When aid is driven by the news cycle

School children in Florida Valle, Colombia. Although Colombia has the world’s second-largest population of internally displaced people, they seldom make the news. (Photo: ©UNESCO/Ministerio de Educación, Colombia)

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At the EFA Global Monitoring Report we welcomed the release last week of the Humanitarian Emergency Response Review, an important independent assessment of the UK’s humanitarian funding. But we found it unfortunate that the review failed to pay attention to protracted conflict situations. As we pointed out in the 2011 Global Monitoring Report, The hidden crisis: Armed conflict and education, most humanitarian aid is provided to countries in these situations.

The review, dubbed HERR – as Save the Children comments in a blog post on the review, “nothing raises a smile amongst humanitarian policy wonks so much as a new acronym” – highlights Britain’s leading role in providing support in humanitarian situations. Many of the review’s recommendations are very pertinent, including the importance of assessing needs and of “strategic, political and operational leadership of the international humanitarian system, from the UN down.”

The review focuses primarily on natural disasters and the likelihood of their growing importance given the effects of climate change. Responses to the review have also focused on this aspect. The HERR notes that “it was not mandated to look at protracted conflicts. It is clear though, that in fragile states, or states in conflict, the international humanitarian system is often the provider of last resort to the very poorest.”

Simon Maxwell, one of the senior advisors to the review, comments on his blog: “The HERR was tasked to look at natural disasters and surges in humanitarian need in long-running emergencies, rather than the long-running emergencies themselves. Think of the earthquake in Haiti or the floods in Pakistan, rather than Darfur or Afghanistan. This is quite a small part of total humanitarian spend (about 11% in 2009/10), but high profile – and inevitably, the issues overlap.”

High-profile disasters: the HERR’s focus, in other words, seems to match the media’s. Many of the countries in protracted crisis situations, on the other hand, are outside the media spotlight and yet face a lethal combination of conflict and natural disasters that traps them in humanitarian assistance for many years, including Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, the Occupied Palestinian Territories and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Even though it is beyond the scope of the HERR, the report does point out that:  much of what is today called ‘humanitarian’ in DR Congo is simply substitution service delivery. Health care is not provided by the state and people are too poor to pay for it’. As we show in the GMR, the same could be said of education. With only one-quarter of education requests in DR Congo funded, the vast majority of children seeking an education are losing out.

Despite the protracted nature of many emergency situations, humanitarian assistance continues to treat countries as if they face a short, sharp, shock that they will soon recover from, with annual funding cycles to match this. The focus of the HERR on rapid-onset emergencies rather than chronic humanitarian situations runs the risk of reinforcing this problem.

More generally, an image of humanitarian situations as short-term emergencies promotes a narrow view of humanitarian assistance as life-saving, a notion that excludes education. As a result, entire generations of children are missing out on education in conflict zones.

Perhaps protracted conflict situations were excluded from the HERR because they should be addressed through breaking down the humanitarian-development divide. As Lawrence Haddad notes in his blog response to the review: “the walls between these silos must be torn down. I would urge DFID to think more radically about how it organises itself to do this.”

The HERR points out that children under the age of 18 “make up at least 50% of affected populations in most emergency situations around the world. Yet, humanitarian assistance that does not assess and address the needs of children may be ignoring the majority – and would therefore potentially be failing to have the greatest impact.” Paying attention to the needs of children would inevitably mean taking into account their education needs.

The fifth recommendation of the HERR is particularly notable in this regard: “we need to increase transparency and accountability towards both donor and host country populations.” As the GMR highlights, the humanitarian community is failing to listen to the voices of those caught up in conflict situations or forced to flee. Time and time again, communities highlight the importance of education as a form of protection, to give a sense of normality for their children, and as a hope for their future. Yet those delivering humanitarian support do not prioritise education since it is not seen as “life-saving.”

DFID and other aid donors spend an extremely small amount of their humanitarian aid on education. In the 2011 GMR, we estimate that this amounted to US$149 million in 2009, just 2% of total humanitarian aid.

Given DFID’s role as a key agency in humanitarian assistance, the GMR team encourages the UK to take a lead in showing accountability to host country populations by providing greater, flexible, multi-year support to protect the education of millions of children caught up in protracted conflict situations.

This entry was posted in Aid, Basic education, Conflict, Refugees and displaced people and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to When aid is driven by the news cycle

  1. Rita says:

    This blog was such a disheartening dose of reality and reminds me that when we close our eyes and pretend not to see something, that doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened. Likewise, just because the news isn’t peppered with disaster stories, doesn’t mean our help is not needed.


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