This piece by Mark Tran was published by The Essential Edge 6 July, 2012.

Photograph: Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images — An assessment of emergency responses to crises over the past two years reveals a lack of co-ordination and     the failure of anyone to take ultimate responsibility when things go wrong. In this piece for The Guardian, journalist Mark Tran ask whether the appointment of a humanitarian ombudsman could improve the situation. (Others, including editors of The Essential Edge, believe that only with more   consistent and informed reporting of humanitarian response can real change be provoked.) The Essential Edge regularly republishes interesting outside media pieces on The Global Beat.

The inability of the UN agencies and relief groups to respond to emergencies such as those in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel is well documented, but little seems to change. A principal reason for inertia is the amount of buckpassing and lack of accountability in the international humanitarian system, as pointed out recently by Rob Bailey, senior research fellow at Chatham House, the international affairs thinktank in London.

So what might shake things up? One possibility is to appoint a humanitarian ombudsman who would “name and shame” individuals and organisations as a way of jolting often labyrinthine bureaucratic systems within which it is hard to pinpoint ultimate responsibility.

John Mitchell, director of Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action (Alnap), a network of organisations including UN agencies, donors and the Red Cross, said this had been mooted in the 1990s but never explicitly materialised. Mitchell explained that “the idea was to send such a person into a high-profile situation and report in real time so hopefully they would report on a crisis, not ex post facto. They would deal with any concerns in real time”.

Perhaps the time has come to reconsider appointing a humanitarian ombudsman, as Alnap publishes its report appraising how the international humanitarian system has performed in the past two years in response to crises in Haiti, Pakistan and Somalia.

On the key criterion of effectiveness, the report concluded that there were no major improvements in the following areas: timeliness, preparedness, human resources, co-ordination, leadership and monitoring and evaluation. Where overall effectiveness was questioned, the key reasons were time delays and poorly defined goals, with each major emergency receiving mixed reviews.

“In particular, the response in the Horn of Africa was found to be abjectly slow at a systemic level, with significant disconnects between early warning systems and response, and between technical assessments and decision-makers,” said the report, despite changes in the past five years to try to rectify problems.

Somalia, of course, presented severe challenges as it had been caught up in years of conflict, and the anti-government Islamist group al-Shabaab banned big western relief groups, particularly the World Food Programme, from the large areas under their control in the south. Anti-terror legislation in the US also had a chilling effect on aid activity as NGOs feared prosecution lest their supplies fall into the hands of al-Shabaab.

But even in less politically sensitive emergencies, relief groups struggled. In the 2010 Haiti earthquake, the report noted a delay in the production of needs assessments, and, in the Pakistani floods of the same year, the relief operation was criticised for being slow to gear up and for significant co-ordination problems.

When aid recipients in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Haiti, Pakistan and Uganda were asked what they would like to see improved, more respondents chose “be faster to respond” than any other option, the report said.
Problems of timeliness dog international responses despite changes. The UN introduced the cluster system, where a lead agency co-ordinates activities in a sector such as health or sanitation to help overcome the problem of co-ordination. The report said clusters and funds pooled by donors at country level are credited with bringing larger volumes of funding and contributing to stronger co-ordination, but at times can sacrifice speed for inclusiveness.

Another change was the setting up of a central emergency response fund (Cerf), designed to promote early action by UN agencies through acting as a guarantee, which enables the release of internal emergency funding. But Alnap said there were mixed views on whether Cerf is leading to faster and more timely responses. In recurring crises such as the Sahel where instability in Mali has compounded problems with drought, putting about 18 million people at risk from hunger, the report highlighted some positive changes. Important investments have been made in preparedness, for example, in South Sudan with supplies prepositioned in a range of remote locations.

As the report noted, resilience has now become a new buzzword for some donors, with the fourth high-level forum on aid effectiveness in Busan, South Korea, suggesting that developing countries seek investment in disaster management and integrate resilience into their own policies.

But while some donors such as the EU’s humanitarian office (Echo) is pushing for more long-term approaches to emergencies, tensions remain, the reported noted. In South Sudan, DRC and Central African Republic, humanitarian assistance still accounts for the bulk of aid. Indeed disaster-risk reduction-related investments amount to only 1% of the $150bn spent in 20 countries that received the most humanitarian aid in the past five years.

The complaint that runs through the report is the lack of co-ordination between a growing number of players, including southern NGOs, traditional donors and emerging economies. But the deeper problem is a system where no one has to bear ultimate responsibility for when things go wrong, hence Mitchell’s idea of a humanitarian ombudsman. “You need someone completely independent who has the power to leverage change in a system deep in inertia,” he said.

Mark Tran, a reporter on international news, previously worked as a correspondent for the Guardian in Washington (1984-1990) and New York (1990-1999).