Development Co-operation Directorate (DCD-DAC)

A Humanitarian ‘Swiss Army Knife’ - Donors to improve emergency aid (DACNews June-August 2005)


Humanitarian aid has not been an area of priority for the DAC but with the Good Humanitarian Donorship initiative this is about to change. In 2003 the largest humanitarian aid donors and a number of major humanitarian organisations met in Stockholm and agreed on measures to strengthen co-operation and efficiency in the planning and delivery of humanitarian aid. The meeting resulted in the endorsement of ‘Principles and Good Practice of Humanitarian Donorship’.

GHD is a multipurpose tool – a ‘humanitarian Swiss army knife’ - with principles and practice guidelines covering most of the controversial issues related to how donors finance humanitarian action.

It addresses the initial challenges:

  • Making sure policies and procedures relate to meeting humanitarian needs
  • Providing timely and flexible funding
  • Respecting International Humanitarian Law and humanitarian principles.

It also makes advances towards the definition of benchmarks and donor practice in GHD, which in turn will make humanitarian donorship measurable in a way that it hasn’t been before.

Covering GHD in DAC Peer Reviews

As it is a donor-initiated process it makes sense that existing systems for donor coordination should be used, making it a task of the DAC. Hence DAC has agreed it will promote GHD by strengthening the coverage of humanitarian action in Peer Reviews and improve statistical reporting on humanitarian aid.

DAC members have agreed to have their development programme scrutinised on a regular basis (presently every four years). Two members from the DAC are selected to review another member, and the process is managed by the DAC Secretariat.

Humanitarian aid is of course included within ODA and has been referred to occasionally in Peer Reviews but the scope of this coverage has differed widely and there has been no systematic approach. GHD covers 23 principles that can be used to monitor performance and for this purpose, the DAC Secretariat developed a GHD assessment framework to be used in the Peer Reviews. So far the GHD assessment framework has been applied in four DAC Peer Reviews; Australia, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland.

Improving data collection on humanitarian action – moving towards a common definition

As humanitarian responses have broadened to meet the needs and realities of contemporary emergencies, humanitarian aid (or ‘emergency and distress relief’ in DAC statistics) has grown as a share of DAC donor’s Official Development Assistance (ODA) –  from 3% in 1990 to an estimated 10% in 2004.

That’s partly because humanitarian aid now integrates humanitarian, development and security situations.

The magnitude of humanitarian responses, as illustrated by the Indian Ocean Tsunami, constitutes a serious challenge for harmonised donor practices and improved efficiency of humanitarian action.

Yet despite these realities, there is still no common definition covering all humanitarian work, which means there is inadequate data to analyse current responses to increasingly complex humanitarian crises. Also, there is no international mechanism of global governance to monitor the use of official humanitarian action.

Statistics collected by different organisations are not comparable because of the use of different definitions and classifications. Different approaches to what should be considered as humanitarian aid result in inconsistencies regarding assessments of the scope, scale and duration of emergencies and humanitarian response. This, in turn, makes financial flows unpredictable and inequitable.

That’s why some donors have requested that the DAC secretariat work at reaching common definitions. Work is currently underway to adopt a common definition of humanitarian aid which would provide the necessary reference for improved statistical reporting.

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