Humanitarians Grapple with Government Ownership
February 21, 2017
I watched my Liberian government colleague nearly lose his temper—yet again—with a worker for a nongovernmental organization (NGO). It was January 2015, and the Monrovia Ebola task force was looking for a victim who had been taken to an Ebola Treatment Unit by an NGO’s private ambulance. The problem was that the NGO had scooped up the patient before the government’s response team could investigate who this Ebola patient had been in contact with—an essential step for identifying the next wave of cases.
Working on the Ebola response in Liberia, I witnessed this tension between international humanitarian organizations and the government countless times. That gets to the heart of an existential crisis the humanitarian sector is facing: what should the respective roles of international organizations and the governments of the crisis-affected countries be?
The current humanitarian model, embodied in the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) “Cluster System,” is untenable for a few reasons. The rise of sovereignty, as the Humanitarian Futures Programme calls it, means governments are increasingly unwilling to play second fiddle to UN agencies during emergencies. Nigeria’s current humanitarian emergency is a notable current example. And the clock is ticking toward 2020 when humanitarian actors have said they will provide “25 percent of humanitarian funding to local and national responders as directly as possible.”
As someone who worked for the Liberian government and now with the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative (AGI), which advises African governments, I’ll put my cards on the table that I’d like to see humanitarians make a significant shift toward more government ownership. But I also recognize that first means grappling with some difficult issues. Here in the United States, for example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently announced new rules on quarantines during an outbreak that sparked controversy.
However, there are four central questions that the humanitarian sector will need to answer if it is to carve out a coherent, effective role for itself.
1) Do you really mean government ownership? Everyone in the international humanitarian sector today acknowledges—albeit sometimes reluctantly—that the humanitarian industry must move toward “localization.” But localization is a vague word that obfuscates different things. Some humanitarians mean hiring more local staff. Others mean partnering with local civil society groups. Those are both different from enabling local governments to manage their own emergency responses. Do humanitarian organizations actually agree that governments should run the show?
2) When do you mean government ownership? Government ownership isn’t always viable. On one end of the spectrum are situations like the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, where the government directed a largely effective disaster response with the humanitarian community playing a useful supporting role. On the other, are cases like Syria today, where the government is more than partly to blame for the humanitarian crisis, which means international organizations truly need to operate independently. Those are the obvious cases. In between are scenarios that vary based on the nature of the crisis and the capability, legitimacy, and intentions of the local government. What should international organizations do when the government of a middle-income nation doesn’t want humanitarian responders to work in a famine-affected region because they argue it will strengthen the hand of an extremist group in the area?
3) Sovereignty vs. effectiveness vs. capacity building? Underneath the localization debate are overlapping reasons for why the humanitarian sector needs to localize. Some focus on the principle of national sovereignty. Some, as AGI argues in its report on Ebola, say that crisis responses are more effective when national actors are in the lead. And others say that international humanitarians should be there to build local capacity to mange emergency responses better in the future. Without this, there’s a risk of what Paul Farmer has described as “the Republic of NGOs” undermining “the Republic of Haiti’s capability to fulfill its government mandate.” These are distinctions that lead to different operational approaches, as anyone who has worked on a humanitarian response can attest to. Which of these is it, and who decides?
4) How do we actually work with governments? The hardest part for humanitarian organizations, which are guided by principles of neutrality, impartiality, and independence, is how to actually work effectively with governments. In AGI’s recent paper “Shoulder to Shoulder,” we lay out principles on how to do this in a development setting. The ones most applicable to humanitarians are being government led and navigating local politics.
“Government led” may sound identical to “government owned,” but I think this points to a dilemma for humanitarian organizations: are you able to work in support of government decisions you disagree with—for example Sierra Leone’s policy of quarantining victims during Ebola, which many international organizations opposed. I’d argue that supporting governments to lead in its purest sense means actually working with governments to carry out plans you’re uncomfortable with.
Being politically savvy is another one. That means sometimes working with governments to do things in ways that are politically helpful to them. Some governments have recently been reticent to declare level-three humanitarian emergencies because doing so would be problematic for their domestic political standing. Humanitarians may view that as self-interested, but is there a way to mobilize resources for a humanitarian response without damaging governments politically?
If humanitarian organizations are serious about government ownership, they’re going to have to adapt their principles and rules and eventually probably hire in-country staff who have the skills and capabilities to work in government-led, politically savvy ways.
None of this will be easy. But these are central dilemmas that the humanitarian sector needs to navigate if it is to carve out a viable, useful role for itself in the twenty-first century.
Dan Hymowitz is a senior associate with the Project on Prosperity and Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., and a senior adviser with the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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