Mercy Malaysia International Humanitarian Conference

“Humanitarian Action and Nation-building”

Ladies and Gentlemen,

  1. It gives me great pleasure to be here today for the official opening of this prestigious event. I want to start by congratulating Mercy Malaysia on its 20th Anniversary, an achievement which is being marked very suitably by this weighty conference. I particularly want to congratulate Tan Sri Dr. Jemilah Mahmood, the founder of Mercy, for her remarkable achievement in establishing one of the very few non-Western humanitarian aid agencies with a global reach. The current management team, led by the highly capable Dato Dr. Ahmed Faisal Mohd Perdaus, has continued her work and legacy most admirably. 
  2. The depth and range of the talks and discussions taking place here over these three days highlights the maturity of Mercy Malaysia as an important international humanitarian actor. It also reflects the growing sophistication of the humanitarian sector, as it continues to evolve and improve itself. It is now three years since the United Nations High Level Panel on Humanitarian Financing – on which I served – delivered its wide-ranging report, entitled ‘Too important to fail’.[1] The Panel basically issued a clarion call for major change in the sector. Above all, it called for a shrinking of the gap between needs and response, through more aid, and better aid. As well as seeking out new sources of finance, this means making the most effective use of existing funding, which amounts to around US$ 20 to 25 billion a year.
  3. The Panel also called for much stronger linkages to be forged between humanitarian and development work, in part to ensure that these resources are used as efficiently as possible. The changing conditions in which both sets of actors now operate – with humanitarian crises now longer-lasting and more frequent – mean that both must adapt their responses accordingly, and work much more closely together. They do after all share the same fundamental objective of assisting those most in need, and better collaboration can help both to achieve this more effectively. This in turn will boost the contribution of each to the Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, which encapsulate these common objectives.
  4. The SDGs, with their comprehensive vision and partnership approach, are ultimately concerned with nation-building processes. These essentially involve the development of local capacities, whether in the form of greater resilience to future risks, or expanded opportunities for future development. Unlike the more state-focused efforts of the past, nation-building conceived in this way occurs through a gradual and bottom-up approach. By adopting longer-term perspectives even in their emergency responses, and by working more effectively with development actors, humanitarian actors can make an important contribution to nation-building.
  5. The vision for the humanitarian sector set out by the Panel, and endorsed at the World Humanitarian Summit, was thus nothing if not ambitious. Considerable efforts have already been put into translating these lofty goals into action. But the far-reaching process of transforming the sector that was envisaged is still very much a work in progress. Since many of the challenges faced are the same as those that you are grappling with here at the conference, this seems like an opportune moment to reflect on the recommendations made by the Panel, and to review the progress that has been made towards their implementation.

The humanitarian development nexus:

6. Why it is necessaryThis strengthening of the so-called nexus between humanitarian and development action has become necessary due to the changing nature of humanitarian crises. In the past, humanitarian action generally involved the episodic provision of emergency assistance in response to one-off disasters, such as floods, earthquakes or short-lived wars or political crises.

7. In contrast, many of today’s most severe humanitarian emergencies – whether in Somalia, Afghanistan or the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – have gone on for decades, in one form or another. And as if their political and economic causes and dynamics were not already intractable enough, these crises are now being further aggravated by environmental factors, as the impacts of climate change are increasingly being felt.

8. The devastating results of the interaction between these sources of vulnerability can already be observed. They can be seen in the water shortages faced by large numbers of Yemenis and Syrians, displaced by severe and ongoing conflicts in highly water-scarce areas. This adds to the existing vulnerabilities of the estimated 20 million Yemenis that are classified as food insecure, along with 6.5 million Syrians.

9. The same trends can be seen in the semi-permanent malnutrition being suffered across North Africa and in the Sahel, as well as in the Horn of Africa. Throughout these vast regions, ongoing and expanding military activities combine with recurrent droughts to create large-scale displacement and upheaval. The coping abilities of already highly vulnerable populations are being further and further undermined. An estimated 24 million people in the Sahel suffer food insecurity. Meanwhile, around a million displaced Rohingya are being made ever more vulnerable by the devastating flooding to which their region is unfortunately so prone.

