There has been a lot of talk about humanitarian aid and where it has been going – or has not been going, as in the cases of Haiti and Syria. Last week, the Guardian reported that close to $1.5bn in aid pledged to Syria has ‘largely failed to materialised’, while NPR reported that only a fraction of the $9 billion pledged to Haitian earthquake recovery has actually made it to the country.
Humanitarian aid is often the response to natural disaster or political conflict. It mobilises thousands of actors – from governments, to contractors, to NGOs and the general public. Donors react to humanitarian needs at different times, with different purposes, and in different currencies and languages. With no common platform, these differences often get in the way of effective aid delivery.
As can been seen in both these countries, no one really knows exactly where a staggeringly large amount of money is going – let alone its impact. This undermines the potential of humanitarian aid and its effectiveness, and this uncertainty is a common critique of the system.
In response to ever-increasing requests for aid information in one common format – from aid recipients, donors, researchers, analysts and others – the international community came together to create the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), a common standard for publishing aid information.
The IATI Standard asserts that in order for aid to be transparent, it must be published in a way that is timely, comprehensive, accessible and comparable. When information from all donors is published in this way, everyone in the aid cycle can finally start communicating in the same way.
At the time of the Haitian earthquake, IATI had only just been launched, and the standard was still being developed. Three years later, there are 35 IATI signatories, including donors, multilateral organizations and UN agencies, and 22 developing country governments have endorsed IATI.
Last week saw another milestone for the Standard, when the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) began publishing to IATI. This is a major step forward in the right direction – now we need more humanitarian aid donors to follow their lead.
So if donors were to increase their commitments to aid transparency, and more started publishing to IATI, would these figures around ‘lost’ humanitarian aid change? Would we see more coordination, aid harmonization and ultimately aid reaching recipients?
If this data is put to use, then yes.
When aid actors have more information, they can use it to make better decisions. Knowing what is being spent where, by whom, and with what results, is the basic foundation for increasing aid effectiveness.
If more timely and comparable information was made available about humanitarian aid flows, then donors and implementing agencies could ensure that they do not duplicate efforts on the ground, as so often is the case in crisis response activities. Aid information published to the IATI Standard would help everyone on the ground better coordinate resources.
If we could see exactly where money pledged by the UK was going in Syria, organisations from the UN to Oxfam would be able to plan complementary refugee programmes on the ground. Likewise, if we could see exactly where American aid – both humanitarian and development – was going, taxpayers in the U.S. and beneficiaries in Haiti would be in a better position to hold their governments to account.
Finally, the lack of traceability of this humanitarian aid impedes donor, taxpayer and the public’s confidence in aid more generally. Aid has the power to transform lives, but people want to see where their money is going, all the way down the delivery chain to the ultimate beneficiary.
The humanitarian situation has not improved in Haiti. In Syria, the violence continues to worsen and the need for aid becomes even more is desperate.
When aid is spent well it saves lives, feeds people and provides them with essential supplies and services. Humanitarian aid should set the stage for a return to development when the latter has been disrupted by conflict or disaster – not be lost in a complicated and opaque system.