April 24, 2024

If you could have one thing guaranteed in the new humanitarian strategy, what would it be?

Global humanitarian crises are growing to unprecedented levels, spurred by instability, conflict and more climate change-induced disasters. In 2024, around 300 million people will be in need of humanitarian aid across the world.

Government is currently developing a new humanitarian strategy to guide its work and deliver on its stated commitment to meeting humanitarian needs where they are most acute. There’s strong consensus on some elements – like the importance of linking preparedness, response and resilience, and prioritising local leadership. But there’s also debate over where Australia should focus its humanitarian assistance, and how it should deliver it.  

One thing is clear: with a limited amount of funds available and ballooning global needs, the strategic choices the government is facing are critical. To help inform these trade-offs, we asked three experts: “if you could have one thing guaranteed in the new humanitarian strategy, what would it be?”

Beth Eggleston
Co-founder and Director, Humanitarian Advisory Group

The development of a new humanitarian strategy is a chance for DFAT to be bold. A chance to demonstrate Australia will “walk the talk” on the approach laid out in the new international development policy and for Australia to step up and play a role reshaping the international humanitarian system. There needs to be a commitment to a principled humanitarian approach whilst making clear linkages to resilience and risk reduction agendas.  

What I’d love to see is a flip in the narrative from capability development for local partners, to a focus on building DFAT and intermediary capability to partner more flexibly, provide quality funding directly to local actors, and articulate the risks that donor decisions have upon the humanitarian ecosystem.

For too long, the ‘localisation’ agenda has emphasised what we like to see local actors doing, rather than a focus on what donors and intermediaries could be doing to fundamentally re-shape how assistance and protection is provided. The recognition that a locally-led approach also enhances accountability, appropriateness and inclusion should motivate DFAT to step into a leadership role and encourage others to do the same. DFAT can catalyse momentum creating a sense that the sector is transforming and those not on board will get left behind.

Our research, funded by the Swiss Government, shows:

  • There needs to be a push towards more investment in pooled funding mechanisms that empower local and national actors.
  • The default of processes that incentivise localised practices across programming and partnerships in design, contracting and implementation needs to change.  
  • There needs to be a renewed commitment to accountability.  

The need for courageous leadership in the humanitarian system is clear and the opportunity the humanitarian strategy provides must not be squandered.

Beth is an innovative thought leader and expert in humanitarian action, specialising in providing advice and delivering cutting-edge research to improve the effectiveness of the humanitarian sector. In a previous life, she worked in civil-military coordination and implemented humanitarian reform with a focus on Afghanistan, Liberia and Timor-Leste. At the Lab, we admire Beth’s bold leadership, her balance of innovation with pragmatic insights and commitment to enabling the humanitarian sector to perform at its best.

Naomi Brooks
Humanitarian Advisor, Australian Council for International Development

The humanitarian strategy should amplify the crucial role of Australia’s humanitarian organisations in providing immediate and crucial assistance on the ground. Many Australian organisations have long-standing partnerships with local actors on the ground and are integral in enabling a locally-led humanitarian response. Additionally, they play a crucial role in maintaining a connection to the wider Australian public through their engagement in communities and the donations they receive for their work overseas. It is important to harness these connections for effective humanitarian delivery in-country and to maintain public support for humanitarian assistance in Australia.

To date, Australia is an outlier in terms of its under-utilisation of NGOs in humanitarian aid delivery across the OECD Development Assistance Committee countries. The new strategy should diversify and strengthen Australia’s humanitarian partnerships and improve transparency, prioritising humanitarian agencies as valuable partners in humanitarian response. Humanitarian agencies have periodically been shown to scale responses as needed and in line with the challenges being faced by the community. In this light, the recommendations from previous humanitarian evaluations should be acknowledged and implemented under this strategy.  

In doing so, the new humanitarian strategy should -

  • Ensure a roadmap to more locally-led humanitarian assistance signalling the Government’s commitment to localisation as specified in the Grand Bargain.  
  • Enable adequate funding provision for the complementary role that Australian humanitarian agencies play in assisting local organisations to engage with the humanitarian sector.
  • Support learning and organisational development.  
  • Build in core funding for local organisations.

Naomi is a policy advisor and development expert, specialising in humanitarian immediate responses, development and long-term policy and advocacy. In a previous life, she worked as a political staffer and engaged in research focusing on diplomacy, conflict prevention and peacebuilding. Naomi brings fresh insights to the humanitarian aid sector through her in-depth expertise spanning across development and the Australian political landscape.

Jules Frost
Australian Council For International Development, Civil Society Advisor, Australian Civil-Military Centre

Confronting the greatest challenges of our time, Australia’s humanitarian strategy must affirm principled, impartial humanitarian action, ensuring assistance and protection reaches those in greatest need. Australia’s humanitarian action should be in accordance with the core principles of “humanity, impartiality, neutrality and operational independence.” The strategy must reaffirm needs-based humanitarian assistance for those whose lives depend upon it. The Government’s decision to prioritise development assistance to the Indo-Pacific should not limit the provision of humanitarian assistance to countries where the need is the greatest.

In addition to the four principles, Australia’s humanitarian action should be as civilian as possible and as military as necessary. The use of military assets should be a last resort in alignment with the OSLO Guidelines. As a matter of principle, military and civilian defence assets should be a tool complementing existing relief mechanisms, like the Australian Humanitarian Partnership.  Australia should deploy military assets only when there is no civilian alternative and the assets provide a unique capability with advantages in terms of speed, efficiency and effectiveness.

Australian humanitarian agencies have proven to be timely, effective, efficient, and accountable partners for the Australian Government. The strategy should prioritise this valuable capability as a first choice in responding to humanitarian crises overseas. These agencies are committed to full adherence to the principles and obligations of the ACFID Code of Conduct, and global standards of practice. Operating overseas, they demonstrate the generous, caring character of Australia and contribute to building strong and enduring relationships between Australia and the world.

Jules is a strategic advisor and leader with expertise advancing national capabilities for crisis management through civil-military-police engagement. In a previous life, she was involved in humanitarian operations across East and Southern Africa, and the Indian Ocean Tsunami response, pioneering innovative approaches to program design and partnerships. At the Lab, we love Jules’ versatile experiences in the humanitarian sector across programs, operations and partnerships and her commitment to combining civilian and military capabilities to deliver humanitarian assistance.

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