Humanitarian Policy: What I Wish I Had Known In The Field

Sometimes in the field even critical policy discussions pass us by. Take me, for instance. This time last year I was the Deputy Director for Programs for the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Pakistan, where for more than three years it seemed like it was displacement after displacement, crisis after crisis.

It wasn’t until I was preparing for my interview with InterAction that I learned what the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) was or the massive initiative they launched in 2011, known as the Transformative Agenda. This was just the start of learning what I didn’t know.

In 2011, the IASC launched the Transformative Agenda (TA) to improve the way major humanitarian crises are managed (read about the operational implications for NGOs). The IASC team identified three areas that need particular attention to realize this goal: leadership, coordination and accountability. Working groups and task forces meet regularly to address challenges such as a coordinating preparedness, humanitarian finance, needs assessments, protection and urban humanitarian disasters.

More paper, right? But what would this have meant for me if I was still in the field? There are a few key developments that the IASC is tackling through the TA that, in my opinion, would have improved the response to the 2010 floods in Pakistan. One of the chief complaints about the response was that it was insufficiently coordinated. In Pakistan the NGO I was with, the IRC, certainly participated in a variety of coordination mechanisms in-country. It was the chair of the Pakistan Humanitarian Forum Secretariat, the co-lead of the protection cluster and a regular participant in the Humanitarian Country Team (HCT). Could more have been done? Sure. But what is the point since the clusters didn’t really seem to work – other than the cluster IRC co-led, of course – and there was so much effort that needed to go into various ad hoc coordination networks and government reporting that, with our limited human resources, we had to prioritize. I just accepted the system for what it was and made sure we contributed. Everyone was busy; functional coordination seemed a lost cause.

When I joined InterAction one of the first things I read to learn what the TA had accomplished was the Reference Module for Cluster Coordination at the Country Level. This document not only outlined what the role of clusters is, but laid out when clusters activate, deactivate and what a well-functioning cluster should look like. The two things that stood out for me were the actual scope of work the clusters are responsible for, as well as our role as NGOs to ensure that clusters do work.

One thing that I didn’t understand well enough in the field was our responsibility as NGO cluster members. For instance, I didn’t make the connection that clusters were a forum for advocacy. But how can they advocate if the actual implementers (NGOs) do not provide strong inputs and advocacy points? Likewise, how could cluster sector strategies be realistic, with well-prioritized activities, if the NGO project submissions were based on ad hoc needs assessments and proposed to do everything, everywhere, without knowing where other organizations were potentially better placed or better staffed to respond?

The Reference Module concludes with a coordination performance monitoring tool. While a cluster performance monitoring tool was developed previously, this tool takes it further by monitoring cluster activation and establishing regular performance monitoring roughly every six months. This process focuses on the quality of cluster function, not just whether they are able to function. Some may think that these steps should have been taken when the clusters were rolled out in 2005. They throw up their hands in frustration and doubt the TA will make any difference. But I would argue the agenda’s existence reflects a remarkable achievement in building such a broad consensus and strong buy-in from key stakeholders. The TA, while still largely confined to policy documents, reflects an important attitude shift at senior levels in the IASC. Perhaps those of us who have been implementers during crises expect change to happen fast. But we’re talking about the future of humanitarian response globally. From that global perspective, the TA might actually be our best opportunity to improve the humanitarian system. While it may not have the same type of momentum we feel in the field, it’s still very much forward motion.

The way we respond to humanitarian crises can be transformed, but we all have a responsibility to learn about the process and actively participate in it. Genuinely effective coordination involves both ceding operational integrity and the willingness to share and truly coordinate and compromise for a common good. As President Harry S Truman once said: “It is amazing how much you can accomplish when it doesn't matter who gets the credit.” If we as a humanitarian community are able to come together to respond to crisis better, everyone will get the credit.

Caroline Nichols is the Senior Manager for Humanitarian Policy at InterAction. The full-length article of this piece originally appeared in the December 2012 issue of Monthly Developments Magazine.