As everyone is adjusting to the new normal resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, the humanitarian sector is having to adapt to delivering programmes from afar longer-term, showing just how inevitable need for localisation, and decolonisation, of assistance. This is particularly challenging as funding trends are geared towards consolidating rather than shifting current power structures.
How are humanitarians responding to COVID-19?
OCHA’s financial tracking service reports pledges to the COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan of $3.3 billion to date. This accounts for a third of the requested funds. Now we need to make sure that those funds are dispersed rapidly to the actors best-placed to respond to the ongoing needs and secondary impacts in the most vulnerable locations globally.
The social distancing rules that are being widely implemented, and the lockdown of a third of the world’s population, make it harder to assess for all actors, listen and respond to people’s needs. It makes it harder to understand local experiences and the broad-ranging ongoing implications on people’s lives and livelihoods. It also makes it harder to monitor, evaluate, and adapt programmes, and to ensure accountability to affected people. Diasporas are better connected to the humanitarian crises in origin countries comparably to international humanitarian organisations. They feel this daily as they spend all of their time trying desperately to help by speaking to their relatives, influencing approaches at home and abroad and trying to amplify the voices of people in their home countries to effect positive change. The Sudanese Doctors Union-UK has, for example, engaged in response to crises in Sudan by securing oxygen supplies for the Federal Ministry of Health in Sudan and raising funds for flood response. They are also holding webinars in Arabic for Sudanese communities in the UK about the health issues they face in the UK, and their communities in Sudan, and sharing knowledge and expertise with Sudanese colleagues across the globe.
Financial pledges, if met, only create an impact if they are delivered in a timely, effective, and accountable manner. How can we ensure that these much-needed funds have the desired impact during a time of limited physical access?
Another layer is the Black Lives Matters movement which has started important discussions in the UN and INGO sector on racism and privilege, with various organisations, including Save the Children-UK, pledging to listen more and take action. But ‘localisation’ means more than a pledge. What we are seeing is funders taking even fewer ‘risks’, and instead we see further entrenchment of the unequal power structure. Most funds appear primarily earmarked for the big players, which will only widen the gap- the large organisations are more likely to withstand the reduced funding, compared to medium and smaller organisations, with many Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME)/People of Colour (PoC) organisations, facing closure. What are the implications for accountability as the physical distance between clients/beneficiaries and international aid providers increases and there are fewer smaller organisations who are more responsive to the needs of local communities and tend to be more flexible. Is this a ‘reckoning’ for the international humanitarian system to realise localisation?
How can we ensure effective, timely and appropriate services and support to our families and communities at home? Can we employ approaches similar to those we already use to stay in touch with loved ones but in a more open, inclusive global community of support so that others can also see, understand and listen? How can we build trust and genuine partnerships?
The future of accountability in the new ‘normal’
Imagine if, someone in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) can share a story about their experiences on their neighbour’s son’s phone by text message. They might say how it is good to get the cash distribution but ask where they can get essential supplies in the lockdown. Sitting at home using their Smartphone, a member of the diaspora community could share what they know or ask their family member in a neighbouring village to provide more information. This is when transparent, low cost or freely accessible tools can make a difference. One recent innovation is Loop, a global digital platform which enables anyone anywhere, and on whatever device they are using or have access to, to initiate feedback on the humanitarian and development aid they receive whether they are asked or not. Policymakers, NGOs, donors and diasporas themselves could use this to inform their approach.
Shifting the dial on accountability will require a commitment to the following key actions.
- Meet the stated funding commitments to local actors, and BAME/PoC led organisations and readdress for inequalities in the sector
- Fund locally – even through pooled funds
- Learn from, listen to and value local knowledge, including through diaspora groups
- For increased accountability in an interconnected system, only design and fund sector-wide, transparent and open technology.
There is so much innovation at the moment. We need to make sure it is invested in increasing the accountability of these massive investments and making sure that we can all add to the conversation, listen and understand how things are evolving. Could a more open transparent approach help us move from handouts to more self-reliance?