Ahead of last Year´s World Humanitarian Summit, Kristalina Georgieva wrote an article on IRIN about the biggest challenge to humanitarian aid not being money, but the lack of cooperation.
She was a member of the High-Level Panel on Humanitarian Financing. As a result of research made by the panel she described the aid community as : “An overcrowded market place… [where] turf wars duplicate effort and saps precious energy.”
I cannot agree with her more. Furthermore, this does not only hold truth for humanitarian aid but also development aid. The problems with non-cooperation within these two artificially separated communities are much the same.
Unfortunately, Georgieva did not elaborate further on the issue in that article, but went on to talk about the then proposed, and later agreed upon, Grand Bargain.
“Ain´t it sad”
The battles going on between aid agencies, be it the UN or INGOs, is what took me most aback during my first assignment abroad. Not only how widespread it is, but how deeply entrenched it seems to be. Many seem to be acting on auto-pilot when deciding not to share information or reaching out to others. Countless times I was told “not to talk to…”, or “not to mention …”
With a background from the civil service I am used to “politics” and petty strife. The difference is that among government institutions there are set rules and legislation for how this rivalry is to be played out. Within international aid there are no established regulations, just plenty of actors who want to be king of the mountain.
An employee at a big INGO told me about a time when the Canadian branch of that INGO was refused assistance from its U.S. branch in a neighbouring country. It can’t get much worse than that.
“That´s too bad”
The amount of effort, talent and money wasted on these domestic hot and cold wars is unbelievable. When you spend so much time on positioning yourself, or keeping your enemies at bay, you do not have much energy left to do good work.
And it not just the fact that money is spent inefficiently; what the aid community, in general, do not seem to realize is that they all end up as losers. Donors who do not get value for money become more reluctant to spend. All because organisations and agencies cannot be trusted. Donors have a lot to answer for, but that is another story.
This long-standing feud between agencies does not only affect the trust from donors. Aid agencies cannot seriously believe they can behave this badly among themselves; then turn around, face local populations, and expect them to find you trustworthy? Just like that?
“All the Things I Could Do”
The Grand bargain consists of a mixture of sticks and carrots to enhance efficiency and cooperation among humanitarian actors. It is criticised for being to vague, and only time will show how successful it may be.
However, instead of waiting for that, there are several things you can do as an individual.
First of all, stop believing in this “tug of war”, especially if you are a newcomer. Many aid workers (no, not all of you) appear to regard it as normal and inevitable. Either because they have been too long in the business, or because they do not know how to turn the situation around.
Secondly, stop listening to all the “do not talk to…” or “do not tell…” I did so in the beginning out of some erroneous eager to fit in, but realized how detrimental it was. Those who demand that kind of behavior from me do not deserve my loyalty. It is not about doing things that put your job at stake, but to stop acting out of habit.
That does not mean you should share everything and all the time. Compare it to a team of athletes: when they stand on the starting line they are fierce competitors (in our case over a major funding opportunity); but outside the stadium they try to support each other. At least they do not break each other´s legs in order to win the race. In fact, an athlete’ s chance of individual success is much higher if they are part of and contribute to a good team.
“Always Sunny “
Thirdly, be kind. For most people it is sufficient to just be themselves, without carrying loads of hidden agendas. According to my experience, that will make you stand out. Several times I have experienced that people were surprised when I did what I said I was going to do. It could be the simple act of calling them back. Oftentimes I have heard people referring to someone as “actually nice.” That says a great deal about the deep, deep problems of the aid community.
Being trustworthy and supportive is what will prevail in the long run. It also makes life much easier than playing devious games. You may lose some battles, but they are, mostly, battles not worth fighting. In fact there will be much fewer left for you to fight. Do not wait for the system to change. You might have to wait a very long time.