I managed to miss this Overseas Development Institute background paper by Ben Ramalingam (ALNAP) and Michael Barnett (George Washington University) which was published last month. It provides an extremely cogent analysis of what the authors refer to as the Humanitarian’s Dilemma- essentially, the idea that aid agencies have a tendancy towards fulfilling their own individual short-term strategies (which come at a lower organizational cost in the short-term), but in doing so they compromise cooperation and the broader humanitarian landscape in the long-term. Their analysis draws on political science lenses such as Game Theory (exploring how different actors will weigh decisions about cooperation or individual action based on how they perceive the other will behave and associated costs) and recognizing the different roles played by organizations (people), institutions (the rules they play by) and incentives (what makes them play by those rules- or not).
Their premise begins with the observation that agencies are repeatedly accused of not cooperating well, emergency after emergency- a source of frustration for aid agencies- who are painfully aware of this and are trying to improve- and donors and the public, who keep hearing the same criticisms but perceive little change. It then attempts to explain causal factors for this situation. This distills down to an argument that bringing about true cooperation will require action by agencies that will compromise them in the short-term, and although such action might be in line with their principles, the pragmatism of the institutions in which the organizations operate do not easily allow this to take place (also inadvertantly betraying those principles).
Unpacking that in plainer language, changing an organization costs money. Aid organizations don’t have a lot of money (relative to the commercial sector). What money they do get comes [largely] from the goodwill of donors, all of whom make a lot of noise about how much agencies pay in overhead costs. If organizations choose to invest in change and let their overheads go up, they may improve management practices that are beneficial for the long-term and for the broader context of response agencies, but in the short-term people will stop giving as much money to them. The threat of this short-term loss is usually enough to make change a slow and painful process in agencies. (It’s also a drag; the overhead argument, as has been made about as often as agencies have been accused of not cooperating, is bogus and not an indicator of program quality).
It’s also worth pointing out that there’s a healthy risk that if organizations do choose to go down this road, they may lose so much support that they go under. This not only affects the agency, but also betrays their principles in that they go from being a less-effective deliverer of humanitarian assistance, to being a non-deliverer.
This very much differs from the business model in the corporate world, where a portion of profits in a healthy company are taken and re-invested in the company itself to improve business processes. NGOs receive very little such funding and don’t make profits, which is why their management practices and efficiency are often perceived as poor compared to best-practice. It is- but there’s a good reason for that, and a significant part of this is linked to donor expectation (or even donor control).
Donors, please sit up and take notice. And if you want aid agencies to do a better job at what they do DON’T keep restricting their overheads; instead give them money and say, “Here, learn how to improve your business practices with this”.
I’d like to expand a little on what the ODI paper has put out there (recognizing that the above is a very brief oversimplification of what is a complex and multifaceted paper which I’m not going to reproduce here as I’d like you to read it for yourselves). Firstly, I’d like to discuss the notion of cooperation in the aid sector a little more.
[Whines] Do I HAVE To?
There is an assumption that often appears in the media and in some papers that aid agencies don’t cooperate in an emergency. This is, of course, absolute rubbish, and Ramalingam and Barnett recognize this by stating some examples where cooperation does take place. These include projects like Sphere and HAP, as well as systemic changes such as the UN humanitarian reform with the Cluster system, and so forth.
(In fact, one of the contentions in the article is that an inhibitor to organizational change and cooperation lies with the likelihood that if some agencies do in fact invest in widespread organizational change- to great individual cost- there will be other [smaller] entities that freeload on the system, benefitting from the improvements without bearing the cost of investment. While on paper this would appear to discount this option as a solution, in fact the evidence suggests that a number of large agencies are in fact ready to invest in this way in principle and bear this cost for the overall improvement of the sector. Both HAP and Sphere are good examples where small groups of agencies have been willing to put a lot of investment into improving the way aid works, for the benefit of all; intelligent donorship can also foster this).
Cooperation is not a binary equation. It is a spectrum- both in terms of who, and in terms of extent. For example, in Port-au-Prince, most major professional aid agencies (as opposed to the hundreds of start-up agencies) did in fact attend a considerable number of the UN cluster meetings that were held. That leaves a lot of room to argue that there was a lack of cooperation in some areas, or with a large number of agencies (though not necessarily if weighted by funding or influence), but at any rate there was a baseline of cooperation. Likewise, cooperation can be on the one hand as simple as coordinating which agencies work in which geographical areas and sectors of response, right through to multiple agencies co-funding the same intervention mixing staff management reporting lines on a single project.
The aid industry sits somewhere on that spectrum- indeed, sits at a different place on that spectrum for each different response and, realistically, for each different day of that response. The question is not ‘why aren’t aid agencies cooperating?’ but rather ‘to what extent are aid agencies cooperating, is this sufficient, and if not, how do we move them further up the cooperation scale?’
