In the past few months, several humanitarian observatories have been set up in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, and South Asia as part of a project on humanitarian governance and advocacy. These observatories review humanitarian action in the countries they’re located in and aim to contribute to humanitarian reform from below. In this post, Dorothea Hilhorst introduces this exciting new development and the Bliss blog series that will show what’s happening at the different observatories.
Humanitarian governance is associated with many challenges related to the effectiveness of aid, accountability and trust, and the huge power imbalance between large humanitarian agencies and national aid providers, for example. Questions abound. How is the effectiveness of aid perceived by affected communities? How are funds allocated? Who are the people most in need? What is the role of the state in service provision? How is aid politicized, and whose interests are at stake? What is the role of national NGOs and civil society, and how are their voices heard?
Whereas many of these questions are addressed in international policies and debates, the influence of actors from the countries that are mostly affected by crisis – recipients of aid, national aid providers and others – on these policies and debates is wanting. As part of a humanitarian governance project hosted at the ISS, we have launched a series of humanitarian observatories for such actors to help monitor humanitarian governance processes in locales of humanitarian aid interventions with the aim of improving effectiveness and accountability. The project is briefly introduced below.
Creating networks, enhancing dialogue and collaboration
In an era of growing humanitarian needs, international advocacy has been focused on improving the effectiveness of aid, accountability, and the role of national actors. But these initiatives usually take place at the global level. We want to turn this around and reform humanitarianism by creating spaces for actors affected by aid interventions to monitor these in the places where they are enacted.
The project ‘Humanitarian governance. Accountability, advocacy, alternatives’ that seeks to do this is a five-year programme funded by the European Research Council. The programme is hosted at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) in The Hague and is organized as a network with the following partners: the Universidad de los Andes in Colombia, Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia, and KUTAFITI and the CREGED in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It is a culmination of aspirations and activities of my previous work where I have always aimed to enhance dialogue and create networks of people across different parts of the humanitarian field, especially with people living through and working on humanitarian crises in their own setting.
The project hopes to create a space where people from those countries can meet and reflect on the challenges facing humanitarian governance in their country. For this reason, and following several exploratory discussions in the team, our partners have set up humanitarian observatories, which can be broadly defined as networks of a variety of actors that observe trends and processes in humanitarian governance and propose changes when needed. They can be imagined as spaces in which these actors keep an eye on how the humanitarian aid system functions in a specific context, providing an impression of the overall functioning of the system while also functioning amid all the humanitarian activities taking place. The observatories include representatives of affected communities, civil servants, members of civil society, and researchers from within and outside of academia.
Why focus on national or regional contexts?
There are several reasons why it is important to focus observatories on national or regional contexts:
- National or regional observatories help observe humanitarian governance in its context. Due to reforms in the humanitarian sector, its organization is moving away from being centred on international actors and toward becoming more embedded in the countries of implementation. It is therefore important to observe humanitarian governance in its context, as it is affected by contextual issues such as the histories of governance development in a country, the relative strength of state and non-state institutions, and the level of economic development.
- National or regional observatories amplify the voices of a variety of actors. International policy fora typically include voices of actors from different countries, but these are usually the same handful of humanitarian actors. By organizing the observatories locally, a larger range of actors can be involved and can make themselves heard, including actors from affected communities, researchers, and journalists.
- National or regional observatories can become effective vehicles for promoting change on humanitarian governance in their context. Humanitarian advocacy can be defined as the activities of affected communities and their advocates to articulate, advance, and protect their rights (i.e. entitlements to assistance and citizenship rights more broadly), needs, views, and interests. This can be advocacy targeted at different actors and levels, including the humanitarian community. This works best when advocacy messages are context-specific, concrete, and implementable.
Spaces for learning and dialoguing
The observatories have further added value beyond monitoring the state of the humanitarian aid sector. For the members, they are a space for learning. Interestingly, the desire is also to learn beyond the context. The South Asia observatory, for example, is currently organizing a session about the situation in Sudan.
The observatories are a space for exchange. In meetings of the observatory, members can exchange their experiences and insights and can learn from each other. This was for example paramount in the sessions held in the DRC about sexual abuse in the sector – participants shared their personal observations and ideas.
The observatories can also be a space for strategic thinking to consider what the changes are that people wish to see in humanitarian governance. With this purpose in mind, the Ethiopian observatory has had several sessions to review a new piece of legislation on internally displaced persons and make recommendations on how this can include more accountability to affected people.
And, finally, the observatories can be a space for action and influence. To some extent, this is built into the observatory, as participants can take the recommendations back to their own organizations. And the observatory meetings usually end in agreeing on points of action, such as entering into conversation with authorities on a certain topic or seeking exposure by writing a blog post.
From conceptualization to implementation
There are currently four observatories: in the DRC, Ethiopia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and South Asia. A fifth observatory will be launched in The Philippines coming September. Each of the current observatories has held initial meetings. The agenda of the meetings is determined by the participants; hence, they all have a different agenda that is relevant to the context. In the DRC, the observatory is currently dealing with the role of the state and the issue of sexual abuse in the humanitarian sector. In Latin America, the focus is on the role of civil society and affected communities, in Ethiopia on accountability towards Internally Displaced Persons, and in South Asia on heatwaves.
While activities are planned in the context, insights will also be shared internationally. They will, amongst others, be discussed at conferences and events of the International Humanitarian Studies Association, and they will be shared in this series of blog posts. The series will consist of blogs of members of the observatories about the issues of their concern and the reforms they wish to see. The observatories are a young initiative, and their development is open-ended. So far, the experiences have been very promising, and I very much look forward to seeing how the observatories evolve and what we will learn from them through the future contributions to BLISS.
The Humanitarian Governance project has received funding from the European Research council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 884139).
Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.
About the author:
Dorothea Hilhorst is professor of Humanitarian Studies at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University.
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