Rethinking humanitarian reform: What will it take to truly change the system?

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This brief summarizes three years of research under the project, “Rethinking Humanitarian Reform,” led by Jeremy Konyndyk, Patrick Saez, and Rose Worden, and funded by the aid departments of the United Kingdom and Australia. The project aimed to understand the incentives behind the humanitarian system and shift them to better prioritize the needs of affected populations. Read more at

Past reform agendas have failed because they ignored the underlying architecture

In 1996, the Joint Evaluation of Emergency Assistance to Rwanda spurred a movement to improve the quality and accountability of humanitarian aid through common standards and codes of conduct. Less than a decade later, in 2005, the Humanitarian Reform agenda was launched by Jan Egeland (then the United Nations (UN) Emergency Relief Coordinator. It followed a number of crises—notably Darfur and the Indian Ocean tsunami—in which the humanitarian sector had marginalized crisis-affected people while mounting disjointed and sub-par relief operations. Changes sought to pull the disparate components of the sector towards a more unified approach to leadership, coordination, financing, and accountability. They usefully established a more predictable international humanitarian coordination structures and a new contingency fund (CERF), under the leadership of the UN.

Just a few years later, significant shortcomings again emerged in the responses to the 2010 Haiti earthquake and Pakistan floods. Humanitarian donors and agencies launched a new round of reforms, this time branded as the Transformative Agenda, to deliver on the aspirations of the earlier reforms in large-scale emergencies. But while rapid-response protocols improved, that agenda likewise under-performed on other objectives. Following the fragmented response to the Syria crisis and the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, a fresh set of reforms was launched via the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit—notably a package of comprehensive commitments between donors and aid agencies to efficiency and effectiveness, known as the Grand Bargain. In it, participants committed to improve humanitarian financing by increasing direct support to local and national responders, reducing earmarking, and including people receiving aid in making decisions which affect their lives.

The COVID-19 pandemic should have been a watershed moment for putting those commitments into practice. As we wrote in April 2020, as the pandemic was gaining momentum, “This is a crisis of truly global scale and it will place enormous constraints on traditional humanitarian operations: models accustomed to surging support toward geographically delimited crises must now tackle a geographically unlimited crisis and huge obstacles to surging personnel and resources…Humanitarians will have to rethink the way the response is planned, coordinated and financed…All this should press traditional humanitarian actors toward a deeper and more equitable partnership with, host governments and local actors – both because local leadership in this crisis is critical to success, and because it is an operational inevitability.”

But in the face of COVID-19 challenges, donor governments and international aid organizations didn’t lean into their reform commitments around financing and localization, but rather leaned away from them, at least initially. Big aid agencies raised money for themselves, rather than stepping back to facilitate funding for local partners. Donors were slow to release money, and when they finally did, they targeted funds toward those same large agencies rather than those closest to the frontlines.

The fact that COVID-19 prompted a pivot back to habitual practices—rather than accelerating a shift toward reform commitments—is a signal that the Grand Bargain reforms, like those before them, have not been transformative. Worse, they might have entrenched power imbalances, inefficiency, and a lack of accountability to people in crises. Every major disaster is a test of how far the humanitarian system has changed. Earlier crises forced a reckoning of the shortcomings of previous reforms; now, the humanitarian sector must learn from its response to COVID-19.

But the reckoning, this time, must be fundamentally different. For the underlying failure to transform is rooted deep in the structures that underpin global humanitarian assistance. The humanitarian sector remains unable to achieve the aspirations it set out for itself 15 years ago: providing aid that is coherent, timely, and accountable to those it serves. The obstacle is not that we have been setting the wrong goals, but rather that we have not altered the architecture tasked with delivering on them.

Past reform agendas have avoided meaningfully challenging that architecture. They have sought to make the humanitarian sector more cohesive and responsive to affected people without altering the fact that the sector’s power structures, bureaucratic incentives, and core business model all tilt toward donors and aid providers rather than aid recipients. The result has been wave after wave of normative commitments and technical guidance, but power, incentives, and resource flows have been left fundamentally unchanged. The resulting effect is better-coordinated supply but no fundamental move towards humanitarian action driven by those who need it.

This presents a hard choice to the powers-that-be in the humanitarian sector. Are they truly willing to shift their power? Or are they content to leave the power structures intact, and accept thereby that the reform commitments they have made over the last two decades will never be meaningfully realized?

Ultimately, it is a political and philosophical choice. Are humanitarian actors committed to building a system in which affected people will set the tone, rather than big institutions? Are those big institutions, the leaders who run and oversee them and the donors who fund them, willing to redefine their role and share their power? Will they support a sector in which institutions measure their impact in terms of partnerships and outcomes, rather than revenue? Can international institutions evolve toward enabling others’ success, rather than emphasizing their own delivery and flag-planting? Can global humanitarianism adapt to elevate the views of affected people, rather than the mandates of global institutions, as the organizing principles for humanitarian action?

If there is convergence toward these changes—which right now are affirmed in rhetoric but ignored in the sector’s revealed preferences—then there is a path. Changing these deeper fundamentals of the humanitarian sector will take political will. It will require overcoming a collective action problem in which many actors are dissatisfied with aspects of the present model, but reluctant to invest the effort—and risk—that would go into fixing it. It will take both a vision, and a political opportunity to enact that vision.

For the last three years, the Center for Global Development (CGD) has sought to propose actionable ideas to start realizing that vision. We have published a set of policy papers and blog posts critiquing the fragmented, supply-driven humanitarian status quo and outlining elements of a more systemic and demand-driven future. These products have been informed by twice-yearly, in-depth private convenings of senior leaders from both aid agencies and donor governments to discuss opportunities and constraints to implementing these ideas.

Collectively these writings attempt to articulate a set of changes that, in the words of the CEO of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), David Miliband, would help shift from the current humanitarian sector into a true humanitarian system. That is, to evolve from a landscape of individual institutions with overlapping values each pursuing their own institutional interests, and toward an alliance of networked institutions working in intentional complementarity toward shared priorities and outcomes. From a sector that is organized around the question of “what is my institution mandated to supply?” towards a network that asks, “how can we adapt ourselves to what crisis survivors are demanding?”

We proposed several major changes to the humanitarian architecture to facilitate such an evolution. Importantly, these shifts would span four levels of the humanitarian landscape:

  • adopting independent accountability mechanisms to enable a people-driven response;
  • using area-based models of frontline coordination;
  • remaking the financial business model to resource the humanitarian system as a public good provider; and
  • adapting the sector’s governance to more effectively steer its humanitarian impact.

Sector-wide change requires mutually reinforcing reforms across all levels. Field reforms will falter if financing practices do not shift to enable them; financing practices require accountability; and oversight that can only be delivered through different management and governance structures.