Essays on Humanitarian Effectiveness analyses the impact of context on understandings of and approaches to effectiveness. The five essays in the collection present stories of how effectiveness has been constructed, discussed, operationalised, or even imposed in different contexts (in Liberia, Niger, the Philippines, South Asia and the Syria region), based on research across 9 countries. The collection depicts how these different geographical, social and cultural contexts have influenced how particular responses have been shaped and assesed.

Essays on Humanitarian Effectiveness includes:

Liberia. The Un-ness of an Emergency: A Reflection on the Ebola Response in Liberia, by Fernando Espada

Niger. Even the River Has Need of its Tributaries: An Exploration of Humanitarian Effectiveness in the Slow-onset Context of Niger, by David Matyas

The Philippines. A Culture Clash? Exploring ‘Appropriateness’ and ‘Relevance’ in the Response to Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda, by Jessica Field

South Asia. On Authority and Trust: A Reflection on the Effectiveness of Disaster Management in Bangladesh, India and Nepal, by Fernando Espada

Syria. ‘No Voice Can Be Heard Above the Gunfire’: Protection, Partnerships and Politicking in the Syrian Civil War, by Jessica Field

The entire collection of essays is available to download here.

Five stories on humanitarian effectiveness

The five essays that form the collection Essays on Humanitarian Effectiveness are the result of extensive desk and field research carried out in nine countries: Bangladesh, India, Nepal; Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey; Liberia; Niger; the Philippines. The essays – part of a project by Save The Children’s Humanitarian Affairs Team, in partnership with the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute at the University of Manchester – analyse understandings of humanitarian effectiveness in different geographical, social and cultural contexts and their influence on how particular responses are shaped and assessed. The field research that resulted in the five essays here also informed the analysis contained in The Echo Chamber; these essays may be read as a complement to the latter, or as a stand-alone collection, or individually.

The decision of the Humanitarian Affairs Team to start working on humanitarian effectiveness, in July 2014, was partly opportunistic: the issue is part of the daily discussion at Save the Children and in the humanitarian sector as a whole, as the World Humanitarian Summit’s choice of humanitarian effectiveness as one of its key topics demonstrates. But it is not merely a topical issue: the theme of humanitarian effectiveness has been central to humanitarian discourse since, at least, the mid-1990s. In our attempt to go beyond easy answers to a complex question, we decided to partner with the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute at the University of Manchester. Essays on Humanitarian Effectiveness and The Echo Chamber are the result of a year and half of intense work.

The first study was carried out between November and December 2014, in Bangladesh, India, and Nepal, following particularly intense floods across the three countries and Pakistan (a planned visit to which had to be cancelled due to security concerns). The second study was conducted in the Philippines, between January and February 2015, to analyse the response to Typhoon Haiyan (locally known as Yolanda), one of the strongest typhoons on record.

In April and May 2015, field research was carried out in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, looking to understand the perspectives of humanitarian actors operating inside Syria and across its borders. In May 2015, research was carried out in Niger, addressing the context that humanitarian agencies define as slow-onset shocks, and local people simply see as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ years. The final field study analysed the international and local responses to the Ebola outbreak in Liberia; it was conducted in Monrovia, in May 2015.

The researchers used desk reviews, semi-structured and unstructured interviews with informants in capitals and field locations, focus groups with communities, and observation. Researchers sought to ensure appropriate representation of relevant communities (affected people, humanitarian workers, local officials, etc) and organisations (international, local, UN agencies, Red Cross, NGOs, governments, etc). The purpose of the interviews, focus groups, and the project as a whole was explained in advance to informants, with the guarantee that their contribution would remain anonymous. Although the research was not inductive, researchers were asked to allow space for the field research process to evolve, and to adapt, if necessary, the key themes that would then be addressed in the essays.

