Managing residual risk in emergencies

9 December 2011

‘HPG provided impartial facilitation and brought to the table an independent and intellectual perspective, drawing out best practice and steering more effective inter-agency collaboration.’

Chris Kaye, Director of Performance and Accountability Management (RMP), World Food Programme

The Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) at ODI works to bridge the conceptual and practical gaps on risk management between donors and humanitarian agencies. As a result, HPG has helped to build a new mutual understanding on what risk is, and how it can be managed.

The challenge

Humanitarian agencies are under unprecedented pressure from donors, politicians and the general public to manage the risk that emergency aid may go astray. At the same time, they are expected to achieve concrete results in increasingly hazardous and complex emergencies.

Understandably, donors don’t want to be linked to failure, with their aid undermined by corruption, going to those considered undeserving or – particularly since 9/11 – being misappropriated by groups accused of terrorism. On the one hand, donors must answer to domestic constituencies who demand results and value for money at a time of growing austerity at home. On the other hand, donors are under increasing pressure from those very same constituencies to ‘do something’ about human suffering.

Very often, this dilemma is laid at the door of humanitarian agencies. These agencies are having to respond to valid calls for increased accountability. At the same time, they are pushing back against the insistence that those working on the ground – and ultimately their beneficiaries – bear the burden of the pressure to decrease risks, with consequences for the timeliness and effectiveness of humanitarian action.

Our response

The Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) at ODI has acted as an ‘honest broker’ on risk management, shining an impartial light on both sides of the debate to reveal the dilemmas faced by both donors and agencies. Its work in this area first began in preparation for a high level conference on risk management co-organised by HPG with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark and OECD in Copenhagen in November 2010, and has since made its mark on the world stage.

One key success has been HPG’s role in a crucial series of consultations in Nairobi at the invitation of the World Food Programme (WFP) with humanitarian agencies, the UN Country Team and donors in June 2011. The aim was to break a risk-related deadlock in funding to Somalia, with a major drought looming. The workshop played a critical role in shifting attitudes and preparing for an effective response.

WFP has been the biggest operational agency in Somalia, but was one of a number of organisations expelled in 2009 by the militant Al Shaabab movement, which has been listed as a terrorist organisation by the UN and the United States. Al Shaabab controls the territory where most of Somalia’s most vulnerable populations live. In addition to Al Shaabab restrictions, WFP funding for Somalia also started to dwindle after a UN monitoring group report made allegations that its assistance was being appropriated en masse by Al Shaabab and others.

As an independent voice, HPG has been able to facilitate consultations between donors, WFP and the rest of the UN Country Team. HPG was able to reassure donors that significant steps had been taken by WFP and others to manage and minimise risks in their operational responses. HPG provided a combined call for action and reality check: yes, you can and should have robust risk management, but this must be accompanied by realistic expectations of what can be achieved in complex emergencies.

The impact

Chris Kaye, WFP’s Director of Performance and Accountability Management (RMP), has praised the impact of HPG’s contribution, saying:

‘HPG provided impartial facilitation and brought to the table an independent and intellectual perspective, drawing out best practice and steering more effective inter-agency collaboration.’

Chris Kaye also commented positively on the Copenhagen high level conference of November 2010:

‘The meeting proved to be a watershed in WFPs thinking on risk management. While, WFP had relatively well developed risk management systems in place, the discussions and outcome served to provide greater conceptual clarity on how risks in humanitarian settings can be framed and managed to better effect.’  

The subsequent HPG commissioned paper Risk in Humanitarian Action:  towards a common approach helped to weave the various components of risk management into a coherent picture, presenting a framework to improve understanding of risk and its assessment. WFP went further, asking HPG to support a WFP-hosted informal UN inter-agency meeting on risk management in May 2011.  Finally, WFP embraced this thinking and adopted the framework as its risk management tool at HQ and country office levels.

HPG’s work in this area has reverberated across the humanitarian sector, bringing donors and agencies closer together and generating more insightful debate on issues around counter-terrorism and aid – an issue that has been taken up by the Guardian Development blog.

Next steps include continued analysis, building on HPG’s existing reports and policy briefs on risk management and counter-terrorism, through ongoing engagement with a study group at Harvard University. A new HPG research project on what works in humanitarian negotiations with Armed Non-State Actors (ANSAs) is now carrying out detailed case studies in South Kordofan and  Blue Nile regions in Sudan.