When emergency relief turns into a protracted crisis, what happens to the aid that falls between short-term humanitarian relief and development assistance over the medium-term? Who should deliver it? Who should oversee it?
In the current aid architecture, it's not always clear who is responsible for ensuring funding and resources in complex humanitarian situations. The result is that funding gaps persist between where humanitarian relief ends and development assistance begins.
It's also unclear who should deliver the protracted humanitarian aid. Often it's NGOs, and sometimes it's UN agencies. Or some combo.
Also for the oversight or macro-management of complex humanitarian aid, again it's many NGOs, and the UN agencies as overseer – with backing from the bilateral donors.
In short, the system is very messy – with numerous gaps, and overlaps and other inefficiencies.
The result is a complex landscape – where we are unprepared to face more looming humanitarian disasters. And yet, several are brewing: a growing food security crisis in the Sahel region of West Africa, and a violent government crackdown in Syria.
As calls go out for another round of international support, it's a good time to reflect on the shortcomings in the current architecture. And whether reforms to the system would help. Also, more fundamentally, why are there such gaps?
Is it possible to correct some of the existing inefficiencies? Is it possible to reallocate already committed resources more effectively? Is it possible that some of existing problems are the result of how the donors have traditionally structured their aid?
Are we now contributing to the problem – by working within the confines of 'humanitarian', are we creating further aid dependency?
According to those with direct experience in overseeing the delivery of aid in protracted crises scenarios, the gaps and overlaps are the result of the lack of coordination among the donors themselves, as well as shortfalls in communication between donors, delivery agents, and recipients.
A part of the challenge here is the expanding roster of development actors, on both the donor and recipient sides.
These above shortcomings are now longstanding institutional and structural issues, that have resulted from a combination of entrenched measures, ranging from how aid architecture is compartmentalized, the policies and procedures that manage donor engagement, and the design of financing instruments.
But there are also potential problems caused by the differing categories of aid. In short, the aid classification system. The compartmentalization of aid between "humanitarian" and "development assistance", has resulted in stove-piped lines aid.
Would reforms help the system? Yes, but only with a rethink of how we have constructed the system, ideationally and organizationally.
We should begin with how we define the different types of aid. The most basic distinction here is "emergency humanitarian relief" versus "development assistance".
Inside the donor governments, different agencies or departments, each with differing mandates, oversee the differing allocations for emergency humanitarian crises and those for medium-term development assistance.
These ideational classifications have resulted in actual organizational and budgetary 'silos.'
The structural divisions have, in turn, reinforced what has become cultural divides between the humanitarian and development worlds for the traditional donor countries and their governments. These two solitudes in culture reach all the way to the NGO level, where ‘development NGOs' see themselves as culturally different from 'humanitarian NGOs.'
But there is now a sense of urgency to this topic, as the number of protracted crises grows – 22 according to one count – and pushes the humanitarian system far beyond the boundaries of what it was designed to handle.
The donors have been left to provide protracted humanitarian support in many of the countries. Haiti and Sudan (Darfur) are good examples of emergency relief extending into longer-term humanitarian support. Haiti still requires basic essential services, along with major reconstruction and infrastructure development. Darfur has continued to be insecure, and unstable, and millions remain reliant on what has turned into longer-term humanitarian assistance for their basic survival.
The importance of clarifying at what point humanitarian assistance, intended for short-term emergency relief, becomes development assistance, is fundamental to addressing these challenges.
Without a rethink, it is likely the donors will continue to provide substantial support, without seeing the hoped-for results.
A recent OXFAM report offers one option for addressing these shortcomings in the existing system – by creating more flexibility between humanitarian and development financing. Oxfam recommends building capacity at the local level (local, regional or national), as part of an effort to increase humanitarian action.
It is unclear exactly how Oxfam's suggestion differs from previous calls for building capacity and "local ownership." However, this may be the start of an important new conversation especially if the predictions of future increases in natural disasters prove correct.
Further discussion is also required on: Do the emerging donors face similar challenges when providing assistance on protracted crises? If so, what do the challenges look like? If not, is this problem of complex humanitarian specific to the traditional donors?