10. In such challenging settings, characteristic of most of today’s major humanitarian crises, it is no longer a question of the ‘normal’ progression of development being interrupted temporarily by a one-off or short-lived humanitarian crisis. Instead, there may no longer necessarily be any ‘normal’ developmental trajectory to which the Somalis, Syrians or Sahelians can easily or quickly return.

11. So while many of these vulnerable populations will continue to require life-saving assistance in the short term, high levels of very basic needs are also likely to persist into the medium term. They may even become semi-permanent in some areas, as the underlying political and environmental causes remain unresolved. Little progress has unfortunately been made in tackling these root causes, of course, another of the Panel’s core recommendations.

New approaches are required

12. Since none of these crises are likely to be fully resolved in the near or medium term, our responses to them must adapt accordingly. Humanitarian action must of course still focus first on meeting the immediate needs of the most vulnerable. But given the persistence of these needs, the remit of humanitarian actors must expand to encompass measures to reduce future vulnerabilities and build resilience. This may also involve a different approach to refugees, who often represent a large and very under-utilised resource in their countries of refuge. Rather than remaining as passive recipients of assistance, these refugees could become a highly productive resource to their host countries.

13. At the same time, development actors must alter their approach, to take account of recurrent and deepening crises. Like humanitarian actors, their priority should be to assist those in the greatest need. This includes those at the greatest risk of future calamity, whether due to political or environmental factors or a combination of both. As the Panel emphasized, because development is the best resilience-builder of all, the world’s scarce resources of official development assistance should be used where it matters most – in situations of fragility.

14. Both areas of work must now focus urgently on these shared goals of reducing vulnerability and building resilience, objectives that are encapsulated in the SDGs. Of particular relevance are SDG 3 on health and well-being, 4 on zero hunger, and 6 on clean water and sanitation, all concerned with meeting basic, essential needs. Other more cross-cutting areas include SDG 10 on gender equality, 13 on climate action, and 16 on peace, justice and strong institutions. SDG 17, on Partnerships for the goals, reflects precisely the intention of the merger between the two types of aid.

15. As the Panel clearly concluded, it is only by working together towards the collective outcomes embodied in the SDGs, that humanitarian and development agencies will be able to contribute most effectively to achieving these. These contributions to the development process, however limited they may be in such challenging settings, will in turn contribute to nation-building processes, again, however tentative and fragile. And as suggested, it is these that ultimately hold the real key to developing sustainable resilience to future risks.

Progress towards the nexus

16. Progress is slowly being made towards this humanitarian- development nexus, in conceptual and normative terms, and in changing operational practices.[2] The common embrace of the SDGs by both sets of actors reflects the underlying conceptual shift that is taking place,[3] while the more practical application of this conceptual merging can be seen in the evolving approach of the so-called ‘Grand Bargain’.

17. Launched at the World Humanitarian Summit in May 2016, this is the main mechanism for implementing the transformation of the sector that was envisaged by the Panel. It represented a deal between donors on the one hand, who agreed to be more flexible around funding, and implementing agencies on the other, who promised greater transparency, along with genuine efforts to develop new ways of working, in order to improve the efficiency of aid delivery. The Grand Bargain has been considerably refined and streamlined since its inception. Through this review process, what was initially conceptualized as a stand-alone set of activities on ‘Enhancing engagement between humanitarian and development actors’, was ‘mainstreamed’, in early 2018. So since then, the goal of merging the two areas of work must underpin all other activities as a cross-cutting issue, in much the same way as gender, or peace-building.[4]

18. Concrete operational progress has also been reported in a number of areas, including on the all-important issue of flexible funding. There has been good progress on joint assessments and analysis, and on the harmonization of reporting procedures – all crucial building blocks for the joint programming that is the eventual goal. Progress is also reported in relation to localization, another absolutely key area of course, since the building of local capacities must be at the forefront of all humanitarian and development activities.

