Joint Humanitarian Operations: How to Bring US Humanitarian Assistance into the 21st Century

from Center for Global Development
Published on 12 Dec 2018 View Original

Jeremy Konyndyk

The Government Reform and Reorganization Plan released earlier this year by the White House calls for substantial reform of US humanitarian institutions. The plan mandates that the State Department and USAID produce a “specific reorganization proposal” to “optimize” humanitarian assistance and “eliminate duplication of efforts and fragmentation of decision-making.” This policy note lays out guidance for how an ambitious but feasible optimization could be achieved. It is informed by two high-level private roundtables convened by the Center for Global Development to solicit expert input, as well as a desk review of documents, expert interviews, and the author’s own experiences serving in the humanitarian arms of both USAID and the State Department. While numerous experts contributed thoughts and feedback, the author takes sole responsibility for the views represented herein.


Leadership in global humanitarian response is a core strength of US foreign policy. US humanitarian programs advance dual national interests: reflecting essential American values by aiding those in need, and helping to address geostrategic challenges like famine, disease outbreaks, conflict, and displacement. Humanitarian response receives overwhelming support from the American public, with recent polling finding that more than four in five Americans, including large majorities in both parties, favor robust humanitarian aid budgets. The current White House National Security Strategy highlights the importance of reducing human suffering through continued US leadership in humanitarian assistance. This view is mirrored in Congress, where US humanitarian programs have long enjoyed deep bipartisan support.

In line with this deep public and political support, American intellectual and financial contributions undergird the international humanitarian architecture. The US government traditionally supplies between one-quarter and one-third of global public relief resources, and also significantly shapes international humanitarian policy and practice. The US pairs this resource support with a level of accompanying engagement—oversight, diplomatic outreach, technical innovation, and operational accountability—that few other countries can match. Sustaining this leadership is critical to sustaining global humanitarian action, and to ensuring the best value for US taxpayer’s investments.

At the same time, this leadership role means that the American government’s foibles—notably the fragmentation of its own humanitarian structures—are reflected and magnified in the global architecture. US relief aid funding, which in 2018 exceeded $9 billion, has long been divided across three different offices at USAID and the State Department. Each of these offices—State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM), USAID’s Office of US Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA), and its Office of Food for Peace (FFP)—applies different and often inconsistent operating models, staffing configurations, administrative systems, and program priorities. These inconsistencies in turn translate onward to the grantees[1] that they support in the wider humanitarian system, diminishing the collective effectiveness of US assistance. The US has long pressed for enhanced coherence, quality, and efficiency from its UN and NGO partners; it is time that the US government placed these same demands upon itself.

In the 1970s–80s, the Department of Defense faced a similar challenge. Rivalries between the services, and their inconsistent systems, impeded the collective effectiveness of the US military. The Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 mandated a major overhaul of inter-service dynamics that is widely credited with helping the military to move past the worst of those rivalries and become a more modern and effective force. Importantly, Goldwater-Nichols sought to do this not by collapsing the services together, but by maintaining their distinctive strengths within a more unified chain of operational command and mandating greater cross-service integration. As the US Government grapples with how best to reconfigure its humanitarian engagement, it should adopt a Goldwater-Nichols approach: a strategy that does not collapse together the distinctive institutional roles and strengths of USAID and State, but rather unifies US humanitarian field operations and policy engagement and builds dramatically greater interoperability between their models.