The View from the Foxhole: How Risk and the Fragmented Perspective of Agencies Limits the Reach of Humanitarian Aid

Publication Date: 
Tuesday, December 20, 2016
Aid from the United Arab Emirates to Syria is loaded in Dubai © UNHCR

This guest blog comes from Abby Stoddard. Abby is a Partner with Humanitarian Outcomes, an international research consultancy providing analysis and policy advice for humanitarian agencies and donor governments.

In 2014, Afghanistan’s Helmand province had over twice as many people in need of aid as there were in Samangan province, yet Samangan had a larger presence of aid agencies and more than double the number of aid projects running. Similarly, the far less needy northern regions of Somalia have for years hosted a far greater aid presence than the South Central regions that exist in an almost continuous hunger crisis. For most of the first year of the conflict in South Sudan, a large majority of aid agencies confined their work to the UN protection of civilian sites, even though these represented only 10 per cent of South Sudanese population in dire need of help. And in war-ravaged Syria, the largest ratio of aid activities per person in need can be found in the areas under the control of the Assad government, despite more critical needs in other parts of the country.

How does such imbalanced coverage come about in a field dedicated to providing aid ‘on the basis of need alone, giving priority to the most urgent cases of distress’?

A three-year study conducted by Humanitarian Outcomes and GPPi gathered empirical data in these four conflict-affected countries as the first step to understanding how aid agencies can achieve secure access, quality programming and accountability in the most forbidding operational contexts. The findings of the research on operational presence reveal a picture of humanitarian coverage that is not only sparse in relation to overall needs, but also highly uneven and skewed toward certain geographic areas. These patterns emerge as a direct result of the security and risk perceptions of agencies, and an indirect result of their donors’ political interests.

A small pool of responders, and contracting responses

To begin with, far fewer aid agencies work in violent contexts than in safer ones, and not nearly enough to cover the needs. On average, humanitarian emergencies in more stable settings attract over four times the number of organisations per dollar in funding. Out of the many hundreds of international relief organisations, only a small fraction regularly respond to the most violent, conflict-driven emergencies; and within these countries fewer than a dozen agencies can be counted on to work in the most dangerous areas. In each of these places, humanitarian agencies are joined by national organisations, which provide the bulk of the direct delivery with much less security cover.

Humanitarian practitioners told interviewers that security is the single most important factor determining their decisions on where to operate, more than the level of need or the funding available from donors. Presence data bore this out, showing how aid agencies tend to narrow their field presence and cluster in safer areas, pulling back from the district-level and concentrating in provincial or national capitals, or in regions perceived to be safer. Alternatively, an agency may maintain presence in the same number of places within the country, but at a smaller scale with fewer projects. Accordingly, people living in some of the most dangerous parts of these countries said in surveys that they saw humanitarian activity declining in their areas, even as their needs are rising.

This contraction of humanitarian presence within countries is often invisible to the outside observer, because nowadays agencies rarely respond to worsening security by withdrawing from the country completely, and existing operational information like the 3Ws (Who does What, Where) compiled by the clusters do not provide this level of geographical and operational detail.

Negative effects on aid quality and relevance

Insecurity not only drives where agencies operate, but how. In insecure, hard-to-access areas, the research showed that the humanitarian aid provided becomes more basic and less responsive to the most critical needs and the most vulnerable people. Agencies are often unable to position the appropriate staff or technical inputs for more complex programming, and when they are forced to rely on remote management or one-off distributions, it becomes difficult to identify and target the most vulnerable amid the recipient population. People who received aid in these places said in surveys that the aid they received was often not what they most needed. In Syria, survey respondents lamented the large amount of basic hygiene or food packages they were forced to sell to purchase what they needed more. They expressed their wishes for more diverse aid or, better yet, cash.

Perverse incentives and ethical concerns

Donor policies can work against humanitarian access and coverage. In addition to the risk of violence, donor governments’ counter-terror legislation and heightened fiscal risk aversion have the effect of further discouraging agencies from programming in areas under the control of armed opposition groups. In each case of civil conflict, coverage was proportionally greater in areas of government control.

Moreover, both governments and non-governmental agencies have incentives to make the humanitarian presence appear more robust than it is. Agencies want to demonstrate to their donors and to the public that they are present where the needs are, and can overstate their impact and footprint in the process. The unintended result is to make the humanitarian situation appear less dire than it is, taking some pressure off political actors who have failed to find political solutions to the conflict but can point to their humanitarian response. In this way humanitarian agencies are undermining their own advocacy role on behalf of the people they seek to serve.

The need for a clearer picture and a wider scope of responsibility

Without minimizing the enormous difficulty faced by humanitarian actors in these contexts, it is clear that more information and transparency is needed about their operational presence. Along with this should come a sense of urgency to fill the gaps, and greater consideration of how to ensure impartial humanitarian coverage.

Gaps cannot be filled if we cannot see where they are. And they will not be filled unless there are collective incentives to identify new actors and innovate new means for reaching those most in need. Part of the problem is the myopic view of agencies that is inherent to the fragmented humanitarian sector. While each actor may be justly satisfied that they are programming as well and as impartially as they can within their limited area of operation, they do not feel individually responsible for the larger picture. The result is large segments of the population whose needs go unmet.

During the study, a representative of one of the major donors remarked that “nothing is gained by donors trying to micromanage” their aid agency partners, particularly in high-risk environments. Maybe so, but we’re considering whether some ‘macromanagement’ is in order. If no one is looking at the full picture and taking responsibility for filling in the blank spots, we cannot claim to be honouring the humanitarian imperative. Donors, agencies and coordinating bodies should all be working toward this end.

The ‘Secure Access in Volatile Environments’ (SAVE) project was funded by UK DFID. Detailed findings and research products on Presence and Coverage, Access and Quality, and Accountability and Learning can be accessed on the SAVE project website at You can also hear more from Abby and her colleagues on the ATHA podcast.

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