ALNAP Background paper: Making humanitarian response more flexible, challenges and questions

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Things don’t always happen the way we expect them to. In a crisis, this is generally taken as a rule: the common story told about humanitarian response is that crises are dynamic, and that humanitarian organisations must therefore be flexible and agile to deliver assistance and provide protection—within days or even hours—to those who need it most. Compared to their development colleagues, who work with longer time frames, humanitarian staff and agencies have a reputation for working quickly, and as such are looked to by others, including the business sector, for their abilities to deliver goods and services in chaotic environments (Charles et al., 2010).

But experience in many major humanitarian responses of the past 10-15 years is raising questions about the enduring strength of these capabilities.
Humanitarian crises face multiple types of dynamic change: changes in population movements, changes in need or our understanding of need, changes in context, and changes in our understanding of programme performance. While humanitarian actors are good at dealing with particular kinds of change – such as those involved in the rapid onset of an emergency caused by natural hazard – their track record for responding appropriately and timely to other types of change in crisis settings is not as strong (ALNAP 2015;
ALNAP 2018 forthcoming).

Through research conducted in 2017 and 2018, ALNAP has explored the role that flexibility –or lack thereof – is playing in humanitarian actors’ ability to respond effectively to new crises and changes in crises over time. In many instances, humanitarian actors were perceived—by themselves and others— to be struggling to adapt to the dynamics of the crises in which they operate. Even basic changes, such as the location of assistance, or changes to the number or type of materials provided to affected people, can be difficult to implement.

Yet humanitarian actors have been responding to highly dynamic, unstable environments for decades. If anyone should be well-placed to adapt continuously to changes on the ground, it is humanitarian organisations. So, why is this not happening?

In answer to this question, this paper sets out the situations which lead humanitarian organisations to try to change what, where and how they operate, and explores the challenges they face in making these changes happen. It introduces work carried out primarily outside the humanitarian sector on flexibility and adaptive capabilities, to provide some initial thinking on how humanitarian agencies can improve their ability to respond to dynamics and uncertainty.

The paper suggests that humanitarian organisational systems were set up to respond with flexibility for a particular set of purposes, and that two recent trends are straining these systems.

First, expectations for humanitarian actors and assistance have shifted in some policy circles. Also, the contexts in which humanitarians operate are more complex and have greater bearing on how programming and support are delivered. This means that the types of change to which humanitarians are having to respond are different and are more complex. It is not change itself that is the challenge, but the nature of the change that humanitarians face in most operating environments that is becoming problematic.

Second, the systems used – both externally with donors and internally – for strategy, supply-chain management, performance monitoring, accountability and risk management have evolved in ways that restrict the range of options that humanitarians have at their disposal in a dynamic environment. The way in which humanitarian organisational functions are structured and managed make it harder to implement necessary changes in a timely and efficient manner.

Outside the humanitarian sector, a set of frameworks and approaches have been conceptualised and developed to help organisations respond more effectively to dynamic and tumultuous environments. These approaches, known as adaptive capabilities or adaptiveness, refer to an organisation’s ability to adjust and make necessary changes to achieve a set of goals within dynamic or complex external environments. This discussion paper reviews the challenges humanitarian actors face in changing where, what and how they deliver. It considers how thinking about adaptiveness and adaptive capabilities might be relevant to addressing these challenges.

Section 1 reviews the different ways in which humanitarians change their engagement in a response and the common situations in which they must do so, highlighting challenges to making these changes, based on recent evaluations.
Section 2 discusses the organisational functions through which humanitarian organisations deliver their work and barriers to flexibility within these.
Section 3 explains why recent work on adaptiveness and adaptive capabilities can be useful for humanitarian actors and introduces the basic concepts.
It concludes with a brief summary of the state of evidence on adaptive approaches and a set of questions for further discussion.