What does ALNAP’s 2022 State of the Humanitarian System report mean for aid worker safety and security? GISF Research Advisor Chiara Jancke discusses the report’s implications for shifting power to local actors and using humanitarian principles and acceptance.
Global humanitarian needs are at their highest level since World War II. Today, more than 300 million people need assistance. The number of countries affected by conflict has doubled in the last decade while the current number of displaced people, already more than 100 million, is likely to reach 200 million in the next five years following the current trajectory (Gillian Triggs (UNHCR) at the CCHN 2022 Summit). These rising trends have been driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, food scarcity, economic crises, and climate change – all of which will almost certainly continue to exacerbate the number of people in need of aid.
Despite assistance to vulnerable populations being more critical than ever, this dramatic increase in the need for aid has coincided with worsening conditions for delivering effective, efficient, and principled humanitarian assistance.
Every four years, ALNAP publishes the State of the Humanitarian System (SOHS) report. Looking at the challenges at hand, this blog will discuss key takeaways from this year’s SOHS report for those working to enable safe humanitarian operations, focusing on the report’s practical implications for local action and acceptance.
Power imbalances reaffirm the need for risk-sharing in humanitarian partnerships
The Grand Bargain outlines international NGOs (INGO) and donors’ commitment to local action. However, ALNAP’s report reveals the sector’s mixed track record over the last four years in shifting actual power to local responders.
The report shows that between 2018 and 2021, less than five per cent of funding went directly to local NGOs (LNGOs). Even though many LNGOs work in partnerships with INGOs, in-line with GISF’s research, less than a third of the humanitarian practitioners surveyed for the SOHS report felt positive about the specifics of power-sharing and support in INGO-LNGO partnerships (36). This discontent was also visible in the Ukraine response, where more than 150 local organisations called for transparency, trust, and respect in an open letter to make partnerships between INGOs and LNGOs more equitable.
The primary issues the SOHS report highlights are accountability, bureaucracy, compliance expectations, slow sporadic funding, and limited overheads (37)). These directly impact the support partners receive on security issues because funding for essential security roles and equipment is often only included in overhead costs.
Shifting power and facilitating risk sharing requires that all humanitarians, particularly those working on partnerships, finance, programmes and, of course, security, ensure that they create the space for open and honest conversations about these issues. Addressing power imbalances concerning safety and security, such as risk transfer, is crucial – safety and security are not only key for staff performance and wellbeing but are essential and basic human needs.
While risk sharing in partnerships can seem complex in theory, honest and open conversations help identify tangible support that partners can offer each other to facilitate mutual learning. This can include making safety and security training that is responsive to the needs of partners available, sharing information and contextual knowledge, and funding security roles. For example, in Nigeria, two of GISF’s member organisations recently started jointly funding a security role in a local organisation in Nigeria with great success. GISF’s joint action guide provides valuable tools to guide these conversations.
Weakened multilateral institutions and a changing world
The report also finds that ‘assertive states and a weakened multilateral system have increased the pressure on humanitarian action over the past decade’ (40). Nearly half of the humanitarians interviewed echoed that, overall, respect for humanitarian space has declined. The resulting limitations placed on NGOs and attacks on humanitarians meant that humanitarians ‘found it even harder to practice their ideals of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and impendence’ and that they often ‘lacked the support and skills to make difficult judgement calls in complex operating environment’ (41).
These trends all appear to be part of the wider global changes we are witnessing – coined ‘Zeitenwende’ (a turning point in history) by German chancellor Olaf Scholz – that were also a key point of discussion at the 2022 Centre for Competence of Humanitarian Negotiations (CCHN) Summit. During a CCHN session on the future of humanitarian negotiations, former ICRC President Peter Maurer predicted that increasing great power competition will likely ensure that ‘frontlines will be anywhere and elsewhere’ beyond traditional conflict settings, with wars being fought in ‘the air, on land, in water, in space, and the perception space’, the latter highlighting the increasing role of information warfare in conflict.
In the same session, Gillian Triggs (UNHCR) observed states’ tendencies to increasingly ignore the rule of law. At the same time, WFP’s Annalisa Conte (WFP) explained that aid workers have increasingly struggled to apply humanitarian principles in various contexts and that the merits of humanitarianism were no longer a given.
These trends directly affect the security strategy NGOs most commonly rely on – acceptance.
The implications of a potential demise of the humanitarian principles for acceptance
Attacks on aid workers are unfortunately not a new phenomenon and are occurring with increasing frequency. 2020 saw more attacks on humanitarians than ever before – with 94% of incidents affecting local staff. To confront this issue, those working on humanitarian security must collaborate with others both within their organisations and across the sector to ensure that the pillars of international humanitarian law and the humanitarian system are upheld. At the same time, discussions should begin around how shifts in the international context might be impacting operations. For example, organisations might need to rethink how they build acceptance internationally, as well as locally, in response to an increase in different (global) players that will affect their operations, security and access going forward.
Furthermore, the increasing difficulties of applying humanitarian principles in practice suggest that we must better understand the obstacles to operationalising them. This includes revisiting the challenges these principles originally intended to solve, what is and is not working today in their application, and whether alternative models might be more effective in addressing the challenges of our time.
Understanding this debate is particularly important for those working on humanitarian security, as the humanitarian principles are a cornerstone of the acceptance strategy. Changes in the real and perceived applicability and legitimacy of the humanitarian principles will also impact the appropriateness and effectiveness of acceptance. If security professionals are to continue enabling sustainable programme access, proactive work is required at all levels, and these changes must be considered.
“We do not want to remain “neutral”. Whilst we recognise that international organisations may want to be perceived as such, it should be up to local civil society in these circumstances to determine our own approaches and priorities.”
-From ‘an open letter to international donors and NGOs who want to genuinely help Ukraine’.
Having open discussions around these challenges is also critical to facilitate local action. In Ukraine and Syria, some local responders are calling for models for aid delivery that will allow them to provide assistance on their own terms, including by incorporating principles of solidarity and resistance. Acknowledging these trends and will be essential to shifting power towards affected populations and local responders.
Interested in finding out more? You can read the entire report here.
GISF is planning on conducting more research into the topic of humanitarian principles and humanitarian access. If you’re interested in engaging with us on this topic, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Author
After completing her undergraduate degree in International Studies specialising in the Middle East at Leiden University, Chiara worked on different security issues while interning at the German Embassy in Washington, D.C. and the Centre for Strategic Studies in Jordan. Co-founding a refugee foundation in The Hague called Reach & Teach and interning at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in Amman motivated her to further investigate security from the humanitarian sector’s perspective. These experiences, as well as studying attacks on aid workers during her Master’s in Conflict, Security and Development at King’s College London, reaffirmed her commitment to work on protecting aid workers to achieve sustainable access for populations in need.
Chiara started as GISF’s Research and Communications Assistant and became GISF’s Research Advisor in November 2021. As Research Advisor, she works on initiating and developing original research and best practice guides to help humanitarian organisations face security issues. She also works on GISF’s communications, policy and advocacy strategy and activities and promotes collaboration to facilitate information-sharing and dialogue on security risk management. She assists the GISF Director in coordination and capacity-building missions.
Image credit: ChildFund
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