After COVID-19: Time to reset

By Ed Schenkenberg van Mierop

COVID-19 is sending shockwaves through our personal lives and the societies in which we live. No country, however developed, however resilient, will emerge unscathed. But the pandemic will also have a lasting impact on the way humanitarian response is delivered.

Humanitarian organisations are sounding the alarm, fearing the impact COVID-19 could have in warzones, camps and settlements of displaced people, and slums: those spaces in which the most vulnerable and least visible members of our global society can be found. Recognising the world’s interdependence, it is vital that these messages do not fall on deaf ears. Especially when the consequences of COVID-19 will push the most vulnerable societies to the brink of their capabilities. 

Organisations anchored in the developed world can expect calls for help with domestic public health responses, and are likely to be asked to provide relief and assistance in their own backyards. Notions of ‘international assistance’ are rapidly morphing into ‘local response.’ And what is done locally has profound implications across international borders. Following a pandemic in a globalised world, nothing will stay the same. In humanitarian response, there will be a ‘before’ and ‘after’ COVID-19.

Sooner or later, questions will arise as to what the post- COVID-19 humanitarian landscape might look like. Many of the most significant sector-wide reform processes in recent times followed mega-crises. The birth of humanitarian standards of the late 1990s was facilitated by the reaction to the failures in delivering aid in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide; the Indian Ocean Tsunami and the Darfur genocide engendered Jan Egeland’s clusters in 2005, changing the way in which humanitarian response was coordinated; and the 2010 Haiti earthquake and Pakistan monsoon floods saw the Valerie Amos-led creation of the transformative agenda to strengthen accountability for sub-optimal performance.

One exception to this five-year reform cycle might be the Grand Bargain agreement of 2016 between donors and agencies, which was not directly triggered by a specific crisis on the ground, unless the unstoppable growth of the gap between humanitarian needs and available resources can be considered as such. COVID-19 may be the ultimate push to rethink better humanitarian preparedness worldwide. 

Even before this crisis, informal dialogue was underway on the next wave of humanitarian reform. Prompted by less than optimal delivery on several of the Grand Bargain commitments, and an over-concentration on others, the current humanitarian business model is under scrutiny. As Patrick Saez recently observed: “money is usually disbursed after a disaster has struck, even when that disaster was predicted.” Indeed, in the synthesis of his extensive research on the future drivers of humanitarian crises in 2009, Randolph Kent concluded that an inter-pandemic period – the time interval between pandemics – “is not conducive to securing donor funding or media attention.” 

So, what will (have to) change in the post-COVID-19 era? How is this pandemic forcing us to reset the way in which humanitarian response is delivered? 

First and foremost, there will be a further push to ‘localise’ humanitarian response. This pandemic, and in particular the related travel ban, will be used as evidence that the notion of ‘overseas aid’ is increasingly outdated, inefficient, and ineffective, if not unethical. Strengthening the capacity of local and national responders to take care of their ‘own’ in times of crisis is the preferred way forward. 

This thinking is not new. The past decade has been dominated by the trend of moving humanitarian action in the direction of a more developmental approach focused on resilience and sustainability. The localisation of humanitarian response is an integral component of this trend. 

It is therefore regrettable that, after garnering such significant momentum at the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit, the localisation discourse became dogmatic and polemic as soon as money was at stake. As a result, this debate has largely ignored the notion of complementarity based on the added value that organisations from diverse backgrounds can bring. 

Developed to meet the Grand Bargain localisation funding target, a 2017 bureaucratic categorisation of who is ‘local’ and who is ‘international’ in humanitarian aid also denied in-country realities. In HERE’s research, we work with international NGOs that have been in countries for decades and with local NGOs that are brand new. The Starbucks on the corner may be an international company, but it is still the local coffee shop. If a categorisation of humanitarian organisations is to be made, it should not be based on arbitrary labels but on strengths and weaknesses. It is time that the thin line between coordination and competition in humanitarian response is no longer the elephant in the (virtual) meeting room.

Here is where it could be helpful to press the reset button following COVID-19. HERE’s recent research provides evidence that critical priorities such as access to people most in need and protection are more prominent in the minds and work of NGOs that have integrated the core humanitarian principles at the strategic level. Agencies for whom the core principles are separate from their own organisational values are more focused on concepts such as ‘self-reliance’, suggesting they are well-placed to work on bolstering resilience and driving the empowerment of affected populations. 

