’t know what efficiency and effectiveness mean, then it is upon us to clarify that and to find indicators to be able to measure whether we’re on the right track or not and when this thing is finished. When we can we put a ribbon around it.

So I would say : don’t throw away the baby with the bathwater. We are on the right track. And to remind someone that we all miss, I think, « yes we can ». This is possible. We can make a different here. I don’t want to talk only about process. The processs only is not important and we should make the system more efficient. We can bring it to the field. We can talk about impact, pilot countries, why not. We can use this vehicule to be creative and I know that you all can do this because you are in this field already for such a long time. If you can’t do it then i twill never be done. Perfect, i twill not be but it can be close to perfect.

Jeremy, you said that you found a lot of negative replies and to be honest, she had some negative replies as well. People were saying : what are you doing with the Grand Bargain, are you crazy ? But Sigrid Kaag is very very committed, extremely committed. And she also doesn’t take no for an answer. She will let us work until change is there. So she’s in it for the real stuff and she is going to be here the whole day to work with you.

Ben Parker : Thank you. Welcome Sema.

Sema Genel Karaosmanoğlu : Good morning everyone. My name is Sema and I am the chair of the NEAR Network. As NEAR, we are a network of currently 243 local actors from the global South, who are engaged in the humantarian system or and who are well acquainted with the system.

So for us, as local actors, the Grand Bargain has just started and we are very excited about the discussion that are going on. At least we are talking about this, at least this is become a top agenda for many stakeholders, for many actors within the humanitarian sector. So we definitely want this to continue.

However, we are in the very very beginning stages because we feel that we, as local actors, are not genuinely included and involved in the discussion, then we are tending to go off track and we need to bring the discussion back to where it really needs to be taking place. We talk about change of power but we need to see local actors as equals. We need to bring them up there face to face and have those genuine discussions. So we feel that the Grand Bargain, expecially the localization workstream where we have been active as primarily activits as the NEAR network, that is where things need to be going.

Now, in theory, of course, in principle no one would disagree but in pratice as long as we don’t have the means and the ressources to do this, it is very difficult for local actors who are already multiple tasking to have an additional agenda, which is a big one on their plate and try to juggle that as well, and making sure that we have the ressources to be able to do that.

When we look at international NGOs I do have for example a full-time person focused on localization, we, we don’t have those kind of ressources. So it is very important to try to look at ways of how we can step ourselves up and be present. For example, as the NEAR network, we are very interested in being one of the convenors for the localization workstream and we don’t see why we shouldn’t be there, representing the great variety of local actors that aare actually the subjects of localization. So we don’t want to be talking on behalf of local actors but we actually want them to be there.

This is also important in terms of bringing the discussions to the regional level, to the southern level where it needs to happening. Because we do a lot of policy level and global level discusssions and talking. But it really needs to come down to the regional level and we need to have not just the local actors but other regional actors, local governments really engage. They should become signatories. We need to have a greater diversity in the signatories because we all need to take responsability for that and we all need to be engaged.

So just to finish off we talk in especially in the localization workstream. We have been talking about organizational, operational, capacity for local actors but what we really need to be talking about is collective capacity. There is already, especially in Bangladesh : it’s a very good example of local actors mobilized mobilizing themselves. But we need to be able to do more of that. We need to have more ressources to really invest in those capacities. We talk about investing in local leadership but we really need to look at how we invest in collective capacity, which we feel is tremendously critical if we want to make genuine change. Thank you.

Ben Parker : Thank you very much. So now we are going to do another poll. All of those panelists have made a good case for their own views and their particular preferences in the workstream. But which one matters the most ? And we are going to ask to try to battle this.

But coming back to Sema’s final point, they hit off. Can we change the co-conveners ? Can we shuffle the pack ? Can we change the arrangements as Sema has said ? How can we have a localization workstream that is not led by local NGOs ? Can we change things ?

Birgitta Tazelaar : I’m still Alice in Wonderland here but yes. Why not ? I mean the agreement is there but it is not engraved in marble so if there are ways to archieve our goals in a better way then we should discuss those issues. It is a vehicle, the Grand Bargain, it is not set in stone.

Ben Parker : And Rachel, you want to bring back the nexus ? The triple, quadrupe ?

Jeremy Konyndyk, : Did it really leave ?

Ben Parker : Yes, yes ! The Nexus was booted out some refunds like that ?

