We need the few giants to look past self-interest and towards building the humanitarian system of tomorrow, creating a win-win situation for donors, UN and non-UN agencies, taxpayers and, above all, affected populations.”
It was with these sentiments that 30 major humanitarian aid donors and implementers brokered a ‘Grand Bargain’ at the World Humanitarian Summit in May 2016. The goal being to make humanitarian aid delivery more efficient, and to devote more resources directly to local organisations and populations by May 2018. We’ve now just passed the mid-way point through that process, so it is a good time to ask whether the Grand Bargain is on course to be ‘win-win’ for everyone?
Publish What You Fund has been following progress towards the Grand Bargain’s first commitment most closely – to make humanitarian aid more transparent. Greater transparency is a prerequisite for improved efficiency, effectiveness and accountability in humanitarian situations. It also helps to build trust across the board. The biggest donors, answerable to parliaments and taxpayers, have been the main driver and are understandably seeking to “follow the money” through implementing agencies to recipients.
In order to achieve this, the Grand Bargain transparency commitment hones in on the requirement that signatories publish timely and high quality data on humanitarian funding. They recommend publishing to the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) Registry as the most advanced relevant open data standard currently, using UNOCHA’s Financial tracking Service (FTS) as a well-established platform. But, of course, transparency has major overlaps with other workstreams, such as harmonised reporting and localisation.
Since we are not humanitarians, Publish What You Fund embarked on a ‘scoping’ exercise to hear directly from nearly 40 humanitarian players. We talked to UN agencies, NGOs and donor representatives to better understand – in the humanitarian context – what the major challenges are that greater transparency might help to address. Some of those we spoke to are directly involved in the Grand Bargain process and others not. We were given plenty of examples: one village received eight separate assessment visits while, in another setting, there were four different hotlines vying to offer help to local communities. Often there was a lack of genuine inclusion of aid recipient country representatives, national and local actors, and affected people in various aspects of the response. These included international humanitarian coordination and information-sharing efforts.
Most people, who were at all familiar with it, were positive about the Grand Bargain on balance, primarily for galvanising some much needed political momentum to address a range of complex challenges. We also heard support specifically for greater transparency in principle, although a number of concerns were expressed specifically about IATI publication. Unsurprisingly, many of these were pinpointed in Development Initiative’s official baseline report, published last week following the transparency workstream consultations it coordinated: Implementing and Monitoring the Grand Bargain Commitment on Transparency. These include questions about confidentiality and trade-offs between timeliness of publishing data versus the inherently patchy and messy nature of the data it is possible to get. This is particularly the case in chaotic, rapid onset disaster and conflict environments, where faster access to information is also all the more important.
The main concern practitioners voiced on this topic, however, was a lack of clarity about the true benefits of publishing in practice. In other words, if organisations are required by donors to publish to IATI within this timeframe, this will inevitably happen. But it will be “at what cost?” The overwhelming fear was that it would tie up valuable resources for what will essentially become another compliance, tick box exercise. As one representative stated:
“There is a broad understanding that transparency underpins efficiency, increases public trust and provides a good foundation for cooperation. No one disputes this is a good thing, but it may flounder in terms of practicalities. What are the problems that need fixing?”
So are we on track for a ‘win-win’ situation in 2018 and beyond? In terms of transparency, we should be. That is, if everyone involved is clear precisely what the problems are that need fixing on the ground and in HQs, and how these proposed solutions can (and cannot) help to tackle them?
Using IATI and FTS as the starting point for the transparency workstream no doubt provides a helpful, tangible focus for the work programme. It also inevitably limits from the outset the problems you can try to address through this process. For example, most people we spoke to thought that the chaotic nature of field work meant that responders on the ground could not be expected to publish directly to IATI. This suggests that the immediate application of this information in rapid onset scenarios would be limited. Although some thought that the Humanitarian Exchange Language (HXL) could be adapted to simplify on the ground inputs to IATI enormously.
But however it is done, if implementers successfully publish their financial spend and activity-related activities to IATI, this should result in financial flows becoming more traceable. This is very positive and represents a clear ‘win’ for donors and taxpayers, which in turn should help to shore up continued support for those flows. However, we have to be careful that ‘transparency’ is not simply perceived as yet another reporting burden by implementers. The benefits beyond meeting donor requirements for the response and, above all, for affected people, still need to be better articulated and supported. This should help to ensure that much of transparency’s broader value in enabling more efficient, effective and accountable action on the ground does not ultimately fall by the wayside.