A Critical Change: What the Humanitarian Field Must Do to Do Better

The humanitarian field is highly responsive to its fiercest critic – itself. Constant improvements are sought and solutions offered on how to better assist those in crisis.We often focus these evaluations on ourselves since we know that through greater coordination we can do more.

The underlying question, however, is do these evaluations delve deep enough in the analysis of what needs to change? Our responses are often to develop new mechanisms and protocols, such as those of the IASC transformative agenda or UNHCR’s structured dialogue, and we market these processes as sufficient to resolve what ails the system. But are we treating the underlying problem or merely its symptoms?

As someone directly involved with the global inter-agency policy body responsible for the coordination of humanitarian response, I’d question if we are not at risk of breaking a golden rule of marketing: do not focus on the brand. The ‘consumers’ of change within the humanitarian system, or those who practice the coordination we are planning, are not interested in what the change is called, or who has brought it about. What matters is that the response is the best we can make it: well-coordinated, guided by strong capable leaders, and accountable to the populations we serve.

According to InterAction’s new report on Collective Responsibility: NGO Coordination in Humanitarian Leadership, international stakeholders – NGOs, United Nations, multilateral organizations – have common expectations out of coordination: strategizing to solve critical issues and coordinating on response priorities.

So if we have a common goal, why does coordination within the system continue to falter? Examining the perceptions, realities and expectations of NGO coordination in humanitarian leadership, InterAction sought to find answers.

At a recent meeting with NGO colleagues in the field, a strong impatience for improvement within the system was present. InterAction’s research validated these frustrations. Despite stated support for active participation of NGOs in humanitarian leadership, NGOs continue to struggle with inequality in coordination bodies. Regardless of the perception that NGOs have a clear value-added to coordination for bringing current information on field realities to country-level decision-making bodies, negative power dynamics exist.

Of course, NGOs have made progress. Only yesterday I received an email that reminded me that it was not that long ago that NGOs were outside the system; welcomed as beggars to the informational crumbs of decisions made elsewhere. This has changed. Would NGOs have even examined their role in humanitarian leadership ten years ago? Much less demanded more access, more respect?

So what remains the hindrance to all of us working well together? In my view, our greatest challenge is not changing our policies or mechanisms or guidelines, though simplification of all would be of benefit. The change that we need is within ourselves. True attitudinal change, at both individual and organizational levels and for all parties, is required.

From the NGO perspective, we must continue to make our demands that the voice of NGOs is respected more consistently. To accomplish this, we have some work of our own to do – we must ensure that NGO representatives to inter-agency bodies at the global, regional or country-level are knowledgeable of the system and capable of playing the game. By demonstrating our influence, and our own willingness to change, NGOs can then call upon the attitudes of others to adjust accordingly.

Read InterAction’s new report


By Patty McIlreavy, InterAction’s senior director for humanitarian policy. This article first was published July 9 on the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action (ALNAP) blog