Is there life after the WHS?

AidCommunity EmpowermentDisastersNGO ManagementWorking through the local church

So right now, having read this title, you may be asking yourself two questions: 1) Was there life before the WHS? and 2) What on earth is the WHS? 

WHS stands for the World Humanitarian Summit, and for the last 12 months it has been occupying most of my working moments. 

Three years ago Ban Ki-moon gave a valiant statement that we need a review of the humanitarian system, as it was not fit for purpose. Recently, the system has been described using words such as ‘broken’, ‘inefficient’ and ‘ineffective’. Maybe you identify with that. 

The resulting behaviours of governments, donors and communities tell a story. They are concerned, fed up and want to take matters into their own hands. We see this when governments restrict access for humanitarian organisations or withdraw their registrations. We hear voices from developing countries criticising the power held by international NGOs. And, most importantly, beneficiary accountability data tells us that when a crisis hits, communities are not listened to, do not get what they need and sometimes are just plain left out. 

Empowering local communities 

Strong stuff. Tearfund and its networks have been involved for the past two years in regional consultations on how we could change the system for the better. For Tearfund, the four areas to focus on were: 1) the localisation of aid, 2) financing for the localisation of aid, 3) sexual and gender-based violence and 4) the role of faith-based organisations. Perhaps I should explain the first two points! 

The localisation of aid means recognising that communities, actors and local administrations in developing countries need to be able to respond to shocks and stresses for themselves. This requires us to not just build local capacity for disaster response, but also to make sure our development approaches are resilient. We need to ensure we don’t undermine local structures and social networks by sending in international assistance when an emergency hits, unless it is really necessary. 

This is very much about loving and respecting your neighbour. It also a pragmatic recognition that it is more cost-effective and empowering when local communities can take control themselves. However, this means that funding must get down to the grassroots level and that local organisations need to be able to spend it professionally and efficiently, respecting humanitarian codes of practise. That is a big ask. 

Making commitments 

Encouragingly, some high-level movements were created in the build-up to the summit. These included Charter for Change, a commitment that international NGOs will provide funding more directly to local communities and local NGOs. There was also the Charter for Inclusiveness, giving more emphasis to the rights and needs of older people and those with disabilities. Tearfund has committed to sign both. 

Another commitment was the Grand Bargain between the UN and donors. Donors committed to make funding more accessible, longer term and localised, in return for greater efficiencies and greater accountability when the UN delivers aid. 

But one set of commitments were distinctly lacking: those about working more effectively with faith-based organisations. These organisations are a valuable and vital resource at any time of crisis. They know and understand the communities, they are in a position of trust and they have assets (both human and physical) that can be used to support any crisis. More often than not, they are the first to respond. We also know they can serve in ways many organisations can’t – providing emotional, psychological and spiritual support at a time of crisis. 

And yet so often faith leaders, faith communities and faith-based organisations are ignored or misunderstood just when they should be consulted and used the most. So why were there no commitments to this change? There is a misunderstanding that all people of faith are associated with extremism, that faith communities respond partly from self-interest, and that dogma would stop them keeping to humanitarian principles. 

The beginning of a journey 

We have a long way to go to remove these misconceptions. Some of that journey started with Tearfund's partner New Harvest Development from Sierra Leone. Pastor Santa Johnson spoke powerfully at a side event about her experiences in the Ebola response. She ended with a plea that international organisations ‘hear us, see us, listen to us and use us’. As another member of the faith-based community said, we need to be ‘humble but hungry’ when promoting our cause. Pastor Johnson certainly was that. 

There were definitely winners and losers at the World Humanitarian Summit. I am grateful that organisations such as DFID and OXFAM said they would commit to increase their funding to local NGOs by 25 per cent and 30 per cent respectively. But we still have a significant way to go to ensure governments, the UN and others can see what an effectively mobilised church can do. 

The commitments from the World Humanitarian Summit will be presented to the UN General Assembly in September. Let’s pray that this starts a formal process between governments and that Tearfund coordinates with others of faith to say ‘hear us, see us, listen to us and use us’. 

Oenone Chadburn
Oenone Chadburn is Head of Humanitarian Support at Tearfund.