There is a second assumption, and that is that cooperation is a universally good thing. Of course, it isn’t, and this is rarely discussed. An obvious example is working in restricted contexts (oppressive governmental regimes or highly insecure zones with high military presence). There, agencies take great steps to avoid cooperation with any actors (usually government or military) that might affect their neutrality, impartiality and independence- ultimately because this affects their safety and ability to deliver aid.
A less commonly acknowledged issue is that of capacity, or professionalism. I have been on both the giving and recieving end of interagency projects where some agencies have chosen not to cooperate with a particular agency because their implementation simply isn’t up to scratch. Port-au-Prince provides another excellent example of this. There were apparently over 10,000 ‘NGOs’ responding in Haiti following the earthquake. Only a handful would have been signatory to the Red Cross Code of Conduct. If I was generous, maybe 50 of this number? A little more? How many do you suppose had staff trained in the use of Sphere standards or other benchmarks of quality aid programming? (Professionalization and regulation of aid industry in posts to come…)
My point being- why would a large, experienced aid agency operating to international standards choose to cooperate with a startup NGO with a suitcase of money operating on some 503(c) license out of the US with no idea of how to operate in an emergency? There’s no value-add there. Just cost, confusion and delay.
Maybe it would serve the interests of the small startup. Sure. A boost in access, resources, skills and experience. But the time to build capacity in new NGOs is NOT in the middle of an enourmous humanitarian emergency (typically, of course, this would be when every Bob, Joe and Sean do actually decide they want to fulfill their long-term dream of being a relief cowboy).
Profession, people. Not just tossing sacks of grain off the back of a truck. This is NOT why I spent 4 years in university and nearly 8 years in the aid industry across four continents.
A final observation. There’s a trade-off between number of actors and payoff in investing in cooperation. I remember hearing (I need to confirm my source) that the ceiling sits around 35. Once you get beyond about 35 actors, it costs more to invest in managing the relationships than you get back in gains from the cooperation itself. I’m not sure about the exact number, but the principle makes a lot of sense- diminishing marginal returns, a basic principle of economics.
All I’m really saying is that a lot of noise is made about the need to cooperate (the loudest by donors and the media), while in fact cooperation is not, in and of itself, universally going to improve things. It has tremendous value and needs to be taken seriously, but it also needs to be analysed carefully.
Shifting gears, here’s a visual analysis (probably not exhaustive) of some of the major reasons why I feel agencies don’t cooperate in emergencies (click to enlarge).
They relate to three major spheres. One is the limited nature of resources (financial, and human). Another is the complexity of the disaster context (time-critical, evolving and highly uncertain or unknowable). A third is the lack of will within organizations, which relates strongly both to differing/competing agendas (usually resource-focused, such as media attention and donor funds) and also to the lack of an accountability and compliance mechanism on a global scale.
As you can see from that pretty web of coloured lines, there’s a lot of interactions going on, and a lot of overlaps too.
If you can work this chart out, I will give you a handsome mention in the comments section of this post.
The purpose of all that analysis (which is meant to add to, and hopefully not muddy, the ODI paper, not critique it) is to allow some identification of some of the key causal factors behind lack of cooperation in emergencies- and thus some solutions.
(The other purpose was to have fun with lines, circles and colours. Wheeeeeee!)
Items in white (which sit at the nexus of all three dimensions of context complexity, limited resources and political will) are obviously quite central- namely the number of actors involved in emergency response and the approaches to organizational and relational management (institutions would sit here). Both are major blockages to cooperation, the first because the sheer number of NGOs (uh… 10,000?) is ridiculous to try and manage, and the second because, as discussed in an earlier piece on the Cynefin framework and aid work, management approaches are often poorly suited to the sort of highly uncertain, evolving and chaotic contexts that emergencies provide.
There’s not a lot we can do about the context itself. Moving out of chaotic contexts into complex ones will simplify this a bit- which is why cooperation among long-term development organizations should be simpler (namely because the timescales involved between cause and effect are longer and therefore easier to respond to organizationally)- not that it always happens. But aid agencies have chosen to work in emergencies, so they’re sort of stuck with this one.
The key issue around resourcing is a combination of the cap on overall resources available to agencies, but more importantly, donor expectations. As discussed above, donors unwilling to see their funding go into the dreaded ‘overhead’ portion of operating budgets cripples an agency’s ability to invest in its own organizational development. This has knock-on effects on organizational management- particularly, priorities and where agencies choose to invest what resources they do have. It also impacts on the types of management models that agencies are able to adopt, establish, and even investigate.
There are a couple of big points to make with relation to political will. Obviously one relates directly to priorities and how resourcing is allocated in self-improvement. Another is the impact of competing or selfish organizational agendas, which feed into the complexity of a situation, enhanced when there are a large number of players. This also affects the willingness of larger organizations devolving power- a major blockage identified in the ODI paper.
A third- and one I feel is central to this debate- is the lack of a regulating body or accountability/compliance mechanism across the aid agency.
