This article originally appeared in the Guardian .
By Michel Gabaudan
The global aid community has grown tremendously since the early days of humanitarian and development assistance. Our understanding of how aid works has also grown more sophisticated. One of the lessons we have learned is that aid must change as needs change.
When a natural disaster strikes or a conflict erupts, people need immediate lifesaving assistance – like food, clean water, emergency shelter and protection from harm. Those needs change once the moment of crisis passes, and those affected seek longer-term assistance to rebuild their lives, secure jobs and livelihoods, and plan a better future for their families. It may seem obvious, but all too often this transition is badly mishandled in the field, putting lives in jeopardy and undermining our credibility as a community.
A sprinting metaphor might be helpful here. Imagine the 4 x 100m race. It is a team effort, requiring both speed and co-ordination from all the athletes. Success depends ultimately on passing the baton from one athlete to the other; drop it, and the race is lost. The same is true with aid. Bridging the gap between emergency humanitarian assistance and long-term development aid is essential to help people survive disasters and get back on the path to self-reliance and dignity.
For two sprinters, passing the baton is not a simple act. It may take just a fraction of a second, but it requires pacing, co-ordination, and hours of practice. The shift from humanitarian to development aid requires planning too. And yet the two groups often fail to co-ordinate, and effectively overlap their operations to ensure a smooth transition.
Let's take the case of the youngest country in the world, South Sudan. During Sudan's long north-south civil war, international humanitarian agencies got used to providing vital basic services (such as healthcare) for the civilian population in the south. When the war finally ended, and South Sudan became independent last July, the needs of its population began to change. The aid community's response should have changed as well.
During the war, millions of people were displaced inside South Sudan or became refugees in neighbouring countries. The war's end and independence lured these populations back home, where they needed both short-term and long-term aid to establish themselves in areas they had not lived in for decades. Recently, however, Refugees International found that returnees had at most received emergency rations and rudimentary shelters. Valuable as these are, they will do little to help them build their new lives or spur the long-term development of their new nation.
International humanitarian agencies should have begun a handover to local institutions and staff, co-operating with development groups to create more permanent structures with longer-term funding. But that transition has not been easy or smooth. Too often, agencies erected walls between their aid and development work – mainly for reasons that had nothing to do with the real needs of South Sudanese. These reasons range from arcane administrative and financial procedures, to pressure on donor governments from domestic constituencies, to a lack of agreement between aid agencies and South Sudanese leaders about how aid should be provided.
International donors came together to pool their development funds in South Sudan through the multi-donor trust fund. But they did not have a realistic plan for how to spend that money quickly in a country debilitated by war and weak institutions. As a result, they were unable to spend the funds within a reasonable time, leaving the people's desperate needs unfulfilled.
In a country like South Sudan, where the national government is challenged by conflict, international donors are in the driving seat when it comes to providing aid and meeting the changing needs of the people. Yet, the outdated bureaucracies and budgets of these donors – including the UN and its agencies – prevent them from bridging the humanitarian-development gap.
In 2005, the UN rolled out a new system designed to provide better co-ordination within, and to bring a measure of predictability and accountability to, the humanitarian community. Unfortunately, this has fallen far short of expectations, as the effort to co-ordinate humanitarian aid in disasters has not been matched by a similar endeavour to link emergency relief with early recovery and development.
These may sound like esoteric details, but – as we have seen in South Sudan and elsewhere – this failure to bridge the gap from humanitarian to development assistance can prevent people from rebuilding their lives. The human toll of conflicts and disasters is too high as it is. What the world needs is an aid system that can respond quickly to those crises, and provide effective development assistance – and seamlessly bridge the two so that no more lives are threatened.