Rachel Scott : Yes, sadly the nexus was booted out, the nexus as one workstream but, as I understand it, it was mainstreamed accross all the others rather than beoing booted out. But It think it needs a special focus, if you like. And we found is that actually humanitarians are not very confortable working in the nexus when it all comes down to it at the end as years of humanitarians saying where are the development people are drawing nice maps of the Horn of Africa saying « oh we are working here and you are working and you are working over there. » So obvously it is not working. And now actually the development people are coming. Humanitarians are sort of putting up this humanitarian principles smokescreen and saying « well no, we don’t want to work with you because we are principled and you are all bad », or something like that. So yes I think we need to get comfortable with working as humanitarians i the nexus space.

Antonio Guterres, Central African Republic, 2017.

Ben Parker : So, if those conversations are not happening in the Grand Bargain, where are those conversations are happening ?

Rachel Scott : We have here in the room in fact someone who is the co-chair of the international network on conflict and fragility. So those conversations are happening there amongst the development and peace actors. We have had a few humanitarians, who have come fom time to time, which has been tremendous and we would like to see more of them there. But I think they really need to be somewhere where perhaps i twill grow and the Grand Bargain can interact and have a proper conversation about this.

Ben Parker : I see it is quite nexus friendly. Katie ?

Katie Sams : Yes. I thik this has been one of our challenges and what you said really resonated with me and links very much to our international, our institutional strategy where we are really positioning the question of protracted conflict and what that means for us and so we are not necessarily trying to discussi the nexus per se but with our donor support group this was very much the center topic two weeks ago as to what this that mean for the ICRC on this one side : « stick within your mandate, be clear about what you are doing ». But, on the other side the reality that, with the characterstics of protracted conflit, you know, there is a different role to play for all of us. And how can we do that efficiently and effectively ?

Ben Parker : Jeremy, you have got funding to have deep thoughts about the humanitarian futures. So when you think about how to make change, do you think I must call the Grand Bargain people or do you deal different person ? Where is your entry point ?

Jeremy Konyndyk : It is a very great question. So I published a paper about a year ago on what I termed « the humanitarian business model », which is basically the looks at the incentives that are created by the interaction between donor behavior, donor practices and the traditional fundraising, financing models of the large UN agencies in the NGO sector. What our paper basically argues is the thing that has changed the least over the last 20 years in the humanitarian sector is donor behavior. Over the past several decades you still have fundamentally the same proportions of money going to the same core set of organzations for the same basic activities.

So we charted out the proportional funding as funding has increased by about three or four times over the last 20 years – so a massive increase, huge increase in the humanitarian financing. The basic proportional allocation of that, accross the big three UN agencies, the rest of the UN agencies, the Red Cross movement, the NGO sector international, the NGO sector local and kind of everyone else is very very static. It is almost unchanged. You have got 50% going to UNHCR, UNICEF, WFP. You have go another 10% going to the rest of the UN, about 20 to 25% going to the international NGO sector and so on and about 10% to the Red Cross movement. So when you look at it through that lens, it is not that hard to understand why we have not seen more change. Because basically the money, which as we know drives a lot of behavior within the system and we all know and I have been a donor, I have also been a recipient : I have work a long time in the NGO community, the things you have to do to get you money will drive a lot of organizational behavior and if the donor are not changing the things you have to do to get your money, which largely they have not, then that is not incentivizing change. And so I think that is one of the really important starting points and in some of the research I am doing at CGD (Center for Global Development) we are working on sketching out what would different funding models look like. Not more more money or less money but money routed differently to incentivize different behaviors.

Ben Parker : Thank you very much.

Debate based on the poll :

  • About the revolution participation tools (workstream), the CHS (Core Humanitarian Standard) accreditation, why so little NGO have sign up to use those tools ? Because those tools, despite the fact that they are already operational and efficient, we still need to scale up. Already some donors ask NGOs to use those tools : the emergency disaster committee for example.
  • One challenge is to give more tools to local actors to move forward.
  • Compliance is a growing issue and it reaches everyone, including ICRC. They are working on this matter right now.
  • The donor are kind of too much humble about the role they are playing in the sector and so they are not very vocal. Do they use very every levers they can use in their action ? Since the beginning of the Grand Bargain they have shown a real will to change and did a lot of progress. But these things don’t change overnight and it needs to continue in this direction. We have to also stop thinking that good funding is just about no earmarking. It is more than that : it is about the right among of funding, the right tools, it is about arriving at the right time and sometime before crisis strat if possible and finally the right incentive.


The New Humanitarian bears no responsibility for the accuracy of the transcription which were entirely carried out by Défis Humanitaires.