We need to talk about principles

Author: John Mitchell
Date: 26. August 2020

In the mid 1980’s, I was part of a small group who accompanied the UK Minister of Overseas Development (ODA), Timothy Raison, on a fact-finding visit to emergency feeding centres in East Africa where millions of people had been affected by famine. All of us were profoundly affected by what we saw, but one thing that surprised me was that the Minister always made a point of asking local government officials if, when things returned to normal, they were in favour of free enterprise.

To me it seemed like an incongruous question given the gravity of the circumstances, but at that time the ODA was part of the UK Foreign Office. The Minister obviously saw aid and global politics as inextricably linked, and part of his brief to defeat communism, save lives and enhance the standing of the UK abroad.

Now, after the recent announcement by the UK’s Prime Minister to merge DFID back into the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, we have returned to similar territory where UK humanitarian assistance and national/geo-political interests will become bedfellows once again. The above announcement was greeted with an avalanche of criticism from ex-prime-ministers, parliamentarians and UK aid agencies, all of whom were upset and justifiably concerned about a long list of issues.

But for us humanitarians, the real worry is that mergers like this could mean that the principled allocation of humanitarian assistance based on need is more likely to be trumped by national interests. This would directly contravene the Good Humanitarian Donorship (GHD) initiative, which has been widely embraced by donor governments, all of whom affirm the core humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence in the financing of humanitarian assistance.

If such fears are realised, there could be serious repercussions. Not only could it reduce humanitarian assistance reaching affected populations, it could also increase the risk of harm for front-line staff. As the UN Secretary General has emphasised, principled assistance is essential so that humanitarian organisations can earn trust and acceptance among State and non-State armed groups in order to gain and maintain access and operate in safety. Of course, negotiating humanitarian space has never been easy whatever the institutional arrangements. Crisis situations are almost always entangled with a myriad of political priorities – migration, counterterrorism, trade deals, arms sales and so on – but common sense suggests an independent office would have more autonomy to make principled decisions than a blended hybrid.

Some donor governments have found that the aid function combined with a foreign service, development and trade can, when managed wisely, elevate the strategic importance of aid and enhance impact.

Or there again maybe it doesn’t? Some donor governments have found that the aid function combined with a foreign service, development and trade can, when managed wisely, elevate the strategic importance of aid and enhance impact. Experiences from both Canada and the Netherlands suggest that consolidated knowledge can lead to better policies and a more connected approach. As always, challenges need to be overcome – including harmonising different sorts of expertise and working cultures, and managing a range of policies that have different speeds of implementation and types of impact – but the experience shows that it is possible.

This begs the question: who is right? Are humanitarian principles more likely to be watered down by national interests in an amalgamated office, or can they be protected and enhanced in a consolidated approach?

Unfortunately, the evidence base for this is thin. The development sector has created a principled aid index which monitors and reports on 29 DAC donor’s adherence to principled aid but, apart from DARA’s Humanitarian Response Index (no longer in existence), the humanitarian sector has no equivalent. The Core Humanitarian Standard (CHS) – a set of commitments founded on humanitarian principles – has provided much helpful evidence from NGOs in key operational areas, but is not designed to address donor adherence to principles.  This should be part of the job of independent evaluations – but a major evaluative gap exists when it comes to assessing the degree to which humanitarian principles are upheld in practice.

Recent work commissioned by the UN shows that evaluations do address critical issues of access, security and protection but only six evaluations out of a sample of 142, explicitly provided a link to humanitarian principles. And almost never do they look at how decisions about allocations are made and on what basis, or how administrative structures influence decisions.

On one level this seems surprising as the humanitarian community has been discussing these issues for some time. Nearly twenty years ago, members of the UK DEC took the initiative by using the Red Cross/Red Crescent Code of Conduct as performance criteria in their evaluations of the Gujarat Earthquake and the Southern Africa Crises. More recently, the UN has commissioned guidance material for specifically evaluating humanitarian principles – and this has the potential to be extremely useful – but apart from a few notable exceptions, agencies appear to be holding back when it comes to commissioning evaluations that will really focus on these questions. 

A major evaluative gap exists when it comes to assessing the degree to which humanitarian principles are upheld in practice.

We need to talk about how to protect principles and do so based on good evidence. The international aid architecture is changing at a rapid pace and many people are feeling that old certainties – respect for humanitarian principles and IHL, a workable level of international cooperation and access to people in need – can no longer be taken for granted. At a time like this it is necessary to clarify and re-emphasise the importance of our values, principles and purpose.

Evaluating how humanitarian actors can best live up to their principles would not only build trust across the system and strengthen accountability. Over time, it could provide an evidence base to help us understand how best to manage future mergers so that humanitarian principles can be protected and enhanced, rather than diluted.

John Mitchell is Director of the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action (ALNAP). With over thirty years’ experience in humanitarian action, he is a leading exponent of humanitarian practice and policy and led the ALNAP network for the past 15 years in its mission to improve global performance of humanitarian aid. He is well known in the humanitarian community as a key-note presenter.

This blog contribution has been published on July 30 here.

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