HERE’s where we start in 2020

By Ed Schenkenberg Van Mierop.

At the start of this new decade, analysts’ forecasts are understandably drawn towards the implications of climate change, protracted armed conflict, and the clamp down on migration as those that will define the humanitarian agenda for the coming year, if not decade. Undoubtedly, by looking at the gap between policy and humanitarian practice, HERE will be addressing these urgent concerns as well. We will, however, not lose sight of those core issues we defined earlier as foundational for humanitarian action. In defining the agenda for the year, let’s start with five basic ambitions essential to all humanitarian performance.


While the Grand Bargain and Humanitarian Response Plans speak of common plans and results, most performance frameworks assess agencies and their staff individually. Accountability for collective results remains elusive at best. In addition, pressured to deliver results, agencies most often focus on areas with the easiest populations to reach. Yet in highly contested areas achievements are much harder to realise. Therefore, discussions about collective performance, reaching those most in need, and the systems for incentives do not add up. While some attempts are underway to reverse these discrepancies, more honesty on collective results, and especially on real and remaining gaps, would set an appropriate point of departure.

In 2020, HERE will step up its analysis and exchange on improving accountability and incentive systems in working towards more collective responses. Previously, HERE has highlighted several paths for strengthening the accountability of humanitarian actors, especially in looking at collective performance in real-time


Contributing to the protection of people affected by conflict may put humanitarian organisations in direct confrontation with states and non-state armed groups. Perhaps it is for this reason that the 2013 sector-wide commitment to make protection the underpinning concept for all humanitarian action has largely been watered down over the past decade. True, humanitarian agencies cannot stop the bombing of hospitals or schools. They also cannot close their eyes to such atrocities in the areas in which they work. The centrality of protection includes first and foremost the commitment to rights and humanitarian law-based terms of engagement with those who control access.

In 2015, HERE began its work reassessing priorities in humanitarian action by looking at the protection agenda. In 2019, HERE undertook an evaluation of the protection work of NGOs, receiving private German funding to evaluate a joint appeal for the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. A recent HERE study looking at Myanmar also highlighted the importance of protection in making humanitarian response more effective. Analysing the way in which agencies prioritise and implement their commitment to protection will remain high on our agenda.


Since the 2005 (UN) reforms, leadership of humanitarian action has been a high priority. 2019 saw the further strengthening of the UN Resident Coordinator position as part of the reform of UN development coordination. Coordination arrangements or mechanisms, however, do not define the effectiveness of the leadership of collective efforts. It is the behaviour of those in leadership positions that matters. In the humanitarian community there has been a woeful lack of attention to different leadership styles, and which works best in any given context.

In 2019, HERE undertook reviews for UNHCR and UNICEF that identified leadership as a key issue in these agencies’ performance. It also convened a round table discussion on leadership styles and will keep the focus on leadership behaviour as a central element in collective performance.


No item has dominated the policy agenda more than the ‘humanitarian-development (and peace) nexus’ these past few years. Informally, humanitarians appear either to love or loath the nexus. The bigger problem, however, is that most if not all attention on the nexus has been generated in the humanitarian domain. This is a mistake. The bridging of the gap between humanitarian and development work won’t realistically be achieved if only approached from one side. A glaring gap in the conversation is the one pertaining to human rights, which provides a perfect trait d’union among the different components of the nexus. As most organisations doing humanitarian work are also active in development and human rights, humanitarians should wake up their colleagues next door and create (co-)ownership with them.

The humanitarian-development nexus has been a central theme in HERE’s study of the priorities of eight non-UN agencies in their responses to protracted crises. Four country case studies have been released in the post two years, with the final synthesis report bring released in the first quarter of 2020. HERE will push for a reality-check on the nexus and its components in 2020.


At the start of 2020, after more than two decades of developing standards and benchmarks for performance, there is still no agreed framework for assessing humanitarian action. Worse, in 2019, a technical UN working group on evaluations concluded that assessing a humanitarian response against the four core principles, the benchmarks defining humanitarian identity, was not a desirable way forward. If agencies are not prepared to let their work be reviewed against the overarching normative framework, how can they ever claim to deliver an effective principled humanitarian response that meets quality standards? In ending the sector’s obsession with technical measurements of performance, let’s begin with the essentials and assess humanitarian response by recalibrating evaluations of humanitarian action.

In 2017 HERE undertook a review of how some 20 major UN and non-UN agencies working with EU funding had integrated the principles in their work in IraqIn Ethiopia in 2019 HERE found evidence that humanitarian action is brought closer to those most in need when humanitarian principles are used to frame a response. In our reviews we will continue to use the humanitarian principles as the cornerstone for assessing performance.

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