The anniversary of the United Nations Report on tackling Covid-19 feels an appropriate moment to reflect on how the world’s humanitarian system should seize the opportunity to reinvent itself. Our guest blogger Damian Lilly is well placed to offer his views, drawing on years of experience working across the UN and humanitarian system tackling crises as far afield as Yemen, Pakistan and DR Congo.
Yemen, already the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, recorded its first COVID-19 case last week. The number of cases of the virus is growing exponentially in Africa. Aid agencies are bracing themselves for their worst case scenario, with the next wave of the disease outbreak predicted to hit poor countries having catastrophic humanitarian consequences. Yet, less than three weeks after the UN launched its $2 billion COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan humanitarian organizations are already struggling to cope with the dual challenge of scaling up their COVID-19 response, while at the same time maintaining on-going operations.
Faced with this unprecedented crisis, traditional response models are no longer valid. The humanitarian system urgently needs to reinvent itself to stay relevant and protect the most vulnerable. While daunting, the COVID-19 crisis provides the opportunity to advance long-overdue reforms. The following are six key issues that need to be addressed:
First, a global approach is required to target assistance to those most in need. COVID-19 is the first-ever truly global humanitarian crisis. Aid agencies are used to responding to quick-onset emergencies in single contexts, but they now must scale-up operations in all crisis zones simultaneously. A response will be needed in countries where there are currently no humanitarian operations, while western countries are also requesting help from NGOs to – for example – build field hospitals in New York’s Central Park and send doctors to northern Italy. To direct assistance impartially in a crisis of global dimension will require tough choices to prioritise those vulnerable groups most at risk, including refugees, older persons, etc., and confront the reality that it will not be possible to respond to all needs.
Second is the need to think globally but act locally. The traditional model of sending surge capacity staff and humanitarian supplies is no longer possible in a COVID-19 world. The UN has requested humanitarian workers to be designated essential and be provided with waivers to the travel restrictions in place, but these have not been forthcoming and many international staff are already grounded. The planned UN air bridge to keep humanitarian supplies going is ready but lacks the funds to take off. Alternative ways of delivering relief assistance are needed. The much vaunted ‘localization of aid’ agenda – using local responders – needs to be accelerated. Organizations such the Red Cross Movement already have networks of national affiliates they are mobilizing, a model which all NGOs will not be forced to adopt.
Third, a new notion of “do-no-harm” and responsibility for “duty of care” is required. Aid agencies have for a long-time contended with the unintended consequences of their assistance, from fuelling war economies to undermining local markets. In South Sudan, the UN has already been accused of importing COVID-19 with the first three cases recorded in the country coming from its own staff. The UN faced serious legal claims after being accused of bringing cholera to earthquake hit Haiti and will be keen to avoid the same with COVID-19. This will require a reinvigoration of the “do-no-harm” principle to prevent further suffering to those that are being helped. COVID-19 will also mean a new “duty of care” for aid agencies to their staff not to contract the virus while working to help others with social-distancing policies and protection equipment for frontline medical staff.
Fourth is the need for adequate and flexible funding. The $2 billion requested for the UN’s COVID-19 humanitarian appeal may sound small compared to the trillion-dollar economic rescue packages being launched around the world, but it comes on top of $28.7 billion already asked for at the beginning of the year to fund on-going global emergency operations in 2020. Humanitarian funding levels will be hard to maintain as traditional donor countries face their own economic crisis from COVID-19. The UK Government’s DfID only belatedly launched its humanitarian funding to COVID-19 without putting a figure on what this might be. Private donations to charities have already tanked with many organizations reporting in a recent survey in the UK financial crisis and lay-offs. Even if enough funds are provided for the COVID-19 response, it is feared that it will be at the expense of supporting on-going operations that will suffer consequently. While the COVID-19 appeal has already received 19.4 per cent of requirements, the overall global humanitarian appeal has only 6.6 per cent coverage suggesting this concern might be well-founded. At the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016, donors, UN agencies and NGOs signed up to a Grand Bargain to ensure more predictable and flexible humanitarian financing. COVID-19 will test these commitments but make them even more important to implement now.
Fifth, humanitarian and development collaboration needs to be rethought. COVID-19 is a public health, social and economic crisis all at the same time, also with serious human rights implications. Traditional notions of humanitarian and development assistance have become largely irrelevant in such a context. In parallel to the UN COVID-19 humanitarian response plan, though, the UN also launched a separate $2.5 trillion plan to address the socio-economic impact of the pandemic to protect the gains made towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Arguably there should have been one single plan. There has been much effort in the recent years to enhance the so-called ‘Humanitarian-Development-Nexus’ but this has not led to a more joined-up approach to COVID-19.
Sixth, an expanded notion of humanitarian coordination is required. Coordination challenges tend to debilitate rather than facilitate the humanitarian response. New coordination mechanisms were established to respond to previous public health emergencies, including the West Africa Ebola Outbreak in 2014-16, but these largely failed. Humanitarian actors should stick with their tried-and-tested coordination structures. A bigger challenge is that humanitarian actors are now a very small player in what has become a crisis of such immense global proportions. Global leadership to tackle the pandemic has been lacking with the Security Council only recently seizing the matter. Last week, a 205-strong group of global leaders demanded that the G20 set up a task force to coordinate the response COVID-19. It is vital that humanitarian actors be part of whatever new coordination structures materialise.
The humanitarian system was one of the few voices in recent years urging the international community to take seriously the need to prepare for a global pandemic such as COVID-19. Aid agencies – like everyone else – are now being tested in ways that they could not have imagined. To meet the challenge will require profound changes to the aid system, with business as usual no longer possible.
You can find Damian on Linked In here.