This is an issue that has been widely discussed at various points, and contentious. Currently, there are international standards around the quality of aid delivery (e.g. Sphere, Red Cross Code of Conduct), but they are entirely voluntary, and the only compliance mechanisms are peer approval (or lack thereof), and some donor pressure (usually donor governments).
There are conversations around the possibility of creating a set of compliance standards for NGOs to meet before they are allowed to operate, but the question is, what authority would be able to enforce these?
The idea of a ‘coalition of the willing’ is one such idea- that major NGO players could come up with a set of standards to which they and other agencies could be held account, with penalties for breaching. However the NGOs themselves have no such authority to enforce.
Donor governments could club together to enforce such standards, but questions of motive and impartiality would be strongly in question here. Most aid workers have a ream of tales to tell about aid horribly delivered at the behest of some poorly-informed government officer with an agenda to fulfill. A best-case scenario would be that any such standards would be drawn up in conjunction with UN and NGO stakeholders, host governments and community representatives, based around field impact of programming. Still, international authority is hard to enforce. Similar things could be said for a UN-backed compliance authority (to which their own agencies would also have to be held account).
From an authority perspective the strongest case lies with host governments themselves. As it is, no NGO can operate in a country without the express permission of the host government, so this is in place already- but there are no standards that relate to program quality, generally only to state sovereignty. Getting host governments to agree to an international set of standards around NGO operations would be like trying to herd a hundred and ninety cats into a hole in the ground, using firecrackers. Nonetheless, there would remain (and currently remains) major concerns around NGO identity, neutrality, impartiality and the ability to operate to the humanitarian imperative if standards are being set by host governments.
I Dream of Principled Action
In principle our vision might look like a set of guidelines agreed by representatives from different levels of the process, focused on the quality of aid delivery according to internationally-agreed standards, to which host and donor governments are signatory, to which an independent body is responsible for monitoring and reporting on, and against which there are a range of penalties culminating in the expulsion of an organization from a country (or the loss of its license to operate internationally) and the loss of its license to fundraise.
Such a system, however, would need to be pre-emptive (in place before an emergency hit) and flexible enough to adapt to a huge range of contexts.
It would need to be devised in a clever enough way not to be based off traditional compliance systems (e.g. 503(c) status requirements), because the cost of reporting back on such a compliance mechanism would run the risk of preventing many smaller agencies from being able to meet standards. Reporting mechanisms would need to look at flexible approaches such as storytelling rather than tick-box accountability (which doesn’t work well in complex and chaotic systems anyway as it’s too easy to fluff).
It’s important to strike a balance between the need to achieve professionalism and yet allow access to new players to the scene, as new and startup NGOs can bring fresh perspectives, ideas and ways of doing things that improve the overall humanitarian arena (while the need to filter out the large amount which also bring incompetence, confusion and harm remains).
And it would need to be cheap enough that donors would be willing to fund its design, establishment and maintainance.
The balance we’re looking for here is an external pressure that is sufficient to keep agencies in line with industry best practice that is going to improve the wellbeing of the people we are trying to help, but is not so onerous, costly and organizationally complicated that it suffocates organizations’ abilities to actually operate.
Erm, tall order anyone?
The ideal, of course, is the notion of principled action- that is, rather than enshrining cooperation accountability mechanisms in acres of red tape and cunning arrays of hoops that would confuse even the most athletic troupe of dolphins, it must be a guiding principle behind all the decisions that agencies make. This fits within the paradigm of operating within complex and chaotic environments, but requires a level of willingness by agencies, a level of awareness of the importance of cooperation by the same, and also of understanding by donors who might push for more stringent compliance evidence. Striking that balance will be as much art as science, and may only ever look elegant on paper.
Ramalingam and Barnett summarize with four key recommendations.
1. There needs to be more understanding of the dynamics that affect institutions, organizations and incentives within the aid industry (I’m not sure if the above diagram actually clarifies understanding, or terrifies it into cowering in the corner)
2. There needs to be a set of industry-wide goals for what good humanitarian assistance looks like (lots of work being done on this, and check out the #smartaid hashtag on Twitter for regular additions to the dialogue)
3. There needs to be a mechanism that can track how well we are moving towards those goals
4. The process needs to be governed through a political lens (namely, who has the power to make decisions and hold organizations to account?)
They end with a quote which I in turn will quote here as it’s a fantastic summary:
“We need to ask how… institutions help or hinder the innovativeness, learning, adapting, trustworthiness, levels of cooperation of participants, and the acheivement of more effective, equitable and sustainable outcomes at multiple scales.” (Ostrom, E. ‘Beyond Markets and States: Polycentric Governance of Complex Economic Systems. American Economic Review 100 (3) 641-72).
Coming to an understanding of the institutions (the rules by which organizations play) in relation to the above terms fits beautifully into the notion of adaptive strategy and more lightweight, flexible and dynamic models of managing people in chaotic and complex contexts, and stands to lay a foundation which will help agencies move forward in ways that improve their efficiency and the quality of their assistance to those who need it, if it is backed by appropriately flexible resourcing, and a will to put it into action across a multi-agency platform.