Lives in crisis : What do People tell us about the humanitarian aid they receive?

©Solidarités International, Cameroun

This is a revealing study of the evolution of humanitarian aid, a summary of which is presented here. Indeed, what do people affected by crises teach us and how can we better meet their basic needs? We let you discover this survey while noting that it raises the question of how respondents understand humanitarian aid. It would seem that this debate would benefit from a better distinction between humanitarian aid in times of war and development in times of peace, while seeking the greatest complementarity in the transitional periods known as reconstruction or stabilization. This is the whole challenge of the Nexus emergency-development which has not yet succeeded in responding to it.

This study is a joint project of the OECD and Ground Truth Solutions, funded by the UK Department for International Development. Its authors, Cyprien Fabre and Ruigi Li, have a long experience in humanitarian aid. Two series of surveys were conducted in more than 7 countries with more than 1,000 people. More specifically, 8,666 recipients of aid and 3,471 humanitarian aid recipients (NGOs, United Nations agencies, local NGOs, 71% of whom are in the field and 29% in the capital). This 65-page survey, which concludes with proposals for new approaches, is available on the OECD website.

Humanitarian aid improves living conditions but does not cover all basic needs. Surveys clearly show that humanitarian aid is only part of what people need to meet their most important needs. The extent to which humanitarian assistance meets the needs of populations depends on the context, but affected people generally need to find alternative sources of income. The survey shows that the quality of the response and crisis management by local authorities are critical to the satisfaction of aid recipients. This implies that meeting these needs does not depend exclusively on donors’ humanitarian budgets.

Humanitarian aid leaves behind some of the most vulnerable. Surveys indicate that aid is not always perceived as going to those who need it most and reveal a striking contrast between the perception of equity of affected people and that of humanitarian workers. In all surveys, people with illnesses or chronic diseases, the elderly, people with no social or political ties, undocumented migrants and people living far away have the strongest sense of having been abandoned. At the same time, the humanitarian staff interviewed are convinced that the aid is going to those who need it most. This suggests that the system targets those who need it most as long as they fall within the mandate and program objectives of agencies or NGOs.

Supporting self-sufficiency requires a set of aid instruments. While humanitarian assistance is not sufficient to meet the most important needs of the affected populations, it is even less effective in achieving economic self-sufficiency. Persistently, interviewees cite the lack of economic opportunities and livelihoods as one of their main grievances. In protracted crises, which constitute the majority of humanitarian contexts, affected people want to be self-reliant and not long-term recipients of humanitarian assistance.

Limited progress has been made on the Great Bargain commitments. Surveys show real improvements in the way aid is delivered. Support for education in crisis situations is increasing, showing that donors can overcome the silos between humanitarian and development assistance. Some of the commitments made under the’Grand Bargain’, such as multi-year funding frameworks and joint needs assessments, are beginning to initiate positive developments that now need to be systematized. Cash transfers are becoming more widespread, although they remain sectoral. Serious challenges remain, however. Aid localization is progressing too slowly, mainly because the donors’ administrative architecture does not encourage it. The way in which the opinions of affected people are taken into account remains limited and people are not sure why they are eligible or not for assistance, what they receive and for how long. The humanitarian system remains built on the provision of assistance, based on the mandates and programmes of international organizations, rather than on the people affected at the centre of the humanitarian response.


Translating surveys: a call for new approaches 

The paradigm shift called for at the World Humanitarian Summit has not yet taken place. Some changes are yielding positive results, but they mainly reflect improvements in the current humanitarian system that began before the summit, rather than a systemic change in the way crises are understood and handled. Continuing on the path of reforms involves the following actions:

Go beyond humanitarian intervention. We learn from affected people that not all their needs in times of crisis are humanitarian in nature and that humanitarian intervention is not by default the best instrument to meet people’s needs. Meeting these needs requires a fresh look at what crises are. These are political crises and disasters that create humanitarian needs and should therefore be designated as such and not as “humanitarian crises” so that DAC members wishing to respond can mobilize a range of instruments – including, but not limited to, humanitarian assistance. Humanitarian aid plays a role, but in protracted crises, as surveys show, other instruments – including political dialogue, peace instruments and development cooperation funds – should also be mobilised.

Implement the link between humanitarian, development and peace. Determining the most appropriate instrument and channel to meet the needs of populations requires collaboration, coherence and complementarity between assistance instruments, in line with the DAC Recommendation on the link between humanitarian assistance, development and peace. Undertaking a joint analysis will help to understand the context in which urgent and long-term population needs are emerging, and how to address these needs can also strengthen local capacities and economies.

Fill gaps and create opportunities. The current humanitarian system is based on the specific mandates of the organizations, each designed to fill sectoral gaps. This system is ill-equipped to take advantage of existing political and economic opportunities to create long-term livelihoods for people and countries affected by crises. As humanitarian assistance is not designed to end needs and does not allow self-sufficiency, it must be complemented by other instruments that can create sustainable livelihoods, taking into account people’s aspirations and using their potential to rebuild their lives or prepare for return, transfer or successful integration.

Move from a supply-based approach to a client-centred approach to meet needs. In protracted situations that now represent the majority of humanitarian interventions, a client-centred approach to assistance would represent a real revolution in participation, when based on household economics and vulnerability analyses. Because they affect all sectors, multi-purpose cash transfers, combined with the use of data and information technology in humanitarian aid and development cooperation, can contribute to the participation revolution by individualizing humanitarian aid.

Changing paradigms to protect humanitarian aid. Humanitarian aid was considered relevant and was widely perceived positively by the interviewees. The most difficult contexts offer little alternative to humanitarian aid. Yet, mobilizing huge amounts of humanitarian aid for years or decades in contexts with few prospects for political resolution is unsustainable and can discourage the mobilization of other political, peace or assistance instruments. The evolution of paradigms, starting with the implementation of the DAC recommendation on the link between humanitarian assistance, development and peace, and examining how each instrument can best help to design a coherent response to a given crisis, will enable the humanitarian instrument to fulfil its initial mandate of protection and assistance when other instruments cannot be mobilized.


Find the full report on the OECD website by clicking : here





Synthesis prepared by Alicia Piveteau