19. In relation to funding, there has been a significant expansion of multi-year and non-earmarked funding streams by donors. This has been highly welcome, with so much progress already made that a potential ‘system-wide shift’ is being discussed. More flexible funding is a vital element in the development of longer-term perspectives by humanitarian agencies, as is multi-year planning, which is also now being widely practiced. Together these greatly facilitate practical linkages and coordination with development actors.

20. Good progress is also being made towards joint planning processes. Various pilots of joint data collection and analysis are being conducted, and simplified common reporting templates have already been introduced. This harmonization of reporting procedures has been widely welcomed due to the cost and time saving it has allowed. All of these aspects together add up to considerable efficiency gains, with more expected as active collaborations continue to yield further savings.

21. Progress has also been reported in the crucial area of localization. As well as contributing to the development of local capacity, this greatly reduces costs, thereby boosting efficiency as well. The objective of greater localization is fully established in normative terms, and the commitments that have been made are now being translated into actions. This encouraging progress is being driven by the active co-convenors of this work-stream, Switzerland and the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (IFRC). Progress on localization is also seen in the growing interest in the Grand Bargain at country level.

Challenges to implementation

22. Despite these very laudable advances, the actual implementation of many elements of the Grand Bargain is still very limited. Progress has in fact been very slow and incremental. It has also been highly variable across the various work-streams, dependent in large part on the commitment, capacity and priorities of those responsible for each area.

23. Very real constraints are of course faced in pushing forward this process of merging. These include the high transaction costs created by the additional layer of administration and coordination, which requires significant institutional investment. Some of these extra costs should be balanced out over time, however, by the efficiency gains from the continued streamlining of assessment and reporting processes. Greater transparency on funding has already enabled cost savings, for example, by allowing different funding streams to be combined.

24. The breadth and scope of the changes that are called for as part of the merger also pose a major challenge. The sheer scale of the transformation that has been deemed necessary is daunting. Although the grand vision of change set out by the Panel was widely accepted as the best way forward for the sector, translating these lofty goals into action is a very different matter. Perhaps gradual progress is all that can be expected in practice.

25. Much further progress in this merging process is still yet to come, with more significant returns and savings expected to be enjoyed in the coming years. But attaining these positive outcomes will very much depend on sustained commitment by all involved. Strong political leadership and direction will be required, along with continued institutional investment by all stakeholders. Such an unequivocal commitment to the continued transformation of the sector remains absolutely vital, if humanitarian and development actors are to make the most efficient use of the vast resources for which they are responsible.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

26. In the context of the ever-worsening humanitarian needs created by the interaction of environmental and political crises, this merging of the two forms of assistance has become more urgent than ever. It is only through building local capacity and resilience over the longer-term that humanitarian actors will be able to contribute effectively to reducing vulnerabilities. And by focusing on those most in need, development actors will be able to play their part most effectively in the fulfillment of the SDGs. In this way, both can contribute to the nation-building that is ultimately what local resilience is all about.

27. The blueprint for change has already been drawn up, if not quite in full detail at the operational level. The further development of those details is now the job of those of you engaged in the sector. This includes through the discussions and information-exchanges that will take place here, in the various specialist sessions that are being held, as well as in other conferences and forums. I wish you well in these endeavours, and in the painfully slow and difficult, but ultimately highly rewarding process, of transforming this hugely important sector. And on this note, I would like to declare the conference officially open.

[1] High Level Panel Report : “Too Important to Fail : addressing the humanitarian financing gap’, Inter-Agency Standing Committee, January 2016

[2] WHS High Level Anniversary event : ‘Advancing the New Way Of Working’, May 2017, WHS, Istanbul, Turkey

[3]‘WFP and the Grand Bargain’, May 2019, World Food Programme

[4] Grand Bargain annual independent report, Victoria Metcalfe-Hough, Wendy Fenton and Lydia Poole , Overseas Development Institute (ODI), June 2019

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