By Ed Schenkenberg van Mierop
Sooner or later, governments, UN organisations, NGOs, and others will undertake after-action reviews and evaluations of their response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The message will be that they need to learn from this crisis by examining their preparedness, response capacity, and the measures taken. Though this pandemic is entirely new, it is highlighting existing issues raised by previous evaluations. It follows that the lessons of COVID-19 evaluations are predictable. And these lessons need not be learnt in several months but can be understood right now.
Lesson 1: Manage competing priorities transparently
The challenge for every leader is to manage competing priorities, and this is particularly apparent in the response to COVID-19. The humanitarian imperative requires us to help those in need, but when humanitarians do not have PPE of sufficient quality at their disposal, can they be expected to expose themselves to people who may be infected with coronavirus? When food security is more urgent than a community’s public health needs, which priority should prevail? Many will say these are not ‘either-or’ choices, but ‘and-and’. True. But the issue for managers is to strike the right balance, which may be between two bad options. Given the reality is complex, compromises can be justified. They may not be the result of bad decisions, but they do require transparency. They need to be part of a well-thought-out strategy, which may need to be adjusted as the situation evolves. In HERE’s evaluation experience, far too often the strategy is missing, or is too ambivalent to allow for clarity. As a result, the rationale behind decisions goes undocumented, and accountability becomes impossible to establish.
Lesson 2: Undertake robust advocacy
Restrictions on fundamental rights and freedoms out of concern for public health must be proportionate. As with counter-terrorism measures, which also claim to protect people from harm, humanitarian organisations have a role to play in monitoring and pushing back when coronavirus restrictions go too far. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Filippo Grandi recently noted that he did not see a contradiction between securing public health and protecting refugees. Such a statement does not go far enough. The UNHCR should condemn the closure of borders to those seeking asylum, unequivocally, full stop. When looking at agencies’ advocacy, HERE has regularly found risk-averse behaviour. Justifying their (soft) approaches by invoking ‘do no harm’, agencies explain that they need to keep a presence on the ground. But to what end? What’s the time frame for assessing whether or not harm is done? And in whose eyes? As part of the research for a review in 2019, a senior UNHCR protection officer admitted in desperation that the agency never kept to its ‘red lines.’ In other words, there appears to be no limit to the degree to which agencies can be co-opted or instrumentalised. Wouldn’t it be great, post COVID-19, to produce an evaluation that finds that agencies have been robust enough in telling governments that their derogations from fundamental human rights went (far) beyond the law?
Lesson 3: Confront the politics at play
If there is one elephant in the room when humanitarian actors coordinate their work, it is agency politics. As noted in our March blog, there is a thin line between coordination and competition. In the COVID-19 response, the issue is a familiar one: leadership within the UN system. Categorising the pandemic as a public health crisis places the WHO as the response lead, but it also bypasses the Humanitarian Coordinator-led cluster-system, the default mechanism for humanitarian settings. If there is one lesson that the evaluations of the Rohingya refugee response have underlined, it is that competition for leadership among UN agencies is costing lives, rather than saving them. In addition, instead of honestly confronting inter-agency politics, the tendency among UN agencies is denial. UN-led humanitarian coordination focuses on ‘what’ agencies do. HERE’s recent research, however, points to the importance of also considering the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ when attempting to drive more effective inter-agency activity. Looking at each agency’s motivations and their engagement with stakeholders makes it possible to understand who is truly best positioned or has the leverage to get the job done. This knowledge is crucial for meaningful partnerships and inter-agency coordination.
Lesson 4: Rethink the business model
Inviting turkeys to Thanksgiving is nonsensical. The humanitarian sector has demonstrated it is incapable of reforming itself. ‘Innovation’ must be the most corrupted term in the humanitarian lexicon. Innovation requires risk-taking and the liberty to make mistakes; donor conditions have exactly the opposite effect. Still, bearing in mind the axiom that every crisis carries an opportunity, the COVID-19 pandemic is the ideal burning platform. The irony is that, while the current system is part of the problem, it also has to find the solution. The main concern in the sector by far is a steep decline in financial resources from 2021. Everyone is hoping their organisation will not be the first to have its funding cut, but some are already taking big hits. With a global economic recession, even those whose income is less dependent on government funding may be forced to rethink their model and adapt their way of working. Disruption requires risk-taking. Those organisations that are prepared to look at their relevance and added value have a better chance of being fit for the future.
Lesson 5: Look at the bigger picture
It is not prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse, the localisation of aid, the humanitarian-development nexus, accountability to affected populations, or the Grand Bargain agenda that will be the decisive step towards improving the quality and effectiveness of humanitarian action. The issue we continue to face, and that stands in the way of real progress, is the role of the individual agency in relation to the collective response. Interdependence is the primary feature of humanitarian action. Collective action is not an option, but a necessity. Yet, all accountability mechanisms are individual-agency based. Agency representatives are rewarded for what they deliver for their organisation, not what they do in partnership with others, or for their contribution to the collective response. Donor governments’ preferences for specific agencies and/or their activities do not help. Multilateralism has its limits – not least in humanitarian response. That said, it would be a welcome step in the right direction if more reviews and evaluations focused not on a single agency, but on how the ‘system’ – made up of agencies, governments, and affected communities – impacted a response. While accountability may seem elusive, we can do much more to unpack where responsibilities lie and to ask the right questions. We have made a start here.