It is widely believed that humanitarian action is more effective today than in the past, thanks to the adoption and refinement of management processes, tools and techniques, and the professionalisation of humanitarian workers. Insofar as the humanitarian effectiveness agenda has not achieved success on its own terms, this is seen as evidence of the need for more of the same. However, as The Echo Chamber argues, the urge to identify and replicate ‘what works’ has transformed the humanitarian sector into a closed shop. A particular understanding of effectiveness, within the parameters set by Western actors, has been used without adequate consideration of either their own ideological motivations for such transformations or the demands and aspirations of people in crisis-affected countries. The confidence in management processes and the adoption of apparently neutral technical solutions – ignoring political, economic or social factors – reflects a reluctance among those providing assistance to share power with those on the receiving end. The objectives of humanitarian agencies, according to the criteria of efficiency, productivity and marketability characteristic of neomanagerialism, has become the priority. A self-referentialism has taken root in the humanitarian sector; managementspeak has become a lingua franca for humanitarian workers that deters and delegitimises criticism from those who cannot or refuse to adopt it. Rationality and effectiveness have become the incontrovertible truths that conveniently privilege and protect the intellectual dominance of those agencies that already hold the power. Reform and improvement is encouraged, but also carefully limited to the boundaries of the humanitarian market-place.

In her analysis of the response to Typhoon Haiyan in 2014, Jessica Field reflects on the disconnection between the priorities set by humanitarian agencies, which overlooked everyday politics, and those of Filipinos. By reacting to the disaster as an exceptional event, rather than a momentous but ‘everyday’ disaster, and targeting individuals, rather than communities, in accordance with predetermined definitions of need and vulnerability, the agencies delivered assistance that was not culturally appropriate. Rational methods to determine the best responses to identified needs failed to recognise that communities were demanding, for instance, equality in the distribution of assistance.

Such a deficit in understanding of political and social dynamics also hindered the effectiveness of the response to the Monsoon floods in Bangladesh, India and Nepal in 2014, as the essay ‘On Authority and Trust’ concludes. Humanitarian agencies and local governments in the region speak radically different languages that widen the trust gap between them. In response to increasing attempts by South Asian governments to exert their authority over the response (relegating civil society organisations to a service provider role), humanitarian agencies react by focusing even more on short-term programmes and technical solutions, which ultimately make them accomplices of the bureaucratic structures that challenge their autonomy.

An exclusive focus on easy-to-deliver programmes that can achieve measurable results proves extremely convenient for donor governments seeking to prevent humanitarian agencies from taking undesirable risks in politically sensitive contexts. As Jessica Field explains in her essay about the response to the Syria crisis, complying with counter-terrorist legislation has taken precedence over any humanitarian consideration. Reporting programme activities and results to ensure no accidental link to any terrorist group becomes the priority of international humanitarian agencies and their local partners. Because of the risk aversion of donor governments, humanitarian agencies surrender their autonomy and distance themselves from those who they seek to support.

Distance can transform everyday realities into emergencies, when convenient. David Matyas identifies this process in Niger, a country considered to be in permanent ‘state of exception’. Such exceptionality fits the ideal template for humanitarian agencies to appeal for funds, coordinate responses, and manage programmes. As a result, local perspectives of effectiveness that value the ability to stay in place or self-determination (as opposed to dependency) are dismissed.

In the same way, local capacities and priorities were bypassed in the response to the Ebola outbreak in Liberia, on the grounds of the unprecedented nature of the crisis, as the essay on Ebola response in Liberia explains. Ignoring the repeated calls for assistance and then wrongly defining the outbreak as unprecedented, unexpected, and/or unmanageable, requiring a containment operation, excluded local people from ownership of the event and the response, presenting them as passive victims or even vectors in the transmission of the disease. That this limited the humanitarian effectiveness of the response was proven by the fact that, when given information, resources and trust, Liberians were able to control the spread of the virus.

The essays do not follow a common structure, but share a goal: to tell a story about how effectiveness has been constructed, discussed, operationalised, or even imposed. As such, they are not exhaustive accounts of responses, or the activities of humanitarian agencies; they do not necessarily offer the type or sequence of information usually found in NGO reports. The authors were given the liberty to approach each context freely and follow a trail that might offer an original and valuable perspective on humanitarian effectiveness. We believed that that freedom, within the limits of professional integrity and research rigour, was the right approach for this project. We hope readers will agree.

We would like to thank the members of the Steering and Advisory Groups, as well as the dozens of informants who agreed to be interviewed, for their patience and invaluable contribution to this project. The content of this introduction and the six essays does not reflect the opinion of Save the Children UK. Responsibility for the information and views expressed in this publication lies entirely with the authors.

Photo credit: Jonathan Hyams/Save the Children

These essays have been produced as discussion papers and do not reflect Save the Children policy. Responsibility for the information and views expressed in the essays lies entirely with the authors.