To be clear, there is no right or wrong in this, nor, necessarily, an ‘either/or.’ One does not trump the other: both are required. But this observation should push organisations (and donors) to be up-front about their added value. What do they want to achieve in different contexts? Are they equipped to do so? HERE’s forthcoming study on the ‘mandates’ of non-UN agencies (to be published in April 2020) provides some important lessons in this respect. 

It is high time to shift the discourse and reform humanitarian response in a way that harnesses diversity by looking at the complementarity between the different actors – and building on it. And when the moment comes, HERE stands ready to contribute its research and analysis to the debate on the post-COVID-19 future of humanitarian response. 

11 comments on “After COVID-19: Time to reset

  1. Excellent blog Ed, and fully agree. I’m also hopeful that thinking about the big picture as regards pandemics will also foster better policy around wider inequality and the wider impacts of food security and conflict worldwide. They may not transmit as clearly as a virus, but they do transmit and a more holistic approach will pay dividends.

  2. Hey Ed,
    Good to read these reflections. I think you’re right about Covid19 emphasising the importance of strengthening of local responses. However, we shouldn’t forget the importance of international solidarity and assistance. This is a global pandemic and the response should be much more international, closing borders and isn’t the most effective way to respond. For the response to be effective we will need international cooperation and we will need to help each other.
    In solidarity with you from London!
    Sandrine

  3. Thanks for this interesting discussion, Ed. Picking up on Sandrine’s point around solidarity, I wonder if this will also create a more equitable mutual relationship. During the day I am working on a global response to this pandemic fir an international NGO. In the evenings I am applying what I have learnt in the humanitarian world, and particularly around community-led action, in my own neighbourhood and quite honestly I can think of a few so-called ‘local partners’ who would bring a lot of valuable expertise to that endeavour.

  4. Thanks for the reflections Ed,
    I get the sense that even in the most defiantly un-reconstructed margins of humanitarianism, the importance of shifting to a more locally owned response has been sinking in. As you note yourself, the most recent call to action has not seen this prospective shift embraced as an opportunity. A range of international humanitarian actors has continued to view localisation as an existential threat, or at least one in which their raison d’etre is less clear or diminished. Donors have continued to associate local actors with additional risk. Global allocation systems designed to allocate funding through a small group of trusted international partners have been slow to adapt, or have failed to do so. Major donors’ desire to write an ever-smaller number of large cheques has suffocated innovation in this respect. The dearth of funding in some long-standing emergencies demands change while simultaneously cementing the systemic problems that Patrick lists.  
    I have been reading optimistic reflections like yours from our industry and beyond. A common theme in predicting the post-COVID era is a burgeoning recognition of the importance of ‘the local’. While I desperately want to share the optimism, I can’t help but think that the threat of falling revenues will trigger a period of even greater entrenchment and self-protective behaviour in the first instance.  

  5. Thanks Ed for this blog BUT the world will be a different place after Covid 19 has laid waste to lives and livelihoods and brought into question notions of ‘universal humanitarian’ values that, in principle, are the foundation of principled and effective humanitarian action. In the post-pandemic world, who will explain, with confidence, the necessity of humanitarian action, whose lives are saved, and how best to meet humanitarian objectives?
    Already, towards the end of March 2020, with a few exceptions – think Chinese and Cuban support to Italy while the EU turned its back – there is little evidence of international solidarity. However, there is a great deal of data to show that those who are most at risk – those trapped in war zones fuelled by Western and other arms-trading nations, those who are up-rooted from their homes and denied, even, the right to seek asylum and those who are already on the economic margins of society in the Global North and Global South – will be further imperiled … and largely ignored.
    Since the so-called humanitarian system that has emerged from multiple rounds of reform is way too dependent on donors who are part of the problem, and way too pre-occupied with business-as-usual to challenge policies that condemn refugees to drown in the Mediterranean or keep children locked up in Lesbos rather than provide refuge on the European mainland, the post Corona humanitarian world will need more than diversity and complementarity to be of value.
    Humanitarians must engage in re-thinking the politics, technology, and economics that divide, disenfranchise and destroy what we sometimes call “our shared humanity”. Humanitarians everywhere, in and outside the formal system, must join together to challenge the policies and processes that generate crises and the inhumanity that characterizes so much of our contemporary world. norah

  6. Excellent piece and pertinent comments so far. Let me add that the consequences of the COVID -19 crisis will need to be assessed beyond a humanitarian perspective implying a broad range of actors. Later should address underlying issues related to resilience and sustainability, paying more attention to local approaches on the world response in a resetting mode.

