As local as possible and as international as necessary: Bringing an open development philosophy to humanitarian aid

This is a guest blog post by Roderick Besseling, Digital Strategist at Cordaid and IATI CSO Working Group Co-Chair

With the Grand Bargain agreement and Charter 4 Change pledges made and signed earlier this year, it looks like the humanitarian sector is addressing some of its biggest challenges head-on. In particular, it is taking the necessary steps to improve transparency, accountability, coordination and cooperation amongst humanitarian actors, both internationally and locally.

The recommendation to use the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) open-data framework to report humanitarian activities creates huge opportunities to address some of these fundamental challenges. Recommending the IATI framework should also be seen as the impetus for humanitarian actors to embrace the open development philosophy and to encourage and promote coordination and cooperation both internally and externally. This requires humanitarian actors to innovate and adapt their institutional and individual mind-sets.

Challenges of humanitarian coordination

The humanitarian response system has always been a complex amalgamation of different types of actors with different priorities and agendas, who find it difficult to find common ground for coordination. The introduction of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) Cluster System was a good starting point, but more is needed. While the Cluster System does play a vital role in coordination, key challenges remain, such as a lack of predictable leadership, burdensome operating procedures and the exclusion of smaller actors who do not receive the same time and resources as larger ones.

The Grand Bargain seeks to challenge the traditional mechanisms of coordination and aims to involve previously excluded stakeholders in the conversation, to ensure that aid is as local as possible and as international as necessary. Using IATI, all relevant actors, local or national, are given the opportunity to engage in relief efforts through a transparent and accountable framework.

Thinking outside of the box

Whilst the financial component of IATI for humanitarian aid is important, it can play a more immediate role in enabling better decision making, coordination and cooperation in the sector. This is because, next to financial information, IATI can also provide an overview of who is doing what, where and with whom in a standardised format that can easily be disseminated and visualised. This can be achieved if organisations agree to report on a manageable set of minimum required fields such as objectives, target groups, sector-specific and geographic fields, which are updated in a timely manner and published to the IATI Registry.

Cordaid’s approach

Cordaid has embraced IATI since 2013 and is currently in the process of adapting its dataset to accommodate the humanitarian extension that was released earlier this year in the IATI 2.02 upgrade. Cordaid is also considering splitting its development and humanitarian IATI datasets to improve the potential use of each. Additionally, Cordaid is exploring the suitability to use standardised code-lists and indicators based on ECHO’s Single Form guidelines for its activities. This is not only to be more transparent and accountable as an organization but also to help with management decision making internally. The biggest challenges, as with most organisations, is embedding the open development philosophy within existing work processes and in the mindsets of fellow colleagues. The investment of time and energy, however, has paid off, and Cordaid is now able to make data driven decisions based on its own dataset and that of others.

Better coordination

Using IATI to document intended and current activities creates a level playing field for all humanitarian actors as it brings everyone to the ‘virtual table’. This not only helps in achieving the first principle of the Grand Bargain, ‘Greater Transparency’, but also provides the foundation for better overall coordination and decision making. As well as providing basic activity information, IATI also complements and could supersede the standard 3W – Who Does What, Where (3W) reporting requirements by providing more relevant, standardised and timely information. Platforms such as the Humanitarian Data Exchange (HDX) can provide the ideal platform to manage, visualise and disseminate IATI-compliant activity information amongst different actors.

Publishing to IATI allows organisations the opportunity to include descriptive text – known as narrative fields – to be filled in, helping to define what the intended activity was. In addition, standardised information about the sector that the work falls under (e.g. agriculture or health) and geographic information can also be added. If organisations provide this narrative, sectorial and geographic information for their Pipeline/identification activities and publish them using IATI, then 3W communication and coordination amongst humanitarian actors would dramatically improve. This frequently updated information would reduce duplication of activities, empower local organisations, improve transparency and enhance engagement between humanitarian and development actors. This would not only help on the international stage but also improve coordination and communication within national disaster response alliances such as the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), Dutch Relief Alliance (DRA) and Samenwerkende Hulporganisaties (SHO).

The Grand Bargain comes at an important time and should be seen as the impetus to embed an open development philosophy within and amongst humanitarian actors to promote better coordination and cooperation. The recommendation of using IATI as the de facto publishing format provides the foundation for a robust knowledge management taxonomy.

This can not only be used to promote greater transparency but also contribute to the other principles laid out in the Grand Bargain; support and funding tools for local and national responders, reduce duplication and management costs, increase collaborative humanitarian multi-year planning and funding, harmonise and simplify reporting requirements and launch a participation revolution: include people receiving aid in making the decisions which affect their lives.

Challenges still remain, such as improving feedback mechanisms with local communities, improving the capacity of organisations to publish to IATI and motivation amongst these organisations to change old habits. Yet the potential of humanitarian actors to become more data-driven and make evidence-based decisions is something that cannot be overlooked.

Providing narrative, sectorial and geographic information of planned and actual humanitarian activities, linking them to a Financial Tracking Service number and updating this information daily, creates an invaluable resource in facilitating coordination of relief efforts. It will help decision making and maximise the efficiency of the response provided.

The framework to realise the ambitions of the Grand Bargain is here. Now all we need is the dedication and determination of individuals and organisations to realise and achieve these goals.

Katie Welford

Katie is the Communications Officer at Publish What You Fund. You can reach her at katie@publishwhatyoufund.org.
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