  7. Hi Ed. Thanks for this thought provoking piece. I agree but would go further. Here are a few comments.
    (a) I doubt if we will see more donor support for localisation. Probably the opposite will happen. What we are seeing is retreat based on wealth: rich countries will try to take care of their own. Depending on how long the pandemic lasts and how deep it bites into health systems already weakened by decades of rampant neoliberalism, we may well find ourselves in a situation where the tax base in OECD states will be insufficient to cover domestic livelihoods needs AND development/humanitarian aid; (b) Multilateralism is collapsing if not already brain dead. What has the UNSC said about the coronavirus? Is anyone listening to the SG’s plea for cease fires? The international “system” as we know it has shown its limits, WHO included, and there are no signs of it being resuscitated. And this at a time where the pandemic (like climate change) shows ever more clearly that transnational problems require transnational responses rather than intergovernmental stasis; (c) perhaps more worryingly, the crisis is spewing surveillance technologies that are being introduced with little or no democratic control. Tracking infection is one thing but transforming the most vulnerable into digital bodies that are reduced to bare life is another. These technologies have a habit of being presented as “exceptional” and becoming the new normal after the crisis ends; (d) The humanitarian ecosystem is ill-equipped to counter these trends. I am not even sure that “humanitarian” is the answer. Solidarity across borders will be in even worse straits if the democratic deficit in the coronavirus response is not addressed – by citizens. As Julie Billaud argued in her op-ed in Le Temps yesterday…we need less humanitarian technique and more politics. See: https://www.letemps.ch/opinions/coronavirus-dhumanitaire-plus-politique?fbclid=IwAR0xQFdFSLIYhVqKsioBz3z8gIGdmuL74B0KbCeSswrnBia3eRiEqyjQAKI

    We, at United Against Inhumanity, have just issued a statement on solidarity and the coronavirus: either we work collectively to beat it, or we fail separately: http://www.against-inhumanity.org/2020/03/25/coronavirus-is-a-threat-to-humanity/

  8. Many thanks, Ed, for lifting our heads and considering what will inevitably be another pivotal moment for the humanitarian system and the way we work. As we all know, the humanitarian sector is slow, reactive, often focused on the needs of its bureaucracies at the expense of needs on the ground. All well-rehearsed arguments.

    Some things that COVID-19 might help drive home:
    – that the international-local binary is a blunt instrument that is not representative of the diversity of organisations that do humanitarian work, not relevant to recipients of aid nor appropriate to a crisis that will require a mixture of highly-tuned expertise and robust community engagement.
    – that differentiating anticipation from response is irrelevant and unhelpful in such a fast-moving emergency that will require all manners of support simultaneously.
    – that as international organisations are compelled to stand back, they will have to trust that their in-country counterparts will be faster and better placed to make the decisions and implement the actions necessary to flatten the curve and treat the infected.
    – that for all of these reasons, donors and major aid organisations need to be more flexible in their definitions, restrictions and allocations.
    Best wishes and be well!

  9. COVID-19 a threat to humanity that surprised everyone. In response to this pandemic, a concerted humanitarian responses can plan a bid role in helping those already affected and in the prevention of new infections. Everyone is concerned.

  10. Thanks for these reflections Ed. CoVid-19 really does seem to be echoing the death knell for multilateralism and global consensus around humanitarian solidarity.
    It would however be good to see an evidence based debate between the ethical (and laudable) imperative of localisation vs. the effectiveness of localisation across different contexts – conflict, authoritarian, stable – and implications for humanitarian protection and assistance actors (international, regional, national, local…). Perhaps I’ve missed it, but it seems to me that this is a critical piece of the jigsaw puzzle that’s missing.

  11. Very interesting article Ed. In particular reflrctions on what local response means and ‘HERE’s recent research provides evidence that critical priorities such as access to people most in need and protection are more prominent in the minds and work of NGOs that have integrated the core humanitarian principles at the strategic level.’
    Looking forward to listening to the discussion on the 8th!

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